Without a doubt, this is a home stand that the Royals and Royals fans would like to forget. The Royals went winless during the seven-game home stand, and are now 16-17 and 3.5 games behind the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central standings. While it was hard to believe that the Royals were as good as their 15-9 record indicated on April 30th (especially considering their run differential was -2 at the time), the fact that the Royals have lost eight out of nine games in May is tough to stomach, even for the most pessimistic Royals fan.
A big issue for the Royals has been the inconsistency the club has seen from their pitching staff as a whole in 2021. Last year, pitching overall was a strong point for the club, especially coming off back-to-back 100-plus loss seasons in 2018 and 2019. The Royals ranked 18th last season in pitching WAR and 12th in the league in pitching staff ERA, according to Fangraphs. This year, unfortunately, has been a slightly different story, for even though they rank 18th in fWAR as a pitching staff (their same ranking as a year ago), they rank 25th in team ERA. The Royals’ pitching struggles have been even more evident in May, for during the first nine days of the season, the Royals staff ranks 28th in team ERA (5.96) and 25th in fWAR (-0.1), according to Fangraphs.
Therefore, the Royals need some answers pitching-wise, and already, general manager Dayton Moore has looked to their pitching prospects to help alleviate these struggles. Since May began, the Royals called up Kris Bubic, who was demoted in Spring Training initially, as well as Daniel Lynch, whose much-anticipated MLB debut I was able to attend at Kauffman Stadium on May 7th.
Unfortunately, the addition of Lynch, the 24th best prospect in baseball according to MLB Pipeline, has not necessarily produced much fruit so far in terms of helping the Royals turn around their pitching misfortunes. After going 4.2 IP, and allowing four hits, three runs, four walks, while striking out three in his May 3rd debut, Lynch had a much rougher start on Saturday night against the White Sox, as evidenced by his line below:
Hence, what should the Royals do with Lynch going forward, and will Royals fans see Bubic, who performed well in relief on Saturday, replace Lynch in the rotation? And how can Lynch and Bubic help this Royals rotation and pitching staff as a whole this season, even if they have both experienced some early struggles since the start of Spring Training?
Let’s take a look at both pitchers, and what kind of options Moore and Mike Matheny have at their disposal when it comes to their development, as well as their impact on this club, early on this season.
Tipping pitches, and command issues for Lynch
There is no question that Lynch brings enticing stuff to the Royals pitching staff. Lynch is averaging 95 MPH on his fastball so far this season, and his slider and curve ball have demonstrated some nasty movement, as evidenced by this strikeout of Cleveland’s Josh Naylor in Lynch’s MLB debut:
Unfortunately, Lynch’s command at the MLB level has been spotty at best. While he is pumping the heat on his fastball, he isn’t generating a whole lot of swings and misses, as he is only posting a 8.3 percent whiff rate on fastballs, and hitters are posting a wOBA of .595 on the pitch through his first two starts this year.
To make matters worse, his slider has had mixed results as well. While he is generating a 44.4 percent whiff rate on the slider, according to Baseball Savant, hitters are also posting a 94.9 MPH exit velocity on the pitch, meaning that they are hitting it hard when they do make contact. And his changeup? Hitters are producing a ridiculous 101 MPH exit velocity on the pitch, even though he is only throwing it 13.9 percent of the time. On both pitches, Lynch is giving up a .389 xwOBA on his slider and .823 xWOBA on his changeup, both rough marks overall.
Based on those metrics, it’s not surprising that Lynch is giving up a hard hit rate of 52.2 percent and barrel rate of 26.1 percent on batted balls this season. It’s going to be hard for Lynch to be successful if he cannot improve or stabilize those number at least a little bit at the Major League level.
However, does Lynch’s tough start mean he should earn an immediate demotion to Omaha?
Well, perhaps, but Lynch may have to address his “pitch tipping” issues first, which could have contributed to his lackluster start to his Major League career.
Royals Jun on Twitter made mention of the “pitch tipping” problem in a Tweet on Saturday, where he noticed the difference in his pitching motion on his slider from his other pitches in his MLB debut when doing an overlay:
Matheny seemed to confirm that Lynch was perhaps tipping his pitches, as he did mention that was an issue in his post-game conference after the White Sox game on Saturday, and pointed out that that the Royals coaching staff was looking to help him rectify this issue immediately:
Thus, is this a problem that Lynch can solve in the Majors out of the bullpen? Or should Lynch perhaps try to work on these issues in a starting role in Triple-A Omaha? While it may be tempting to demote Lynch immediately after this rough two-start stretch, one has to wonder: who would take Lynch’s place in Kansas City? Right now, Carlos Hernandez is struggling in Omaha to begin the year, and I’m not sure if Richard Lovelady or Ronald Bolanos are the answers to the Royals pitching problems as of this moment.
Thus, it may be prudent to simply move Lynch to the bullpen and let him fix these issues in limited inning samples. The Royals need quality arms to help them get through this rough patch, and while Lynch’s command and tipping issues are a concern, his stuff is still MLB quality, and with a few tweaks here and there, it is possible that Lynch could at least be serviceable in the pen for the time being.
And that in turn, a solid Lynch in relief could exactly be what not only Lynch needs, but the Royals as well in terms of boosting their pitching staff.
Can Bubic slide into the rotation?
Bubic struggled this Spring and earned a demotion to Triple-A Omaha as a result. However, even though he started the 2021 season in the bullpen, Bubic came in on Saturday and held serve in an a lopsided contest, something the Royals and their bullpen needed after Lynch failed to get through an inning of work in Saturday’s contest.
Bubic doesn’t have a huge sample under his belt, but he has proven to be effective, as he is posting a 2.35 ERA in three appearances and 7.2 IP. While Bubic was strong in his recent outing on Saturday, there are some concerns with Bubic’s profile so far this season that make him a questionable option for replacing Lynch in the rotation.
The main issue centers on his fastball as Bubic has seen a decrease in fastball velocity from a year ago. He is only averaging 90.6 MPH on his four-seam fastball in 2021, in comparison to his 91.4 MPH mark a year ago, according to Baseball Savant. Additionally, his spin rate is also down about 64 RPMs, which is not a good trade-off either. As a result, Bubic is averaging less whiffs on the fastball (23.4 percent in 2020 to 18.2 percent this year), as well as higher xwOBA (.488 this year to .378 in 2020).
That being said, Bubic is displaying better effectiveness with the changeup and curve so far in 2021 in comparison to last season, which is an encouraging sign of development. Bubic is posting a 35 percent whiff rate on his changeup and a 50 percent whiff rate on his curve ball, which is an improvement on his 31.1 percent and 11.6 percent whiff rates on those pitches in 2020, respectively. Here is an example below against the Indians where Bubic is able to utilize his changeup effectively for a strikeout out of Amed Rosario:
Hitters this year are posting a xwOBA of .169 on his changeup, and a .136 xWOBA on his curveball, which is vast improvement from the xwOBA of .348 and .221 on those pitches in 2020, respectively. Matheny hasn’t officially said that Bubic will take Lynch’s spot in the rotation just yet, but considering that Bubic is off to a decent start so far at the MLB level, and has made 10 starts and pitched 50 innings during the shortened 2020 season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Bubic make his first start this week, most likely during the White Sox series at Guaranteed Rate Field.
Bubic’s fastball will be something to watch, and how it transitions to a starting role could make or break his effectiveness on the mound. But he is excelling with the changeup and curve thus far this season, and it will be intriguing to see if those two pitches continue to be effective in a starting role, should Bubic make that transition for the Royals soon.
How will the Royals’ pitching woes be solved?
Right now, the Royals’ pitching has been an Achilles heel, especially during this month of May. That was on full display today, as many Royals fans on Twitter seemed to take their frustration out on Mike Minor, who gave up five runs on four hits in five innings of work (though he did strike out seven hitters).
Here’s an example of such Minor vitriol on social media:
Right now, the Royals pitching situation looks bleak. Danny Duffy is producing, and Brady Singer is not doing bad in his sophomore season, though he could be a little more consistent. After those two however, the Royals pitching staff, especially rotation, has left some to be desired. Minor has strikeout ability (he has 37 strikeouts in 36 innings of work this year), but he has a propensity to give up hard hits and barrels this season. Brad Keller has continued to struggle, as he has given up 41 hits and is posting a 7.36 ERA in 28.1 IP this year. And the Royals don’t have a lot of options either to supplement the rotation currently on the active roster, as Jakob Junis and Ervin Santana have each displayed their fair share of flaws this year (Junis especially since being demoted to the bullpen).
Right now, it is easy for Royals fans to get overly frustrated about the entire pitching situation and simply want to blow it up, especially in the midst of this eight-game losing streak. But right now, Royals fans need to take things in perspective. Is Minor worth the contract he signed this off-season? Has Lynch lived up to the hype built over the past couple of seasons? Has Keller handled the “ace” role well this season? Obviously, Royals fans know the answers to all three questions. That being said, the Royals, as of now, are stuck with what they got. Asa Lacy got shelled in his debut start in High-A Quad Cities. Jackson Kowar still is struggling with his fastball in Triple-A Omaha. And after that? I’m not sure if there are a lot of options would could really make the Royals better immediately at the MLB level. Both Lacy and Kowar will be ready in due time…it just won’t be in May or June.
Things are tough right now for the Royals, and the promise and luster of a “breakout” season may have been tabled until 2022. But the Royals need to continue to give Lynch and Bubic opportunities at the MLB level…
Even if it may require a switching of roles.
The Royals can’t do any worse at this moment.
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