Newberry, Zuber, Lovelady and the Royals Bullpen Bubble

The Royals bullpen outlook took a bit of hit today, as this announcement was made in regard to former Royals closer and reliever free agent Trevor Rosenthal:

The trade is a bit of a bummer for Royals fans, but not necessarily surprising, especially considering how long it took for Rosenthal to sign with a club. Rosenthal was looking for a big-time deal after rejuvenating his career in Kansas City in the first half of 2020, and it’s not surprising that he was looking to get paid, especially considering his past as the Cardinals closer. Thus, while Rosenthal ended up settling on a one-year deal, what he earned was by far out of the Royals’ price range for a one-year bullpen rental.

However, the Rosenthal deal has spurred some ideas in terms of what the Royals could do to further boost their bullpen, though anything major at this point seems unlikely with pitchers and catchers recently reporting. Here is what Patrick Brennan, formerly of Royals Farm Report, suggested on Twitter today:

As stated before, I am not sure if Dayton Moore will add another pitcher, even on a Minor League deal, with 29 non-roster invites coming to Spring Training. However, I thought Brennan’s Tweet brought up a good point: which relievers in the Royals organization could be on the “bubble” in terms of making the 26-man active roster on Opening Day?

With roster projections the popular thing now among Royals bloggers, I thought about the Royals relievers who I felt were “certain” to make the 26-man roster on Opening Day, barring injury. Here is the list I came up with:

  • Greg Holland
  • Scott Barlow
  • Jesse Hahn
  • Josh Staumont
  • Jakob Junis
  • Kyle Zimmer (if healthy)
  • Wade Davis

Zimmer was a question mark due to his health, but I think he’s a given as long as he’s a go this Spring. And though he struggled the last two years in Colorado, Davis is probably a given on this active roster considering his fanfare.

Thus, the three relievers who I thought were in “bubble territory” were the following:

Roster Resource projects Newberry and Lovelady to both make the 26-man active roster. However, David Lesky at Inside the Crown (subscribe if you haven’t already) projected Zuber to make the active roster, while he thought that Newberry and Lovelady were on the “outside looking in” going into Spring Training. Thus, it seems like these three are the most polarizing relievers in the Royals system when it comes to making the active roster.

Therefore, I wanted to analyze the three relievers, and see what their outlook could be this Spring, and how they could affect the Royals bullpen in 2021. I also decided to include a few of the relievers on Brennan’s list in my data research, specifically the following:

I only included these four relievers because they had some kind of connection to the Royals in the past, and if this off-season has showed Royals fans anything, it’s that past ties to the organization is key when it comes to acquiring free agents (because they certainly aren’t coming here for the weather). While some of those other available relief free agents may offer some upside (Robertson, Clippard and Greene could offer some veteran presence at a discount), it’s hard to see any beyond the four I listed above as realistic Royals targets.

So let’s take a look at the data and which of the three (or four possible free agents) stick out the most.

So I created a couple of tables in Google Sheets where I look at plate discipline and overview data of the seven pitchers listed above via Pitcher List’s new stats leaderboards. Here is the first table, which is the overview data of the seven pitchers, which highlights more basic metrics like innings pitched, ERA, WHIP, K percentage, BB percentage, and K/BB ratio. Here’s the table:

From the data above, Jeffress did post the best ERA and WHIP numbers of the bunch. However, his K/BB ratio numbers were a little more pedestrian, as it was the second-lowest of the seven pitcher sample above. Zuber posted the best strikeout rate numbers of the seven (30 percent K rate), but he also had a high walk rate (19 percent), which consequently deflated his K/BB ratio (1.58, which was third-lowest).

Newberry on the other hand posted the second-best strikeout rate of the bunch, though much like Zuber, he displayed walk issues as well, though not as pronounced as Zuber (his K/BB ratio was around the middle at 1.99). Lovelady showed decent control, with a 6.3 percent walk rate and 2.84 K/BB ratio, but he also posted high ERA and WHIP numbers, and a low strikeout rate in his 2019 sample (I used his 2019 sample because he only had one appearance in 2020).

Kennedy and Herrera didn’t look good on an ERA (9.00, 6.14, respectively) or WHIP (1.71, 1.50, respectively) basis, but their K/BB ratios (3.75 and 3.10, respectively) made them look a lot better comparatively speaking. Volquez on the other hand appeared to be the worst of the bunch in this sample of data, as his K/BB ratio (1.49) was around the bottom, and he also had the lowest strikeout metrics as well (not surprising considering he’s a sinker-ball heavy pitcher, and he’s 37 years old).

Now, let’s take a look at how the seven pitchers rated in regard to plate discipline metrics:

When it comes to plate discipline metrics, Newberry really rises to the top of this bunch. Newberry leads in two-strike out of the strike zone swing percentage; swinging strike rate; and called plus swinging strike rate. The only category of the four plate discipline metrics he didn’t lead in was first-strike percentage, which he surprisingly ranked last in of the grouping above. Zuber and Lovelady didn’t look to impressive in plate discipline metrics, as they both ranked near the bottom in generating strikes out of the strike zone in two strike counts, swinging strike rate, and CSW (Zuber and Lovelady ranked 6th and 7th, respectively, in all three of the categories listed).

Zuber seems to have more promise than Lovelady, especially with the new “three batter rule” limiting Lovelady’s ability to be employed against only left-handed batters (i.e. a LOOGY). However, both did pale in comparison to Newberry, especially in regard to plate discipline metrics. The former 37th-round pick was much more effective in terms of generating whiffs, and getting batters to chase, especially in two-strike counts.

Hence, Newberry may be one of the more underrated relievers currently on the Royals 40-man roster, and he could be a productive middle relief option in 2021, though he’s not getting much fanfare or attention from Royals fans.

Thus, let’s take a look at Newberry’s progression the past three seasons, and if he could be a “bubble” reliever on the Royals 40-man roster who should be taken more seriously this Spring.

If Newberry makes the active roster out of Spring Training, it will be his fourth campaign with the big league club, which is crazy to think about considering that he had not really gotten much attention out of the Royals bullpen the past three seasons. After pitching 13.1 IP and posting a 4.73 ERA in 14 appearances in his rookie debut in 2018, Newberry posted a 3.77 ERA in 27 appearances and 31 IP in 2019, a considerable improvement from his initial MLB campaign. In 2020, Newberry made 20 appearances and pitched 22 innings, but his ERA rose to 4.09, not necessarily a promising sign for a middle reliever/mop up man.

However, a deeper dive into Newberry’s metrics show that he probably was better than his traditional stats belie last season. His BABIP rose from .262 to .321 from 2019 to 2020, respectively, and his strand rate dropped from 90.6 percent in 2019 to 73.8 percent in 2020. Both are signs that his ERA inflation from 2019 to 2020 may have been a sign of bad luck rather than a decrease in skills and/or ability.

The idea that his regression was more due to bad lack rather than a decline in skills is further displayed in his improvement in his plate discipline and batted ball metrics over the past three seasons. Over the past three years (2018-2020), Newberry has seen his swinging strike rate rise from 10.7 percent in 2018 to 12.6 percent in 2019 to 15.2 percent in 2020. Furthermore, he has also increased his ability to keep batted balls on the ground, as his GB rate has gone from 32.5 percent in 2018 to 34.1 percent in 2019 to 37.5 percent in 2020. Thus, Newberry has quietly become a dependable reliever over the past three years, even if it has gone unnoticed by many Royals fans.

So what has been key to Newberry’s improvement? Well, it has been mostly his change in pitch arsenal, as he slowly decreased the usage of his fastball, and made his slider his primary pitch over the past three seasons.

Here is his pitch usage breakdown over the past three years:

For the most part, Newberry has been a two-pitch pitcher, as his changeup usage has been under five percent each season over the duration of his Major League career. However, look at the change in the yellow “slider” line and red “four-seam fastball” line and how by 2020, the slider became his primary pitch. Of course, that changed proved to pay off in 2020, as his put away percentage on the pitch increased from 24.4 percent in 2019 to 31.7 in 2020, according to Baseball Savant.

While Newberry’s increase in the usage of his slider was important, it was also his improvement in command of the slider from 2019 to 2020 that also made it a more effective pitch. Let’s take a look at his slider heatmap from 2019:

As one can see from the deep red area of the contour, he keeps the slider down, which is good. However, for a slider, it is kind of in the middle of the zone, not a great place to be. Granted, he got lucky, as his slider generated a xWOBA of .153 in 2019, which is incredibly effective. However, his batting average on the pitch was .096 and his xBA was .109, a sign that he got lucky with his slider in 2019. In 2020, the batting average on his slider increased to .224, but his xBA was only .177, which displayed that it was the inverse for him luck-wise last season.

Despite the increase in hitter productivity on the pitch, Newberry not only posted a better put away percentage, but an increased whiff rate by over 4 percent (48.5 percent to 44.1 percent in 2019). And his slider heatmap from last season gives Royals fans a hint in regard to how that happened:

Notice the difference from the 2019 slider heatmap. Newberry hits the lower right part of the zone with more consistency, which is a much better area to live in with a slider (especially with how it lived on the edge of the strikezone as well). Thus, it’s not surprising that Newberry generated more whiffs from 2019 to 2020, which included strikeouts like this one below against the Detroit Tigers at Kauffman Stadium:

So much has been made about Holland using his slider as his primary pitch last year and finding success with that change in arsenal. However, Newberry also found success with such a change, and if he can continue to be efficient with his new pitch arsenal, he could become one of the more underrated relievers in the Royals bullpen in 2021.

Losing out on Rosenthal was certainly a bummer for Royals fans, but the cupboard is not bare in the Royals system. There are options available, with Newberry being a prime example of a reliever who could give some much needed production at a fraction of the cost of Rosenthal. Even beyond Newberry, Zuber and Lovelady have showed glimpses in the past couple of years (Zuber last year and Lovelady in 2019), and could be also surprising bullpen options should they make the proper adjustments this Spring and in 2021.

That being said, Newberry should be the Royals reliever to watch out for in 2021. He’s not getting a lot of fanfare now, and a lot of Royals fans may be writing him off as a bullpen option by Opening Day. That being said, he has displayed considerable improvement over the past three years, and his slider has been a key piece to his growth as a pitcher at the Major League level.

Let’s hope that he can continue to improve in 2021…

Because if he does, then he could provide that bullpen stability that may be needed over a full 162 game campaign next year.

(Photo credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

2 thoughts on “Newberry, Zuber, Lovelady and the Royals Bullpen Bubble

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s