To put it bluntly, the Royals bullpen has been disappointing in 2022. After ranking 13th in reliever fWAR and 19th in ERA a season ago, according to Fangraphs, the Kansas City bullpen has seen its rankings this season drop to 26th and 27th in those categories, respectively.
While the Royals starting pitching staff and hitting inconsistency have certainly contributed to the Royals’ disappointing season, the lackluster Royals bullpen is a big reason why Kansas City is 21-41 and sits in last place in the AL Central.
The hitting (led by a surging Bobby Witt Jr.) and the starting staff have been much better during the month of June, which has given a discouraged Royals fanbase at least a little hope for the remainder of the season and future seasons beyond 2022. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Royals relievers, as the group has struggled to produce and hold leads with the exception of closer Scott Barlow and setup man Josh Staumont (though the latter has certainly had his fair share of inconsistency this season).
If the Royals want to see a rise in the standings and avoid the 100-loss mark for the 2022 season, they will need to see some relievers step up, especially in the middle-to-late innings. The Royals have already started to make some changes in the bullpen pecking order, as they optioned Collin Snider to Omaha on June 10th. Snider was an early success story in April after surprisingly making the squad out of Spring Training, but he was getting shelled as of late, as David Lesky of Inside the Crown mentioned on Twitter shortly before Snider’s demotion.
With Snider in Omaha for the time being, and with Jake Brentz, a key left-handed setup man, recently transferred to the 60-Day IL, there are open spots in the Royals bullpen that need a dependable option, especially when the Royals are holding a lead.
In this post, I take a look at three Royals relievers who are showing some positive signs as of late and could be key contributors to help right the ship in the Royals bullpen for the remainder of the 2022 season.
Jose Cuas, RHP
Cuas made his Royals and MLB debut on May 31st and is currently posting a 1.08 ERA and 0.96 WHIP in nine appearances and 8.1 IP this season. The 27-year-old, who was an 11th-round pick in the Milwaukee Brewers system in 2015, is an inspirational story, as he originally was drafted as an infielder, but struggled to hit enough to stay in professional baseball. He ended up working as a FedEx driver in New York, working on his game in the evenings with his brother before eventually getting another shot in professional baseball, but this time as a pitcher.
His story can be found in more detail in the CBS Sports story below, but safe to say, there is not a more heart-warming story on this Royals roster this season.
While Royals fans will want to root for Cuas for sentimental reasons, Kansas City baseball fans should also be cheering him on because he is a good pitcher who could really help this Royals bullpen, especially in a setup role.
Last year in Northwest Arkansas, Cuas posted a 1.95 ERA in 22 appearances and 32.1 IP with the Naturals. The 27-year-old shows impeccable control, as he walked only seven batters in Northwest Arkansas a season ago, and this year in Triple-A Omaha, he only walked six 20.2 innings of work. Considering Royals relievers rank 30th in BB/9, according to Fangraphs, Cuas’ control is a much-welcomed sight out of the pen.
What makes Cuas effective is his side-throwing pitching motion which makes his slider quite effective. According to Savant, Cuas is generating a 56.3 percent whiff rate on his slider and a 46.2 K rate as well on the pitch. The pitch, which Cuas throws 32.1 percent of the time, is generating a -1 run value so far this year, as well as a .162 wOBA.
Here’s a look at the slider getting Baltimore’s Trey Mancini to strike out on an 0-2 pitch in a June 11th game at Kauffman Stadium.
If there is one worry about Cuas, it’s that his control hasn’t been as impeccable in the Majors so far as it was in the Minors this season and last. His 12.5 walk rate is kind of high, and his 2.50 xERA reflects that.
However, it could be an example of Cuas just adjusting and getting more comfortable at the MLB level. Thus, if his walk rate goes down after the next few outings, it is possible that Cuas could earn himself a seventh or eighth-inning setup role behind Barlow sometime soon.
Dylan Coleman, RHP
Coleman came into 2022 with a lot of hype after he posted a 1.42 ERA and 0.95 WHIP in five appearances and 6.1 IP down the stretch in 2021. Acquired with Edward Olivares from San Diego in the Trevor Rosenthal deal back in 2020, the Missouri State product boasts an electric fastball that averaged 98.2 MPH last season, as well as a slider that generated a 50 percent K rate in 2021. It wasn’t out of line to think that Coleman was a candidate to challenge Barlow for the closer’s role, especially if Barlow struggled at all in 2022.
Barlow has remained firm in his hold of the closer’s role so far this year, but Coleman’s had an up and down campaign unfortunately this season. He still possesses some nasty stuff as fastball velocity and spin rank in the 96th and 93rd percentiles, respectively, according to Savant. He also leads all Royals pitchers in whiff rate, according to Savant, as his 33.8 percent whiff rate puts him in the 93rd percentile as well.
His four-seamer and slider continue to be his most utilized in 2022, as he throws them 61.8 percent and 37.2 percent of the time, respectively. His four-seamer is generating a whiff rate of 25.5 percent, and his slider is producing a whiff rate of 52.2 percent, both improvements in those respective categories from a season ago. Unfortunately, he struggles to put batters away with his two main pitches, as his four-seamer only has a put-away rate of 10.8 percent, and his slider has a 27 percent put-away rate, with the latter being better, but still not as good as it needs to be.
A big issue is that opposing hitters just do not chase against Coleman. Coleman is only producing a chase rate of 25.9 percent, which puts him in the 26th percentile in that category. A reason why hitters stay patient against Coleman is that he can have trouble locating the strike zone, which is evidenced in his 18.4 percent walk rate which not only places him in the bottom 1st percentile in the league but also heavily negates his 26.3 percent K rate.
In fact, according to MSS’ Leaderboards’ pBB%+, which compares predictive walk rate in comparison to league average, Coleman had one of the highest marks in the league (which consisted of nearly 700 pitchers).
With an inability to show consistent command and control, Coleman has to throw strikes in very hittable areas of the strike zone, and that has resulted in a high barrel rate (11.3 percent) and hard-hit rate (43.5 percent) allowed. When the ball is put in play against Coleman, it has often been productive contact, and when he combos that with walking batters, which he is prone to do, the results can be disastrous.
The month of May was particularly bad, as he posted a 5.54 ERA in 11 appearances and 13 innings pitched. Coleman only gave up eight hits and allowed 12 walks to 13 strikeouts. His lack of control earned him a short demotion to Triple-A Omaha on May 22nd.
However, he was quickly called up on May 26th due to injury and COVID issues affecting the Royals pitching staff at the time.
June has been a better month, as he is producing a 1.80 ERA in six appearances and five innings of work. He still is walking a good amount of batters (four walks), but he is limiting hits (only two allowed) and he is still striking out a good number of batters (six).
Here’s an example of Coleman pumping his four-seamer at 99 MPH past San Francisco’s Brandon Crawford to end the inning in a June 14th game in San Francisco’s Oracle Park.
Coleman may not be ready for the closer’s role yet, but he is the kind of pitcher who can come in and throw the ball past opposing hitters in tough spots, which isn’t a bad quality to have. Staumont has a very similar profile and was much like Coleman early on in his career when it came to command and control problems.
If Coleman can continue to find success in “mop up” or low leverage roles, it is possible he could transition to a setup role in late July or August, with the potential for even more as soon as 2023.
Taylor Clarke, RHP
This one may rile up Royals fans as Clarke hasn’t been all that good this season. He currently is posting a 5.40 ERA in 24 appearances and 25 IP this season, and he basically has been regulated to low-leverage situations this month after holding a setup role back in April and early May.
Unfortunately, Clarke had a disastrous May, which is a reason why he’s no longer in manager Mike Matheny’s “circle of trust” in crucial situations.
During the month of May, according to Savant splits, Clarke posted a ridiculous 10.61 ERA over 11 appearances which included 21 hits and 13 runs allowed in 9.1 innings pitched. Clarke didn’t walk any batters over the month of play, but that proved to be a problem, as hitters attacked him early and often in counts.
Here’s an example of Arizona’s Jordan Luplow crushing a Clark fastball for a home run at Chase Field on a 0-1 count in what was arguably Clarke’s worst performance of the year (and maybe his career):
Clarke proceeded to give up three runs total on three hits, including two home runs, in 0.2 innings of work. Half of the home runs Clarke has given up this year (four) came against his former team.
Take away that awful May though, and Clarke looks like a different pitcher. He posted a 1.13 ERA and 0.63 WHIP in eight appearances and IP in April which included zero walks, eight strikeouts and a save. His June hasn’t been quite as good, as he is posting a 3.52 ERA and 1.70 WHIP in five appearances and 7.2 IP. That being said, it is a vast improvement from where he was back in May when his confidence looked absolutely shot.
In his last three appearances, he has only given up one run on five hits in four innings of work. His changeup has been a pitch to watch this year, as he throws it 22.4 percent of the time, and is generating a 25.5 whiff rate. However, it’s only producing an 8.4 percent put-away rate, according to Savant, and also has a .442 wOBA, which is the worst mark of his three-pitch arsenal (he also throws a four-seamer and slider).
Usually, the problems come when he leaves it up in the zone, which is far too often, as his pitch heatmap chart from this demonstrates below:
Lately, though, he’s been doing a better job of getting the changeup to drop out of the strike zone, which in turn produces more swings and misses.
Here’s an example of Clarke getting that changeup to drop out of the zone, and Baltimore’s Trey Mancini swings over it and strikes out as a result.
If Clarke wants to find success for the remainder of the season, he will need to locate his changeup better, much like he did in that at-bat against Mancini. If he does, he could see an improvement in his overall metrics, and thus, find himself back in a 7th or 8th-inning setup role again. He certainly has the potential to handle such a role, and his walk rate ranks in the 99th percentile, according to Savant, which is what this bullpen needs, especially in crucial, high-leverage situations.
If he keeps leaving the changeup high in the zone though, well…Clarke may be pitching for another team, maybe a Triple-A one outside the Royals organization (he has no Minor League options available) sooner rather than later.
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