I already took a look at the Offensive MVP “Royalty” award, which went to Salvy pretty easily. Now, I am shifting my attention toward the “Best Starting Pitcher” award, which was pretty easy to identify, but a little bit closer than the Offensive MVP award in my opinion.
Before I get into the individual runners-up and award-winner profiles, I think that the Royals starting pitching staff deserves a shout out as a collective. From 2018-2019, the Royals starting pitching struggled immensely. They ranked 26th in starting pitching wins via WAR; 26th in terms of starting pitcher ERA; and 26th in terms of starting pitcher FIP. (See a pattern?) And thus, it is not a surprise that general manager Dayton Moore has opted to build up the starting pitcher depth in the Royals farm system the past couple of years through the draft, with pitchers such as Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, and Asa Lacy being the main youngsters tabbed to turn around the Royals’ rotation in the near future.
Even though only Singer and Bubic debuted this year, the Royals saw some gains in the rotation in 2020, according to Fangraphs. While they only ranked 25th in WAR, they did improve their starting pitcher ERA to 18th in the league and FIP to 22nd. And hence, while the Royals starting rotation hasn’t made a total turn-around just yet, they certainly made some strides in 2020 that should give Royals fans hope for 2021 and beyond.
And with that being said, let’s take a look at the two runners up and the winner of the 2020 “Starting Pitcher of the Year” Royalty award.
2nd Runner Up: Kris Bubic, LHP
Royals fans can go back and forth on whether the rookie lefty out of Stanford or the veteran Danny Duffy was more deserving of this spot. While Duffy did hold an edge on Bubic when it came to wins (4 to Bubic’s 1), Bubic posted a better ERA (4.32 to 4.66) and FIP (4.75 to 4.76) than the Duffman. Furthermore, Bubic seemed to get better over the course of the year, with some solid performances that went into the later innings, while Duffy seemed to show that the bullpen ought to be his destiny in 2021, or 2022 at the latest.
Bubic didn’t have the sensational finish that fellow rookie, Brady Singer, had, but he still proved to be solid nonetheless. Of Royals starting pitchers who pitched 20 or more innings in 2020, Bubic induced the slowest average exit velocity of balls hit off of Royals starting pitchers (87.3 MPH). Furthermore, he also induced the second-highest swinging strike rate (10.3 percent) and lowest contact on pitches inside the strike zone (79.6 percent), which shows how nasty his stuff can be at times, even if it may not be the most intimidating velocity-wise (at 91.5 MPH, his fastball was the second-slowest of Royals pitchers with 20 or more IP).
However, while Bubic certainly showed some promise in his rookie season, there will be plenty for him to work on this Winter. He still has to hone his control and command so that he can limit the long ball, as well as walks. Bubic led all Royals starting pitchers with 20 or more IP in BB/9 rate (3.96) and he also had the lowest first-strike percentage as well (47.7 percent; which was nearly 10 percent lower than the next lowest Royals starting pitcher in this category). Furthermore, his control issues also greatly affected his ability to hit his desired spots consistently, as hitters took advantage of Bubic getting behind in the count on frequent occasion, as evidenced by his 17 percent HR/FB rate, which was only lower than Jakob Junis.
Bubic has all the tools to be a good pitcher at the MLB level and he showed that at times in 2020. That being said, how his control and command develops in 2021 could make the difference between Bubic being a No. 2 or 3 starter, or simply a spot one at the end of the Royals rotation in the future.
1st Runner Up: Brady Singer, RHP
No Royals pitcher was hotter down the stretch than Singer, who nearly threw a no hitter this season against the Cleveland Indians (he lost it in the 8th inning). For the year, Singer posted a 4-5 record, 4.06 ERA, 4.08 FIP, and 1.0 WAR over 12 starts and 64.1 innings. Singer also posted the second-highest K rate (23.2 percent) and highest groundball rate (53.1 percent) of Royals starting pitchers with 20 or more innings. Hence, the the former first round pick showed in his rookie year that he could not only get hitters out in a variety of ways, but he had the makeup and composure to produce a good stretch of games on the mound (which he did in the last few weeks of September).
While Singer did entice Royals fans who have been excited for his debut since he was drafted out of the University of Florida, the 24-year-old former Gator did go through his share of struggles in 2020. After a good start on August 9th against the Twins at the K, Singer lost his next two starts against Minnesota, and also took a loss against the White Sox at Kauffman Stadium in which he allowed 10 hits and five runs. While Singer seemed to look comfortable against the Indians and Tigers, it was a different story against the Twins and White Sox in 2020, and that could be worrisome for Royals fans, especially since both those teams are expected to be the top two teams in the AL Central in 2021 (the Indians could see a regression based on what they do with Francisco Lindor).
Furthermore, Singer continues to be a two-pitch pitcher for the most part, as he only threw his changeup 4.7 percent of the time, according to Fangraphs. While it was nice to see Singer throw the changeup a little (he really didn’t throw it much in the minors in 2019 or in college), he will need to develop that pitch even more this off-season and in 2021 as well if he wants to be a long-term fixture in the Royals rotation. If he continues to just rely on those two pitches, it will only be a matter of time before he makes a transition to the pen, which would be a shame considering how much promise he showed as a starting pitcher this year.
While Singer doesn’t have the pitch repertoire of Bubic (who is a four-pitch pitcher), Singer’s competitiveness and makeup are off the charts and that was on full display in his 12-start sample. Singer attacks hitters and works quickly, both great signs for a starting pitcher. If the changeup comes together in the next year or two like the Royals hope, then the sky could be the limit for Singer in Kansas City, and he could develop into a future All-Star as well.
Starting Pitcher of the Year: Brad Keller, RHP
I have talked about Keller before on this blog, and he continues to impress, even with his advanced metrics showcasing a different story. Even though he won 5 games, posted an ERA of 2.47 (best of Royals starting pitchers with 20 or more IP), and accumulated a WAR of 1.3 (which led all Royals pitchers), he also posted the lowest K/9 (5.76), K/BB ratio (2.06), and biggest difference between ERA and FIP (-0.96). To the optimistic Royals fan, Keller is a groundball-inducing pitcher in the mold of a Greg Maddux who succeeds because he works fast and trusts his defense. To the pessimistic Royals fan, Keller has been getting lucky, and it will only be a matter of time before he blows up, swiftly regresses, and becomes an end-of-the rotation guy (if he stays in the rotation at all with all the high-profile arms coming up in the Royals system).
My opinion? I think Keller is in the middle of those two diagnoses, though I tend to lean more toward the optimistic side. Yes, Keller will never strike out a lot of guys, and his K/BB ratios are concerning. That being said, he knows how to use Kauffman Stadium’s spacious confines, and despite the ball being “juiced”, he only had a HR/FB rate of 5.1 percent. That shows Keller knows how to locate and keep the ball low in the zone, and that was further displayed by his 2.15 GB/FB ratio, which led Royals starting pitchers in 2020.
Keller will be entering his first year of arbitration this Winter and it seems likely that Moore will sign him to a decent extension. Moore has been known for buying out arbitration years of promising players, and considering Keller is only 25-years-old, buying out his last three years of team control would be a worthwhile investment. While Keller may not have the “prospect hype” of other pitchers in the Royals system (including Singer and Bubic), Keller has been solid for three straight seasons now, and as long as he stays healthy, it is likely that Keller will be a mainstay in the Royals rotation for a long time. The Royals have benefited from him being a rock of consistency in the rotation the past three seasons (since acquiring him through the Rule 5 Draft), and they will need that production even more if they want to make a move up in the standings in the next year or two.
And thus, Keller is the Royals “Starting Pitcher of the Year”. Even though he missed some time due to COVID at the beginning of the year, he was strong on the mound throughout the season, and once again proved that he is the “ace” of the Royals rotation for the time being.
It will be interesting to see how long he holds onto the title…
And whether it’s Singer, Bubic, Lynch, Kowar, Lacy, or someone else who challenges Keller, this much is certain: Keller won’t be giving up that title easily.
He showed that and then some in 2020.