There’s Something About…Kris Bubic?

In all honesty, I wasn’t all that optimistic about the Royals’ chances in this upcoming Brewers series. It could have been the fact that the Royals went 0-7 in their last home stand. It could have been the fact that the Royals would be facing Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes, the Brewers’ best two pitchers in this series, and two of the best pitchers in the National League. It could have been the fact that Danny Duffy, the Royals’ best starting pitcher thus far, was just placed on the IL, a huge blow for a team that hasn’t gotten the most consistent production in the rotation in 2021.

Whatever the reason…there seemed to be a lot going against the Royals as they began their home stand at Kauffman Stadium against the Brewers on Tuesday evening.

However, despite all the bad “signs” going in, the Royals squeaked out a 2-0 victory over Milwaukee in the end.

And a big reason why the Royals won was due to Kris Bubic and his tremendous first start of the 2021 season.

Even though 2021 is still young, Bubic has been an enigma for the Royals of sorts. After a solid 2020 in which he posted a 4.32 ERA and 0.5 fWAR in 50 IP, Bubic absolutely struggled in Cactus League play this Spring. In 7.2 IP, he gave up 14 hits, eight runs, and posted an 8.59 ERA and 2.45 WHIP.

As a result of the porous Spring campaign, Bubic earned a demotion to Omaha to begin the season, and did not make the Opening Day roster. The scenario seemed possible, but unlikely, when pitchers and catchers reported to Surprise, Arizona in February. Nonetheless, it was a gut punch to Bubic and fans of Bubic who were hoping that he would build upon his solid rookie campaign during the shortened 2020 season.

The demotion caused Bubic to get lost in the shuffle of the Royals’ top pitching prospects to begin the 2021 season. Daniel Lynch made his MLB debut to the excitement of Royals fans, but he struggled immensely in his time in Kansas City, as he posted a 15.75 ERA and 10.20 FIP in three starts and eight innings of work, according to Fangraphs. And even in the midst of Lynch’s struggles, it took Duffy hitting the 10-day IL for Bubic to finally get a shot in the Royals rotation.

Safe to say, Bubic made the most of his opportunity and may have solidified his spot in the Royals rotation, even when Duffy returns off the IL.

Granted, the Milwaukee Brewers offense has not been good by any stretch of the imagination this year. Currently, according to Fangraphs’ Roster Resource, they rank 28th in batting average, 25th in OBP, and 27th in OPS. However, with Woodruff on the mound tonight, the Brewers didn’t need a ton of offense, just enough to help them get over the top and eek out a win at the K against a Royals team that has been reeling in the month of May.

Instead, it was Bubic who shoved on the mound tonight for the Royals, and the Royals offense that squeaked out a win on five hits and two runs total against the Brewers’ pitching staff.

In six innings tonight, Bubic only allowed one hit and walked two batters while striking out four. It was the typical 2021 Bubic performance: not a lot of strikeouts, and probably too many walks, but efficient nonetheless. Even when Royals fans take a look at his pitch breakdown tonight via Baseball Savant, it doesn’t look all that impressive:

Notice the whiffs aren’t really there, especially on the four-seamer, as he only generated one whiff on his fastball tonight. Furthermore, on a general strike basis, Bubic only generated a 26 percent CSW in total, which is honestly kind of mediocre (Brady Singer on the other hand posted a 32 CSW percentage on May 16th against the White Sox, a much better lineup). However, what matters most at the end of the day are the results, and it’s hard to argue with what Bubic did after he allowed zero runs and only one hit on Tuesday night. Furthermore, his changeup looked particularly nasty tonight, especially when paired with his fastball, as demonstrated in this overlay below:

After a rough Spring Training, Bubic has been a revelation for the Royals pitching staff since being called up. Through five appearances and 18.1 IP this year, he is posting a 0.96 ERA and 0.96 WHIP with 14 strikeouts total. While Bubic isn’t generating a whole lot of strikeouts, is walking a decent amount of batters, and is giving up a surprising amount of barrels (9.1 percent barrel rate, which is one percent higher than a year ago), his overall percentile and metrics look promising, as evidenced from Baseball Savant:

Though he’s not generating strikeouts, Bubic still ranks in the 70th percentile when it comes to whiff rate, and 74th percentile when it comes to chase rate. Furthermore, he’s been able to suppress hard hit balls as well, as he is posting solid percentile when it comes to exit velocity, as well as expected triple slash metrics (batting average, OBA, and slugging).

Bubic isn’t exactly Brad Keller via 2020, who succeeded on the mound despite a lack of swing and miss metrics. Bubic’s 2021 thus far is backed by swing and miss data, it’s just that he isn’t finishing batters on two strikes. As he develops more on the mound and gets more innings at the Major League level, it’s possible that in the future, especially this year, his strikeout metrics improve, and, in the process, mirror those whiff rate metrics more accurately.

Bubic’s solid start to the year is much needed for a Royals rotation that has struggled and currently ranks 26th in starting pitcher ERA, according to Fangraphs. That being said, what make him so interesting is that we may only be scratching the surface of what he is capable of for the remainder of the season.

It’s easy to forget about Bubic among the Royals top pitching prospects. Bubic was not a top pick like Singer or Asa Lacy, and he doesn’t possess the upside of Lynch or even Jackson Kowar, who right now is carving up hitters in Triple-A Omaha. He’s got a sensational changeup, and it’s obvious he is using that to his advantage so far in 2021, as evidenced by Statcast data.

Currently, he is throwing his changeup 35.1 percent of the time, a 5.2 percent increase from a year ago. On his changeup, he is generating a 38.5 percent whiff rate and .198 wOBA on the pitch so far this season. Additionally, Bubic has made some hitters look silly on the pitch, as evidenced by him getting White Sox slugger Yoan Moncada to swing and miss on the pitch in this at-bat below:

That being said, Bubic lacks an elite four-seam fastball. While his 25 percent whiff rate is higher on the pitch than a year ago by 1.8 percent, his put away rate on the fastball is down, as it went from 25.8 percent in 2020 to 18.2 percent in 2021. In addition, his fastball velocity is down nearly 0.7 MPH, and his xWOBA (expected weighted on base average) is .477 this year which is nearly 100 points higher than his 2020 mark (.379 to be specific).

Thus, is what Bubic doing sustainable? It is hard to say as of now, and if the fastball doesn’t make some minor improvement, we could see Bubic hit a wall soon, much like he did in Spring Training.

Nonetheless, as a Royals fan, whether or not Bubic hits the “wall” isn’t important as of now. Bubic has brought hope and spark to a Royals rotation that has been wildly inconsistent thus far in 2021. Duffy is injured. Keller has been a mess. Mike Minor had a good recent start, but the free agent acquisition still gives up way too many hard hit balls (his 40.7 percent hard hit rate is behind only Keller). And Lynch, the pride and hope of the Royals farm system coming into 2021, was absolutely shellacked in his three-game stint in Kansas City before being sent back down to Omaha.

Bubic on the other hand brings promise and excitement to the rotation in a fashion that Royals fans haven’t seen in a while. Maybe his success is long-term, or maybe it is simply a flash in the pan that will eventually fade, much like a lot of things Royals baseball-related in 2021. But Bubic went up against the Brewers’ best pitcher and out-pitched him, much to the surprise of baseball fans everywhere, especially this one in Kansas City.

There’s something about Kris Bubic that makes him pretty special to watch and follow, and I think a lot of Royals fans felt that as well tonight.

Let’s hope Bubic can keep that mojo going on the mound for the Royals…

Because they will need it to stay competitive in the AL Central over the next couple of weeks, especially as Duffy remains on the IL.

Photo Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

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