Examining Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, and the state of the Royals rotation beyond 2020

The Royals may be 18-28 going into Saturday evening’s game and are 11 games behind the Chicago White Sox in the American League Central, but there has been a swoon of positive vibes going on at Kauffman Stadium as of late. The Royals have won four straight games, which included three straight wins against a Cleveland Indians team that is fighting for a playoff spot with the White Sox and the Minnesota Twins.

And if that team success wasn’t enough, Royals fans also got a much needed glimmer of hope for the future on Thursday night, as Brady Singer flirted with a no-hitter for 7.2 innings.

The masterful outing was much needed for Singer, who’s gone through his shares of ups and downs during his rookie debut. A former top prospect and first round pick in 2018, Singer started the year in the Royals rotation, but had gone through a rough recent stretch of starts after a solid debut. This included a rough four-inning start against the Minnesota Twins on August 22nd in which he allowed six hits and two home runs in a loss, as well as a 10-hits and five-runs allowed in 5.2 innings pitched performance on September 4th against the White Sox at Kauffman Stadium.

In his Thursday start though, Singer not only earned his second major league win, but showed remarkable control and command against a pretty above-average Indians lineup. While he did lose the no hitter with two outs in the eighth, he still was able to finish the inning by striking out Delino Deshields to earn his eighth strikeout of the game. In a eight-inning and 119 pitch performance, Singer allowed only one hit, two walks, and posted a Game score of 92, his best number since his debut which he posted a score of 63, according to Fangraphs.

On Friday evening, fellow rookie Kris Bubic had another worthwhile start of his own, which was his third straight solid performance after a rough, nine-hit, four-runs allowed performance in 3.1 IP against the Minnesota Twins on August 23rd (he also walked two and struck out none). Against the Pirates on Friday, Bubic went five innings and only allowed six hits while allowing one run, two walks while striking out six. While Bubic didn’t flirt with history like Singer, the former Stanford product showed that he and Singer could be a young one-two combo in the rotation for the Royals to build around in 2021.

And thus, with this recent success, it may be worthwhile to look at not just Singer and Bubic’s progression so far in their rookie seasons, but also how their success and development could impact the Royals rotation and how it will be constructed this off-season in preparation for 2021.

Both Singer and Bubic metrically are posting similar lines, especially in regard to striking batters out and groundballs. Both pitchers are posting similar strikeout rates (Singer is posting a 21.8 K rate while Bubic is posting a 20.8 rate) as well as K/BB ratios (2.59 for Singer and 2.47 for Bubic). Furthermore, Singer is leading Royals starting pitchers with 10 or more IP with a 52.9 groundball rate, while Bubic is currently sitting fourth with a groundball rate of 45.1 percent. That being said, though they show similar control metrics and both look to rely on their infield to get outs (1.76 GB/FB ratio for Singer; 1.38 for Bubic), they have much different approaches when it comes to retiring batters.

Both pitchers rely primarily on their fastball, according to Statcast data, as Singer throws his fastball 58.4 percent of the time, and Bubic throws his four-seamer 51.5 percent of the time. Singer has a little more life on his fastball, as it averages 93.4 MPH and has 5.7 inches of break more than average, which 74 percent more than the average MLB fastball. Bubic’s fastball on the other hand only averages 91.5 MPH and his horizontal break on the pitch is -13 percent in comparison to the average fastball. That being said, even though Singer shows more velocity and horizontal movement, Bubic’s fastball has been more effective this year in terms of getting batters out, as Bubic is posting a put away percentage of 26.4 percent on his four-seam fastball while Singer is only posting a 17.4 percent put away rate on the same pitch.

Where Singer and Bubic deviate the most is what secondary pitch they utilize the most. Singer relies heavily on his slider, as he throws it 35.3 percent of the time and is posting a whiff rate of 35.8 percent on the pitch. As for Bubic, he continues to rely on his changeup (much like he did in the minors to success), as he throws it 31.9 percent of the time, and generate a whiff rate of 31.9 percent on the secondary pitch. While they do generate more swings and misses with their different secondary pitches, surprisingly both Singer and Bubic get more batters out with their fastballs. Singer is posting a put away percentage of 17.1 percent with his slider, 0.3 points lower than his fastball, and Bubic is posting a put away rate of 15.3, nearly 11 points lower than his four-seamer. Hence, it will be interesting to see how Singer and Bubic’s secondary pitches develop this off-season and into 2021, for if they can put away batters more on those secondary pitches, that could help them improve their surface level metrics such as ERA (4.66 for Singer; 4.50 for Bubic).

Despite Singer and Bubic’s similarities during their rookie seasons, Singer and Bubic will probably have different goals this off-season when it comes to improving their pitching repertoire. Singer will need to develop his changeup more if he wants to be successful, as he is primarily a two-pitch pitcher now, which does not bode well for long term success in the rotation. While Singer did post a put away rate of 16.7 on his change, he only threw it 6.3 percent of the time, which shows that he doesn’t have much confidence in it just yet. If Singer can continue to develop his change this off-season and in Spring Training, it is possible that his change could at least be an occasional weapon which could in turn make his fastball-slider combo even more effective in 2021 and beyond.

As for Bubic, he currently is a four-pitch pitcher who also sports a curve and a sinker, but neither are really effective. While he throws his curve 14.7 percent of the time, he is only posting a put away rate of 5.0 percent on the pitch. And his sinker? Well, he not only barely throws it (1.9 percent of the time), but it’s not really effective as well, as it has a put away rate of zero. And thus, it will be interesting to see if Bubic will focus on developing his curve and perhaps eliminating his sinker in order to make the third-pitch more effective next season. Bubic’s mechanics are a bit wonkier than Singer, especially with how he keeps his glove high in the air in a manner that may remind some Royals fans of Kevin Appier. That being said, his delivery could make his curve more effective, as Barry Zito had a very similar delivery and was able to utilize his curve to success with the A’s and Giants.

Singer and Bubic are from finished products, but they have showed growth and maturation over the course of the shortened season. It has been a weird year due to the COVID-affected year, and both pitchers were rushed to the Majors due to the lack of a Minor League season. However, Dayton Moore, Mike Matheny, and pitching coach Cal Eldred have to be encouraged by the pair’s performances so far, and it’s plausible to think that with a full off-season and Spring Training that both pitchers could be even better next season in the two and three spot in the rotation behind Brad Keller, who most likely will be the ace in 2021.

While the top of the rotation seems to be set, the remaining two spots will be an interesting development and worth watching over these last two weeks of the season. Already, we are seeing the Royals experimenting, as they are starting Carlos Hernandez on Saturday night, who hasn’t pitched above Single-A Lexington prior to this year. And with Daniel Lynch, Jackon Kowar, and Asa Lacy pitching at the Alternate Site in KCK, it is not out of the realm of possibility to think that one of them will get a shot toward the end of the season, especially with the Royals out of the playoff hunt.

If anything though, the success of Singer and Bubic may have the Royals thinking “future is now” as soon as 2021. Singer hadn’t pitched above Double-A and Bubic hadn’t pitched above High-A prior to 2020 and they have held their own against MLB pitching, albeit with some growing pains. And thus, even if Lynch, Kowar or Lacy don’t appear this year, it is not out of the question to think that one of them could earn a rotation spot by the end of Spring Training in Surprise. Furthermore, Royals fans can’t count out Hernandez either, though he will have to solve his home run issues if he wants to be seen as a more serious rotation option next year (he gave up three in three innings on Saturday).

Whatever the Royals do, it seems less likely that Danny Duffy and Jakob Junis will be in the Royals rotation for long. I have already talked about why Junis probably belongs in the pen next year on this blog before, but even Duffy seems like a better fit in the pen at this point as well. While Duffy has improved in many categories this year, he has struggled to get beyond the fifth inning, especially when he is facing a batting order a second and third time. This year, I felt it was necessary to keep Duffy in the rotation due to the lack of options and the uncertainty of how Singer and Bubic would fare in their rookie years. Now that Royals fans know what to expect from those two, the need for Duffy in the rotation seems less pressing, and 2021 could be a good time to begin a career renaissance as a reliever, which could boost his value since he will be a free agent after next year. If Duffy can evolve into a “Will Smith”-like reliever, he may find a decent deal, though it will be tough to tell whether that contract will come in Kansas City or elsewhere.

Moore will have a lot of decisions to make with the Royals rotation this off-season. However, this much is certain: Singer and Bubic will be key cogs to the starting staff in 2021 and should only get better if they make the right strides this Winter and this Spring in Surprise.

Furthermore, if Singer and Bubic can succeed, it should also give hope that the Royals can find similar success with Lynch and Kowar in 2021 and perhaps Lacy in 2022 at the latest.

If that doesn’t make Royals fans excited during another rough, Central celler-dweller campaign in 2020, then I don’t know what else will.

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