It hasn’t been easy this season for the Royals pitchers from the draft class of 2018.
Through three starts, Kris Bubic is posting a 14.14 ERA in seven innings of work. As for Jackson Kowar, not only did he struggle in his lone appearance at the Major League level, but he has also seen the same difficulties in Triple-A Omaha.
That can be said in his rough line today for the Storm Chasers:
While it hasn’t been easy to watch Bubic or Kowar on the mound this year, it seems like there is some light at the end of the tunnel for Daniel Lynch and Brady Singer at the Major League level.
Their performances against the White Sox on April 25th were both steps in the right direction for this year and beyond, even if they came in slightly different ways for Lynch and Singer, respectively.
Lynch and the Four-Seamer
A promising development for Lynch from his rookie season in 2021 to his sophomore campaign can be traced back to his four-seam fastball.
Lynch throws the four-seamer 43.5 percent of the time, which makes it his primary pitch this season. It was also his primary pitch back in 2021, as he threw it 40.5 percent of the time during his first year in Kansas City.
However, while the difference in four-seam usage hasn’t been all that drastic, the results from 2021 to 2022 have been quite dramatic.
That can be seen in the increase in strikeout percentage from last year to this season thus far.
Here’s a look at a K percentage graph from Baseball Savant that shows Lynch’s four-seamer improvement in K rate, and how it fares to the K rate on his other pitches over the past two years.
Last year, his four-seamer was his worst pitch on a K rate end (8.9 percent).
This year, his four-seam K rate is the best of any of the pitches in his repertoire. That includes his slider, which was not only his best strikeout pitch a year ago (35.4 percent), but is still a good pitch this year when it comes to putting batters away with two strikes (25 percent K rate).
A big reason for Lynch’s prowess on the four-seamer has been the difference in command on the pitch this season.
Here’s a look at Lynch’s heatmap on his four-seam fastball season ago, according to Baseball Savant:
While Lynch did throw his four-seamer up in the zone during his rookie season (which is ideal with any 95+ four-seamer), his pitch did frequently catch a lot of the middle of the strike zone. Throwing four-seamers in the middle of the zone, especially without a lot of movement, will be feasted upon by Major League hitters, which was the case frequently for Lynch last season.
Here’s an example of Lynch throwing a four-seamer in the middle of the strike zone to Houston’s Jake Meyers in an August game at Kauffman Stadium. Not surprisingly, Meyers makes Lynch pay for his poor command of the pitch:
Let’s flash forward to 2022, and take a look at his four-seam heatmap from this season through three starts, via Savant:
It’s still early, but there is a deeper red dot area ABOVE the strike zone, which is important.
Most of the swings and misses he’s generated have come in that area, and that’s a good strategy, as that area above the strike zone is difficult to make consistent contact on from a hitter’s perspective.
Here’s an example of Lynch locating in that area against Minnesota’s Jorge Polanco, and he whiffs badly on the four-seamer:
And here is Lynch in his last start against the White Sox, getting AJ Pollock to strike out on a four-seamer just above the strike zone:
In addition to generating more whiffs and strikeouts on the four-seamer from a year ago, Lynch has also been more effective in terms of limiting productive contact on the pitch this season.
Last year, hitters posted an xwOBA of .454 as well as an average exit velocity of 93.1 on the four-seamer.
This season? That xwOBA is down to .307, and the average exit velocity on batted four-seamers is only 91.8, a 1.3 MPH drop from 2021. Therefore, it’s not a surprise that the run value of Lynch’s four-seamer is -1, which is a 7-run difference from a year ago, according to Savant.
Granted, it’s only been a few starts.
But with a revitalized four-seamer, Lynch is making it clear that he’s the Royals’ third-best pitcher in the rotation right now, and could make a run as the rotation’s second-best one by season’s end.
Singer Thriving Out of the ‘Pen
Singer was demoted to the bullpen out of Spring Training and many Royals fans wondered how Singer would fare in a relief role, especially after being primarily used as a starter in 2020 and 2021.
Despite a rough start, the former 2018 first-round pick has handled the assignment incredibly well, even if he hasn’t gotten a whole lot of work.
Singer made his third appearance of the year against the White Sox on Tuesday and he looked pretty impressive. In two innings of work against Chicago, he struck out two batters, allowed one hit, and gave up no runs nor walks on 33 total pitches.
Here’s a look at how his player breakdown fared on Tuesday evening on the South Side:
Yes, Singer was still a two-pitch pitcher against Chicago. However, he generated a CSW (called-strike plus whiff) rate of 40 percent on his sinker (which he threw 61 percent of the time) and a 33 CSW percent overall, which are both impressive rates.
Since moving to the bullpen, the 25-year-old has seen a boost in velocity on both of his pitches, which in turn has made them both more effective in the process. His fastball velocity currently ranks in the 63rd percentile, which was much better than the 58th percentile a season ago.
His sinker doesn’t have a huge whiff rate (9.5 percent), but it has been an effective pitch in terms of generating called strikes (30.9 percent) as well as putting batters away (25 percent put away rate).
He has also been much better this year with his sinker in terms of generating a lower launch angle (-5) and groundball rate (75 percent). Last year, those marks were 7 and 56.5 percent respectively.
Of course, this year has been a small sample, but it will be interesting if Singer can continue to generate a low launch angle and high groundball rate with his sinker going forward this season. If he can, that will make up for his lack of whiffs and a limited two-pitch repertoire.
When Singer is able to do those two things on batted balls, he’s able to induce a lot of easy groundball outs for this solid Royals infield defense (though the future looks murkier now with Adalberto Mondesi going to hit the IL).
Here’s an example of Singer doing just that against Pollock from the White Sox:
What really helped Singer in his last outing was keeping the ball low in the zone, especially when he threw pitches for strikes.
Take a look at his pitch chart, and notice how he kept his slider just out of the zone, and his sinker in the lower part of the strike zone.
He does make a couple of mistakes, but thankfully White Sox hitters didn’t do much with those sinkers up in the strike zone. Nonetheless, his command with his pitches is much better than his first outing against Cleveland on April 10th, where he got batted around, especially in the first inning.
Here’s what his pitch chart from that game looked like:
Singer left way too many pitches in hittable areas of the strike zone against the Guardians in his first outing of the year. And thus, it’s not a surprise that Singer gave up four runs on six hits in three innings of work in that appearance.
Pitches left in those areas are going to get hit hard and thus, bring in runners when they are on base.
Here’s an example of Singer seeing the consequences of making that kind of mistake against Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez:
The big question going forward will be if Singer will keep this command, along with the bump in velocity as he accumulates more innings.
Currently, Singer’s walk rate ranks in the 87th percentile, according to Baseball Savant.
With Royals pitchers’ walk issues (they rank 17th in SP BB/9 and 18th in RP BB/9), it will be interesting to see if Mike Matheny will opt to bring Singer back to the rotation (especially if they demote Bubic), or keep Singer in the pen, where his stuff plays well.
The Royals need help in both the rotation and bullpen in 2021.
However, if Singer continues to rely on two pitches, which he has done again for a third-straight season, it may be tough for him to make a lasting return to the Royals rotation in 2021.
Even with that improvement in sinker and slider command.
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