Singer needs a third pitch…so how should the Royals approach that?

There may be no Royals starting pitcher more fascinating than Brady Singer, currently (as I have written about him being an enigma in the past). In some ways, 2021 has been a regression of sorts. After posting a 4.06 ERA in 12 starts and 64.1 IP during the shortened 2020 campaign, Singer is currently posting a 5.13 ERA in 19 starts and 87.2 innings of work in 2021. He’s also had some rough starts this year, with his first start after the All-Star break being a prime example. Against an Orioles team that ranks last in the American League East, Singer failed to get out of the third inning, as he gave up eight hits and seven runs on 60 pitches at Kauffman Stadium in the Royals’ 8-4 loss on Saturday.

It has been easy for Royals fans to focus on Singer’s ERA and his rough outings to make overall assumptions about his outlook not just for the remainder of 2021, but even next year as well. That being said, a deeper dive into Singer’s numbers paint a more complicated picture. Here is a list of interesting metrics via Fangraphs that paint Singer in a more positive light:

  • His xERA (expected ERA) is only 3.86 (0.01 points higher than last year), and his FIP is 3.83, which is not just better than his ERA currently, but is actually better than his FIP last year as well (4.08).
  • Singer’s strikeout rate is up (9.44 compared to 8.53 last year) and his K/BB ratio is only 0.16 points worse than a year ago.
  • His HR/FB rate (10.8) is 4.3 points lower from year ago, and his GB/FB ratio is up 0.05 points as well, meaning that Singer isn’t letting the long ball hurt him as in years past.
  • And Alec Lewis shared this interesting Tweet about Singer that showed that he’s been one of the Royals’ more valuable players this season on a fWAR basis:

Singer hasn’t been as bad as some Royals fans have been embellishing on Twitter and/or Reddit. Singer shows potential to be a better pitcher than what he’s currently producing. The advanced metrics on Fangraphs are demonstrating that.

So what is his issue?

Well, one could say he’s had some bad luck. His .351 BABIP (nearly 100 points higher than a year ago) and 65.8 percent strand rate (7.1 percent lower than last year), support that assumption somewhat.

But the bigger issue is that Singer isn’t really utilizing a third-pitch, and it makes him predictable, especially when his command isn’t spot on, as was the case last Saturday.

Hence, the Royals and Singer need to address this issue if they want to help him not just this season, but more importantly, in the long term as well. The Royals coaching staff needs to encourage and almost force him to utilize a third pitch more regularly in his repertoire, even if it may go through some growing pains over the second half of the season.

The question, however, is where will Singer undergo this process?

Singer’s need for a third pitch has become common knowledge in Royals baseball circles for quite some time, even when he was drafted back in 2018. Manager Mike Matheny, in Saturday’s pre-game press conference, mentioned the need for Singer to utilize a third pitch more regularly in his repertoire:

However, even though the Royals coaching staff discussed the desire for Singer to utilize a third pitch more, here’s what Singer produced in his two-inning performance:

Singer did throw a four-seam fastball three times, but it was really unsuccessful, as the Orioles didn’t whiff at all on the pitch. Singer had some success with his sinker, as he generated a 36 percent CSW on the pitch, but he struggled to command his slider, as he only generated a 24 percent CSW on the pitch, which he threw 48 percent of the time in Saturday’s contest.

Yes, one could say by throwing a four-seam fastball that Singer was throwing a third pitch. That being said, what the Royals coaching staff and analysts are typically referring to in regard to Singer’s “third pitch” is his changeup, which he has thrown only 3.4 percent of the time, and has used sparingly since throwing it 10 times in his first start of the season against the Texas Rangers on April 4th.

Over the year, Singer hasn’t generated a single whiff on the changeup, and hitters are posting a wOBA of .418 on the pitch, which is by far the worst mark of the four pitches he has utilized this year, according to Baseball Savant. As a result, it’s becoming more rarely thrown as the season has progressed. According to Statcast at-bat results, only three times in June did an at-bat end on a changeup, with two of those at-bats occurring in the same game against the Pirates, as evidenced by the chart below:

Based on the data, Singer doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of confidence or touch on the pitch. Even though Robbie Grossman flied out to right field on the changeup in a May 22nd game at Kauffman, he hits the pitch decently well. The pitch not only hangs up in the zone more than it should for a changeup, but it also has more velocity than it should at nearly 89 MPH. Considering Singer averages nearly 94 MPH on his sinker, an 89 MPH changeup, with far less horizontal movement, will not fool hitters, and Grossman, honestly, just misses taking Singer’s mediocre change deep:

To make matters worse, it doesn’t seem like Singer is open to utilizing his change, or any third pitch for that matter, more into his repertoire, as evidenced from his postgame conference after his rough Saturday outing:

In some ways, I get Singer’s frustration here. He was struggling with command against the Orioles, and his inability to locate his pitches was a big reason why he failed to get out of the third inning in this start, which was the third time that has happened this season (it didn’t happen at ALL in 2020). I imagine he’s not really ready to discuss a “third pitch” when he’s probably dwelling on his lousy command just hours earlier.

That being said, because he relies so heavily on two pitches, he puts an immense amount of pressure on himself to command both those pitches every start. With a more utilized third pitch, that would at least ease things a bit if one of his two more highly-utilized pitches isn’t locating that particular start. Maybe he won’t strike out 10 batters, but he would at least maybe prevent these early exits that have been happening more this year.

So, perhaps the Royals need to “force” Singer to start throwing his changeup more, regardless of the outcome, in his upcoming starts. Maybe the ERA doesn’t get better. Maybe he gets hit a lot harder or the changeup fails to improve. However, Singer needs to utilize it at least for developmental purposes. He will have a hard time having a long-term outlook as a starter if he’s simply a sinker-slider guy. There just isn’t a lot of evidence out there that suggests that a starting pitcher can have a long-term career with such a combo, especially with a sinker that doesn’t average 97 MPH or above.

But do the Royals make Singer emphasize his changeup at the Major League level for the remainder of 2021? Or do they let him go to Omaha to work on it in a much lower stakes environment.

The argument to make Singer throw his changeup a certain amount of times a game at the Major League level is certainly a sensible one. The Royals need starting pitchers who can eat innings and at the very least, Singer has done that, as he ranks third of Royals starting pitchers when it comes to innings pitched. In comparison to Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar, who have both struggled immensely in the Majors, and Kris Bubic, who hasn’t really thrived in a starting role, Singer has been the most dependable option of the Royals’ “star” young pitchers. And thus, I understand why Royals fans wouldn’t want to take Singer out of the rotation, especially considering the Royals’ playoff hopes are pretty much caput at this point.

Cody of KC Kingdom really reiterates this “keep Singer in Kansas City” point on Twitter, which was a reply to my stance of sending him to Omaha to work on it:

It’s hard to argue too much with Cody points, but at the end of the day, the idea that Singer will suddenly change his tune and start throwing more changeups as a Royals starter doesn’t feel likely. After all, Matheny and the staff have obviously communicated to him that he needs to throw a third pitch (i.e. changeup) more in the past. And yet, Singer continues to refrain from doing so. Yes, the situation last game may not have merited it, especially how often he was behind in the count. That being said, Singer doesn’t have any confidence in it, and at the Major League level, where results are more important than development, it wouldn’t be surprising if Singer is refraining from it because he’s too focused on the results hurting not just himself, but the team overall, which Max Rieper of Royals Review refers to in a reply:

If there was more evidence that pitching coach Cal Eldred could handle such a task to really “force” Singer to throw the changeup more (i.e. call pitches), I would support keeping him at the Major League level. But the mantra of this Royals team under Mike Matheny the past two years has been to “chase” every win, and that kind of approach, especially in a lost season, doesn’t necessarily support Singer taking risks that could have short-term losses, but long-term benefits.

And that’s why I think 2-3 weeks and 3-4 starts in Omaha wouldn’t be the worst thing for Singer, especially considering the gains the Royals player development has taken the past couple of years. Yes, Royals fans know about Drew Saylor and Alec Zumwalt making strides with the hitters, especially Bobby Witt, Jr., Nick Pratto, and MJ Melendez in Double-A, but the pitching in the Royals Farm System has also made some strides, as Travis Sawchik, co-author of the MVP machine, noted in a Tweet:

With Eldred and the Royals current dugout, I am not sure if Singer will gain any more confidence, or learn anything new to help develop his changeup. But a few weeks in Omaha, with a coaching staff focused more on long-term development than short-term wins? That seems like a much better environment for Singer to not only work on his third pitch, but grow in his confidence in it. After all, the general Royals fan on Twitter won’t lose their stuff if his changeup gets batted around the first start or two against Triple-A opponents.

And after some work on it in Omaha? Call him back up to Kansas City at the end of August or beginning of September, and let him finish the year with a more developed and refined three-pitch mix.

It’s a win for Singer’s development both in the short term and long term. And hell, it also gives Lynch or Kowar another shot to develop at the MLB level in the process as well, since they are both on the 40-man roster and most likely would replace Singer’s spot.

Royals fans have to wonder if Dayton Moore will consider this kind of approach. There have been times this year that sending someone down to work on some things in a lower-stakes environment would be beneficial to both the player and the team. And yet, Moore has refrained from such a route (Hunter Dozier comes to mind, as he was struggling and still had a Minor League option, but the Royals refused to send him down).

Singer hasn’t pitched in the Minors since 2019, and perhaps Moore is worried that it would be a blow to his confidence, especially since he hasn’t pitched “terribly” in Kansas City. Also, Moore could be concerned that the team, without Singer, will sink to even further lows than what they are currently experiencing, especially considering the Royals’ struggles as a starting pitching staff this year. Considering the Royals were supposed to take the “next step” this year, a possible 100-loss season wouldn’t help Moore’s cause as GM, especially under a new owner in John Sherman.

But the Royals need to think long-term. The Royals need to push Singer to use the changeup or find another third pitch that can be a proper change of pace from his sinker and slider. While I would support Singer doing it at the MLB level, I am not sure if Eldred is the coach to help Singer advocate such an approach. Doing so in Omaha, with a better player development environment around him, seems like the place for Singer to do it, even if it may only be for a few weeks.

The Royals sent down Alex Gordon to the Minor Leagues to have him adjust to the outfield, and it paid off for the Royals. They rightly valued the long-term over short-term.

Moore and the Royals now need to replicate a similar approach with Singer and the development of his third pitch.

Photo Credit: Ron Schwane/Getty Images

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