Kyle Zimmer, the struggles of Royals first-round draft picks, and what Kansas City learned

After getting designated for assignment last Friday to clear room on the 40-man roster, the Kansas City Royals announced on Monday their request for unconditional waivers on relief pitcher Kyle Zimmer, which pretty much ends his tenure with the Royals organization:

Zimmer was the Royals’ first-round pick in the 2012 MLB Draft, and number five pick overall in that respective draft as well. A high-profile arm out of the University of San Francisco, Zimmer was expected to solidify the rotation and move up the Royals system quickly. It was figured that Zimmer would join top pitching prospects Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, and Danny Duffy in the rotation by 2014. However, injury issues derailed Zimmer’s outlook as a top-of-the-rotation starter, and while Zimmer did eventually join Duffy in Kansas City in 2019, Zimmer did so not as a starter but as a reliever.

With the 30-year-old former top Royals prospect now gone (he was the No. 1 prospect in the Royals system, according to Baseball America in 2013 and 2014), let’s take a look at Zimmer’s last couple of seasons in Kansas City, and what Royals fans can take away from Zimmer, as well as other recent first-round picks in the Dayton Moore-era who have floundered in the Royals organization.

At one point, it seemed like Zimmer wouldn’t ever make the Major Leagues, especially after the Royals released him from the 40-man roster shortly after Spring Training in 2018.

After making 22 starts and pitching 108.1 IP between High-A Wilmington and Double-A Northwest Arkansas in 2013, injuries plagued Zimmer from 2014-on, as he only pitched 110.2 innings total in the Minors from 2014-2017, according to Baseball-Reference. In addition, Zimmer did not pitch at all in 2018 due to injury, and even though the Royals brought him back on a Minor League deal, it seemed likely that Zimmer would never pitch for the organization that drafted him 5th overall.

However, in 2019, Zimmer recovered enough to not only pitch again in the Minors but also make his Major League debut, as he appeared in 15 games and pitched 18.1 innings for the Royals out of the bullpen. While the ERA was pretty lackluster at 10.80, the fact that Zimmer pitched at all with the Royals was a minor miracle, especially considering all he had been through injury-wise since the 2014 season.

In 2020 though, something clicked for Zimmer during the shortened season. Even though the days of him being an “elite” starter were far gone, the former University of San Francisco product proved to be a stalwart in the Royals bullpen, especially after making some mechanical adjustments during the pause in play due to COVID:

During that 2020 campaign, Zimmer posted a 1.57 ERA in 15 games and 23 innings of work. He accumulated an fWAR of 0.4, and he also posted a K/BB ratio of 2.60, which was a 1.65 point improvement from his ratio during his rookie campaign (0.95, which is pretty poor). Furthermore, he tremendously improved when it came to generating strikes as well from 2019 to 2020, as his CSW percentage rose from 24.1 percent in his rookie year to 31.4 percent in 2020.

What was interesting about Zimmer’s stellar 2020 was that he lost some velocity on his four-seamer, as it went from averaging 96.4 MPH in 2019 to 94.1 MPH in 2020, according to Baseball Savant. However, even though he lost pure velocity on the pitch, it actually became a more effective one thanks to the mechanical adjustments Zimmer made from 2019 to 2020.

In 2019, his four-seamer generated a run value of 6, which included a K rate of 15.2 percent. In 2020, that pitch generated a run value of -4, and his K rate also improved to 35.9 percent, a substantial increase.

In fact, Royals fans could tell the difference in how it looked, especially when comparing clips of his four-seamer from 2019 to clips from 2020.

Here’s an example of Zimmer in 2019 pumping his four-seamer around 97.5 MPH against the Braves’ Dansby Swanson. While the velocity is impressive, the pitch itself is straight and right down the middle, and Swanson lines it to straightaway center for a double:

Now, let’s take a look at Zimmer striking out Keston Huira of the Brewers on a four-seam fastball up in the zone in 2020 at “formerly” Miller Park. Yes, it’s only 94 MPH, but Zimmer does a much better job locating this pitch up in the zone in comparison to the one from 2019 (and Royals fans can see his stretch and mechanics are different as well):

Thus, after a promising 2020, it seemed like Zimmer was capable of handling an increased role in the bullpen in 2021. And to begin the year, the 30-year-old right-hander handled it just fine. Take a look at Zimmer’s monthly splits from last season, via Fangraphs:

As Royals fans can see, Zimmer was perfectly serviceable during the first three months of play, as he posted FIP marks of 3.47, 2.64, and 3.77 in April, May, and June, respectively. Furthermore, Zimmer was doing a solid job of generating strikeouts as his K rate remained above 24 percent over that three-month period, and his K/BB ratio also remained 2.00 or over as well.

However, Zimmer hit a skid starting in July, as his FIP ballooned to 7.04 that month, and his K/BB ratio dipped to 1.43 as well. August and September proved to be the same story, and in addition to shaky control, Zimmer simply failed to generate strikeouts over the last two months of play. Thus, it’s not a surprise that Zimmer posted a paltry 0.92 K/BB ratio and 6.06 FIP in the second half of the 2021 season, numbers that were closer to his 2019 season rather than his 2020.

And much like in 2019, Zimmer failed to generate much value with his four-seam fastball.

In addition to posting a run value of four on the pitch in 2021, Zimmer saw his K rate decline to 12.6 percent in 2021. Additionally, hitters posted a .362 xwOBA on the pitch in 2021 after only generating a .282 xwOBA on the four-seamer in 2020. But the most frustrating regression in Zimmer’s fastball was the 20 percent walk rate he allowed on the pitch in 2021 (in comparison to the 18 percent walk rate on the four-seamer in 2020).

Here’s an example of Zimmer being unable to locate in the strike zone against Luis Torrens in a September 17th game against the Seattle Mariners at Kauffman Stadium:

Zimmer still generated a high groundball rate in 2021, as his 52.4 percent groundball percentage was one of the better marks for Royals relievers in 2021. That being said, considering the struggles with control, as well as the major regression in his K/BB ratio (1.53), it makes sense that the Royals parted ways with Zimmer this offseason, especially considering he’s 30-years-old and appears to be a middle-innings mop-up man at best at this point in his career.

The Royals would honestly be better off giving that role to a young pitching prospect or another reliever like Tyler Zuber who probably deserves one more chance at the Major League level.

The release of Zimmer has been another domino to fall in the latest string of recent Royals first-round draft picks who failed to work out in the Royals organization.

At the end of October, the Royals’ 2011 first-round pick, and 5th overall pick, Bubba Starling announced his retirement after only playing 91 games across two seasons (2019 and 2020) at the Major League level:

Furthermore, on November 9th, Nolan Watson, a first-round compensatory pick in the 2015 MLB Draft was granted Minor League free agency, along with a slew of other Royals prospects and “four-A” players who didn’t seem to have much of a future going forward with the Royals:

And if that wasn’t enough, in late July, Ashe Russell, who was drafted higher (21st overall to Watson’s 33rd overall) in that same draft (and also out Indianapolis), was released by the Royals and appears to be done in professional baseball at this point (or at least affiliated professional baseball):

Thus, of first-round picks who had been drafted by the Royals from 2010 to 2015 (they had no first-round pick in 2016), only two remain in the Royals system: Foster Griffin (the Royals’ 28th pick overall in 2014) and Hunter Dozier (the 8th overall pick in 2013). Christian Colon, the Royals’ 10th overall pick in 2010 played entirely in Triple-A Buffalo a year ago, and Sean Manaea, the Royals’ second first-round pick in the 2013 draft, a key piece in the Ben Zobrist deal, is doing well with the Athletics, but his struggles with injury have kept him from being an “ace”. And Brandon Finnegan was recently released by the Cincinnati Reds (he was part of the Johnny Cueto deal in 2015), which has gotten some Royals fans to wonder if he’ll make his way back to the Royals organization in 2022.

Nonetheless, the lack of impact at the Major League level from their first-round picks from 2010-2015 is discouraging, and some Royals fans have questioned Dayton Moore and the Royals front office for whiffing on so many prospects in the first round over that timespan:

Of course, Zimmer is just the “cherry on top” for those Moore detractors.

Now, I am not totally defending Moore by any means for his “first round” draft history over that half-decade. Zimmer and Starling especially were expected to be driving forces in the rotation and outfield, respectively, by this time, and the fact that they are not even in the Royals organization still is a tough pill to swallow. However, both Zimmer and Starling at least made the Major Leagues, which isn’t always the case for top picks sometimes. (Remember Mark Appel anyone?) Did they live up to their massive hype? Of course not, but they at least made contributions to the Royals, even if it was brief and honestly, insignificant.

However, I do believe the struggles of Zimmer and Starling woke up Moore and the Royals’ front office when it came to applying analytics at the Minor League level. I think the Royals relied solely on their scouting early on in Moore’s tenure, and the failures of Zimmer and Starling probably made them realize that they needed to improve their player development process at the Minor League level if they wanted to ensure player success as prospects climbed up the Royals farm system.

I listened to a podcast on Fangraphs audio with Drew Saylor, the Royals’ Minor League hitting coordinator, and the amount of time and resources they are applying toward analytics and player development in the Minor League system is remarkable, especially considering the reputation the Royals have had under Moore for being “anti-analytics.”

Royals fans can take a listen to it below:

Since applying heavier “analytic principles” at the Minor League level, the Royals have seen vast improvement from their top prospects. Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez have turned around their careers, and the Royals actually protected all eight of their Top-3 round picks from 2017 and 2018, which shows the success of the Royals’ player development the past couple of years (they were the only organization to do so, according to JJ Cooper of Baseball America):

It’s sad that Zimmer, much like Starling, Colon, as well as other past first-round picks since 2010, didn’t quite live up to expectations in Kansas City. When Zimmer was on, he was a fun pitcher to watch on the mound for the Royals, and his 2020 season was a feel-good story that year, especially considering all he went through injury-wise in the Minors.

However, if there is any silver-lining from this Zimmer move, it’s that the Royals have learned from their mistakes with Zimmer and are actively doing what they can, via analytics and player development investment, to make sure situations like Zimmer’s don’t happen with their prospects again.

And if that happens…

Well, then the Royals will have that consistent winning club at the Major League level, much like the neighboring St. Louis Cardinals, who win with a supporting core of farm-developed players.

The winning might not necessarily happen next year…but when it does, whether in 2023 or 2024…well…the AL Central needs to watch out.

And Royals fans will have players like Zimmer to thank for it.

Photo Credit: Abbie Parr/Getty Images

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