The Royals saw their three-game win streak end on Saturday afternoon, as they lost to the Orioles 6-4 in game three of the series. The Royals are currently 20-38 for the year, still in last place in the AL Central division, 13.5 games behind Minnesota as of June 11th.
Without a doubt, an Achilles heel of this Royals club this season has been the pitching, starting pitching in particular.
And that is a shame, especially with the bats coming around since the Royals replaced Terry Bradshaw with Alec Zumwalt as hitting coach.
The Royals offense has seen a resurgence as of late from some veteran hitters who started off the year cold. Whit Merrifield posted a .700 OPS in May and is posting a .682 in June, both big jumps from the .369 mark he posted in April. And Salvador Perez is starting to showcase his 2021 self over the past couple of weeks, as evidenced by this monster home run on Friday night.
Now, the starting pitching hasn’t been a total lost cause, especially over the past couple of weeks.
Brady Singer is looking better after a demotion to Omaha earlier this season. Kris Bubic has gutted out two decent performances, though his lack of premium stuff could hold him back from being anything more than a back-of-the-rotation kind of starter. And Jon Heasley, despite struggling with walks early on this year, is coming off his best start of the season on Friday night.
The injury to Zack Greinke and the continued struggles of Carlos Hernandez (which resulted in him going to Omaha to work out some things) have opened up opportunities for the Royals’ young starting pitchers at the Major League level. For the most part, the Royals’ young pitchers have responded in positive ways over the past month (and who knows what could happen with Angel Zerpa, who was recently promoted in the wake of Collin Snider’s demotion to Omaha).
Daniel Lynch though is the exception.
Without a doubt, Lynch has been the Royals’ most frustrating starting pitcher to watch over the past month. There is no questioning Lynch’s talent and potential, and he has already shown the making of being a possible long-term ace for this Royals rotation this season.
In the first month of play, Lynch posted a 3.38 ERA, 1.19 WHIP over three starts, and 16 IP. That included 16 strikeouts to only four walks as well, a pretty stellar mark.
Lynch’s start was a bright spot for a struggling Royals rotation, especially at the beginning of May. In fact, Lynch’s success was referenced by Royals president Dayton Moore as a reason to defend the job Cal Eldred has done as pitching coach.
Unfortunately, it’s been a rough couple of months for Lynch after a promising April.
In the month of May, Lynch posted a 5.67 ERA and 1.78 WHIP over six starts and 27 IPs. He posted 16 walks to 27 strikeouts, good for a K/BB ratio of 1.43, a significant decline from the 4.00 mark he posted in April.
June has not been much better. In two starts and 11 IP, Lynch is posting an 8.18 ERA and 1.55 WHIP. The walk and strikeout ratios look better, as he has struck out 11 batters while only allowing three walks so far this month. Unfortunately, his HR problems have only amplified this month, as he has given up four home runs this month, which is more than his total in April (three) and May (two).
His June total included this three-run home run in the sixth to Tyler Nevin which essentially turned around the game for the Orioles (and led to their victory).
It was the typical Lynch start: some really excellent innings, followed by innings that get out of control quickly.
The Royals need Lynch to progress and be the “ace” of this rotation at some point this season or early next year. This is especially true with Greinke unlikely to be a Royal after 2022, and Brad Keller being a popular trade candidate this summer.
But it feels like Lynch isn’t going to progress much under this current structure…
And that is why something needs to happen from this Royals club, especially if they care about the long-term potential of Lynch, and this starting rotation.
Lynch’s Up and Down Season Thus Far
When looking at Lynch’s player breakdown data via Baseball Savant, it was a pretty stellar start, especially when one looks at called strike plus whiff rates for his respective pitches.
Lynch was more effective with his four-seamer, as well as slider, as he posted whiff rates of 30 and 33 percent with those pitches, respectively. Though he did give up four runs on eight hits in 5.1 IP on Saturday, he only gave up one walk and struck out seven batters. His seven strikeouts today tied a season-high and was the first time since April that he struck out that many batters.
Lynch showcased some promising command of his pitches, especially on a swinging strike end. Here’s a look, via Savant, on where in the strike zone Lynch generated whiffs on Saturday afternoon at Kauffman Stadium.
The chart above shows what kind of upside Lynch has when he’s placing his pitches where they need to be. When he keeps his slider low, he gets whiffs. When he keeps his four-seamer high, he gets whiffs. When he gets that sinker to run in on lefties, he gets whiffs.
Now, let’s look at the same pitch chart from today on base hits Lynch allowed.
When Lynch makes mistakes, either the fastball lower toward the middle, or the slider up in the zone, hitters make him pay, as the Orioles did on Saturday.
For the year, his wOBA zone chart paints a similar story to Saturday.
In the upper part and glove side of the strike zone, Lynch has been effective against opposing hitters. Unfortunately, anything in the middle has been roped, and it’s been a challenge for Lynch to avoid that area, especially over the past couple of months.
Here’s an example of Lynch locating the slider perfectly in the lower glove-side of the strike zone against Colorado hitter Sam Hilliard to generate the swing and miss.
And here’s Lynch getting AJ Pollock of the White Sox to strike out swinging on a four-seamer that is up in the strike zone, around where those blue zones are located.
Unfortunately, the mistakes are getting hit harder as opposing hitters gain more familiarity with Lynch at the MLB level.
Below is an example of Lynch hanging a slider on the arm side edge of the strike zone to Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. Guerrero picks it up and absolutely jacks it 110 MPH to the opposite field for a line-drive home run.
Lynch has struggled with giving up hard contact at the Major League level. Last year, he gave up an average exit velocity of 90.7 MPH on batted balls, as well as a hard-hit rate of 44.3 percent. This year, those numbers have gone up, as he is averaging an exit velocity of 91.7 MPH on batted balls as well as a hard-hit rate of 47.1 percent, according to Savant.
There was a time this season when Lynch was seeing a decline in hard-hit rate this season, which was a promising sign. Unfortunately, those rates have spiked up, which can be seen in the breakdown chart below:
The saving grace this year for Lynch has been his increase in K rate (19.3 to 17.7 percent in 2021) and decline in walk rate (9.9 to 10 percent in 2021), which is a reason why his xERA is lower at 4.74. That wasn’t the case last year, as his xERA of 6.31 was much higher than his 5.69 ERA.
Still, it’s going to be an up and down season for Lynch, especially if the mistakes are not limited, and the mechanical adjustments aren’t made at some point this year. If things continue as they have the past couple of months for him, it’s plausible that this could be a “plateau” season at best, or a season of regression, at worst, for Lynch.
That’s why something needs to be done on the Royals’ end.
And the focus has to be on Eldred.
What Needs to Happen for Lynch and the Royals Pitchers?
It’s been a frequent topic among Royals fans on Twitter this season, but Royals Weekly said it best when it came to why a pitching coach change is necessary, especially in relation to Lynch.
KC Star columnist Sam McDowell also provided some sobering stats about Royals starting pitchers in general, especially those who were demoted to Omaha and how they fared in respective starts after getting called up. While Lynch hasn’t been to Omaha this year, his struggles are just as evident as Singer and Bubic’s.
An interesting data set to look at from Lynch’s splits that don’t bode well for Eldred, or the Royals staff in general, is his TTO (times through the order) metrics.
I expected Lynch’s numbers to look bad the second or third time through the batting order, which is typically referenced by Royals announcers on Bally broadcasts (Rex Hudler especially).
However, Lynch surprisingly struggles the most at the BEGINNING of games, and his metrics when facing a lineup a second or third time aren’t as bad as I initially would have envisioned.
Here’s that data set:
Now, the walks are higher when he faces a lineup a second time around. But his K rates are 20 percent or higher when he faces a batting order a second and third time. He also has much better xFIP rates when facing a lineup a second time (4.97) and a third time (4.35).
The main issue for Lynch when facing a lineup a second or third time is the home runs allowed, as he has given up 1.93 home runs per nine innings when hitters have seen him a third time around in a game. That being said, his strand rates, K rates, and xFIP numbers show that Lynch has the potential to get stronger as the games go on, as long as he keeps his pitch count numbers efficient.
But his struggles out of the gate are frustrating, especially since this is pretty typical for other Royals starting pitchers this season.
Here’s a look at Bubic’s TTO splits, and it paints a similar picture to Lynch’s 1st time through the order struggles (and perhaps even more so):
The Royals starting pitchers are not getting prepped properly by Eldred and this Royals pitching staff.
Bubic and Lynch’s numbers demonstrate that, and Lynch’s struggles should particularly stand out more. Bubic is ultimately a No. 4 or No. 5 starter at the end of the day (at best), mostly because he lacks the high-velocity fastball. Lynch on the other hand can be the long-term ace of this staff or a Danny Duffy-type at the very least.
But with how things are going now? He’s more likely to be Mike Montgomery than Duffy. And that would be a waste of Lynch’s talent and potential.
Is Eldred solely responsible for Lynch’s pitching woes?
Of course not. Lynch’s development has been uneven, and it’s obvious that he could use some work on his mechanics in the coming weeks, whether it is in Kansas City or briefly in Omaha. That “rushing” of Lynch to the Majors certainly falls on Moore and the Royals front office, as Moore pointed out nearly a month ago.
But the game prep? The first inning woes? That falls on Eldred and the coaches who work with the Royals starting pitchers.
And there needs to be some accountability for that, especially in a lost season where the Royals are 18 games under .500 at the 58-game mark of the 2022 season.
Letting Eldred go or making a pitching staff change won’t solve all the Royals’ starting pitching woes or Lynch’s own issues.
However, the Royals cannot let Lynch continue to slide and lose this important year of growth and development. Lynch should be the Royals’ Opening Day starter in 2023. Plain and simple, no questions asked. That’s his ceiling as a starter at the MLB level.
The struggles of Singer and Bubic didn’t seem to get Moore and JJ Picollo’s attention about Eldred and the pitching staff this May.
Hopefully, the issues and sharp regression of Lynch do the trick this time around.
Photo Credit: Joe Puetz/Getty Images