Right now, it seems like Mike Matheny has made Josh Staumont the Royals closer. Staumont has made 19 appearances already this year for the Royals, and in 20.2 IP, he has already accumulated five saves and is currently posting an ERA of 2.18. While Scott Barlow currently leads Royals relievers in fWAR, Staumont is not far behind him at 0.4 fWAR, and it seems from the early results thus far, that there is no one Matheny trusts in high-pressure situations, after Barlow, more than Staumont.
Last season, Staumont made a name for himself with Royals fans and hardcore baseball fans in general (mostly fantasy-inclined ones) due to his high-velocity stuff. In 26 appearances and 25.2 IP, Staumont struck out 12.97 batters per nine innings and posted an ERA of 2.45. However, Staumont had a walk per nine innings of 5.97, and his 3.82 xERA, a 1.37 point difference from his ERA, demonstrated that Staumont was far from a polished product last year in the COVID-shortened season.
Thankfully for Kansas City, the 27-year-old pitcher has seemed to make some adjustments from last year and has proven to be a slightly different hurler this year than in 2020. Are the differences major? Not really, especially to the casual Royals fan. That being said, there are three metrics that highlight Staumont’s development, and these metrics also show that Staumont cannot just handle the 9th-inning role in Kansas City, but can succeed in it as well both in the short and long-term, barring health.
45.8 percent groundball rate
There’s no question that Staumont relies on his four-seam fastball for success. His fastball velocity currently ranks in the 94th percentile, according to Savant, and he throws the pitch 65.4 percent of the time. While his four-seamer usage is slightly down from 68 percent in 2020, he actually has been more effective with the four-seamer on a wOBA basis. Last year, hitters posted a wOBA of .311 on the pitch. This season? That wOBA is down to .234.
One of the interesting changes Staumont has made with his fastball this season is that he’s locating it lower in the zone than last year, and as a result, he’s generating more groundballs, which has been key to his success thus far.
Here is Staumont’s pitch heatmap on the four-seam fastball from 2020:
As Royals fans can see, Staumont was up in the zone, and it made sense: when you hit 100+ MPH regularly, the upper part of the strike zone is the place to live against hitters. At that velocity and location, it’s just simply too hard for hitters to do anything consistently against that pitch. In addition, it’s too tempting to lay off for impatient hitters as well.
However, Staumont only posted a groundball rate of 28.6 percent overall last year, and that was negatively compounded by a line drive rate of 32.1 percent and hard hit rate of 50 percent. The latter mark ranked him in the bottom two percent of the league, which is not a great place to be for a reliever who is expected to be a key contributor in the late innings. Thus, a big question for Staumont this off-season was this: could Staumont get outs when he wasn’t generating whiffs?
This year, Staumont has proven he can by his increase in groundballs generated.
Staumont’s four-seam fastball is slightly slower (96.8 MPH this year to 98 MPH In 2020), and he is generating less whiffs on the pitch as well (18.2 percent this year to 32.3 percent in 2020). However, he increased the horizontal break on the pitch, as it went from 1.3 inches of break last year to 4.3 inches of break this season. That increased movement has been parlayed with a four-seamer that’s lower in the strike zone, as evidenced in the chart below:
As a result, Staumont is generating more groundballs for outs, which is a much better strategy than giving up flyballs or line drives that have a better chance of going for base hits, which has been his tendency in the past. Here’s an example of Staumont utilizing his fastball low in the zone to generate an easy groundout to end the inning against Cleveland:
Staumont is still striking out batters 27.4 percent of the time, which puts him in the 68th percentile, according to Savant. But the fact that he is generating more groundballs than his first two MLB seasons is a positive sign that he is finding more ways than just Ks when it comes to getting outs, which is sorely needed for a closer to be successful at the Major League level.
64.5 percent whiff rate on the curveball
Having a 100 MPH fastball is nice, but it doesn’t do much for a pitcher if he doesn’t have a secondary pitch that can complement it properly. Wily Peralta, the Royals’ failed closer in 2018, is a prime example of a guy who threw heat, but didn’t have great secondary pitches, or command on those pitches, to make his velocity work for him on the mound.
Thankfully, Staumont hasn’t displayed that problem, as his curveball has continued to be devastating, as evidenced by his 64.5 percent whiff rate on the pitch in 2021. That whiff rate is nearly 10 percent higher than his mark on the pitch back in 2020.
Take a look at the last 20 batters this season that ended their at-bat on a Staumont curveball, according to Savant:
Of his 20 at-bats that ended on a curveball, 15 resulted in strikeouts. That’s just simply insane. What makes it such an effective pitch is that his curve not only has sharp break on it, but it also possesses a 15.8 MPH difference from his four-seam fastball, which is simply a challenge for hitters.
Here’s an example of Staumont making Detroit Tigers hitter Nomar Mazara look foolish on the pitch:
Staumont may be more known by baseball fans for his electric four-seam fastball. However, it is obvious that Staumont’s curveball is his best offering, and how that pitch continues to develop will probably determine his success in the closer’s role in 2021 and maybe beyond.
So far, the curveball results have been good, and thus, Staumont has succeeded in the ninth as a result.
90.9 MPH exit velocity on batted balls
Last season, Staumont gave up an average exit velocity of 94.4 MPH, which ranked him in the bottom percentiles of the league, according to Savant. Granted, Staumont generated a fair share of whiffs overall last year, as his 36.7 percent whiff rate ranked in the top six percent of the league (94th percentile). Unfortunately, when hitters made contact against Staumont, it was often hard hit contact, as evidenced by the exit velocity zone chart below:
Basically, everywhere is red and that’s not a good sign for a relief pitcher, or any pitcher in general to be honest.
This year though, Staumont has seen his exit velocity on batted balls drop to 90.9 MPH, a 3.5 MPH drop. This also correlates with his hard hit rate of 45.8 percent. While Staumont isn’t making hitters whiff as often as a year ago (his whiff rate is 29.1 percent, 7.6 percent lower than 2020), he is sacrificing strikeouts for weaker contact, and that has paid off for Staumont so far in 2021, especially when one looks at his Zone-Exit Velocity chart.
There still is a lot of red in that zone chart, but there is a lot of blue as well, which was non-existent in his zone chart back in 2020. Staumont seems to be excelling in that inside part of the zone against right handers, both in the left middle zone, as well as low and inside, just outside of the strike zone. Here’s Staumont pitching a 98 MPH heater in zone 4 to Bo Bichette of the Toronto Blue Jays in a day game at Kauffman Stadium:
Hence, it’s easy to see why hitters are only generating a 64.8 MPH exit velocity on pitches in that part of the strike zone.
Staumont has done a good job limiting damaging and/or dangerous contact, and as a result, his overall metrics have been solid. Yes, Staumont may be generating less whiffs and strikeouts in comparison to a year ago, but Staumont is becoming a more efficient pitcher in the process.
Closers like Greg Holland and Wade Davis didn’t succeed in 2014 and 2015 because they just blew guys away. They also found success in the ninth because they were efficient and could get batters out in multiple ways.
Let’s hope that Staumont can join that list in 2021 and beyond.
Photo Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports