To say that the 2020 season has been rough thus far for Royals fans may be putting it lightly. In addition to all the challenges to the MLB season due to the Coronavirus, which included a delayed and shortened season, as well as no fans being able to attend Kauffman Stadium (or any other MLB stadium) for games, the Royals haven’t exactly performed over the first 13 games of the year. With a 6-1 loss on Wednesday to the Cubs, the Royals have lost six-straight (which have all come to Chicago-based teams) and tensions are running high among Royals fans. After back-to-back 100-plus loss seasons, Royals fans were hoping in Spring Training that with a new manager and a new ownership group (which now includes KC idol, Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes), fortunes could be different for the Royals in 2020. While there are still about 47 games to go, the Royals are not exactly off to a start that is inspiring hope that major improvement in the standings is on the way this year.
However, while the Royals have gone through their fair share of struggles this year, there are two glimmers of hope for this Royals franchise that may provide some light in what could be a dark, if not dismal season. Those two beacons are pitchers Brady Singer and Kris Bubic, two of the Royals’ highly-touted pitching prospects who not only have made their MLB debuts, but have showed success in their early starts in 2020. While the two have only had five starts combined at the MLB level, their performances should give Royals fans hope that improvement is on the way, even if it may not be all that substantial overall in 2020.
That being said, Singer and Bubic’s early success may have opened a Pandora’s Box of sorts among Royals fans. Frustrated Royals faithful are not only clamoring for the call-ups of pitchers Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar (which makes sense considering their appearances in Spring Training and Summer Camp), but even top prospect Bobby Witt, Jr., who is currently the 11th best prospect in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline’s most recent Top 100 list. The desire for Witt among Royals fans makes sense: the Royals’ offense and defense have been “inconsistent”, to put it nicely, especially at third base. Witt, who performed well during the short Summer Camp stint, in theory could be a boost for a team that drastically needs it, especially since Franco doesn’t seem to be a long-term option for the Royals in the future. However, while Witt may bring a jolt of excitement to this fanbase, the long-term consequences could be disastrous for the Royals, and his handling this season should be looked at a lot differently in comparison to Singer and Bubic.
The call to bring up Singer and Bubic to the Big Leagues came more out of necessity on the Royals’ end. With Brad Keller and Jakob Junis missing time in the beginning of the year due to COVID, and with Mike Montgomery hitting the IL after his first start, the Royals lacked options in the rotation currently on the 40-man roster to begin the season. And thus, GM Dayton Moore had no choice but to insert Singer and Bubic into the rotation, with Singer making his debut in the second game of the season against the Indians and Bubic making his debut in the first Royals game at Kauffman stadium against the White Sox.
And so far, both young pitchers have made good on Moore and Matheny’s faith in them as pitchers at the MLB level.
In his first three starts this year, Singer is posting a 4.80 ERA with a 1.27 WHIP in 15 innings of work which includes 18 strikeouts. Excellent control and a tendency to challenge batters was a calling card for Singer in college and in the Minors and it hasn’t been much different for Singer at the Major League level. He is posting a K/BB ratio of 3.00, highlighted by a strikeout rate of 29.5 percent, which leads all Royals starters, according to Fangraphs. Singer has excelled with his three-pitch mix, which includes a four-seamer, a slider, and a changeup, and he is producing a lot of swings and misses with that repertoire. He is generating whiff rates of 24.6 percent with his fastball, 37.5 percent with his slider, and 14.3 percent with his changeup. That being said, even though his slider causes hitters to swing and miss the most, it’s actually his least effective pitch when it comes to putting away batters, as he is only posting a put away percentage of 19.5 with his slider in comparison to rates of 33.3 and 22.5 with his changeup, and fastball, respectively.
There’s no question Singer’s stuff is special, as the horizontal movement on his fastball is 5.2 inches better than average, which is 72 percent better than the league average as well. However, one interesting development to pay attention to will be Singer’s hard-hit percentage, for even though he is striking out hitters at a decent rate, hitters are also hitting the ball hard at a decent rate as well. His 45.9 percent hard hit rate is fourth-highest on the team, and explains his high HR/FB rate at 33.3 percent, which is tied for second-highest of starting pitchers this year. That being said, that HR/FB rate will eventually regress, for at 33.3 percent, that is unreasonably high, and thus his traditional metrics (i.e. ERA) will also regress over the course of the season as well.
The big question will be though how much will it regress? An effective starting pitcher usually has a HR/FB rate under 10 percent. Thus, if Singer wants to see that rate dip under that number, he will need to be more effective with his command, and try to limit the high percentage of hard hits in his future starts.
While Singer’s call up was expected, Bubic’s caught Royals nation a bit by surprise. Though Bubic was the Royals’ Minor League pitcher of the year in 2019, he had not pitched above High-A, and many figured that Kowar, who pitched in Double-A Northwest Arkansas with Singer, or Lynch, who did well in the Arizona Fall League, would be the next one up after Singer. However, despite the unlikely promotion, Bubic has lived up to his billing, with two good starts against two strong-hitting teams (White Sox and Cubs).
After some wildness, most likely due to nerves, in his debut, Bubic was settled and effective in Wednesday night’s start against the Cubs. He went six innings and gave up four hits, two runs and two walks while striking out six. For the year, Bubic is currently posting a 3.60 ERA with a 1.00 WHIP. Much like Singer, Bubic is also demonstrating excellent control, with a 3.00 K/BB ratio and strikeout rate of 22.5 percent.
Bubic’s key to success in Wilmington and Lexington last year was his changeup, and he is using that pitch effectively with the Royals as well. Bubic has a whiff percentage of 30.8 on his changeup, which is higher than his fastball (26.5 percent) and curve (11.1 percent). His fastball has been his best out pitch this year, as he has a put away rate of 25 percent on the pitch. The pitch that will be interesting to follow will be the development of his curve which not only produces the lowest whiff rate, but also the lowest put away rate (10.0) as well. If he can show some additional effectiveness with the curve, that could make him an even more dangerous pitcher at the MLB level this season and beyond.
The big difference between Singer and Bubic has been hard-hit percentage and the long ball. While Singer has struggled a bit in this category, Bubic has excelled at preventing hard contact and the big fly. Bubic is posting a hard hit rate of 23.1 percent, which is the lowest of any Royals starting pitcher, and his HR/FB rate is also fourth-lowest of any Royal starter (only Danny Duffy has a lower rate of any regular starter). A big contributor to those lower percentages has been Bubic inducing more groundballs than Singer (64 percent to 43.2 percent). And thus, even though Bubic has generated less whiffs overall than Singer (25.7 to Singer’s 28.8 percent), it is not surprising that Bubic has posted better metrics than Singer thus far, due to him limiting hard contact and inducing more ground balls, which have a higher percentage of being turned into outs.
Though Singer and Bubic have been far from perfect (neither has a win on their record), they have been effective and should get better as they accumulate more starts. And thus, based on that precedent, the Royals should call up Witt, right? Let him get at-bats and innings at third base, and perhaps even short or second to help him get ready as the Royals’ position star of the future? After all, if Singer and Bubic can find success, the same should be true for Witt, who is technically a higher-rated prospect than either of them.
First off, as promising and exciting as Witt is as a prospect, in no way is he ready for the Show full-time just yet. Yes, he looked good in Summer Camp, but that was a two-week sample against a Royals pitching staff which honestly is not looking all that great. Furthermore, it is indeterminate what kind of stuff Royals pitchers were bringing during Camp. Often in Spring Training, pitchers focus less on the results of their pitches and more on the process, knowing that Spring Training is a low-stakes environment to do so. It is possible to think that could have been the case this Summer Camp at Kauffman, as pitchers were focused more on stretching out their arms and getting the feel back to their pitches in preparation for the start of the season. Case in point? If Summer Camp was so valuable, Erick Mejia would be tearing the cover of the ball right now and we know that is far from the case.
In addition to Summer Camp not being a good indicator for a callup, one still has to be concerned about Witt’s past experience in the Rookie League, which honestly was not great. He posted a .262 average and an OPS of .670 in 180 plate appearances in the Arizona Rookie League, which is one of the lowest levels of play out there (only the Dominican Summer League could be argued as lower). If Witt was absolutely dominant in Rookie League, Royals fans would be more open to the idea of Witt making an appearance this season, especially if the season continues to go south. But based on that data? Witt is fine continuing to work out at T Bones Stadium and getting development and at-bats against high-level Royals system pitchers. He should be more than ready for High-A or perhaps Double-A in 2021, and if he succeeds there, then it is possible that Witt could be ready to make an extended debut in the middle to end of next season.
But calling him up this year? It would be an on-field and financial mistake. It is likely that Witt would struggle, much like Adalberto Mondesi, who struggled immensely when he was called up too soon at age 20 in 2016. It would be a shame for the Royals to handle Witt’s first couple of years as poorly as they did Mondesi’s, and its likely that Moore and the Royals Player Development staff has learned from that mistake and are being a lot more patient and delicate this time around with the development of Witt.
There is no question that Witt will make a big impact on the Royals when he is called up. I think he could help make this infield one of the better ones in the American League, especially if Mondesi and Lopez can turn it around and be the players Royals fans hope they can be. That being said, bringing up Witt would be a short-sighted mistake in a lost season. The Royals aren’t winning now, and they won’t win much more if he is called up. And thus, the Royals will not only waste his service time for nothing, but they could jeopardize his development, which could have long-term consequences for him and the Royals.
And thus, be patient Royals fans. Enjoy Singer and Bubic’s starts in Kansas City, and let’s cross our fingers we can see Lynch and Kowar do something similar at the MLB level soon. Those young arms will provide hope in what will, unfortunately, be a dreary season.
But as for Witt, he should stay in Wyandotte County for the remainder of the 2020 season.
We’ll be thankful he did by the end of 2021.