Analyzing some of the issues with the Royals’ starting pitchers after their first starts of 2021

In their first road game of the season, the Kansas City Royals spoiled Opening Day for Cleveland Indians fans, as the Royals won 3-0, mostly on the back of Danny Duffy, who started on Opening Day in Cleveland, ironically a year ago. Even though many have clamored for Duffy to make a transition to the bullpen as he begins the final year of his contract, the 32-year-old veteran went six frames, and allowed only two hits and three walks while striking out five.

While Duffy start was a promising sign, the rest of the Royals rotation has been bad to put it bluntly, or mediocre, to put it optimistically (I guess that depends what kind of Royals fan you are).

According to Fangraphs, going into Duffy’s outing, the Royals ranked third to last in starter xFIP, fourth to last in starter FIP, and last place in starter ERA. Thankfully, the Royals bullpen has picked up the slack in the midst of the rotation’s struggles, as the Royals rank 10th in bullpen ERA, 9th in bullpen FIP, and 5th bullpen xFIP, going into Monday’s contest.

So, even though Duffy’s outing was a glimmer of hope for the rotation, what have been the struggles thus far for the rotation, and is there hope on the horizon? Or will the mediocre first run through the rotation be a sign of things to come for the Royals starter in 2021, and not in a good way?

Let’s take a deeper dive into the Royals’ starter metrics.

In some cases, one could argue that the Royals rotation has been unlucky, and that the Rangers series was a combination of good Texas hitting combined with a lot of balls finding holes for base hits. The Royals rank in the middle of the league (17th specifically) in K/9, which demonstrates that Royals starters are generating whiffs, and they also ranked 20th in HR/FB rate, which isn’t good, but not horrendous considering the Royals “last in the league” in starter ERA going into Monday’s game.

However, when Royals fans look at strand rate (LOB percentage) and batting average on balls in play (BABIP), that’s when things get ugly quick for Royals starting pitchers.

Royals starters rank third-to-last in strand rate (45.5 percent) and have the highest starter BABIP (.457) in the league. As stated before, that probably will change a bit after Duffy’s blanking of the Indians, but that could be an issue to watch out for when it comes to Royals starters. In 2020, the Royals starting pitchers ranked 14th in BABIP and 16th in strand rate, which goes to show that they were not really lucky or unlucky, in comparison to the rest of the league. However, if they continue to rank in the lower ends of those categories, then that could be a difference from the Royals perhaps sneaking into a Wild Card spot, and simply being a team that finishes in third or fourth in the AL Central with around 70-80 wins.

When looking at the Royals’ three starters other than Duffy, Brad Keller and Brady Singer were hit the hardest when it came to both BABIP and strand rate. Keller has the highest BABIP at .750, which isn’t surprising considering his disastrous outing on Opening Day where he failed to get past the second inning. When it comes to lowest strand rate, that belongs to Singer, who has a 39.5 percent mark. As for Mike Minor, he’s benefited from a low BABIP (.214), but his strand rate (53.5 percent), while not as bad as Keller (45.5 percent) or Singer, is not impressive by any means. (Minor’s overall profile is mostly hurt by a low ground ball rate and high HR/FB rate as well).

As stated before, all the Royals starters have only had one start, so Royals fans shouldn’t jump to conclusions just yet. However, a season ago, Keller and Singer both benefited from low BABIP marks, as Keller’s BABIP was .233, and Singer’s was .260, both far below league average. Thus, could they be due for a spike, and if so, what could that due to their overall stat line as well as production?

Well, taking a look at some pitch charts from their first starts could give Royals fans at least some ideas of what could be issues for them going forward.

I wanted to see how Keller and Singer both struggled in their respective starts, so I analyzed their pitch charts from Savant, with a specific focus on pitch results. Let’s take a look first at Keller’s pitch chart from Opening Day:

As one can see, Keller does experience some bad luck here. The Rangers batted three balls out of the strike zone for hits, including one double. It’s likely that those kind of hits won’t happen all the time, though, as stated before, some regression may be due, as Keller has traditionally posted low BABIP numbers since debuting in 2018. 2021 just may be that season of “correction” that may analytics people have been expecting from Keller over the past couple of seasons.

That being said, while bad luck could be credited to those base hits on pitches out of the strike zone, he does leave some up in the heart of the zone, and he’ll need to locate better on that end, especially against good hitting teams. All six of the hits that came from pitches in the strike zone are in hitter sweet spots, and Keller needs to command his pitches better in future outings, specifically in the lower end of the zone, an area which complements his sinker. Whether he is able to find that lower part of the strike zone in his second start will be key to a bounce back.

When it comes to Singer, let’s take a look at his pitch results chart:

The Singer pitch chart is a little more peculiar, though it is more obvious that control was the issue here in Singer’s start. On the home run he allowed, it is actually a pretty good pitch, in the lower end of the strike zone. However, Nate Lowe just seemed to expect the changeup on the 3-1 count, and sat back and did this to the pitch below:

Singer does throw some balls up in the heart of the zone, but he had some mixed results in that area on Sunday. Yes, he gave up a couple of singles when throwing in that part of the strike zone. However, he did have a couple of strikeouts as well. He also had a lot of success getting guys to chase out of the zone in two-strike counts, as he generated three Rangers strikeouts on pitches outside of the strike zone. Singer may have the best CSW (called strike and whiff) ability of any Royals starting pitcher, so the fact that he generated some chase strikeouts in his first start, despite its rough outcome, should make Royals fans hopeful that better starts are on the horizon for Singer.

Hence, Singer showed some promising signs in his first start of 2021, it’s just that he lost control, and had a hard time finding the strike zone, especially up in the zone. It will be interesting to see what adjustments he will make in order to solve that issue, especially since it seemed from the broadcast analysis, it was largely a mechanical one, and mostly came in the third and fourth innings.

As for Minor, he mostly was hurt by a couple of mistakes, though his overall pitch result chart looks pretty decent:

That pink home run dot came from leaving one up in the zone to Joey Gallo, and it got roped for a 450-feet bomb, as evidenced below:

While Minor’s overall pitch chart shows a better start than what the ERA indicated (6.00), he will need to minimize those kinds of mistake pitches, especially against good hitters, if he wants to bounce back from a rough 2020. He suffered from a higher than usual HR/FB rate last season (15.7 percent, which is 4.5 percent higher than his career average), and he needs to see regression in that category if he wants to see an ERA that is better than the 5.56 mark he posted between Texas and Oakland a year ago. Granted, Minor is in a more pitcher-friendly home park in Kansas City than his previous home in Texas. However, mistakes, like the one he made with Gallo, will result in bombs, regardless of what park he is pitching at.

The Royals rotation is not off to a good start, but it’s been only four games, and the Royals starters certainly have the opportunity to bounce back. The BABIP and LOB rates will certainly regress over the course of the season. It’s just a natural part of baseball. However, how much will both rates regress, and will the Royals fall in the upper or lower end of those categories in 2021? That is something Royals fans should be paying attention to this season.

Luck is so key to baseball, and for some pitchers, like Keller for example, it could mean the difference between an All-Star caliber season, and a highly mediocre one.

Let’s hope that things go differently through the Royals rotation’s second round of starts…

Because the Royals will need decent or better starting pitcher to be serious contenders for a playoff spot this season.

Photo Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

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