Four metrics to pay attention to from Royals starting pitchers in 2020

After a couple of months of delay due to the COVID crisis, it seems like baseball will be continuing again, with a June Spring Training and a July start the target. Granted, it sounds like the season will be shortened to 82 games, and competition will be limited to perhaps AL and NL Central opponents to limit travel. However, some Major League Baseball, even if it is half-a-season, is better than no baseball at all, which seem liked a reality roughly a month ago.

While it has been nice to look at old Royals players and games over the course of the franchise’s 52-year-history, it will be refreshing to analyze current baseball teams and players once again, especially since we have not been able to do so since Spring Training ended abruptly in early March. Even though there will continue to be a place for historical analysis on this blog (especially after I joined SABR recently), I am looking forward to watching the Royals on the field, and analyzing the season once it begins.

Though we are still two-to-three weeks from Royals baseball starting up again in preparation for the abbreviated season, that doesn’t mean that Royals fans can’t start thinking about what to expect from the 2020 Royals. Even though the Royals are once again projected to struggle in the division, the shortened season does help their chances of perhaps surprising, as evidenced by this Tweet below:

So, in the coming weeks leading to the start of the season, I wanted to take a look at certain parts of the Royals roster, and focus on one metric for each player that fans should pay attention to once play resumes. The metric could be one that a player is in need of improvement, or one that could regress in 2020. Either way, when it comes to evaluating this player in 2020, these metrics should be focused on, for it could also determine not only how successful this particular Royal is in 2020, but how successful the Royals are as a whole as well.

In this post, I am going to look at the Royals starting pitchers, and focus on one particular metric for each pitcher. As of now, I am sticking just to the four set starting pitchers, which is Brad Keller, Danny Duffy, Jakob Junis, and Mike Montgomery. It seems unclear what GM Dayton Moore and manager Mike Matheny are going to do with the 5th spot in the rotation, as it could go to prospect phenom Brady Singer, or it could go to an option on the active roster such as Jorge Lopez or Glenn Sparkman (Fangraphs’ Roster Resource thinks Lopez will get the nod).

For the metric data, I will be using a combination of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant Statcast data from the 2019 season. Some of the metrics do not correlate, so I will make sure to identify where this metric is coming from when doing the quick analysis.

Brad Keller: 7.3 K/BB percentage

Keller will be the “ace” of the Royals rotation in 2020, as his 2.2 WAR led all Royals starters in 2019. A former Rule 5 draft pick from the Diamondbacks in 2018, Keller has added some stability to the rotation in the past couple of seasons, which has been much needed considering the injuries and ineffectiveness of the rotation as a whole in 2018 and 2019.

That being said, Keller did go through some regression in his sophomore season with the Royals, as his ERA rose from 3.08 to 4.19; his FIP increased from 3.55 to 4.35; and his WAR decreased from 2.6 to 2.2 from 2018 to 2019. Granted, Keller was a more known commodity around the league this time around, as he did pitch 25 more innings in 2019 than 2018, and made 28 starts as well, compared to 20 in 2018. Thus, with Keller the Royals’ “No. 1” starter in 2019, it wasn’t surprising that opposing hitters were more prepared and consequently, more effective against Keller last season.

The metric worth paying attention to for Keller is his 7.3 K/BB percentage, according to Fangraphs, which is a decrease from his 7.9 percentage in 2018. That 7.3 percentage was the second lowest of any regular starter, as only Glenn Sparkman posted a worse rate at 6.7 percent. The big issue was the increase in Keller’s walk percentage, as it went from 8.6 to 9.9 percent from 2018 to 2019, respectively. While he did see an uptick in strikeout rate (16.5 to 17.2 percent), the K/BB percentage probably could explain Keller’s regression in his other stats, especially since he is not a high-strikeout rate pitcher.

It’s fine for Keller to rely on hitters putting the ball in play, and Kauffman Stadium certainly is a good park to pitch in that kind of fashion. However, Keller needs to see an increase in the K/BB percentage if he wants to see an improvement. Even if he doesn’t increase the K percentage, a 1-2 percent decrease in walk rate could go a long ways to helping him either duplicate those ERA and FIP numbers from 2018, or perhaps even surpass them a little bit in 2020.

Danny Duffy: 13.0 HR/FB percentage

Unlike Keller, who depends on keeping the ball on the ground to get outs (his 1.72 GB/FB ratio was second highest of Royals starters), Duffy is the opposite. Duffy had the lowest GB/FB ratio of all Royals starters in 2019 with a ratio of 0.86. However, this isn’t atypical for Duffy, as he has only posted a GB/FB ratio over 1.0 once in his career, which came in 2015.

Duffy’s approach is not necessarily bad, as Kauffman’s deep fences, and the Royals putting a premium on outfield defense over Duffy’s tenure has helped him put together solid campaigns from time to time in Kansas City. Last year, his ERA improved from 4.88 to 4.33, and his K/BB percentage also improved from 10.3 percent to 12.4, signs that Duffy may be getting back to the 12-3 pitcher he was in 2016.

However, while his ERA looks good, his FIP (4.78) and xFIP (5.14), according to Fangraphs, hint that Duffy may be due for regression in 2020. One of the most concerning metrics from Duffy’s 2020 was his 13.0 HR/FB percentage, a 1.6 percent increase from 2018, and the highest percentage of his Major League career (he also posted a 13.0 percent ironically in 2016). While his control showed signs of coming back, Duffy can’t let the ball get out of the yard, as he doesn’t have the “strike out stuff” anymore to make up for that deficiency. While it’s unlikely that Duffy will suddenly change from a “flyball heavy” pitcher to a “groundball heavy” one in a single season (if at all), it will be important for Duffy to neutralize the long ball, especially if the “juiced” baseballs carry over for another year.

If Duffy is able to bring that HR/FB percentage down to back around 10 or even lower, than Duffy could perhaps give the Royals more reason to keep him in the rotation at least until his contract expires, which it will after the 2021 season. If that HR/FB percentage remains around the same however, or even increases, that could mean a transition to the bullpen perhaps in 2020, much like Ian Kennedy in 2019.

Jakob Junis: 2.4 weak contact percentage

Michael Simione of SP Streamer on Twitter posted this interesting Tweet about Junis and his breaking stuff from a season ago:

Junis was highly effective against hitters in 2019 with his slider and curve ball. As evidenced in his pitch tracking data on Statcast, Junis had put away percentages of 26.7 percent and 24.6 percent with his slider and curve, respectively last year. In fact, he began to use his curve more (from 6.6 to 14.1 percent from 2018 to 2019) and his sinker (20.3 to 17.3 percent) and changeup (5.9 to 5.4 percent) less, which may explain the solid numbers when it comes to breaking ball strikeouts.

However, Junis still had issues with getting hit, as he ranked in the bottom 9th percentile and bottom 13th percentile when it came to exit velocity and hard hit percentage. That was also evident in his 5.24 ERA and 1.43 WHIP in 31 starts and 175.1 IP in 2019. Junis may be the most durable starter in the Royals rotation going into 2020, but he won’t last beyond this season if he’s getting hit hard and posting an ERA over 5 again this year.

One interesting metric for Royals to pay attention to with Junis is his weak contact percentage, which according to Statcast data has declined from 4.2 percent in 2017 to 3.5 percent in 2018 to 2.4 percent in 2019. Junis excels with his curve and slider, but if he’s not generating enough weak contact overall, that probably means he’s leaving a lot of stuff up in the zone to be easily hit, which seemed to be Junis’ problem in 2019, as evidenced by those hard hit percentages and high exit velocity (only Sparkman and Lopez had worse exit velocities of starting pitchers).

It’s obvious Junis’ breaking stuff will be the key to his success, and it will be interesting to see if he will start to phase out his change and sinker even more in 2020. If Junis can see his weak hit percentages increase this year, that could be a sign that his breaking stuff is being more utilized and more effective, and that could perhaps have positive outcomes on his ERA and WHIP (and eventually W-L) numbers in 2020.

Mike Montgomery: 34.6 zone percentage

The former 2008 Royals first round pick returned to Kansas City and did okay once he joined the Royals rotation after being traded to Kansas City from the Cubs. Montgomery isn’t quite the once heralded top prospect he was expected to be back when the Royals drafted him in 2008. Even though he is tall (6’5) and sports a lanky frame that may remind some of Chris Sale, Montgomery is a finesse pitcher at the core, especially with a fastball that averaged 91.7 MPH, according to Fangraphs.

Last year, according to Statcast data, he relied on five pitches (sinker, curve, changeup, cutter, and four-seam fastball) and he relied on his fastball the least (only 13.8 percent; his sinker was his most used pitch at 26.8 percent). Thus, Montgomery depends on hitters chasing out of the strike zone and putting the ball on the ground to be effective (which he was to an extent, as his 1.87 GB/FB ratio led all Royals starters).

However, while he depends on hitters chasing out of the strike zone, Montgomery didn’t hit the zone enough in 2019. According to Fangraphs, his 34.6 zone percentage (percentage of pitches that are in the strike zone) was the lowest percentage of Royals starters in 2019. Furthermore, his zone percentage was also a 10.1 percent decrease from his 2018 season in Chicago, and even three percentage points lower than his 2019 with the Cubs prior to his trade. In order to be effective, Montgomery has to get in favorable counts where he can get batters to chase and whiff out of the zone or at least put swings on balls that can’t do much damage once in play (he did improve his chase percentage from 26.6 to 30 percent from 2018 to 2019). That being said, it will be hard for Montgomery, or any pitcher in general, to do so if he is constantly behind in counts against hitters because he cannot hit the strike zone consistently.

It’s understandable that Montgomery likes to nibble around the zone, especially since he ranked in the bottom third percentile in the league when it came to hard hit percentage (which was 44 percent, according to Statcast). Montgomery knows he doesn’t have the stuff to blow away batters, especially if he’s behind in the count. Nonetheless, he would do himself a lot more favors against hitters if he hit the strike zone more consistently in 2020. When he did so in 2018 and 2017 (which was 43.7 percent), he posted a 3.99 and 3.38 ERA, respectively (though he was primarily in a relief role during those seasons in Chicago). While Montgomery’s ERA wasn’t horrible at 4.64 in 2019, it is possible that he could improve upon that number and get it around the four range if he can throw strikes more often and bring that zone percentage up to the 40-43 range in 2020.

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