What should the Royals do with Mike Minor next season? (It’s tougher than Royals fans think)

When the Royals signed Mike Minor last season, I thought it was a decent move, especially if the Royals were intent on trying to compete in the AL Central division in 2021 and 2022. Signed on a two-year deal worth $18 million (which included a club option for a third year worth $13 million), Minor was a veteran arm who was not only looking to bounce back after a rough split season in Texas and Oakland in 2020, but also came at a decent price at $9 million per year roughly (on an AAV basis).

Furthermore, Minor had success before in Kansas City, albeit as a reliever. In his lone season pitching with the Royals prior to 2021, Minor posted a 2.55 ERA and 2.2 fWAR in 77.2 innings pitched during the 2017 season, according to Fangraphs. The solid season out of the Royals bullpen earned Minor interest from the Texas Rangers as a starter in free agency, and Minor ended up producing solid 2018 and 2019 campaigns with the Rangers (combined 6.6 fWAR and 365 IP in those two seasons combined) before regressing during the shortened 2020 season with the Rangers and Athletics (0.8 fWAR, 5.56 ERA).

Minor’s role in Kansas City this time around was to be a starter, not a reliever like he was back in 2017. However, the move was a bit puzzling to some Royals fans, especially those who figured that the Royals were still a couple of seasons away from competing for a playoff spot in the American League. The Royals already had a veteran starter in Danny Duffy, and Brad Keller, coming off a 1.3 fWAR and 2.47 ERA season in 54.2 IP in 2020, was expected to be the “ace” of the rotation for 2021. Furthermore, the Royals also saw promising debuts from Brady Singer and Kris Bubic during the shortened 2020 season, and while Minor provided some veteran insurance in the rotation, his acquisition seemed superfluous, especially for a Royals club flush with young pitching prospects set to debut in 2021.

Flash forward to the conclusion of the 2021 season, and the Royals find themselves in a peculiar position with Minor this offseason. Duffy is gone, traded away to the Los Angeles Dodgers at the Trade Deadline (he could be facing retirement after suffering another injury set back). Additionally, Keller took a major step back this year, as he not only posted a 5.39 ERA and 1.1 fWAR in 133.2 IP, but he also suffered a lat injury that saw him being placed on the 60-Day IL to finish the 2021 season. Thus, with Keller’s status “iffy” for Opening Day, the Royals may need the veteran presence of Minor, especially if they choose not to acquire a veteran pitcher this Winter.

Surprisingly, Minor led all Royals starting pitchers in fWAR (2.3), according to Fangraphs. He did fare less favorably on a bWAR basis (1.1), Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR, as he finished behind Duffy (2.1) and Bubic (1.4) in 2021. Despite the difference, Minor did produce some positive value in the Royals rotation, even if his 5.05 ERA left a little to be desired from Royals fans last season. For a Royals starting rotation that finished 24th overall in ERA in 2021, the Royals need all the “positive” help they can get, and Minor is already under contract for next season at a reasonable rate considering the market value for starting pitchers these days.

Which begs Royals fans to ask the question: what should the Royals do with Minor for next season?

When digging deeper into Minor’s profile from 2021, this much can be said: he was at least slightly better than his 2020 self.

Minor improved in most categories last season from his COVID-affected 2020 which saw him pitch in both Texas and Oakland. His ERA improved from 5.56 in 2020 to 5.05 in 2021, and he saw similar dips in FIP (4.64 in 2020 to 4.29 in 2021) and xFIP (4.50 in 2020 to 4.32 in 2021) as well. In addition, Minor also showed better control in his return to Kansas City, as his walks per nine innings rate dropped to 2.33, which was not only 0.85 points lower from a year ago, but was also his lowest rate since 2018 (when it was 2.18). Lastly, Minor’s K/BB ratio of 3.63 was also his best rate since his 4.00 ratio in 2017, his last season in Kansas City.

Compared to other Royals starting pitchers with 10 or more innings pitched in 2021, Minor had the second-lowest BB/9, second-best K/BB ratio, and second-best first-strike percentage (61.4 percent). Minor proved to be a veteran who ate innings, threw strikes, limited walks, and generated a decent amount of strikeouts, as evidenced by his 22.3 percent K rate, which ranked fourth of Royals starting pitchers with 10 or more innings pitched last season.

However, if Minor demonstrated some promising metrics, especially in relation to control, why did Minor underwhelm a majoirty of Royals fans last season, as evidenced by Tweets like the ones below:

It was the home runs, plain and simple. Last year, Minor posted a 13.4 percent HR/FB rate, which while lower than a year ago (15.7 percent), was still the second-highest rate of his career.

Surprisingly, Minor did generate a lower barrel rate (9.3 percent) than a year ago (10.3 percent), which placed him in the middle of the pack for Royals pitchers, according to Baseball Savant. That being said, despite limiting barrels and hard hits (35.9 percent, nearly a five percent drop from 2020), Minor couldn’t prevent the home runs this season, despite pitching at home in one of the harder parks in baseball to hit the long ball.

A big issue for Minor was his inability to generate much effectiveness with his four-seam fastball in 2021.

One of the big concerns for Minor coming into 2021 was whether or not his four-seam fastball velocity would see an uptick from 2020. During the COVID-shortened season, Minor’s four-seamer only generated an average velocity of 90.6 MPH, which was a 1.9 MPH decline from 2019. As a result, his put away rate on the pitch went from 18.6 percent in 2019 to 15 percent in 2020. Sure, Minor’s whiff rate did improve despite the velocity drop (23.3 percent in 2019 to 24.4 percent in 2020), but the increase in xwOBA (.319 to .345 from 2020 to 2021) demonstrated that Minor was perhaps getting lucky with his four-seamer in 2020, despite the swing and miss improvement on the pitch.

Granted, pitches like this one to the Padres’ Manny Machado certainly didn’t make Athletics fans feel like Minor was being “lucky” last year by any means:

In order for Minor to find any success in 2021, he needed to see an increase in his fastball velocity in his move to Kansas City. There was some feeling that the “shortened” 2020 season messed with his development, and that with a full Spring Training and 162-game season, Minor would see that uptick in four-seamer velocity, which in turn would improve his overall line to what he did in 2019 and 2018.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Minor’s velocity only “slightly” increased to 90.9 MPH, which ranked him in the bottom 17th percentile of the league in fastball velocity, according to Baseball Savant. While he did see an increase in put away rate from 2020 (20.5 percent) as well as a decrease in xwOBA (.315), both good signs, his whiff rate declined to 18.8 percent, and he also saw an increase in slugging on the pitch from .360 in 2020 to .472 in 2021.

It also didn’t help when he located the pitch like this last season, according to his Savant heatmap:

Being up in the zone with a four-seam fastball isn’t bad when the pitch in in the mid to upper 90’s. However, with a fastball averaging a little over 90 MPH, that kind of command on the pitch is going to result in a lot of big hits, including this one by Astros and former Royals catcher Martin Maldonado, as Minor served up a 90 MPH fastball up in the zone:

Surprisingly, even though hitters saw the most “long ball” success on Minor’s fastball, the four-seamer also was one of Minor’s better pitches, when he commanded it well.

Here’s a look at Minor’s run-value chart from 2021, via Baseball Savant:

As Royals fans can see, Minor’s four-seamer was his most successful pitch on a run value basis, which shows how effective the pitch could be for the left-handed veteran, when he wasn’t making mistakes with it.

Furthermore, when looking at Minor’s last 21 strikeouts via his Statcast game chart, it is easy to notice how many of his strikeouts came on the four-seam fastball last season:

Here is Minor throwing his four-seamer at 92 MPH and low in the strike zone against the Astros’ Kyle Tucker, which freezes him on a 3-2 count to end the inning:

And in this at-bat against the Cardinals’ Paul Goldschmidt at Kauffman Stadium, Minor throws it high in the strike zone with two strikes. The difference in this at-bat against Goldschmidt, however, is that Minor is able to pump the pitch up at 93.2 MPH, which causes the Cardinals slugger to strike out badly, much to Royals fans’ delight:

Thus, while Royals fans may be jaded with what Minor did in 2021, there is potential for Minor to be a top-of-the rotation guy for the Royals in 2022, especially when his fastball is being commanded well and showing decent velocity. Such an improvement from Minor would be welcomed for a club looking for someone to help guide and lead this Royals starting pitching staff next year in a James Shields-esque manner.

But is hoping for a Minor jump in velocity and improvement in performance just wishful thinking at the end of the day?

I have brought up the idea of Minor making a move back to the bullpen, which could help him with his velocity problems, as the fewer innings could allow him to let loose more with the four-seam fastball while on the mound. Such a transition paid dividends for Ian Kennedy in 2019 and Jesse Hahn in 2020.

That being said, the Royals will be paying Minor $10 million next year, and at this rate, and with only one guaranteed year left on his deal, the Royals need Minor to succeed as a “starter” to be worth that AAV next season. Furthermore, with Scott Barlow, Josh Staumont, and Jake Brentz pretty firmly entrenched in the bullpen, Minor would be worth more to the Royals as a successful starting pitcher than a successful reliever.

But can that happen in 2022? Or at least happen in Kansas City?

ZiPS projections seem to be more optimistic about Minor’s outlook over the next three years. While he underperformed his projections on an ERA basis, his 4.29 FIP actually matched his ZiPS projections, as evidenced from Fangraphs data:

What hurt Minor was the difference in strand rate (LOB%) between his projections (71 percent) and his actual rate (66.4 percent). When a pitcher is seeing runners on base score nearly five percent more than “expected”, well…it’s going to be hard for any pitcher to be successful.

On the other hand, strand rate can be pretty “fluky” for pitchers, and his rate last year was the third lowest rate of his career, and the second-straight season of sub-70 percent rates. Thus, Royals fans have to wonder what Minor could do if the strand rate improves to “normal” levels (i.e. 71-75 percent) in 2022. If the Royals improve defensively in the outfield, that could greatly benefit a flyball pitcher (0.93 GB/FB ratio) like Minor, and consequently improve his strand rate in 2022. Already, by re-signing Michael A. Taylor, and getting rid of Jorge Soler, the Royals are making a bigger commitment to outfield defense in 2022, and that could have a positive impact on Minor’s overall line next season.

However, that’s a big risk, and at 34-years-old, it’s hard to believe that Minor can go from an above-five ERA pitcher for two straight seasons and be a mid-four ERA pitcher like ZiPS projects for 2022. Minor should have seen an improvement in his move to the more pitcher-friendly Kauffman in 2021, and yet, the improvement from 2020 was miniscule at best.

So much will depend on the four-seam fastball for Minor when it comes to a rebound performance. To some Royals fans, it would be better for another club to figure out how to tap that potential for a velocity increase, especially considering current Royals pitching coach Cal Eldred’s limitations. It’s possible that Minor could perhaps generate a decent lower-level prospect in a trade, maybe something more, should the Royals decided to eat some of the money on Minor’s deal.

But will the Royals do that, especially with a dearth of veteran starting pitching on their roster? Isn’t this the reason why Dayton Moore acquired Minor? To help mentor the Royals’ young starters and be the veteran at the top of the rotation who can help them be competitive again in the AL Central?

There will be a lot of questions surrounding Minor this Winter…

And while I understand that many Royals fans may be done with Minor, they shouldn’t completely dismiss his potential in 2022, even in the rotation.

Because if he can see that return in fastball velocity…

Well…maybe Minor can be that “internal” option the Royals need to help “boost” the rotation next season.

And who knows what kind of effect that could have for the Royals in the Central standings.

Photo Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

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