Why the Royals Should Demote Bubic to Omaha (And Bring Up Heasley In the Process)

Right now, it’s easy to understand the frustration of Kansas City Royals fans (though I do think many Royals fans are being a TAD dramatic…I mean, we’re still early in the year after all).

The Royals are currently 9-17 after dropping two out of three against the Baltimore Orioles, who somehow are NOT in last place in the AL East (that honor belongs to the Red Sox). Alex Duvall of Royals Farm Report did Tweet an interesting projection stat after the Baltimore series loss, which of course, has brought out the best, and worst, of Royals fans on Twitter:

Granted, I have harped about staying positive with this Royals team before on this blog and on other Royals content forums (including the Royals Rundown Podcast with Jacob Milham) even in the midst of this tough stretch.

After all, I really do not think the Royals are as bad as their 9-17 record indicates. In addition, the AL Central is a division where the Royals can make up a lot of games, should things break right (it is likely only one team will emerge with a winning record by season’s end, much like last year).

That being said, while I will continue to believe and watch this team (and by “believe”, I mean I believe that they will be a 73-77 win team), we are reaching a point in a couple of weeks where some changes need to be made, especially on a roster end. Royals fans are not necessarily mad that the club is losing (or at least the ones that really follow the club, and not the ones who just follow in between Chiefs football and Jayhawks basketball season). It was expected that the Royals would still be a year away from truly being a .500 team, especially after a 74-88 season in 2022.

On the other end, the Royals need to show that there is some hope on the horizon for 2023 and beyond. While Bobby Witt, Jr., Edward Olivares, and Daniel Lynch have provided that on occasion, there are still a lot of veterans with questionable futures who are not exactly getting Royals fans “excited” about the future of this organization.

In a series of posts, I will take a look at a few different moves that the Royals should make before the start of June.

And in this particular post, I take a look at why demoting Kris Bubic to Triple-A Omaha and calling up Jon Heasley would be the right move for this Royals rotation both in the short and long-term.

Why Should the Royals Demote Bubic to Omaha?

After a disastrous start against the Cardinals where Bubic didn’t get out of the first inning (the second time this has happened this year), the Royals announced that Bubic would be moved out of the rotation and to the bullpen for the time being.

I can understand the Royals’ thinking in moving him to the bullpen to help him get out of this funk. He started 2021 in the bullpen after a rough Cactus League campaign last Spring and did okay in the role, as he posted a 3.08 in 26.1 innings of work out of the Royals bullpen, according to Fangraphs splits.

However, many of Bubic’s advanced metrics suggest that Bubic may not have been as good as his reliever stats from 2021 indicated.

Bubic actually posted a lower K/BB ratio as a reliever (1.47) than as a starter (2.09). In addition, his xFIP of 5.06 was 62 points than his xFIP as a starter (4.44), and he lucked out as a reliever on a BABIP end, as his reliever BABIP (.264) was 20 points lower than his starter BABIP (.284).

Therefore, a move to the bullpen might not actually solve Bubic’s woes at the Major League level.

A priority for Bubic should be to take some time to build up his four-seam fastball in his outings, as his fastball has looked lackluster in a variety of metrics.

Here’s a look at his four-seam run value data over the past three seasons via Baseball Savant, and notice how bad his four-seamer has been this season in comparison to 2021 and 2020.

A big contributor to that high run value, batting average, and slugging against his four-seamer can be tied to how much velocity Bubic has gotten behind his four-seamer in his outings this year.

According to Statcast data, the harder Bubic has thrown his four-seamer, the less “productive” contact hitters have made against the pitch. In the table below, notice in the highlighted area how all extra-base hits accumulated against Bubic this year on the four-seamer has come on pitches under 91 MPH.

As Royals fans can see, anytime Bubic threw the four-seamer over 91 MPH, base hits were merely singles. On four-seamers that clocked in under 91 MPH, eight of those nine pitches that went for base hits went for extra bases in the process.

Here’s an example of Bubic throwing a four-seamer at 92.9 MPH to Seattle’s Ty France, who hits the ball up the middle and just out of the reach of second baseman Nicky Lopez:

On the flip side, let’s take a look at a four-seamer that Bubic throws at 90.5 MPH against St. Louis’ Nolan Arenado on May 4th:

Groundball hits like the one Bubic gave up to France are part of the game, and they don’t hurt that bad (it’s when they’re compounded with walks when it becomes a problem, which has been the case with Bubic).

However, four-seamers served up as the one to Arenado are going to not just sink this Royals quickly (especially considering their offensive inconsistency), but also Bubic’s prospects at the Major League level.

What’s interesting is that Bubic has seen his four-seamer increase in velocity the deeper he goes into a game. That is evident in the pitch velocity chart from his last decent performance, which came on April 29th at Kauffman Stadium against the New York Yankees.

Notice in the graph below how his four-seam velocity spikes up as he throws deeper into the game:

Bubic still has the potential to be a decent starter at the Major League level, especially with a changeup that is generating a K and whiff rate of 23.5 percent this season. On the other hand, he needs to be able to get more ramped up with his four-seamer to begin his outings, for his failure to do so has contributed to awful starts against Cleveland and St. Louis where he failed to get out of the first inning.

The lefty pitcher also needs to be able to not just throw at a harder velocity, but do so with better command as well.

When he’s throwing under 91 MPH, it’s because he’s not locating when he’s trying to throw his four-seamer harder, and thus needs to compensate to make sure the pitch gets in the strike zone. That’s not going to work against MLB hitters, as evidenced in the Arenado home run above.

Hopefully, Bubic can work on not just throwing harder to start out games in Triple-A Omaha, but also throwing harder while still generating strikes.

If he could do that in Triple-A, that could be a huge boost for him when he returns to the rotation, which is ultimately where he will need to be for the Royals to be successful in the long-term (Bubic really doesn’t have the arsenal to be a reliever).

Why Should the Royals Bring up Heasley?

Heasley’s been the Storm Chasers’ best pitcher arguably thus far, though his profile is not perfect by any means.

Over six starts and 26.1 IP, Heasley is posting a 4.44 ERA, which includes an HR/FB rate of 17.4 percent. That is not only higher than his rate at the MLB level last year (15.8 percent) but also his mark in Double-A Northwest Arkansas as well (16.2 percent). The long ball has been a bit of an Achilles heel for Heasley the past couple of seasons, and it is a big reason why his strand rate (LOB%) is quite down at 61.8 percent in Omaha this year.

A big reason though Heasley deserves a possible call-up to Kansas City is mostly tied to his control, which has been immaculate so far with the Storm Chasers this year. Not only is Heasley posting a paltry BB/9 of 2.05, but his K/9 is 10.25, which produced a K/BB ratio of 5.00.

To compare, the Royals’ starting pitchers have produced a K/BB ratio of 2.30 this season as a collective, which ranks them 26th in baseball, according to Fangraphs. And in contrast to Bubic, Heasley’s K/BB ratio is 4.27 points higher than Bubic’s (0.73).

That is not a typo.

Now, it will be important for Heasley to keep batted balls on the ground as much as possible when he makes the transition to the Major League level.

Surprisingly, Heasley has been effective in terms of generating groundball outs in Omaha this year, as his GB rate is 44.6 percent. Even at the Major League level, he produced a groundball rate of 45.8, which was pretty stellar for his first exposure to Major League hitters.

In his MLB stint a year ago, when Heasley located his four-seamer low in the zone, he was able to generate easy groundball outs, which made up for his 17.2 CSW rate on the pitch a season ago, according to Pitcher List.

Here’s an example of Heasley getting Jorge Polanco of the Twins to ground out easily to first baseman Carlos Santana on a four-seamer low in the strike zone:

And yet, much like Bubic, Heasley will have to make sure he commands his four-seamer properly when he returns to the Big Leagues. Last season, hitters posted an expected slugging (xSLG) of .650 against Heasley’s four-seamer, and right now, Triple-A hitters have punished those fastball mistakes as well.

Heasley needs to limit examples like this one below to Ryan Jeffers, which came in the same game against the Twins last October. Jeffers rocked an 89 MPH four-seam mistake 429 feet (with an exit velocity of 107 MPH):

If Heasley does not command his pitches, especially his four-seamer, whenever he makes his 2022 MLB debut, it won’t be surprising to see his call-up be a rather short one, especially with Brady Singer chomping at the bit for another chance at the rotation.

Projecting Bubic and Heasley Going Forward

Bubic’s stock is pretty low among Royals fans right now, and Heasley’s is kind of the inverse.

However, Royals fans should not be too quick to anoint Heasley as a savior for this Royals rotation right now, in addition to not categorizing Bubic as an automatic bust. I know it’s been easy to do so thanks to Heasley’s solid April in Triple-A, and his local Big 12 ties (he went to Oklahoma State for college).

Has Heasley been better than Bubic so far this season? Absolutely, just based on the raw numbers.

And yet, one has to remember Heasley has been pitching against less skilled and talented hitters in Triple-A, while Bubic has been going against Major League batters.

Yes, Bubic’s K/BB ratio numbers are unacceptable for an MLB starter. That being said, Heasley’s HR rate numbers are also concerning, especially considering the cold weather environment of Omaha and other Midwestern Triple-A cities at this time of the season.

It’s possible that if Heasley doesn’t command his pitches, especially his four-seamer, his line could look identical to Bubic’s over a similar stretch of innings this season. After all, Heasley has a much barer MLB track record than Bubic at the end of the day.

Nonetheless, Heasley deserves a shot in the rotation for a period of time, and Bubic needs to be pitching consistently in Omaha to work on his mechanics with the hope that he can improve that velocity issue, especially in the first innings of outings.

A bullpen stint didn’t make sense for Singer, and now he’s finally working on the changeup consistently in Omaha, which will benefit him and the Royals in the long run. Royals fans are already seeing the fruits of him pitching the changeup more often in Omaha:

Let’s see if Bubic can experience a similar improvement in Triple-A, only this time tied to his four-seamer’s effectiveness…

And let’s also see what Heasley can do in his second stint in the Kansas City rotation.

Photo Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

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