To say Brady Singer’s 2021 was “polarizing” among Royals fans would be putting it lightly.
Even though the Royals tabbed Singer to be an “ace” of the Royals rotation when they drafted him 18th overall in the first round of the 2018 MLB Draft, Singer has seemingly fallen in the Royals “young pitcher” pecking order, behind Daniel Lynch, Asa Lacy, and perhaps even Carlos Hernandez, who surprisingly emerged as a possible “ace” in the second half of last year.
Ryan Heffernon of Royals Review penned an interesting piece on Brady Singer, as he took a look back on Singer’s sophomore campaign in Kansas City, and it seemed to tap into this conflict Royals fans are facing with Singer heading into 2022:
Here’s a poignant tidbit from his piece that really seemed to echo that sentiment, and probably struck a chord with a lot of Royals fans by the end of the 2021 season:
The reality: Brady Singer did a lot of things you want a pitcher to do. He got lots of ground balls, he kept the ball in the yard, and struck out a decent amount of hitters. But he still struggled to get outs and prevent runs. But his lack of a third pitch makes him far more dependent on things going right than other pitchers.“2021 Season in Review: Brady Singer” by Ryan Heffernon; Royals Review
In many ways, Ryan hits it on the nail when it comes to describing Singer’s career thus far. Was Singer a “poor” pitcher by any means? Not really. He still generated a 2.0 fWAR, which was the second-best mark for Royals starting pitchers a year ago. Furthermore, his 4.91 ERA, though nearly a run higher than his rookie year (4.06), was still better than Lynch (5.69), Brad Keller (5.39), and Jackson Kowar (11.85).
That being said, Singer’s 1.55 WHIP was the fourth-worst mark for Royals starting pitchers with 10 or more IP last year, and he struggled to limit base hits, in addition to getting hitters to chase out of the strike zone, as his chase rate ranked in the bottom 17th percentile, according to Baseball Savant. Thus, it’s not a surprise that Singer’s -1.31 win probability added a year ago was the third-worst of Royals starting pitchers with 10 or more IP last year, according to Fangraphs.
Singer may be coming off a slightly disappointing season (especially considering the promise he showed during his rookie campaign in 2020). However, there are plenty of signs that Singer may be due for a “bounce back” in 2022, especially if he can make a couple of adjustments in regard to his pitch arsenal and selection.
And if the Royals and Royals fans “believe” in Singer…well…it’s possible that he may not only help turn around his fortunes as an MLB pitcher for the future, but the Royals’ fortunes in the AL Central as well in 2022 and beyond.
Strikes + Groundballs = Success?
As a pitcher, Singer really excels in his ability to generate strikes as well as a high percentage of groundballs, especially when compared to other pitchers in the Royals rotation. On a called strike plus whiff (CSW) rate end, Singer posted a 30.3 percent rate, which led all Royals starting pitchers last year with 50 or more IP.
To compare, take a look at Singer’s CSW (called strike plus whiff) rate in the table, and where other Royals starting pitchers ranked comparatively, according to Fangraphs data:
Notice how Singer was nearly 3.7 percent better than Bubic, 4.9 percent better than Keller, 5.2 percent better than Lynch, and 8.2 percent than Hernandez.
Granted, CSW rate isn’t everything, but a pitcher’s ability to generate strikes on a called and whiff end is an important key to future and consistent success. The fact that Singer can still generate strikes on a frequent basis, even in the midst of a “down” season, is a promising sign that Singer has the potential to be much better as a starting pitcher in 2022.
In addition to Singer’s strong ability to garner strikes on the mound, another key component of Singer’s profile is his ability to generate groundballs. Last year, Singer not only led all Royals starting pitchers with 50 or more IP in GB/FB rate (1.80), but also groundball rate (49.9 percent), as evidenced by the Fangraphs data table below:
Typically, it is better for a pitcher to generate more groundballs than flyballs mostly because groundballs won’t leave the yard for home runs. Furthermore, in the Royals case, a groundball-heavy pitcher will benefit from not only Kauffman’s Stadium’s pitcher-friendly confines but also the Royals’ solid defense behind him. Last year, according to Baseball Savant OAA (outs above average) data, the Royals ranked 7th in baseball in OAA, and they should be even better in 2022 without Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier getting innings in right field and third base, respectively.
While Singer was unlucky last year when it came to BABIP (.350) as well as strand rate (67.8 percent), if he continues to generate groundballs at a high rate in 2022, the Royals defense behind him could help his BABIP regress, which in turn should produce better results for Singer and the Royals next season. Singer last year proved he could limit barrels, as he ranked in the 84th percentile in barrel rate allowed, according to Savant. Furthermore, his HR/FB rate was also lower than other main Royals starting pitchers such as Bubic, Keller, and Mike Minor.
These are all good signs going forward for Singer in 2022, and a reason why he should be getting more positive attention from Royals fans as we prepare for pitchers and catchers reporting in February (hopefully, if the lockout ends before then).
Can Singer utilize the four-seam fastball more?
In a November 23rd interview by the Athletic’s Alec Lewis with pitching coach Cal Eldred, the Royals coach made an interesting comment about Singer, his changeup, and how his fastball works, depending on where it’s thrown in the strike zone.
Here’s the tidbit:
Everybody says, “He throws two pitches.” But he actually doesn’t. Because his fastball acts like a four-seamer with life at times when it’s up in the zone. And it can also be a running fastball when it’s down in the zone. When there are areas he pitches to, they don’t hit him. This is part of the mentality for a player who has had success. But for him to get better, he knows he has to get into some areas where he’s uncomfortable and throwing pitches at times he hasn’t before. That’s just part of what everybody goes through who wants to get better in the big leagues. Yes, a changeup would help him a lot. But understanding how he uses his other two — really three — pitches is just as important.“Royals pitching coach Cal Eldred outlines offseason focus for the young starters” by Alec Lewis; The Athletic
This comment is poignant in a variety of ways. First, it confirms that Singer wasn’t totally comfortable and willing to throw his changeup on a consistent basis last season, which was evident in his pitch tracking breakdown, via Baseball Savant. That was something many Royals fans not only noticed but were frustrated with, especially whenever Singer struggled on the mound.
However, another interesting bit that emerges from Eldred’s statement is how Singer’s fastball works differently, depending on where it is thrown in the zone.
Now, I am not sure if Singer’s sinker really has that kind of versatility. It’s definitely a fastball that features some tailing arm side action, regardless of where it is thrown in the zone. In fact, let’s take a look at how the sinker looks in both areas of the strike zone, as Eldred talks about in Lewis’ article.
Here’s a look at Singer’s sinker gets Randy Arozarena of the Rays swinging when it is thrown high up in the strike zone:
Now, let’s take a look at a sinker low in the strike zone against the Orioles’ DJ Stewart at Kauffman Stadium, which is called a strike:
Now both pitches are roughly the same speed, as the top of the zone strike is 94 MPH, while the one in the lower part of the zone clocks in at 93 MPH. It does seem like the clip against the Orioles has more tailing away movement on it than the swinging strike against the Rays in the top of the strike zone. That being said, as Royals fans can see, the difference in the angle of the cameras makes it hard to tell between the two pitches if there is that “movement” difference on the sinker when thrown in different areas of the strike zone (as Eldred claims).
While I am not sure about Eldred’s claim fully, I do think Eldred brings up an interesting point. Instead of primarily focusing on increasing the usage of a third pitch (which is the changeup), what if Singer perhaps increased the usage of TWO pitches, though at a lower percentage? And what if those two pitchers were ones that he already utilized: the changeup (which I mentioned), but also the four-seam fastball?
Last year, Singer only threw the four-seamer 37 times total (1.6 percent of the time), which was by far his least-utilized pitch. However, Singer had some success with it in 2020, as it generated a 20 percent whiff rate and 33.3 percent K rate (though he only threw it 0.7 percent of the time). While it didn’t generate a tremendous amount of whiffs, the four-seamer possessed the second-lowest hard-hit rate of his four pitches last year at 28.6 percent. Thus, the four-seamer has the ability to be a good change-of-pace pitch, especially since it usually just requires a change in grip.
Here’s an example of Singer getting Nelson Cruz to swing and miss on a four-seamer on the outside corner. As one can see, the pitch doesn’t have the tailing movement on it like the sinker, which gives a different look to hitters who are used to seeing that fastball move toward them, especially if they are hitting from the right side of the plate:
While the changeup has been talked about more, Singer’s four-seam fastball should be utilized at a higher rate in 2022. The four-seamer could be an effective pitch against right-handers, especially when paired with the slider. The rising action of the four-seamer works well with the glove-side movement of the slider, and that could throw hitters off, especially those who are looking primarily for his sinker, which he threw nearly 60 percent of the time in 2021.
Singer wouldn’t have to throw his four-seamer more by a tremendous amount. Even increasing the usage of the pitch to about 8-10 percent (as well as increasing the changeup by 2 to 2.5 percent) would lower the sinker usage to a more reasonable level (lowering it to under 50 percent would be ideal). This in turn would not only make his sinker more effective but all of his pitches potentially better in 2022, since hitters won’t be just sitting on “one” pitch to hit like they did a year ago.
Comparing Singer to the Nationals’ Joe Ross
According to Baseball Savant player Affinity data, one pitcher Singer compared to closely was the Nationals’ Joe Ross. Even though the Cubs’ Adbert Alzolay had a slightly higher similarity rating (0.99) than Ross (0.98), Ross’ sinker-slider combo, which makes up 87.9 percent of his pitch arsenal, resonated more to me when it came to comparing other pitchers to Singer.
Ross has had an up and down career, which has primarily been with the Washington Nationals (though he was drafted in the first round by the San Diego Padres in 2011). Ross has excelled in terms of minimizing both hard-hits(career 35.3 percent hard-hit rate) as well as barrels (career 6.6 barrel rate allowed). However, after posting sub-4 ERA numbers in his rookie and sophomore seasons (primarily throwing just a sinker, slider, and changeup), he saw his ERA numbers balloon to over five from 2017-2019.
What was interesting about Ross’ development as a pitcher was that starting in 2017, he added a four-seam fastball to his arsenal. However, he utilized it heavily during those three seasons in which he struggled to find consistency with the Nationals, and the massive “spike” in the pitch probably didn’t help when it came to his performance on the mound.
Let’s take a look at Ross’ pitch usage chart over his career, via Savant:
In 2018, Ross’ four-seamer became his primary pitch, but that season, his ERA was 5.06, not a great mark by any means.
However, after demonstrating two straight seasons with a four-seamer usage of over 25 percent, Ross lowered his four-seamer rate to 16 percent in 2021 (he didn’t pitch at all in 2020 due to COVID concerns). The result? His ERA and xERA lowered to 4.17 and 4.32, respectively, his best marks in those categories since 2017.
What is key to know about Ross’ four-seamer is how he locates the pitch. Let’s take a look at where Ross threw his four-seamer a year ago, according to Savant heatmap data:
Notice how that four-seamer lives at the top or above the strike zone, which is ideal for a four-seam fastball. Comparatively, let’s take a look at Singer’s four-seam heatmap over the past two seasons:
Singer hits the top of the zone with his four-seamer, but not consistently, as evidenced by those red dots in two other areas around the strike zone. That being said, if Singer can utilize his four-seamer more, and up in the zone like Ross, he could find more success in 2022, especially since their pitch arsenal profiles are so similar. Both rely on the sinker and slider primarily, and both throw hard changeups that have that tailing arms-side action, similar to their sinkers.
Here’s an example of Ross’ changeup from last year, which he only threw 6.1 percent of the time in 2021:
Now, let’s take a look at Singer’s changeup, which tails in a similar way at a similar speed to Ross’ version of the pitch:
Singer doesn’t have to dramatically increase the usage of his changeup to be effective with it. Ross only threw it 3.2 percent more than Singer last year. But, Ross threw it just enough, along with his four-seam fastball, to make his sinker more effective, as Ross posted a -9 run value on his primary pitch in 2021, according to Savant. Singer, on the other hand, generated a +8 run value on the pitch, nearly the inverse of Ross’ mark.
Thus, while the changeup is important, Ross showed that the combination of an increase in usage in the four-seamer and changeup, even if not by a tremendous amount, can make the primary pitches more effective. If Singer can follow this “Ross Model”, it wouldn’t be out of the question to think that Singer could be a sub-four ERA pitcher or maybe better, especially considering that Singer’s defense behind him was way better than Ross’ a year ago (the Nationals were the fourth-worst team defensively on an OAA basis a year ago).
What’s the future outlook for Singer in Kansas City?
When it comes to talking about future “aces” in the Royals rotation, Singer is often left out of the conversation. Lynch, Hernandez, and even Kowar get mentioned as likely candidates for the role over Singer. And honestly, as a Royals fan, I get it. After making such progress in his rookie year in 2020, it was disappointing to see Singer not grow much on the mound, mostly due to his “alleged” stubbornness to use pitches beyond his sinker and slider.
That being said, I think Singer doesn’t have to learn a “new” pitch. If he can produce an uptick in his four-seam fastball (perhaps in the 8-10 percent range), and slightly uptick his changeup (that 5-6 percent range), then I think Singer and the Royals could see an improved third season from the former Florida Gator. He works quickly and knows how to limit barrels and hard contact, which isn’t something that can be said of other pitchers on the Royals pitching staff. The potential is there for Singer to be an effective No. 2 starter in this Royals rotation as soon as 2022.
He just has to make those slight adjustments in his pitch arsenal.
Now, the question is, will he work on it this offseason, and will we see a slightly different Singer this Spring in Cactus League play?
Joe Ross proved that he could be a success last year with a repertoire that mirrors Singer’s…
Let’s hope as Royals fans, Singer is able to follow Ross’ example and experience a similar season of improvement next year.
Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports