It was another rough start for Jackson Kowar on Saturday, as his Major League debut has not necessarily gone swimmingly thus far. After dominating Triple-A hitters with the Omaha Storm Chasers (he was posting a 0.85 ERA in six starts and 31.2 IP), Kowar has failed to show much command in his first two starts of his career, which both came on this West Coast road trip against the Angels and Athletics, respectively.
While he did get out of the first inning in this start, Kowar still struggled in the Royals 11-2 loss in Oakland on Saturday, as he went 1.1 IP and allowed four runs on five hits and three walks while only striking out one (he threw 57 pitches total).
Kowar so far this year is putting up a line that seems unreal at first glance. He’s posting a 36.00 ERA with a 9.65 FIP, and he’s also walking batters at a 26.3 percent rate while only striking out 5.3 percent of hitters through two starts. His K/BB rate is flat out terrible at 0.20, and hitters are posting an average exit velocity of 92.8 MPH and a hard hit rate of 46.2 percent.
Safe to say, that is not the start the Royals wanted from a pitchers who was supposed to be a key part of the Royals’ rotation of the future that was to include fellow 2018 draft picks Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, and Daniel Lynch.
That being said, Kowar is not alone in his struggles of that talented Royals draft cadre of talent. Lynch also made his debut this year, and his three-game sample was pretty disastrous as well (he was quickly demoted to Omaha). In three starts, Lynch only accumulated eight total innings on the mound, and posted a 15.75 ERA, 2.88 WHIP, and HR/FB rate of 10 percent. Granted, Lynch at least struck batters out (his K rate was 15.2), and his FIP looks a little better at 4.90. Nonetheless, the struggles of Kowar and Lynch in their first MLB starts definitely is deflating for Royals fans who were hoping that the Royals young pitching prospects would take the next step at the Major League level.
Thus, this begs Royals fans to ask the question? Who is responsible for Kowar and Lynch’s struggles at the Major League level?
Well, the easy culprit may be pitching coach Cal Eldred, who is in his fourth season as the Royals pitching coach. After all, both Kowar and Lynch were deemed ready for Kansas City by the Royals’ player development staff and general manager Dayton Moore. In Kowar’s case, he absolutely dominated Triple-A hitting, so it wasn’t as if he were showing a ton of flaws in Omaha. It seems to be an adjustment at the Major League level that is the problem, which the Royals cannot afford to have, considering the amount of faith and resources the Royals have put into their talented quartet (Kowar, Lynch, Singer, Bubic, and Asa Lacy) of pitching prospects the past couple of years.
Therefore, in order to protect these assets and make sure that they reach their full potential, should the Royals move on from Eldred soon? Or does he merit more time, for whatever reason?
One of the big frustrating developments that has emerged in the wake of Kowar and Lynch’s struggles has been the fact that they have possibly been tipping pitches. This stemmed largely after Lynch’s disastrous second start in which he gave up eight runs in less than an inning of work against the White Sox at Kauffman Stadium. Royals Jun of Twitter posted this overlay shortly after his start where he recognized that Lynch could’ve been tipping pitches to a talented White Sox lineup:
To make matters worse, Lynch doesn’t seem to be the lone Royals young pitcher partaking in this poor habit on the mound. Today, Jun highlighted in an overlay that Kowar may have been doing the same, as he was giving away his changeup, his premium pitch.
Of course, Kowar’s problems have been more with finding the strike zone than giving up a plethora of hits (which was Lynch’s primary issue). Hence, I am not totally sure that this is a tipping issue, but more of a mechanical issue (if he was getting more hit, like Lynch, I would believe it was more of a tipping problem). Nonetheless, the fact that both Lynch and Kowar were tipping pitches is not a good sign, especially considering the caliber of hitters and cadre of resources at the Major League level. Yes, you can maybe tip pitches and get away with it against Triple-A hitters. But against Major League ones, especially good teams such as the White Sox, Angels, and A’s? Well, they will make you pay, which was the case for Lynch and Kowar in their respective stints with the Royals.
Even Bubic, who was doing okay until this recent road trip, has been guilty of possibly tipping pitches recently, as Jun highlighted in Bubic’s rough outing against the Angels.
Now, to be honest, I am not entirely sure Bubic is tipping either, though he has more of a case for it than Kowar. While Kowar is just struggling to find the strike zone, Bubic has been getting rocked, much like Lynch did in his last two starts before being demoted. Then again, Bubic isn’t doing himself any favors when it comes to the location of his pitches. It doesn’t matter if a hitter picks it up or not from a possible “tip”. Without an elite fastball, he is going to get mashed when he doesn’t locate any of his pitches properly. That was evident in the clip below, as Bubic hung a 78 MPH changeup up in the zone to the Athletics’ Matt Olson:
Whether it’s tipping or mechanical problems, the Royals should be concerned with what they are seeing from Kowar, Lynch, and even Bubic, who has been trending in the wrong direction lately.
Of course, that fault is on player development in some ways, as one would think Moore’s PD team would notice these issues and make sure it is addressed in the Minors before they are brought up to the show. However, it doesn’t necessarily seem like Eldred is noticing or addressing this as well, or at least not publicly as well. One would think that Eldred, as pitching coach, would be identifying things, and doing what he can to make sure that these problems are addressed and worked on between starts.
And yet, neither Lynch nor Kowar improved over their starts, and even Bubic is starting to see a dramatic slide after a strong start to the 2021 season. Take a look at this stat that was brought up on Twitter after Bubic’s rough outing against the Athletics in the Royals’ West Coast finale.
Is Eldred just not utilizing video technology enough? Is Eldred not creating an environment where young pitchers can feel relaxed and supported, like they are in the Minors? Is he not recognizing the adjustments these young pitchers need to make and communicating it to them between starts? These are all important questions that need answering, and right now, it doesn’t seem likely that Eldred’s addressing them properly.
While Eldred is not necessarily fully responsible, to see this happen to three talented pitching prospects under his watch is concerning, and needs to be addressed if he wants to continue in his role as pitching coach for a fifth year in 2022.
Tipping and mechanics problems aside, Eldred’s tenure in Kansas City has been far from impressive. Eldred took over the role after the Royals parted ways with former pitching coach Dave Eiland after the 2017 season. The reasoning behind the switch seemed to stem on the Royals knowing that they were going through a rebuilding process, and thus, felt Eldred would be a better fit to work with a “developing” pitching staff. Granted, Eldred hasn’t had quite the arms over the past four years that Eiland had from 2012-2017. Nonetheless, let’s take a look at how the Royals’ pitching staff ranked under Eiland’s six years in Kansas City, and how it compares to how Eldred’s staff has ranked over the past four.
- Eiland staffs (2012-2017 via Fangraphs): 10th in fWAR, 13th in ERA, 19th in FIP, and 22nd in K/BB ratio.
- Eldred staffs (2018-2021 via Fangraphs): 27th in fWAR, 26th in ERA, 26th in FIP, and 30th in K/BB ratio.
Yes, Eiland did have better pitchers at his disposal, which cannot be ignored in the comparison. Eiland had prime HDH (Holland, Davis, Herrera) in the bullpen, and also had better starting pitchers at his disposal in James Shields, Edinson Volquez, Jeremy Guthrie, and Yordano Ventura. However, one key metric stands out to me the most: the Royals ranking last in K/BB ratio as a pitching staff from 2018-2021.
It’s one thing if a staff doesn’t strike out a whole lot of batters. A team doesn’t necessarily have to employ a bunch of Jacob DeGroms or Gerrit Coles to win games. Heck, look at the 2014 and 2015 Royals. The biggest “ace” of the bunch was maybe Shields. Maybe one could throw Johnny Cueto in that mix, whom the Royals had for less than half a season. But, what wins games on the mound is when pitchers throw strikes and limit free passes on the base paths. It is obvious by that last place ranking in K/BB ratio the Royals aren’t doing that under Eldred (and it is also a big reason why they also rank low in all the other valuable categories).
At the end of the day, the Royals need a new voice who can help the Royals’ young pitchers with their approach on the mound. That is essential now, especially as the Royals have seen their promising young arms flounder to varying degrees in 2021 (even Singer, who has been the best of the bunch, has had his fair share of struggles). Eldred after four years has proven that he’s probably not the voice to help the Royals now, and it’s unlikely that he will adjust enough as a coach going forward. I get that Mike Matheny and him are close, but if the Royals are serious about taking the “Process 2.0” into the next generation, they need to make the appropriate steps to develop their young pitchers in order to be truly competitive again on a lasting basis.
Will the Royals part with Eldred before the season is over, in an attempt to salvage this year? Or will Moore wait until the end of the 2021 season?
Either way, a change needs to occur. The Royals cannot afford to see their young arms continue to go through these struggles in Kansas City.
Let’s see what Moore is willing to do to keep the Royals competitive not just this year…but beyond as well.
Photo Credit: Reed Hoffmann/Getty Images