It’s been an interesting start to the season for Royals starting pitchers.
On one hand, there has been some slight improvement, sans a couple of rough outings (i.e the 17-3 Cleveland loss).
According to Fangraphs, the Royals starting staff ranks 20th in ERA, 17th in WHIP, 19th in BB/9 and 17th in H/9. While those aren’t stellar numbers by any means, they at least leave room for improvement, especially as they get more stretched out over the course of the full 162-game season.
However, there has been one category where the Royals starting pitching staff has struggled immensely thus far this year:
Striking batters out.
Royals starting pitchers rank last in the league in K/9 with a rate of 5.40. That is further amplified by a K/BB ratio of 1.44, which ranks 28th in the league, as of April 18th. When combining those two factors, it is not surprising that the xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching) of the Royals starting staff ranks 26th in the league, which is not a good sign when it comes to predicting the outlook of the rotation going forward in 2022.
Nonetheless, it’s only been eight games into the season, and only three Royals starters have had more than one start (Zack Greinke; Brad Keller; and Kris Bubic).
Are the Royals starting pitchers simply still stretching into the 2022 season after a shortened Spring Training? Or is the strikeout concerns a legitimate issue with the Royals staff that could hinder their production on the mound this season?
Let’s take a further look into this issue and what Royals fans should be looking for going forward from Royals starting pitchers in the coming weeks.
Here’s a glimpse at the Royals starting pitching staff on an individual basis and what their strikeout and walk numbers look like, according to Fangraphs data.
When it comes to K percentgae, only Lynch and Keller have marks over the 20 percent threshold. Hernandez (5.3 percent) and Greinke (2.3 percent) have the most paltry marks, though at least they are able to keep their walk rates and BB/9 numbers correspondingly low.
Yes, Hernandez and Greinke are still posting negative K-BB percentages (-5.0 and -2.3 percent, respectively). But, considering how low their walk rates are, a good outing with some strikeouts added could immediately and dramatically turn around those subpar K-BB rates.
That is not quite the case with Bubic, who has the third-best K rate of Royals starting pitchers this year (15.4 percent), but has a walk rate that is double the mark of his strikeout rate (which produces a team-worst number in K-BB rate of starting pitchers). David Lesky of Inside the Crown hinted that this struggle to throw strikes early on may be “mechanics” related, as he broke down in his post this morning:
Therefore, Bubic’s overall control is a much bigger, and specific, concern of the Royals’ starting pitchers. It will be more important for that 14.40 BB/9 and 30.8 percent walk rate to go down first before worrying about his strikeout rate going up for the time being.
Let’s circle back though to Greinke and Hernandez, who have struggled to put away batters to start off the 2022 season.
What’s interesting about Hernandez is that he has a pitch that can generate a whole lot of swings and misses in his slider. His slider generated a whiff rate of 53.8 percent and a put away rate of 25 percent in his last start.
On a CSW rate end, the slider was Hernandez’s most effective pitch, especially when compared to the other pitches he threw in his first start against Cleveland, which can be seen in the table below from Savant:
The slider produced a CSW rate of 47 percent. It was 19 percent higher than the average CSW of his all his pitches, and 16 percent better than his four-seamer, his second-best pitch on a CSW end in his first start.
The pitch generated 77 more RPM of spin on it against Cleveland than a year ago, and the higher spin offering proved to be effective against the Guardians, especially when he located it away and low in the zone to right-handed batters.
Here’s an example of Hernandez getting Franmil Reyes to whiff on a slider thrown low and away:
There’s no question that Hernandez’s slider can be an effective put away pitch, especially if he continues to generate higher spin on it in comparison to a year ago.
What will be important going forward this season is the four-seamer, which had a good CSW rate (31 percent), but didn’t seem to do much in two-strike situations, as evidecned by his put away rate of zero on the pitch in his first start.
Let’s examine his contour pitch chart when he threw the four-seamer in two-strike situations in his start against the Guardians:
The four-seamer just caught too much of the strike zone in his first outing to generate swings and misses in two-strike counts. If he can get that four-seamer more up in two-strike counts, that will not only make his four-seamer more effective in terms of striking out batters, but could also help his slider be even more effective down the road as well.
After breaking down Hernandez, let’s analyze Greinke a bit further, who has a bit of a more interesting profile than Hernandez when it comes to strikeout struggles.
Unlike Hernandez, or any other Royals starting pitcher (we’ll dig deeper into Keller and Lynch in a bit), Greinke really doesn’t have a pitch that is adept at generating swings and misses.
Here’s a glimpse at his run value data, which also contains whiff, K, and put away rate data from his first two starts this year:
Greinke has only one strikeout this year, so it’s not a surprise that he has four pitches that have generated a K rate of zero percent. He still is proving to be effective on a run value end, despite not generating a lot of strikeouts thus far in 2022. His curveball has a run value of -4, and his slider and four-seamer have -1 run values, respectively.
The ptich that could have the most strikeout potential may be his changeup, which is his second most-thrown pitch at 24.9 percent. Last season, the changeup generated a K rate of 21.4 percent, which was the highest K rate of any of Greinke’s pitches a year ago.
Here’s how Greinke located his changeup a year ago, according to Savant contour data:
Now, let’s view how that heatmap on the changeup looks this year, after two starts:
Greinke isn’t catching a whole lot of the strike zone thus far with his changeup this year. While he is generating a decent amount of whiffs on it early in the count (15.4 percent whiff rate), the zero percent K and put away rate demonstrates that hitters are spitting on it in two-strike situations.
Here’s an example of Austin Meadows holding up his swing to avoid striking out on a changeup that tails just out of the zone on a 2-2 count:
If Greinke can generate more called strikes on the changeup, and get it to catch more of the plate initally, he will be able to boost his strikeout numbers, since his changeup may be his best put away pitch at this point in his career.
By getting more called strikes with the pitch, especially against lefties, he can produce chases out of the zone like this one against Jed Lowrie a season ago:
Therefore, the key for Greinke in his next couple of starts will be the location of his changeup, and if he can get back to commanding it for strikes again in that lower armside area of the zone, which he was able to do in 2021.
When it comes to two pitchers whose K rates are strong, it’s kind of interesting to see their K numbers so high, and yet, they are producing two different campaigns thus far.
Keller has the second-best mark on a K-BB rate end at 15.6 percent and that is fueling his 1.93 ERA, which is the best mark of Royals starting pitchers thus far. Keller is not confusing anyone for a strikeout artist, but he is seeing an uptick in K’s, and combining that with the low number of walks has been a recipe for success in his first two starts.
As for Lynch, his 22.4 percent K-BB rate is actually BETTER than Keller’s, as his 12.60 K/9 and 28 percent K rate. And yet, Lynch is tied with Bubic for the worst ERA mark of Royals starting pitchers with a 10.80 mark.
The main difference between Lynch and Keller has been home runs, and that is evidenced in Lynch’s pitch result chart, via Baseball Savant:
When Lynch has been able to keep the ball up in the strike zone, he has been able to generate strikeouts, especially with his four-seamer (notice how three of his strikeouts from his start against the Cardinals were in that upper armside area of the zone).
Here’s an example of Lynch throwing that four-seamer on the upper armside area of the strike zone to coax a “sword” strikeout of St. Louis’ Paul DeJong:
Unfortunately, when he hangs pitches in the middle or lower middle of the strike zone, hitters have teed off on them for home runs.
Granted, it’s nice to see Lynch throw strikes. However, Major League hitters are going to make Lynch pay for mistakes, like this hanging slider he threw to Cardinals catcher Andrew Knizner:
Lynch has got to locate that slider better if he wants to avoid those kind of moonshots on a frequent basis, especially against better hitters.
The former Virginia Cavalier could take a page out of Keller’s book, who also relies on his slider quite frequently. In the pitch below, Keller locates the slider where it needs to be: low and out of the zone just enough to get Tucker Barnhart of the Tigers to chase and look silly:
Keller does have two starts while Lynch has only one, so it will be interesting to see if Lynch will make the proper adjustments command-wise, especially in his first home start of the season.
On one end, the Twins lineup is filled with hitters who can go yard, as Carlos Correa, Jorge Polanco, Miguel Sano, and Byron Buxton (if healthy, he’s missed the last three games due to a knee injury) all have big-fly potential.
And yet, the Twins also rank last in strikeout rate as a lineup going into today. Thus, if Lynch can keep that four-seamer up and slider down in the zone, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility to think that he can lower that ERA while keeping his K-BB rate numbers relatively stable in his second start of the season.
And hence, close the gap in ERA between him and Keller.
It hasn’t been great for the Royals starting pitchers thus far, but solid second starts from Greinke and Keller, and a more promising outing from Bubic (though up was the only direction after the disastrous first stater) should give hope to Royals fans wanting more fro this rotation.
The lack of strikeouts have been concerning, but there are signs that each pitcher can turn things around, especially if they make certain adjustment with a particular pitch. Of course, the starting staff will each go through their fair shares of peaks and valleys in 2022.
Nonetheless, Royals management should continue to stay the course with this group, and be hopeful as well that Jackson Kowar can tweak some things in Omaha and Brady Singer can make some adjustments out of the bullpen as well. It’s too early to completely give up on those seven pitchers who could all contribute starting innings to the Royals this season.
As stated before, the Royals will face a team that strikes out a lot in the Twins in this upcoming series at Kauffman Stadium.
And hopefully, that could mean an uptick in swings and misses and a lowering of ERA for Hernandez, Lynch, and Greinke, who are all slated to pitch over the next three games.
Photo Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports