Analyzing the five best pitches from Royals pitchers in 2020

As of now, Royals fans can remark that pitching is a strength of the team that is only trending upward, especially with prospects such as Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, and possibly Asa Lacy knocking on the door in 2021. In fact, it seems like the Royals have so much pitching depth that both Royals Review and Fangraphs in recent articles this week mentioned that going with a six-man rotation could actually benefit the Royals next season. Whether it is the bullpen or the rotation, the Royals have to be feeling good that their pitching can carry this team to success, much like it did from 2013-2017, the most successful stretch of play under Royals GM Dayton Moore.

For the most part, the Royals faithful know which pitchers to depend on in the rotation and bullpen for next year. However, what is not talked about that much among Royals fans is what were the best “pitches” thrown by Royals pitchers in 2020, and how effective were they during the abbreviated 60-game campaign. Ryan Heffernon of Royals Review talked about the best “pitches” from Royals pitchers over the past decade, but I wanted to narrow it down to just last year, and take a more analytical approach to it with the help of Statcast pitch arsenal data from Baseball Savant.

Hence, which Royals threw the most effective pitches in 2020, what were they, and what are those respective pitches’ outlook for 2021? Based on Royals pitcher pitch arsenal data from Baseball Savant, I identified the five best pitches that Royals pitchers threw in 2020 (of pitchers who met the minimum number of batters faced), based on Statcast’s run value, and it’s an interesting list to say the least.

Let’s take a further look at these five pitches.

(All data comes from primarily Baseball Savant, and I based rankings primarily on “run value” data. For more information on run value, check out this article here.)

5. Josh Staumont’s four-seam fastball

The fifth-best Royals pitch in 2020 is not surprisingly Staumont’s fastball, which was the highest-rated four-seam fastball out of any Royals pitcher. The pitch averaged 98 MPH, and ranked in the 99th percentile in fastball velocity, according to Baseball Savant. Furthermore, the pitch also was thrown 68 percent of the time by Staumont in 2020, an 8.5 percent increase from the previous season. Staumont produced a -4 run value on the pitch, according to Statcast metrics, and also produced a whiff rate of 32.2 percent, a K rate of 21.6 percent, and a put away rate of 18 percent on the pitch as well. Because of the pitch’s high velocity, it produced a hard hit rate of 52.4 percent when batters connected with the pitch, which was actually the seventh-highest hard hit rate of any pitch thrown by a Royals pitcher last year. That being said, it didn’t hurt him too much, as hitters only posted a .218 xBA on the pitch in 2020.

Furthermore, when Staumont’s fastball made batters miss, it produced some impressive-looking strikeouts. His four-seamer was one of those pitches that hitters probably knew was coming, but when he was touching triple digits and commanding it up in the zone, it was hard for opposing hitters to do anything with it.

Here is him touching 100 MPH while striking out Cardinals hitter Tyler O’Neil at Kauffman Stadium in September:

And here he is, again at Kauffman Stadium, striking out Jesse Winker of the Cincinnati Reds on a 102 MPH pitch up in the zone.

It will be interesting to see if Staumont will be able to keep that velocity on the four-seamer over the course of a full 162-game slate. He only averaged 95.9 MPH on the pitch in 2019, and that was mostly credited to a long mixed MiLB and MLB season. When it was slower, the pitch wasn’t nearly as effective, as he posted a zero run value, and only had a whiff rate of 15.4 on the pitch in 2019. Thus, the second half of the season could be key to Staumont’s success in 2021, and whether or not he can indeed take the closer’s role in 2022.

4. Greg Holland’s slider

Holland’s slider historically has been a solid pitch for him, but last year, he pretty much rode the pitch to a rebound campaign. Holland threw his slider 48.5 percent of the time, the most he’s ever thrown the pitch in his career. However, it paid off, as Holland not only posted a -5 run value on the pitch, but he also generated a 37.1 percent K rate on the pitch (which ranked third), and a 28.4 percent put away rate, which ranked 6th on the Royals pitching staff. The pitch especially became an important part of his success when he took over the closer’s role after Trevor Rosenthal was traded to San Diego at the trade deadline.

Here is Holland striking out Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco on a 3-2 pitch in the top of the ninth with the Royals up by one:

That being said, Holland was also able to get hitters out even when they made contact on the pitch. Opposing hitters only posted a .182 xBA on his slider, as well as a wOBA of .185, with the latter being the third-lowest mark out of any pitch a Royals pitcher threw in 2020. Here’s an example of Holland using the slider effectively to get Brewers infielder Orlando Arcia to ground out to Adalberto Mondesi to end the inning:

Holland may not have the four-seam fastball he once had when he was initially the Royals’ closer from 2013-2015 (or well part of 2015 before he went down due to injury). However, he has revitalized his career in Kansas City thanks to his slider and it will be interesting to see if he can continue to thrive on the pitch as the Royals’ likely closer in 2021.

3. Brady Singer’s sinker

Singer’s sinker pitch is an enigma of sorts. Is it a sinker? Or is it more of a two-seam fastball? Or is it just something else? Either way, his “sinker” was his most thrown pitch in 2020, as he threw it 57.1 percent of the time, according to Baseball Savant. Furthermore, not only was his sinker widely thrown, but it was incredibly effective as well, as he posted a -6 run value on the pitch, which was the third best pitch thrown by Royals pitchers last season.

Singer was pretty much a two-pitch pitcher in 2020. He threw his slider 37.1 percent of the time, and he had pretty meager usage rates on his changeup (4.7 percent) and four-seam fastball (0.7 percent). There is some concern that Singer will need to utilize his changeup more effectively in 2021 and beyond if he wants to be the top-of-the-rotation starter he was drafted to be back in 2018. However, though the arsenal Singer displayed in 2020 was limited, his sinker still proved to be a valuable weapon, as hitters only posted a xBA of .224 on the sinker, and the pitch also generated a strikeout rate of 25.5 percent, the highest K rate of his three main pitches (his fastball had a higher K rate, but he threw it less than 1 percent of the time).

Singer posts incredible horizontal movement on the pitch, as evidenced by him freezing Tigers hitter Daz Cameron for the backward K to the end the inning on this sinker below:

Furthermore, let’s seem him freeze Cardinals slugger Paul Goldschmidt with the same kind of pitch, which just simply paints the bottom left part of the strike zone.

Singer’s secondary pitches will be key to him developing as a starter in the Royals rotation in 2021 and beyond. If he can’t really develop those other pitches, it could unfortunately push him to the bullpen long term. However, his sinker proved to be a really good pitch in 2020, and with more experience and innings, it has the possibility to be an elite pitch in the near future.

2. Jesse Hahn’s sinker

Hahn actually has two really good pitches: his sinker, which he throws 55.1 percent of the time; and his curve ball, which he throws 30.8 percent of the time. Hahn’s curve ball has gotten the most attention and rightfully so, as his curve had a -2 run value, a xBA of .091, and a K rate of 42.9 percent, according to Baseball Savant. Furthermore, his curve showed ridiculous movement at times last year, as evidenced below:

However, while his curve ball was certainly a more attractive pitch, his sinker was actually more effective. Even though he only had a 17.9 percent K rate on the pitch (much lower than his curve as well as slider), hitters only posted a xBA of .172 on the pitch, which contributed to the pitch posting a -7 run value last year, according to Statcast pitch arsenal data. Hahn was particularly effective in term of generating groundball outs with the pitch, as evidenced by him inducing Brewers hitter Ryan Braun to ground into a double play on the sinker.

Hahn’s batting average on pitches from 2020 was insane, and it’s unlikely that his .108 BABIP will transition into 2021, which in turn could impact his other metrics next season (especially if the season is a full 162 game campaign). That being said, I always thought Hahn had the potential to be a solid reliever in the Royals bullpen, and last year, the former Athletics pitcher started to show signs that he could be a dependable late innings arm for the Royals in the near future.

1. Brad Keller’s slider

The de-facto Royals ace is known for his sinker ball, which two years ago was a pretty elite pitch. In 2018, his first season in the Majors, Keller’s sinker had a -13 run value, according to Baseball Savant. However, his sinker has regressed a little on a run value basis, as the pitch actually had a +3 run value (positive is not good) in 2019, before improving to a -2 mark last season.

On the other hand, while his sinker has been a mixed bag the past two years, his slider has emerged as an elite pitch for Keller. In 2019, Keller’s slider generated a -11 run value with a 28.7 percent K rate. Last year, he improved the effectiveness of that pitch, as it produced a -10 run value in a shorter campaign (and Keller missed a couple of starts at the beginning of the year due to COVID). In fact, not only did Keller post a 22.2 percent K rate with the pitch last year, but it also ranked as the 8th best pitch on a run value basis in all of baseball, according to Baseball Savant.

Even though Royals fans may not be sure on whether Keller will continue to be the Royals ace of the future, or eventually cede that role to another Royals starter in the next couple years, this much is certain: Keller’s slider was pretty freaking impressive a year ago, and could be even more so over a full season in 2021.

Let’s take a glance at Keller’s slider making Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers look absolutely silly at the K last season:

And below, here’s him doing the same thing, but this time on the road at Progressive Field against future New York Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor:

It’s easy to overlook Keller next year, especially with the presence of such elite pitching prospects such as Lynch, Kowar, and Lacy looking to join Singer and Kris Bubic in the Majors within the next couple of years. However, Keller may be more legitimate than Royals fans may think, and his slider could be the key. While his K/BB ratios leave a bit to be desired, his slider has been a pretty elite pitch the past couple of years. If it continues to be one next year, Keller may be a worthy long-term investment for Moore (he still hasn’t come to an arbitration agreement yet) who could be the Royals’ ace of the rotation for at least a few more seasons.

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