What is Wrong With the Royals Bullpen?

The Royals have lost eight out of their last 10 games since letting go of hitting coach Terry Bradshaw, including six straight at the hands of the White Sox, Twins, and Diamondbacks, respectively.

In the desert heat of Arizona, the Royals’ offense came alive somewhat, as they scored 11 runs total in the two-game trip. Unfortunately, the Royals pitching staff particularly imploded, as they gave up 17 runs total in the two losses, which dropped their season record to 14-28 this year.

Alec Lewis posted a discouraging Tweet on Wednesday that illustrated the struggles of the Royals pitching staff as a whole in 2022:

Going into the year, the bullpen was expected to be a strength of this Royals pitching staff, especially as the young starters adjusted to the Major League level. Furthermore, the Royals ranked 12th overall in bullpen fWAR across 2020 and 2021 combined, according to Fangraphs.

Hence, with the return of Scott Barlow and Josh Staumont, as well as the additions of Amir Garrett and Taylor Clarke, it was expected that the Royals bullpen would be the least of Kansas City’s worries in 2022.

Unfortunately, it’s been the exact opposite trend for the Royals pitching staff. The Royals starters, led by Brady Singer and Daniel Lynch are starting to trend upward, while the Royals bullpen is regressing big time. That has been particularly on display in “blown” leads against the Twins on Sunday and Diamondbacks on Tuesday.

The fan confidence in the Royals bullpen has been so low that Royals fans are quick to point out their dissatisfaction on Twitter, which only seems to amplify the Royals’ late-inning woes.

So how did the Royals bullpen get here? How did they go from an organization that was known to develop and maximize their bullpen talent to one that has been unable to put things away with the game on the line recently?

As expected, the issue is a more complicated one than Royals fans may initially think.

Struggles with First-Pitch Strikes

As Lewis pointed out in his tweet, the control and command of the Royals bullpen have been less-than-desirable over the past couple of months.

The Royals rank 28th in bullpen K/BB ratio with a 2.04 mark and also rank 28th in BB/9 (4.37). On a K/9 basis, they are a bit more respectable, as they rank 17th in that category with an 8.91 mark.

Unfortunately, the lackluster walk numbers basically outweigh the positives of those reliever strikeout rates.

While walk and strikeout numbers paint a general picture of the Royals bullpen, a deeper dive into their plate discipline data via Fangraphs illustrates the struggles of this Royals bullpen to just generate strikes consistently. The Royals relievers’ lack of ability to find and command the strike zone is a big reason why their walk numbers are not only inflated but their ERA and WHIP ones as well.

When it comes to first-pitch strike percentage (F-Strike %), the Royals bullpen rank dead last in the league, which can be seen in the table below:

The Royals are 5.2 percentage points behind the median mark (the Mariners) and are even two percent behind the Red Sox, who have the second-worst F-Strike% in the league.

The paltry first-pitch strike percentage explains many of the struggles of the Royals bullpen.

The lack of an ability to get ahead in the count, especially in crucial parts of the game, leads to not only hitters starting off in hitter’s counts (which leads to more advantageous pitches for hitters), but also a more defensive mindset from the Royals relievers as well.

It’s a lot harder to be aggressive with secondary stuff or live on the edges when one is behind in the count against a hitter rather than ahead. In fact, the Royals bullpen actually ranks okay in strike zone percentage (18th overall) and swinging-strike rate (16th overall). On the other hand, they rank 25th in called-strike rate and 23rd in CSW rate (called-strike plus whiff), which probably is tied to their first-pitch strike struggles.

Therefore, for the Royals bullpen to turn it around, the Royals coaching staff needs to emphasize those first-pitch strikes more than ever. If the Royals bullpen can actually start working ahead in the count, then it is plausible to think that this Royals bullpen can be more effective overall as the season progresses, especially since their ability to generate strikes overall isn’t as bad as their F-Strike% suggests.

This development is a big surprise to see from the bullpen. The organization this past offseason really emphasized first-pitch strikes with their younger pitchers during Spring Training, as written about in a piece by Lewis on The Athletic.

Here’s a snippet about the Royals’ focus on first-pitch strikes this past offseason:

Some of the findings were obvious, especially in the macro. When the Royals’ starters as a group began the count with a strike, they allowed a .666 OPS. When they started things off with a ball, they allowed a .876 OPS. Such a seemingly minor detail in a game — the first-pitch strike — matters profoundly. That being the case, Royals manager Mike Matheny said the club is going to “make a big deal out of it”.

“First we’ve got to give them a good why,” Matheny said. “If we can give them some data that shows them what first-pitch strikes do. What it looks like when you go to a 1-0 count as opposed to an 0-1 count individually. And we did that.”

“Royals young starting pitchers meet with R&D department and add different pitches, new grips” by Alec Lewis; The Athletic

Now, it’s tough to tell in the article if the Royals just emphasized this approach with their young starters or their organization as a whole. Nonetheless, this rough stretch from the bullpen illustrates that the Royals’ R&D department needs to employ a similar approach with their bullpen if they want to see some gains in this area of the pitching staff this season.

Clarke and Snider: Opposite Ends of the F-Strike% Spectrum

With first-pitch strike percentage so important, I decided to categorize Royals relievers based on F-Strike%, via Fangraphs.

Here is how they ranked (with the criteria being Royals relievers with 10 or more IP this season):

The top four Royals relievers in F-Strike% have been the Royals’ most-used pitchers by Mike Matheny in crucial spots, and their first-strike rate does correlate with general strike aptitude as well. Garrett, Barlow, and Staumont, who rank 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, respectively in F-Strike% also possess the three best CSW rates on the team, ranking 3rd, 2nd, and 1st, respectively in that category.

The only exceptions to the F-Strike% ranking are Taylor Clarke and Collin Snider, who both have been frequently utilized by Matheny this year.

Clarke is the more polarizing of the two, mainly because he has struggled the most lately.

Clarke has given up seven hits and seven runs in his past two outings. As a result, has seen his ERA go from 2.45 after his May 18th outing against Chicago to 6.46 after his latest disastrous outing against his former team in Arizona.

And yet, when it comes to generating first-pitch strikes, Clarke is better than any Royals reliever. His 70 percent rate is 6.4 percent better than Garrett, who has the second-best mark on the club.

That being said, Clarke’s first-pitch strike percentage has made him predictable, and hitters have employed an aggressive approach against him when they dig into the box.

Not only are hitters generating a contact rate of 78.6 percent against him, which is the third-highest rate of Royals relievers this year (only Joel Payamps and Gabe Speier have higher rates), but hitters are also generating a swing percentage of 57 percent against Clarke.

To compare, no other Royals reliever is seeing a swing percentage in the 50 percent range.

An example of Clarke not being accurate enough in the strike zone, despite getting ahead in the count, was on full display against the Diamondbacks’ Jordan Luplow on Tuesday night.

Clarke was ahead of Luplow 0-1, but he serves up a 97 MPH fastball right down broadway, and Luplow, knowing to be aggressive against Clarke based on the scouting report, absolutely demolishes it 408 feet for a home run.

There’s no question that on a control-end, Clarke is a serviceable option. He’s not going to walk batters, and that shows in his ZERO walk rate, which is obviously the best mark on this team, according to Fangraphs.

On the other hand, his command is a different story, and he’s going to have a lot more outings like Sunday and Tuesday if he’s not better in terms of locating in the strike zone.

Here’s a look via Savant of his pitch heatmap on called and swing strikes (scroll right) and the same map but on base hits (scroll left). It’s not a surprise that hitters have been feasting on him as of late, based on the location of his pitches on that heatmap.

Snider is an interesting case because his F-Strike% is tied for the second-worst mark of Royals relievers this season at 50 percent (he’s tied with Speier). Additionally, Snider is also tied with Garrett for the worst zone percentage as well at 38.2 percent.

And yet, despite these struggles in terms of generating early strikes, Snider has performed decently in his first year in the big leagues.

His 27.3 CSW rate ranks 5th of Royals relievers, and his 71.9 percent contact rate is also stellar as well. While his 5.51 ERA leaves some to be desired, his 1.96 E-F (ERA-FIP) difference is the highest mark for Royals relievers, and this number, as well as his 3.62 xFIP and 3.64 SIERA, suggest that Snider could see some positive regression as he pitches more innings.

What’s interesting about Snider is that he’s not only able to get hitters to chase, but also have them swing and miss when they chase out of the zone as well. According to Savant, Snider has the third-best chase rate of Royals pitchers at 32.9 percent, behind only Barlow (37.3 percent) and Clarke (33.6 percent). However, Snider has only a chase contact rate of 54.2 percent, a far cry from Clarke, who has a chase contact rate of 65.2 percent.

A big reason for Snider’s “better-than-you-think” metrics has been due to Snider’s slider.

He not only throws 52.4 percent of the time, but he also generates a 38.6 percent whiff rate on the pitch, which has helped him also post a -3 run value on the pitch so far this season.

Here’s an example of Snider’s slider getting lefty Brad Miller of the Rangers to swing and miss badly:

Even though Snider struggles to get ahead in counts, he offers a lot as a pitcher that makes up for his first-pitch strike struggles.

For starters, he’s a groundball savant, which can be seen in his 2.80 GB/FB ratio which is head and shoulders above any other Royals reliever this season.

Snider may be going through a tough stretch right now, as he is posting a 7.88 ERA in 10 appearances and eight innings in the month of May. However, he has struggled with some rough batted ball luck and a low strand rate (63.6 percent).

Should his batted ball luck change (which could help with more defensive stability in the wake of Adalberto Mondesi’s injury), then not only will Snider improve his standing in the bullpen, but he will also make his first-strike struggles possibly moot as well.

Who Should Matheny Be Using in Crucial Situations?

I know I have gone nearly 2,000 words so far, but I just wanted to bring up this last point: is Matheny using the right people in the right situations.

Win-Probability Added data paints an interesting picture with that question, as we can be seen below:

On a win-probability end, Snider, despite a lackluster ERA has been the Royals’ best reliever. Not only does he lead in WPA at 0.84, but he has a positive shutdown to meltdown ratio of +7, which is the best mark of the Royals bullpen battery. His ratio is better than Garrett (+3), Staumont (+3), and even Barlow (+5).

Therefore, it will be interesting to see if Matheny will utilize Snider more, especially considering the struggles of Clarke, who is one of two Royals relievers with a negative shutdown to meltdown ratio (-2).

Though Barlow has struggled lately, his high WPA and positive shutdown to meltdown ratio signify that he’s still a reliever who can be dependable for Matheny. Garrett also performs well on a WPA and context-neutral wins-end with 0.37 and 0.33 marks, respectively. Even though his 20 percent walk rate is alarming, he should continue to be utilized in crucial situations, especially against lefty-heavy lineups.

Clarke and surprisingly, Staumount deserve some reservation in the late innings.

Clarke’s 1.24 WPA and -0.51 WPA/LI (context-neutral wins) demonstrate that he needs to recover in some mop-up situations first before he re-enters a “setup” role. To most Royals fans, that is agreeable and not a surprise.

But Staumont has been pretty bad on a WPA basis as well, as his -0.46 WPA and -0.33 WPA/LI are the second-worst marks for Royals relievers in those categories, ahead of only Clarke. He also has five meltdowns, which is the second-highest mark of Royals relievers as well.

Therefore, Staumont’s progress will be interesting to follow, as there was some hope that he could transition into the closer role at some point.

On a positive end, he does have the best CSW rate of Royals relievers at 30.3 percent, and his FIP and ERA are solid at 2.82 and 4.32, respectively. However, he seems to struggle in high-leverage situations, as his walk rate is considerably higher in pressure-packed situations this season, as seen in the table below, via his Fangraphs splits:

Having a 17.9 percent difference from low leverage situations, and a 10.6 percent difference from medium-leverage situations is not good and is a big reason why his xFIP is so much higher at 4.30. That high a FIP could hint at some negative regression for Staumont, and thus, some possible struggles in those spots later in the season.

And thus, a struggling Staumont not only will be troublesome for Staumont’s long-term outlook but the Royals bullpen as a whole both this season and beyond.

Which will only put more pressure on Matheny and pitching coach Cal Eldred when it comes to keeping their jobs for next season.

Photo Credit: Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

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