Three signs that show that the Royals’ young starters are figuring it out

The Royals are on a bit of a hot streak, as they have won six out of their last seven games, which included taking three out of four at Kauffman Stadium from the Houston Astros, and a recent sweep of the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Currently, the Royals are 55-68, and even though they are far out of it in the AL Central race, they are building some much-needed momentum for the 2022 season.

And a big development for the Royals in the midst of this momentum-building has been the resurgence of their young starting pitchers, who struggled earlier in the season.

While it was expected that the Royals’ top pitching prospects would undergo some growing pains in 2021, especially in the transition from a 60 to a 162-game campaign, it was still disappointing for Royals fans to see the hope of the franchise struggle early at various times this season. While the recent turnaround from their young pitchers won’t make the Royals a playoff team this year, their strong performances provide Royals fans hope that with a strong finish from them and some work this off-season and Spring, the Royals starting rotation could be one of the deeper staffs in the American League in 2022, as I alluded to on Twitter today after Carlos Hernandez’s stellar start:

Let’s take a look at three signs from the past week or so that demonstrate that the Royals young pitchers are figuring out, and could be on track for successful campaigns next season (which could help the Royals’ playoff chances).

They are producing against good lineups (Daniel Lynch especially)

One of the biggest developments from the young starters has been their ability to compete against good lineups, especially as of late. This has been particularly true in Daniel Lynch’s case, as he struggled against better offensive teams when he first debuted.

Back in May, when Lynch faced the Chicago White Sox, he was absolutely lit up, as he gave up eight runs on seven hits in less than an inning of work. When Lynch returned to Kansas City after a stint in Omaha, he was able to get a favorable match up against the Detroit Tigers, a lineup that has pop, but lacks consistency (much like the Royals). Lynch thrived, as he went eight scoreless innings and only allowed five hits will striking out four and walking none.

That being said, while it was nice to see Lynch succeed in his MLB return, many wondered if it was simply a case of Lynch thriving against a sub-par team in a sub-par division.

However, when looking at Lynch’s August, Royals fans can see that Lynch has been able to succeed against good hitting teams. So far, Lynch has made three starts in August, with appearances coming against the White Sox, Yankees, and Astros, all teams in the playoff hunt. In 16.2 IP, Lynch has posted a 2.70 ERA, and has only allowed 12 hits, five runs, nine walks, while striking out 18. While the ERA is a little higher from July (which was 1.70), he has been much better in generating whiffs and strikeouts, as he has struck out 13 more batters this month in only 2.2 more innings of work.

A big development has been his changeup, which he throws 19.9 percent of the time, according to Savant. While his changeup doesn’t generate as big a whiff rate as his slider (32.8 percent in comparison to 45.9 percent on the slider), he has been showing much better feel on it as of late. Take a look at how effective his changeup was against the Astros in his most recent start on a CSW basis, especially in comparison to his other pitches that night:

Notice how Lynch posted a 41 percent CSW on his changeup while throwing it 22 percent of the time. Having a decent four-pitch mix is key for Lynch, and the better his changeup gets, the better his fastball and slider, his two main pitches, will play against MLB hitters. Take a look at how Lynch utilized the changeup effectively to punch out Astros hitter Taylor Jones:

Lynch has faced some good lineups in the month of August, and yet, he has not been intimidated, and as a result, has taken major strides in his development since returning to Kansas City after the All-Star break. Lynch isn’t alone in succeeding against good hitting teams, as Carlos Hernandez has also demonstrated an ability to rise to the occasion in recent starts, and Brady Singer had his best start of the All Star break against the Astros, (and going against former Royals ace Zack Greinke).

But, considering how rough things looked earlier in the year for Lynch, this development is promising, and could put him in place to earn a prominent spot in the Royals rotation in 2022.

They are bouncing back after bad starts (Kris Bubic, especially)

Bubic had a disastrous start at Kauffman Stadium against I-70 rivals St. Louis on August 15th. The left-handed former Stanford product only went 1.1 innings and ended up giving up seven runs on nine hits in a laugher that set the tone of what ended up being a rough series for baseball fans from Western Missouri and Eastern Kansas. Bubic has been up and down through the season, and there was some worry that after his rough outing against the Cardinals, Bubic would regress to his June self, when he posted a 9.16 ERA and gave up 29 hits and 20 runs in 18.2 IP.

However, Bubic ended up thriving in his most recent start against Chicago as he struck out nine batters in 6.2 IP and carried a no-hitter in the seventh inning, which was interrupted slightly by a weird “thunderstorm” warning (which Mike Matheny did not agree with):

While the ruined “momentum” in Bubic’s recent start was a drag, it was promising for him and Royals fans to see him bounce back in a major way after such a rough start against the Cardinals. Bubic was dealing at Wrigley on Saturday, and showed excellent command and rhythm, two things he has struggled with on occasion, especially in his lackluster starts (he’s been a bit better in relief). A big key to his success on Saturday was his ability to command his fastball and changeup effectively, as evidenced by this overlay from Royals Jun:

Another nice development from Bubic’s recent start was his command of his curve ball, which has had mixed results this year. Hitters are posting a .386 wOBA on the pitch this year, which is a .210 point increase from 2020. However, let’s take a look at his curve fared on a CSW end against the Cubs on Saturday:

Notice how his curve ball posted a 42 percent CSW, which is only one point lower than his changeup. Bubic has always had a plus-plus changeup as a professional, as it consistently was rated as his best pitch in the Minor Leagues. However, to see his curve be just as effective as the changeup (and used frequently as well) is a good sign that Bubic is gaining confidence and feel for his curve, which should make him even tougher for hitters in 2022. If Bubic can sport two plus secondary pitches with regularity, that could help solidify his spot in the Royals rotation in 2022…

And having those two plus secondary pitches could help him bounce back quicker from rough outings, as in this case in his most recent start against the Cubs.

They are starting to work on other pitches (Brady Singer, especially)

Singer has been a polarizing pitcher for a variety of reasons this year. However, the biggest issue with Singer among Royals fans has been his hesitancy to use his changeup with any regularity this year.

Singer only throws his changeup 3.3 percent of the time, according to Baseball Savant, which is a pretty minute number. That being said, in his last start, against a very good Houston Astros team, Singer threw his changeup four times, and was pretty effective with it as well:

Now some Royals fans may say “he only threw it four times and he threw 92 total pitches!” Yes, on a volume level, the changeup usage wasn’t great. But notice that he had a 50 percent CSW on the pitch. That is huge for Singer’s confidence, especially since it seems like he hasn’t had the best command with the pitch this season. According to a recent article, his time in Omaha this year on a rehab assignment really helped him develop more confidence in using the pitch, and Royals fans have to wonder how much of an effect that work could have going forward on his changeup usage in 2021:

Here is Singer using his changeup to get Astros slugger Michael Brantley to ground out to first baseman Ryan O’Hearn. Brantley hits the ball hard (over 100 MPH), but he pulls it and keeps it on the ground, which is not just a good thing in the moment, but a good thing long-term.

Hitters this season are posting a barrel rate of 4.7 percent against Singer, which ranks him in the 90th percentile in that category, according to Baseball Savant. Singer doesn’t possess the electric fastball of Hernandez and Lynch, or the secondary stuff of Bubic. However, Singer does a great job of limiting hard contact and barrels, and his changeup, if utilized effectively, could help him continue to do so in the long-term.

Four changeups in a game doesn’t seem like a whole lot…

But for a pitcher like Singer, who has been SO hesitant to use it, this is a positive step in the right direction…

And it’s also a positive step for the Royals’ pitchers as a whole, as it means they are trying new things, which is what they need to do at this point in the season with their playoff hopes done.

Photo Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

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