At the Halfway Mark, the Royals Pitching Staff’s Walk Issues Stick Out Most

After dropping the final game of the series 5-2 to the Houston Astros, the Royals are sitting at 31-50 for the year. With it officially being the halfway mark of the 2022 season, it can be easy to come to some concrete judgments on how this season has gone thus far, and what Royals fans should expect for the remainder of the year.

On one hand, there are a lot of things to be optimistic about as Royals fans.

For starters, the offense is starting to come into this own, especially over the past couple of months. Alex Duvall of Royals Farm Report posted this Tweet on Wednesday, which highlighted the growth this group of hitters has made since June 8th (and honestly, the numbers are pretty impressive).

Going up and down the Royals lineup, there are a lot of positives to be found.

Andrew Benintendi is hitting over .300 (albeit with not a lot of power) and has been Kansas City’s most consistent hitter (which is why he’s in the No. 2 spot). Not only is he a favorite to be the Royals’ lone All-Star representative, but he’s also generating a lot of favorable interest from other teams on the trade market, which could result in an impressive return for the Royals by the August deadline (which Jeff Passan believes SHOULD be the case).

But Benintendi is not alone.

Whit Merrifield has looked more like his old self after a brutal April. Bobby Witt, Jr. and MJ Melendez are bringing youthful energy and power to the lineup as well as some promise defensively (in addition to some youthful “blunders” but that’s part of the growing process). Nicky Lopez is finally starting to hit again (he had a solid series against the Astros, which included two hits today), and Kyle Isbel and Edward Olivares are showing “flashes” of being productive players, even if they may be “platoon” outfielders ultimately.

Hunter Dozier has been the brunt of a lot of Royals fans’ frustration since signing his extension a season ago, and it’s understandable after his brutal campaign in 2021. At one of the last games I went to, a fan would clap every time Dozier got out and yelled “25 million down the drain, Hunter!” (So classy.) However, he has been one of the Royals’ more productive hitters this year, as he is posting a slash of .263/.328/.443 and has nine home runs in 287 plate appearances, which is tied for third on the team along with Melendez (behind only Witt’s 12 and Salvy’s 11).

In fact, the offense has been a big reason why the Royals have improved greatly over the months of June and July (thus far).

Since June 1st, the Royals are 14-19, with an 11-15 record in June and a 3-4 mark in July after Thursday’s loss. To compare, the Royals’ .423 winning percentage in June was considerably better than their dismal May (.310 percentage) and subpar April (.368 percentage).

While there have been a lot of problems for the Royals this season overall, and even over the past couple of months, Royals hitters are trending in the right direction in both the short and long-term.

This also includes Vinnie Pasquantino starting slowly at the plate (.133 average; .549 OPS) and Nick Pratto not debuting just yet, much to Royals fans’ chagrin. On a positive end, Pasquantino is still drawing walks, and Pratto continues to demonstrate legitimate power in Omaha which should help the Royals lineup even more whenever he makes his MLB debut.

(Pratto also was just announced to the Futures Game in Los Angeles during All-Star week, which is the second straight year hes’ played in the game.)

So after 81 games, there is some light at the end of the tunnel for this Royals squad, even if the record doesn’t quite show it.

Unfortunately, the light is only dim right now.

And what’s preventing it from being brighter are the walk issues plaguing this Royals pitching staff which has been a recurring theme for both the rotation and bullpen in the Mike Matheny and Cal Eldred era.

Looking at the Royals Pitchers’ Walk Problems Thus Far

Today’s loss against the Astros was a perfect microcosm of the struggles of this Royals pitching staff when it comes to giving out free passes on the basepaths.

As Mark McCarthy of Kings of Kauffman highlighted today on Twitter, the Royals allowed 10 walks to Astros hitters today, which is a big reason why the Astros scored five runs today despite having the same number of hits (eight) as the Royals.

For some teams, 10 walks would be an absurd number. And yet, considering the Royals staff’s control and command issues, this high number of free passes doesn’t come as much of a surprise to any Kansas City sports fan who has not just been following this team this year, but over the entire tenure of manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Cal Eldred (who was pitching coach during the last two Ned Yost years in 2018 and 2019).

Alec Lewis of the Athletic seemed to confirm the Royals’ walk struggles this year from a pitching-end, as he pointed out that the Royals were on pace to set a new record for walks allowed in the history of the Royals franchise:

And to make matters worse for the Royals fanbase, it could be by a considerable margin, as he outlines below:

As one can see from Lewis’ tweet, it is possible that the Royals could walk 50 MORE batters than the previous record for walks allowed in a season. That is insane to think about, especially since the staff was supposed to be better in 2022 with the compilation of the young arms in the rotation (i.e. Lynch, Singer, Bubic, and Heasley), the addition of Zack Greinke, and the return of dependable bullpen arms such as Scott Barlow and Josh Staumont (in addition to new ones who were supposed to boost the bullpen such as Amir Garrett and Taylor Clarke).

Unfortunately, this is not just simply a rotation problem or a bullpen issue, but rather, a whole staff-wide struggle.

According to Fangraphs, the Royals rotation ranks 27th in BB/9 as of Thursday (though that number could go up tomorrow after Bubic’s six-walk outing), and the bullpen ranks 30th in BB/9. In addition, according to Fangraphs, the Royals staff as a whole has the highest walk percentage in baseball, as evidenced in the table below:

It’s not just the walks that are solely responsible for the Royals’ pitchers’ issues.

The Royals also rank last in the league in K-BB percentage at 8.4, which is 1.5 percent lower than the Colorado Rockies, who have the league’s second-worst mark. If a pitching staff cannot limit walks and cannot strike out batters…well, it’s going to be tough when it comes to finding any kind of success on the mound.

And the overall data backs that up, as the Royals rank 27th in staff ERA (4.97) and FIP (4.57), as well as last in xFIP (4.67). Whatever the metric, Royals pitchers fare poorly, and it’s a big reason why this club is 21 games below .500 after 81 games this year.

Unfortunately, to reference Lewis’ earlier Tweet, this isn’t suddenly a new issue for the Royals pitching staff.

The fact that two of the previous season-high walk marks came last year and three seasons ago demonstrates the control struggles of Royals pitchers may be an organizational issue, especially since many Royals pitchers in the rotation were pitching in the Minor League back in 2019 (including Kris Bubic, who was pitching in High-A then).

I decided to take a look then (via Fangraphs) at how the Royals looked on a cumulative end from 2019 to the present, which covers all three of Matheny’s years as manager, and four of Eldred’s five seasons as Royals pitching coach.

As expected, the results are not good, as Royals fans can see in the data set below:

Of the fifteen-lowest clubs in K-BB percentage from 2019 to 2022, the Royals had the second-worst mark over that time span at 11.1 percent. Only the Colorado Rockies were worse on a K-BB percentage end, which is not surprising considering the Rockies’ pitching and overall struggles over the past four years. Additionally, the Royals had the fourth-highest team ERA (4.85) over that time span, as well as the second-highest xFIP (4.70).

And lastly, the Royals’ control problems have contributed to command issues where pitchers are giving up way too many easy pitches to hit on a frequent basis. That can be seen in the Royals’ barrel rate allowed since 2019, which has been the fifth-highest in baseball over that time frame.

Yes, the Royals have benefited from a pitcher-friendly park and a pretty above-average defense for the most part since 2019. That being said, it’s not a surprise that the Royals have failed to win more than 74 games over the past four years, and could be on their way to another 100-plus loss season in 2022 (they are on pace to lose 102 after today’s loss).

A low number of strikeouts, combined with a high number of walks and barrels allowed will always result in more losses than wins, especially over a long period of time.

Should Royals Fans Be Hopeful? (CSW Can Point Us in the Right Direction)

I know there is one big solution that everyone is mentioning, but I am not going to go there because it’s beating a dead horse at this point.

But, I want to share Kris Bubic’s breakdown data today via Savant, because his metrics from today paint an interesting picture.

Despite allowing six free passes, Bubic still generated an overall CSW (called-strike plus whiff) rate of 34 percent, including a 35 CSW rate on his four-seamer and 40 CSW rate on his changeup. Royals fans also saw him ramp up his velocity, as his four-seam average velocity was up 0.3 MPH from his yearly average, and his max four-seam velocity was up over 96 MPH, which is pretty uncommon for a pitcher of Bubic’s tools.

In addition, let’s take a look at Bubic’s outing and how it compares to other Royals starting pitchers’ CSW rates thus far in 2022.

For the year, Bubic’s CSW is only 24 percent, so his outing today was nearly 10 percent better than his season average (which is going to boost his overall CSW after today when Fangraphs updates their metrics). It also was four percent higher than the average of the best Royals pitcher on a CSW-end, which is Brady Singer, who has a CSW rate of 30.6 percent for the year.

So, there is some progress being made on a CSW rate end from Royals starting pitchers. Even on the bullpen-end, those numbers look pretty similar for Royals relievers with 10 or more IP this season, which can be seen in the table below.

Of the entire Royals pitching staff, only five pitchers have CSW rates of 28 percent or over (Coleman, Kowar, Staumont, Barlow, and Singer). For starting pitchers, one wants that average CSW to be in the 26 and over range, and for relievers, it’s preferable if it’s 28 and above.

Let’s take a look at the Yankees, who have baseball’s best pitching staff on an fWAR basis, and see how they compare to the Royals on a CSW end.

Comparatively, the Yankees have 11 pitchers who are at that 28 percent-and-over mark on a CSW end. That includes a healthy mix of relievers like Michael King and Clay Holmes, as well as starters like Gerrit Cole, Jordan Montgomery, Luis Severino, and Nestor Cortes. Additionally, the Yankees have six pitchers with CSW rates of 30 percent or higher, which is four more than the Royals.

Hence, it’s not a surprise that the Yankees have a team ERA of 2.90 and the Royals have a 4.97 mark, as of July 7th.

The Royals pitchers need to get better at throwing strikes, whether it’s on a called-strike or swinging-strike end, with the latter being the preference. Thankfully, the young pitchers are showing the potential to get opposing hitters to swing and miss, with Singer being the best example, and Bubic showing the potential to do so as evidenced by his weird outing today against Houston.

But they are not generating strikes consistently enough, and haven’t done so with Matheny and Eldred leading the charge.

There needs to be a change in development and philosophy in order to salvage anything from this pitching staff both in 2022 and beyond (as I have written about before).

Even with the hitting progressing, the pitching will continue to be the story in the second half of the season until something drastic happens.

And who knows when (or if) Dayton Moore and/or JJ Picollo will make that necessary change.

Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

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