Ranking the Royals starting pitchers in preparation for 2022

Right now, Kris Bubic is absolutely dealing at Comerica Park against the Tigers, as he has allowed only one hit and one walk while striking out four in five innings.

Honestly, Bubic’s stellar day (thus far) at Comerica has been a much-needed distraction for Kansas City sports fans, as the Chiefs are really blowing it at GEHA Field (i.e. Arrowhead) against the division-rival Chargers. Since this is a Royals blog, I am not going to discuss much on the latter, but focus more on the former, especially with the 2021 regular season winding down.

Even though the Royals are 70-84 entering Sunday’s series finale against the Tigers (the Royals have already clinched the season series against Detroit), one of the more promising developments in the second half of the season has been the emergence of the Royals’ young starting pitchers. Though there have been some growing pains, manager Mike Matheny has given the young pitchers in the Royals system a fair amount of innings, which will only bode good things for 2022 and beyond.

Thus, with roughly a week left in the regular season, I wanted to take a look at the Royals starting pitchers this year, and rank them based on their prospects for next season. The Royals starting pitching staff hasn’t necessarily been “good” in the traditional sense. According to Fangraphs, the Royals starting rotation ranks 24th in ERA, 27th in WHIP, and 30th in BB/9, not exactly great marks. That being said, their current starting rotation (a six-man one) is all 25-years-old or younger, and Brad Keller, the Royals’ Opening Day starter who is currently on the IL, is only 26-years-old, another good sign that the Royals rotation not only has depth, but relatively “young” depth as well. That is a good sign not just for 2022, but beyond as well.

For these rankings, I will only take a look at starting pitchers who have pitched this year at the MLB level. While I expect bounce back campaigns from Asa Lacy (High-A) and Jonathan Bowlan (Double-A) as they return from injury, I am not sure they can necessarily be depended on to earn starting pitcher innings in Kansas City at the start of 2022.

So, let’s take a look at the Royals starting pitchers this season, and take a look at what Royals fans should expect from them next season, in sequential order.

9. Jakob Junis

I think Junis could be more valuable than most Royals fans think, as I wrote in my previous blog post. Junis did accumulate 0.5 fWAR and a 3.88 K/BB ratio, with the latter being the best mark for Royals starting pitchers this season, according to Fangraphs. I liked his addition of a cutter this year, which proved to be an effective pitch on its own, as well as a nice complement to his four-seamer and slider, which he has leaned on heavily since debuting with the Royals in 2017.

That being said, considering Junis’ age (he’ll be 29-years-old), injury history the past couple of seasons, and the fact that he’ll be in his second year of arbitration this offseason (he made $1.7 million this past year), it seems more likely than not that the Royals will non-tender Junis, in an effort to cut costs. I don’t think Junis’ MLB career is done, but even if the Royals do somehow bring him back this offseason, it would be foolish for Royals to think that he’ll be depended on in any major fashion. Junis’ long-term outlook seems to be in long relief at this point, and who knows if that will happen in Kansas City beyond this year.

8. Jon Heasley

Heasley has one more start left, but so far things have been promising from the former 13th round pick who was the fifth pitcher to pitch this season from the Royals’ vaunted 2018 Draft class. Against the Tigers on Saturday, Heasley went 5.1 scoreless innings and allowed only three hits and two walks while striking out three. Even though he got the no-decision, his latest outing was promising, especially since he hasn’t pitched above Double-A in his professional career so far.

However, while Heasley probably has one more start left in him this year, and he has been strong in his debut against MLB hitters, it seems unlikely that Heasley will be depended on in 2022, unless he has an unbelievable Spring Training. Heasley has minimized the walks, as he is posting a 1.93 BB/9 and a K/BB ratio of 2.50. However, he isn’t striking out a whole lot of batters, as his 13.5 percent K rate is second-lowest of Royals pitchers who have made starts this season (only Ervin Santana is lower). Heasely is posting a BABIP of .259, which is pretty low, and a sign that Heasley is getting lucky in his MLB debut. I am not sure if Heasley would be as good if that BABIP rises in 2022 (and his 5.84 FIP proves that).

Heasley will eventually make his way back to Kansas City in 2022. I just don’t think that will be on Opening Day, and I am not 100 percent positive that will be in the rotation either. He most likely will start the year in Omaha, and it will be interesting to see if Heasley will carry over his stellar 2021 from Double-A and Royals against Triple-A hitters next year.

7. Jackson Kowar

There is no question that Kowar has the highest upside of any current pitcher on the Royals pitching staff. The former Florida Gator was absolutely dominant in Omaha this year, as he was recently named the Royals’ Paul Splittorff Minor League Pitcher of the Year, according to the Kansas City Royals organization:

However, at the Major League level, the result have been much more mixed. While Kowar has been better in his second call up this year, he is still posting a 12.32 ERA and 7.01 FIP in 19 IP as a starting pitcher this year. His BB/9 (8.53) and K/BB ratio (1.00) are the worst marks for Royals starting pitchers this year, and his 1.89 HR/9 is fourth-highest on the team, behind only Joel Payamps (who made one start), Bubic, and Heasley.

The stuff is certainly there for Kowar, and he has had some decent outings this year. He went six innings and struck out six while allowing only two runs on five hits and three walks on September 1st against the Indians, which showed that he can be dominant when his command is on. However, if he wants to ensure his place in the Royals starting rotation in 2022, he will need to show better control and command this Spring, or else it is likely that he will begin the year in long relief.

6. Daniel Lynch

Much like Kowar, Lynch is a Royals pitcher with more upside of the young bunch. And much like Kowar, his second call up has been much better than his first. After a rough beginning in his last start in which he allowed three runs in the first inning, he ended up throwing six innings and struck out five while walking three and allowing four hits and four runs total. Even after his last start, Lynch admitted that he needed to be better when it came to starting games, a sign that Lynch is maturing with more and more outings at the Major League level:

That being said, a lot of the metrics are worrisome on Lynch. Here’s a look at his percentile rankings, courtesy of Baseball Savant:

Lynch is getting opposing hitters to whiff and chase at a decent rate. However, as evidenced by his K and walk rate percentiles, he struggles finishing off hitters, despite getting those swings and misses. Furthermore, as demonstrated by the high barrel and average exit velocities, Lynch gives up a lot of hard contact, and the lack of spin on both his fastball and curve balls aren’t exactly promising signs that those hard hits will come down anytime soon, unless Lynch makes some adjustments this offseason.

I think Lynch still has the potential to be a really good starting pitcher, perhaps as soon as next year. But I do think he needs to make some more adjustments this offseason and Spring, in order to help him finish batters off more efficiently next season. Furthermore, I think he needs to prove himself over some more innings at the Major League level to climb higher up these rankings as well.

5. Kris Bubic

I went back and forth between Lynch and Bubic for this No. 5 spot. Lynch obviously has the more impressive prospect pedigree and has the higher ceiling. That being said, Bubic has been a bit more dependable, and has at least shown the ability to really string effective starts together at the MLB level, even if it doesn’t come on a consistent basis.

Much like Lynch, Bubic struggles with walks, as his 4.30 BB/9 going into Sunday’s contest is actually higher than Lynch’s. However, Bubic has been more effective with striking batters out (8.10 K/9 to Lynch’s 7.34), and he has been more effective at limiting hard contact and barrels in comparison to his 2018 draft classmate as well, as evidenced by his Baseball Savant percentile rankings:

Limiting the home run ball will be a priority for Bubic going forward, and that mostly stems from command, and leaving too many fastballs and changeups up in the zone. Here’s an example of Bubic throwing his changeup WAY too high in the zone to Cedric Mullens of the Orioles, who makes him pay at hitter-friendly Camden Yards:

Bubic may only profile as a No. 3-4 starter long-term in Kansas City. But over the past two seasons, he’s proven that he can adjust over the course of the season (he’s posted a 4.22 ERA post-All Star break), and that he can have really stellar outings, such as the one he had today against Detroit. That gives him the advantage over Kowar and Lynch, even if he has less of a “prospect shine” in comparison to those two.

4. Mike Minor

Minor gets a lot of grief from Royals fans, and understandably so. He’s the Royals’ highest paid starting pitcher at $7 million this year, and he’s set to make $10 million in the final guaranteed year of his deal (he has a $13 million club option for 2023). Thus, it’s easy to see the 5.05 ERA and 8-12 record and think “Man, this guy has been a complete and utter disaster.”

However, when diving deeper into Minor’s profile, he’s been better than that popular portrayal. He leads Royals starting pitchers in starts (28), innings pitched (158.2), and fWAR (2.3). He also ranks 2nd in K/BB ratio (3.63), and his ERA to FIP difference (0.76) is fourth-highest on the team, and second-highest of any Royals starting pitcher with 20 or more innings pitched this year. While Minor is no “ace” by any means, he’s at least a dependable pitcher in the No. 3 to 4 spot who at the very least can provide innings, which shouldn’t be taken lightly considering the pitching issues teams have faces this season.

So what’s been Minor’s Achilles heel? Much like Bubic, it’s the home runs, as his HR/9 at 1.47 is the second-highest mark for Royals starting pitchers with 20 or more IP (only Bubic has a higher mark, but that will likely go down after today’s outing). Furthermore, Minor struggled with runners on base, as his 66.4 percent strand rate was the second-lowest mark for Royals pitchers with 20 or more IP. Strand rates can be fluky things, so if the strand rate jumps up to perhaps his 2019 (80.3 percent) or even 2018 (72.5 percent), it is possible that Minor’s line could look a lot better in 2022.

Of course, that’s if he minimizes the home run issues, and considering the stagnation on his four-seamer the past two years, that may be hard to do next season. Nonetheless, Minor is a proven veteran who can at least take the ball every fourth day and keep a team in the game, even if he’s not dominant. He limits walks and strikes out a decent amount as well, which shouldn’t be lost on Royals fans. There’s value there, even if it may not be “James Shields”-esque value.

3. Brady Singer

Much like Minor, Singer can be a whipping boy for Royals fans. His lack of a third pitch is a constant source of frustration for Royals fans, especially when he struggles on the mound. However, even though he’s been more up and down than his rookie season (which by the way, was during a shortened, COVID-affected year), Singer has been better than Royals fans may think.

As of today, Singer is second in fWAR at 2.0, and his 4.02 FIP is actually the third-best mark for Royals starting pitchers who have accumulated 20 or more IP this year (he is actually second of current Royals, as Danny Duffy is no longer in Kansas City). Singer has been done in by a high BABIP (.346) and low strand rate (68.7 percent), and despite having similar marks in those categories as Brad Keller, Singer has at least been able to neutralize his metrics somewhat (Singer is posting a 4.72 ERA in comparison to Keller’s 5.39 ERA). Furthermore, Singer has produced some solid GB rates (50.7 percent) and K/9 numbers (9.23 percent), even though this hasn’t been his best year.

Because honestly, when his slider and fastball are clicking, there maybe isn’t a better Royals starting pitcher on the mound:

The big issue though will be that third pitch, and that’s what keeps him from the No. 2 spot. Will Singer be receptive and embrace his changeup, or something else, even though he’s resisted thus far?

I guess Royals fans will see what kind of work he did in that area when pitchers and catchers report in February.

2. Brad Keller

I gave Keller the slight edge over Singer here mostly because Keller has more of a track record of success than Singer, even though Keller has been arguably worse than the former 2018 first round pick. Yes, Keller’s 5.39 ERA, 1.1 fWAR, and 1.21 HR/9, all career-worsts, look bad at the surface level. That being said, his BABIP and low strand rate combination heavily contribute to Keller’s lackluster numbers, and considering he’s been the inverse in those categories in his first three seasons at the MLB level, it’s not a surprise that regression happened this year in those metrics, which affected his overall line as a result.

There are some signs for hope though that Keller will be due for a bounce back in 2022. First off, he posted the highest K/9 rate of his career at 8.08 (which was nearly 2.50 points higher than 2020, which was a stellar season). His fastball velocity jumped 93.1 MPH to 94.2 MPH from 2020 to 2021, respectively. And lastly, Keller was pitching much better in the second half, as he posted a 3.96 ERA and 2.13 K/BB ratio in 38.2 IP, according to Fangraphs, before being shelved due to injury.

If healthy, it’s possible that Keller would have solidified his status in September as the Royals’ Opening Day starter in 2022. I am not sure if he would’ve seen that ERA dip under 5, especially considering his long ball issues this season. However, if his velocity and K rates continue to stay around the same rates in 2022, it wouldn’t be surprising if Keller’s metrics look similar to what he did in 2018 and 2019, which was still pretty good and over a much larger sample than 2020.

Of course, that is if he is fully recovered from injury, and Royals fans won’t know that until Spring Training. Hence, that is why he doesn’t keep the top spot for Royals starting pitchers.

1. Carlos Hernandez

The best Royals starting pitcher story this year has been Hernandez, who two seasons ago was pitching in Low-A Lexington. Hernandez’s rise from under-the-radar pitching prospect, to budding Royals ace is not only special, but also unprecedented as well. While many thought (including myself) that Hernandez could maybe emerge as a late-innings specialist, not many Royals fans figured he’d be in the mix in the rotation in 2021, let alone the Royals’ most promising starting pitcher entering this offseason.

And yet, here we are. Hernandez is posting a 3.68 ERA and 1.28 WHIP in 24 appearances, 11 starts and 85.2 IP in 2021, and as a pitcher overall, he’s accumulated a 1.0 fWAR, according to Fangraphs.

Hernandez has had a weird September, as he has more walks (13) than strikeouts (8) in 21 innings pitched. However, he is posting a 3.86 ERA and has a 2-1 record in the month, which is more than respectable. There is some thinking that Hernandez has been more lucky than good over the past month of play. That being said, Hernandez has not pitched this many innings professionally since 2018, so it’s possible that he is just going through some fatigue as he makes this adjustment to this innings increase.

Even though he’s had an uneven September, Hernandez has the best pure stuff of any Royals starting pitcher (nobody else is hitting 100 or 99 MPH with such ease consistently), and he’s gaining more confidence on the mound, which has come thanks to solid performances against good competition in August and September:

On Opening Day, nobody saw Hernandez coming into 2021 as a major player on the Royals pitching staff (him making the Opening Day roster was seen as a bit of a surprise). And yet, Hernandez has only gotten better throughout the season, much to the Royals and Royals fans’ delight.

If Matheny had to make a decision on who would be the 2022 Opening Day starter today, my guess the nod would probably go to Hernandez.

Photo Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

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