It was not an easy day to be a Royals fan today. After squeaking by in the first two games of the Opening homestand on Thursday and Saturday, respectively, the Royals were absolutely demolished on Sunday afternoon, as they lost 17-3 to the Guardians.
Now, are the Royals as bad as the score indicated? I would say it’s hard to tell since we’re only three games into the 2022 season thus far.
Nonetheless, the Cleveland offense looked absolutely paltry in the first two games of the series. The fact that they scored 16 more runs in 9 innings today than the first 19 innings of the 2022 season is a concerning sign that things can go south quickly for the Royals, especially if the pitching staff isn’t clicking.
And unfortunately for the Royals, the pitchers who weren’t clicking today were from the prized 2018 draft class: Kris Bubic, Jackson Kowar, and Brady Singer.
Those three pitchers combined to give up 16 of the Royals’ 17 total earned runs allowed today. That is frightening to read, let alone write.
So, why did Bubic, Kowar, and Singer struggle?
Let’s break down their performances today, and what that could mean for the trio, and the Royals’ young pitchers as a whole going forward.
Bubic made his first start of the season and boy was it rough. Bubic failed to get out of the first inning and struggled to generate strikes all day long. He not only allowed two walks, but he also gave up three hits in his 29-pitch performance on Sunday.
Furthermore, his called-strike and whiff data also confirm the fact that Bubic just wasn’t fooling Cleveland hitters in game three of the four-game series.
As Royals fans can see above, Bubic failed to generate a single whiff on the day, and his CSW rate was only 17 percent overall, a really lackluster mark. He threw the four-seam fastball a lot, but with an average velocity of 90.9 MPH, it’s not going to be all that effective, especially when he’s throwing it in hitter’s counts.
Here’s a look at Bubic’s pitch count breakdown from Sunday, via Baseball Savant:
When Bubic was ahead (0-1) or even in the count, he was able to throw more of his secondary offerings. But he wasn’t in those counts often, as he was constantly working in 3-1 and 3-2 counts, which forced him to throw his four-seamer more often.
Even when he did locate the four-seamer, hitters were able to generate base hits, like this Jose Ramirez single which scored Myles Straw from second base for the game’s first run:
If the Royals had to do it over again, I imagine Mike Matheny would have just kept Bubic in and just let him work through it, at least for another inning or two. However, Matheny can be quick to pull starters, especially when the game is close early, and that habit reared its ugly head in game three of the 2022 season.
Safe to say, after only 29 pitches, Bubic’s arm could be ready to go sooner than expected, which may be needed with a brutal stretch of games coming up against St. Louis and Detroit, respectively.
At first glance, Kowar’s line looks absolutely brutal. In 3.1 IP, he gave up 7 earned runs on 11 hits, which included one walk and four strikeouts.
His player breakdown data from Baseball Savant though paints a more complicated story:
On one end, Kowar did a decent job of throwing and generating strikes, as he generated an overall whiff rate of 20 percent and a CSW of 32 percent. His changeup and sliders were particularly effective, as they generated a 38 and 36 percent CSW rate, respectively. In addition, his four-seamer also generated a CSW rate of 31 percent, which isn’t all that bad considering how much he threw it.
Unfortunately, when hitters did make contact against his four-seamer, they feasted on it, as Cleveland hitters averaged an exit velocity of 100 MPH on his four-seamer on Sunday.
Here’s a look at his pitch count breakdown via Baseball Savant, and noticed the counts where he’s throwing that four-seamer most often:
In pitcher-friendly counts, Kowar rarely threw the fastball. In hitter-friendly counts, the four-seamer was not just prevalent, but the SOLE pitch being used. And that produced strings of hits, like this one below in the second inning:
Kowar at least battled and was able to get up to 71 pitches, which is a small victory for him, especially considering his struggles in 2021.
That being said, much like Bubic, Kowar needs to work on getting ahead of batters. Being in pitcher-friendly counts will give him the opportunity to throw his changeup and slider more, which are far more effective pitches than his four-seamer, which just gets hit too hard to be consistently effective.
Singer made his first relief appearance of the season, and much like Bubic and Kowar, he went threw his own share of struggles. In three innings of work, Singer gave up six hits and four runs, which included a home run allowed, a walk, and three strikeouts.
Much like Bubic, Singer wasn’t all that effective in generating swings and misses, but he was much better at getting called strikes, as evidenced from his breakdown data below:
Considering the number of runs allowed, a 28 percent CSW rate overall isn’t necessarily bad. Additionally, his 90.8 average exit velocity on batted balls was actually better than both Bubic and Kowar (both allowed an average exit velocity of 91.6 MPH), so that was another positive thing to glean from an otherwise ugly performance.
However, Singer continued to just rely on two pitches, i.e. his sinker and slider, an issue that was a concern last season. Of the 60 pitches he threw on Sunday, only one was a changeup.
That’s not promising, especially after he said that a priority for him this offseason was working on that “third pitch”.
Unlike Bubic, Singer was able to get in more pitcher-friendly counts more often, as evidenced in his pitch count breakdown data chart:
Unfortunately, while he was in 0-2 and 1-2 counts a decent amount of the time on Sunday, his lack of a “put away” pitch simply plagued him Sunday. It wasn’t that Singer was making bad pitches, but with only two options in his arsenal, hitters knew what to lay off of and what to sit on.
For example, Singer throws his sinker in a decent area against Ramirez, as it is up and out of the strike zone (though he clearly misses Salvy’s target). That being said, the Cleveland slugger is sitting on the pitch, and he is able to drive it over the right-field wall:
Singer can generate called strikes, especially early in the count, and that was evident at times today. But his lack of a third pitch is hemorrhaging his ability to finish batters off.
His sinker generated ZERO whiffs on Sunday, and while his slider generated a whiff rate of 31 percent, he only garnered two called strikes on the same pitch.
Thus, the scouting report on Singer is pretty simple: sit on the sinker; spit on the slider.
It’s going to be a long season if Singer can’t gain more confidence in that changeup…
Which sounds like a broken record with Singer from 2021.
What Should Be Our Takeaways From This Game?
Bad outings happen, and this was a perfect storm of “ineptitude” from Bubic, Kowar, and Singer.
Of the three, I would say Kowar had the most promising outing of the three. He just needs to work on getting first-pitch strikes, because his changeup and slider can be effective when it is thrown in those counts. In hitter’s counts, he relies on the four-seamer, which just gets batted around too easily.
Singer had the second-best performance because he at least threw strikes at a decent amount (it’s just the same “third pitch” problem plaguing him). As for Bubic, this was one to forget. Being constantly behind in counts is not a recipe for success, especially for a pitcher who averages a sub-91 MPH fastball. He needs to be better if he wants to keep his spot in the rotation.
While it is just one outing for the three, the rough performances from the group have opened up another pressing issue: Should the Royals move on from pitching coach Cal Eldred sooner rather than later?
Alex Duvall of Royals Farm Report seemed to hint that the Royals’ young pitchers constantly struggling at the Major League level, despite dominating in the Minors, is a problem that needs to be fixed at the Major League level in some fashion:
I do not imagine the Royals will make a change tomorrow. However, it’s hard to ignore Bubic, Singer, and Kowar’s struggles at the MLB level the past couple of seasons.
Furthermore, it will be interesting to see how Carlos Hernandez and Daniel Lynch fare in the next two games. If they get lit up or struggle with control, much like the three did today, well…it will be harder for Dayton Moore and Matheny to ignore the “Fire Eldred” coalition of Royals fans.
It’s frustrating to see Bubic, Kowar, and Singer go through the same issues from one season to the next, as if they didn’t make any adjustments at all this Winter and Spring.
Again, it’s only one game…
But the Royals’ young starters need to show progress in the next few weeks.
If they don’t, well, it may be time to make some kind of change, whether it’s Eldred or someone else.
The Royals can’t afford for this young crop of pitching talent to be wasted like in seasons past.
Photo Credit: William Purnell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images