When the Royals signed Mike Minor to help solidify their rotation this off-season, the move made sense for both Minor and the Royals.
For Minor, who was coming off a rough 2020 season in which he posted a 5.56 ERA in 56.2 IP with both the Texas Rangers and Oakland A’s, Kansas City was a familiar place for him to rejuvenate his career. He pitched for the Royals in 2017, even though he was under contract for 2016 and 2017, as he missed all of 2016 due to recovery from Tommy John.
After thriving with the Royals in his lone season prior to 2021, Minor was expected to not only offer a veteran presence to help solidify the middle of the rotation in 2021. Additionally, he would also provide some mentoring for the Royals’ heralded young starting pitchers, especially Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, and eventually Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar when they arrived to Kansas City.
Minor’s rough 2020 was hard to gauge for a variety of reasons. For starters, it was a shortened season due to COVID, and even though Minor saw his fastball velocity regress from 92.5 MPH to 90.6 MPH from 2019 to 2020, respectively, it was hard to tell if he was truly regressing, or if it was due to not having the proper preparation due to the abbreviated campaign. Minor had showed signs in 2020 that he may have been a bit unlucky: his FIP (4.64) was much better than his ERA (5.56), and he still posted a 3.10 K/BB ratio, which was actually an improvement from his 2019. Thus, there was some thinking (especially on this blog) that Minor, with a return to a 162 season, could return back to his 2019 form, especially in a pitcher-friendly ballpark such as Kauffman Stadium.
Unfortunately, this year has not gone as hoped for both the Royals and Minor. The Royals are currently 47-62, and are fighting with the Minnesota Twins to avoid last place in the American League Central. As for Minor, he is posting a similar 2021 campaign to his 2020, which is not a good thing.
And that should make Dayton Moore and Mike Matheny consider moving Minor to the bullpen, especially with the logjam of starting pitchers in Kansas City.
In terms of the positive, Minor has accumulated a lot of innings for the Royals, as he leads all Royals starting pitchers with 130.1 IP (through 23 starts). Furthermore, he has been pretty proficient in terms of generating strikeouts and limiting walks, with the latter being a primary issue for many Royals starting pitchers this season. Of Royals starting pitchers who have accumulated 30 or more IP, Minor leads that group in K/BB ratio (3.28) and he has the lowest BB/9 (2.69) as well.
Lastly, of that same group of starting pitchers, Minor has posted the second-best swinging strike rate (11.2) and his 27.4 percent CSW (called-strike plus whiff rate) is higher than both Brad Keller (24.9 percent) and Kris Bubic (26 percent; though this CSW only encompasses when Bubic starting, not overall).
Unfortunately, Minor has struggled overall in his return to Kansas City, as he is posting a 5.39 ERA, which is third-worst of Royals starting pitchers with 20 or more IP. Once again, home runs have been an issue for Minor, as he has given up 1.45 home runs per nine innings, as well as a 13.8 percent HR/FB rate. Both numbers aren’t as high as his 2020 marks (1.75 and 15.7 percent, respectively). That being said, it has been a primary trend in most of his starts in Kansas City.
Minor will limit the walks. He’ll generate swings and whiffs. And yet, he makes a key mistake here and there that is often taken advantage by opposing hitters.
His most recent start against the Cardinals was a classic example of Minor Royals start in 2021:
Take a look at his pitcher breakdown via Baseball Savant:
At the surface level, those metrics suggest a “solid” performance. If a pitcher is generating an overall CSW of 35 percent, one would think that he produced a quality start at the very least.
And yet against the Cardinals, Minor only went five innings and gave up seven hits and four runs. That is despite posting those metrics above, and only allowing two walks and striking out seven as well. Additionally, he gave up two big home runs, which killed the Royals’ ability to build any momentum at Busch Stadium:
Here is the first home run Minor gave up to Paul Goldschmidt in the first inning:
And here is the second home run he gave up to Tyler O’Neill in the fourth, as it was a shot to deep center that just barely went above Jarrod Dyson’s glove:
For some context on those home runs, here is Minor’s pitch chart in that game which reflects how Cardinals hitters scored runs on the four-seam fastball:
Those are pretty hittable pitches, especially considering Minor was sitting in between 90-93 MPH on the four seam fastball in this game. Thus, with the combination of location and velocity (both in the hitter’s favor), it’s not surprising that Goldschmidt and O’Neill hit bombs off of Minor.
Now, it’s easy to see rough starts like this and think that Minor has no value to this Royals pitching staff.
And that is not necessarily the case either.
Minor is allowing a barrel rate of 9.5 percent, which is actually 9th-lowest of ALL Royals pitchers this year, according to Baseball Savant. Furthermore, his hard hit rate is 35.7 percent, which is actually the 5th-lowest of Royals pitchers this year as well. Thus, Minor is showing that when he doesn’t make those mistakes, he has been a pretty effective pitcher for the Royals overall, or at least according to the more advanced metrics.
And thus, that’s why a move to the bullpen would be helpful.
Less innings for Minor would mean less opportunities to make mistakes.
If he only has to pitch one to two innings at a time (three tops), that could help Minor let loose a little more in his approach. He does not have to “conserve” himself over a 100 or so pitches, and thus, that could result in a fastball velocity spike, which would be much needed considering it’s only averaging 90.9 MPH this year, according to Savant. Considering it’s his most-thrown pitch (41.9 percent usage), a spike in velocity in shorter-inning stints could improve his whiff rate (20.6 percent) on the pitch, which in turn could make him more effective, and less prone to those “meatball” pitches which hitters have taken advantage of (his 7.1 percent “meatball” pitch percentage is the highest rate since 2018).
Of course, are the Royals paying Minor to be a reliever? Well, considering he is making $7 million this year and is scheduled to make $10 million next year, a move to the bullpen might not net the Royals the value that they contracted him for last Winter. That being said, Minor has the potential to boost a bullpen that ranks 22nd in team ERA this season, and will be even more questionable next year when Greg Holland and Wade Davis are (thankfully) no longer on the team.
Furthermore, a Minor move to the bullpen could give Matheny more flexibility in the Royals rotation not just this year, but next season as well, which could have long-term benefits to the Royals in terms of making them more competitive not just in 2022 but beyond as well.
Yesterday, before Saturday’s game, the Royals announced this rotation development, which was shared by MLB.com Royals beat writer Anne Rogers:
A six-man rotation for now is definitely do-able for the Royals, but that doesn’t include Jackson Kowar, who is currently proving that he deserves a second-shot in Kansas City. And if Kowar does return, it prompts Royals fans to ask this question: what will they do with Kowar?
I have suggested before that initially, Kowar should begin his second stint with the Royals in long relief. That would give him opportunities in low leverage situations to build confidence, which was sorely missing from his initial debut with the Royals. That being said, if Kowar does succeed in long relief, he deserves a shot to prove himself in the rotation, much like Bubic, who has done well returning to the rotation after a short long-relief stint.
And when that opportunity rises, it may be time to move Minor to the bullpen, because let’s face it, the Royals are not going to do a “seven-man” rotation.
Overall, I think the data suggests that Minor could be a valuable bullpen piece for the Royals. There is a lot in his metrics that mirror Ian Kennedy’s, who made a successful transition to the Royals bullpen in 2019 after struggling as a starter in 2017 and 2018. Minor demonstrates the control and strikeout ability to succeed in the late innings. Furthermore, he has thrived in the role in Kansas City before, as he posted a 2.55 ERA and 2.2 fWAR in 77.2 IP while primarily pitching in relief.
Furthermore, when calculating fWAR to dollar value, according to Fangraphs, Minor would have been worth $17.7 million in 2017.
And thus, a move to the bullpen could not just make “roster sense” for the Royals, as it would clear a path for Kowar to return to the rotation both this year and next. Additionally, such a move could also help the Royals maximize Minor’s ability and value over the remainder of 2021 and the entirety of 2022 (it is unlikely that the Royals would exercise his club option in 2023). Minor could be the next example of a mediocre Royals starter who turns into a great late-inning complement, much like Kennedy, Luke Hochevar, and Wade Davis.
Now, it’s just a matter of Moore and Matheny implementing the strategy…
Let’s hope the Royals do it sooner rather than later, especially if they are serious about competing in 2022.
Photo Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports