Does the Royals’ struggles with pitching analytics explain the coaching staff’s lack of success?

I do not want it to seem like the Royals as an organization is completely against modern-day baseball analytics.

Yes, the Royals under Dayton Moore have always been an organization that has valued traditional scouting and player development, especially in comparison to other MLB ballclubs. But even in the past five years, there have been signs that the Royals have been making inroads in the areas of analytics that has produced positive results in player development, especially on a hitting end.

The work of Drew Saylor and Alec Zumwalt in the Minor Leagues is seeing fruition at the Major League level. That has been especially true with the early performances of Bobby Witt, Jr. and MJ Melendez, and with Vinnie Pasquantino and Nick Pratto bound to also make an impact at some point in Kansas City, especially after the Trade Deadline.

Daniel Mack is also one of the brightest minds in baseball, and already he has helped revamp the Royals Research and Development department in a short period of time, as profiled by the Athletic’s Alec Lewis in a late April piece.

And yet, while the Royals seem more open to analytics than their once “scouting-heavy” reputation suggests, there hasn’t been much of a development on a pitching end the past few years, especially under pitching coach Cal Eldred and manager Mike Matheny.

This is despite Matheny, who was dogged by a tag of being “anti-analytics” during his time as a manager in St. Louis, vowing to be more open to applying analytical principles in his clubhouse and everyday strategy. He “proved” that by taking a “baseball analytics” course when he was in-between manager gigs and employed as a special assistant in the Royals organization back in 2019.

However, this is not a post about Matheny, his job as a manager, or whether or not he truly “embraced” analytics after taking a graduate course back in 2019.

Rather, this is a look at the Royals organization and how they embrace certain metrics and practices in regard to pitcher development, and how that has affected the pitchers in this organization at the Major League level, especially those who have been drafted and signed originally by the Royals.

Because this week has brought up some warning signs that do not bode well for the Eldred, Matheny, and the Royals’ pitching development staff both for the remainder of the season, as well as the long term.

And considering how much the Royals are banking on their young arms to carry this club into the next wave of “competitiveness” in the next few years, there may be a dire need for the organization to either change its philosophy or personnel after this season.

Two big conversations happened on Twitter that seemed to point to the Royals’ struggles with pitcher development not just at the Major League level, but perhaps even in the upper minors as well.

The first indicator came from Driveline Baseball founder Kyle Boddy, the revolutionary (and somewhat controversial) baseball entrepreneur who formerly was an organizational pitching director for the Cincinnati Reds from 2019 to 2021. Boddy posted some metrics about which clubs had the highest whiff rates in their Minor League organizations and which ones had the lowest, and of course, the Royals made the list, but not in a good way.

(Sidenote: at least we are better than the Cardinals!)

As expected, the lackluster ranking sparked an outcry from outraged Royals fans on Twitter, especially in regard to Moore, Eldred, and the organization as a whole.

What piqued my curiosity though was Boddy’s response to a question from a Royals fan on whether or not he would take the Royals pitching coach job if offered it this offseason.

Here’s what Boddy replied on the bird app in regard to whether or not he would coach under Moore and JJ Picollo.

Boddy is a polarizing figure in baseball for sure. The Royals are not the first organization he has butted heads with before (i.e. why he’s no longer with the Reds). As an outsider to the professional baseball world, Boddy definitely embodies and believes what he preaches, which can frustrate or put off people in traditional baseball circles. In many cases, Boddy is right, but he also has had his share of failures, and one has to wonder how his profile would be, had Trevor Bauer not been a client of his.

Nonetheless, the fact that Boddy, who seems certainly available and ready to be involved again in an MLB organization, was that critical of Moore and the Royals front office is a peculiar sign of the pitching philosophy of this organization.

If they are not “fans” of Driveline, what are the Royals fans of? That is a harder question to answer, unfortunately.

The second concerning Tweet came from Codify, an organization that does data analysis and individual mentoring with professional pitchers. Honestly, it’s hard to really pinpoint what Codify specifically does and how it’s different from Driveline or other analytic-utilizing companies (they pretty much only run through Twitter and Instagram, according to their site).

That being said, they seem to have some kind of influence among MLB pitchers, as they announced that they were going to be working with Royals reliever Amir Garrett.

As expected, Royals’ Twitter continued to use this as evidence to pile on Eldred and the Royals organization, as Rany Jazayerli and Royals Weekly posted “dunking” quote tweets with the featured tweet above. Unlike Boddy, who seems to have had a history with Moore and Picollo, Codify was clear that they were not “interfering” with or doing anything in contrast to the Royals coaching staff, and that cases like Garrett were actually quite common.

Nonetheless, it is interesting that Garrett would go outside the organization to get help. Even if it is normal, it is a sign that whatever Eldred or bullpen coach Larry Carter is going over with him is not working or resonating, and it makes sense.

Garrett will be entering his last year of arbitration next year, and he is posting a 6.05 ERA in 24 appearances and 19.1 IP with the Royals this season. He was expected to be an anchor in this bullpen, and he has been anything but, unfortunately (though his outing today in the Royals’ 2-1 win over the Rangers was a step in the right direction).

The former Cincinnati reliever knows what is at stake for this year and beyond on a financial end. And the idea that he doesn’t trust that Eldred and Carter are fully going to get him there (or anyone else in the Royals organization) is a sign that either the Royals have lost the respect of many pitchers on the staff, or they are not providing enough analytical information to help pitchers make significant improvements.

If veterans like Garrett are perhaps feeling this way (and who have the money and clout to reach out to outside organizations), one has to wonder what the Royals’ young pitchers are feeling, as they may not feel as comfortable as Garrett when it comes to pursuing such a route.

It’s been a damning past couple of days for the Royals pitching development staff…

And thus, something needs to be done, at least before the start of the 2023 season.

As said before, I do not think the Royals are an anti-analytics organization by any means (or at least as not as bad as they once were).

Their focus on hitting development and how they incorporated advanced analytics and camera work has obviously produced results in the upper Minors and with some rookies this year. People forget how bad Melendez and Pratto looked in 2019 in Wilmington. Their gains as hitters since 2020 show the analytical success Saylor and Zumwalt have had as members of the Royals organization.

But pitching has been a different story for the Royals.

What’s funny is that I think Eldred and even Carter are not necessarily averse to applying advanced metrics to their coaching approach. Even in 2020 in a conversation with Lewis of the Athletic, Eldred mentioned the benefit of pitching data, and that he and Carter try to utilize it in their coaching work with different pitchers.

Here’s a link to Lewis’ article from a couple of years ago.

And here’s a snippet from Lewis’ piece where it seems like Eldred embraces the benefits of analytical analysis and resources from a pitching-end.

It feels like you never know enough. It really does. There’s always something else that comes out. But the basis never changes. That’s what’s fortunate. We may have another way to calculate it, or test it, or watch it. We know it’s great to get to ask, “What is the release point? Where should Brad release his slider? Where should he release his two-seamer? What does his hand look like on the Edgertronic camera when he does it right?”

The player can get immediate feedback. That’s probably the biggest advantage of this… 

“Q&A with Royals pitching coach Cal Eldred on performances, progression and more” by Alec Lewis; The Athletic

And yet, despite having the tools and data at his disposal, Eldred fails to connect with this pitching staff as a whole, especially the young starting pitchers such as Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Jon Heasley, Kris Bubic, Jackson Kowar, and Carlos Hernandez, who is currently still throwing in Triple-A Omaha.

It’s not just a matter of Eldred not being prepared honestly. It seems to be more of a matter of communicating the information into specific strategies and getting the pitchers to believe in the coaching staff’s advice. Their analysis failed to resonate with Jakob Junis, who had to go to San Francisco this season to tap into his full potential (as well as his most effective pitch mix).

Even in the postgame show on 610 AM radio, Royals Insider Josh Vernier mentioned that the Royals coaching staff (Eldred included) is giving the pitchers the right advice, but they need to “choose” to apply it on their end.

The Royals are in a peculiar spot in the short term and long-term with this pitching staff. There needs to be a philosophy where analytics is not just fully understood from a pitcher and coaching perspective, but embraced and applied with regularity. Too often, any kinds of gains individual pitchers make after a stint in the Minors or coming off a rehab stint go away after a few outings or starts. That is not a sign of long-term success, let alone that analytics is a priority with the pitchers and organization as a whole.

Moore and Picollo have too much riding in the near future for them to just ignore this disconnect among their pitching corps. They cannot afford to have this group of pitchers turn into the next Mike Montgomery, Jake Lamb, Chris Dwyer, and Aaron Crow, like in 2011.

Will Moore push for a wholesale philosophy change, and truly get everyone to embrace what they need to on an analytical end?

Will he find people who can carry out that vision on a pitching end, much like Saylor and Zumwalt did on a hitting end?

Or will he stand pat, and continued to rest his future in the hands of Eldred and Matheny?

Safe to say, Moore, and the Royals organization as it currently is built, may not last long if he continues to opt for the latter.

Photo Credit: Nick Tre. Smith (FLO)-USA TODAY Sports

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