The Royals Rotation Has Improved…But What Does That Mean for 2023?

When looking at the season as a whole, the Royals starting rotation has not been good. When looking at team rankings via Fangraphs, this is how the Royals starting pitchers fare, as of August 13th:

  • 26th in ERA
  • 27th in WHIP
  • 25th in BB/9
  • 27th in K/9
  • 18th in HR/9

On the other hand, this has been a much better rotation since July 1st, as the Royals as a club has been 20-20 over that timespan.

Since July 1st, here’s how the Royals starters rank in the categories mentioned above:

  • 10th in ERA
  • 25th in WHIP
  • 21st in BB/9
  • 23rd in K/9
  • 13th in HR/9

Now, in some categories, the improvements are only marginal (WHIP, BB/9, and K/9). In two types though, Royals starting pitchers have seen tremendous gains, especially in regards to ERA and minimizing home runs. That’s definitely an encouraging sign for this Royals rotation that includes four pitchers 27 years old or younger (Brad Keller, Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, and Kris Bubic; one can push the number to six if one includes Carlos Hernandez and Jon Heasley).

At 47-67, the Royals are clearly out of the playoff hunt, and they face a tough stretch in the remaining weeks of August.

In addition to this Dodgers home series, they also will be facing the Twins and Rays on the road, and Diamondbacks and Padres to close out the month at Kauffman. Hence, it is plausible that fortunes for this young staff and roster could turn quickly, much to the dismay of Royals fans who are enjoying this new “youth movement” in Kansas City.

With the Royals staff improving, what can Royals fans take away from this group not just for the remainder of the season, but in preparation for 2023 as well? Let’s take a look at a few items that will be important to focus on with this rotation for the remainder of 2022 and this Winter.

Lynch, Singer, and Bubic Appear to Be Long-Term Options

Daniel Lynch didn’t get the win, and he still needs to work on his pitch efficiency (104 pitches in five innings), but he did produce a solid start against one of the best lineups in baseball on Friday night at the K.

Lynch hasn’t been the sole Royals young starter that has shown promise since July 1st. Here’s a look at the numbers of Royals starting pitchers since July 1st, and notice how the top three are Singer, Lynch, and Bubic on an fWAR end.

On one end, Zack Greinke and Brad Keller are still giving the Royals solid innings in the rotation as the veteran starters. FIP suggests that Greinke and Keller have been better than what their ERA suggests over that July 1st to August 13th timeframe.

On the other hand, Greinke and Keller’s respective K/9 numbers are a lot worse than the young Royals trio. Additionally, Greinke has been hampered but high HR/9 numbers, while Keller has been affected by high BB/9 numbers (his 4.02 BB/9 is the worst mark of any Royals starting pitcher since July 1st).

Greinke’s and Keller’s futures also look a lot murkier after 2022.

It is totally plausible that this could be Greinke’s last year as a professional pitcher (which is a big reason why the Royals didn’t make him available at the Trade Deadline). As for Keller, last year will be his final season of arbitration, which could make him a trade candidate this offseason for the right price (since it’s unlikely that the Royals ink him to a long-term extension). Thus, while Greinke and Keller are important right now, their results pale in comparison to the other Royals’ starting pitchers when it comes to long-term outlook.

Another encouraging sign from the Royals’ young starting pitchers over the past couple of months has been their ability to generate strikes, which has been a problem the past couple of years. A good measure for any starting pitcher is CSW rate, which measures called plus swinging strikes on a percentage basis.

Much like fWAR, the top three Royals pitchers on a CSW rate end are Singer, Lynch, and Bubic, though Bubic ranks higher than Lynch in this category.

Royals fans are quite aware of Singer, who’s been the Royals’ best “strikeout-generating” starting pitcher since maybe Greinke in his first stint in Kansas City. After all, his two-seamer has been generating a lot of attention on Twitter over the past couple of months thanks to Pitching Ninja’s frequent Tweets of his nasty pitch.

However, Bubic has been a pleasant surprise, as he has certainly rebounded after a rough start to the 2022 season.

Since July 1st, not only is he producing the second-best CSW rate of Royals starting pitchers, but he also is generating the second-best swinging strike rate at 10.2 percent.

Bubic doesn’t have a high-velocity fastball like Singer or Lynch, but he has been seeing increases in velocity on the pitch in his most recent starts after a dip in velocity in June.

While Royals fans can feel good about the progress of Singer, Bubic, and Lynch this season, the same cannot be said about Heasley, who’s bounced back and forth between Omaha and Kansas City in recent weeks, unable to hold a spot in the Royals rotation.

Heasley’s producing a solid K/BB ratio at 2.20, which is the fourth-best mark of Royals starting pitchers since July 1st. On the other hand, 2.81 HR/9 is the highest mark of that Royals pitching group, and his 19.7 CSW rate is the lowest mark as well. Giving up home runs and failing to generate strikes on a consistent basis is a recipe for disaster, which has been the case for Heasley, who’s producing a 6.75 ERA since July 1st.

It will be interesting to see if Heasley and Hernandez, who only has a four-inning outing in relief since July 1st, will continue to be developed as starters in 2023, or if they will make a transition to the bullpen starting next Spring.

Do the Royals Make a Splash for a Starting Pitcher?

With Greinke set to be a free agent after this season (and maybe retire) and with Keller a free agent after 2023, it could be a wise decision for the Royals to seek out pitching help this offseason. While the Royals’ player development has been effective in developing hitters at the Minor League level the past couple of years, it has been a different story on the pitching end.

Granted, Singer, Lynch, and Bubic have been success stories so far. Unfortunately, the Royals have seen top pitching prospects such as Alec Marsh and Asa Lacy really flounder this year, with Lacy being the biggest disappointment, as the former fourth-overall pick was a Top-100 prospect going into the 2022 season.

If the Royals are serious about taking the next step in 2023, making a serious move for a free agent starting pitcher could be the next transactional step to take for Dayton Moore and JJ Picollo. Granted, the options aren’t flush this offseason, as Cody, formerly of KC Kingdom, noted on Twitter:

Of this group, I think Kershaw is off the table, and think it’s highly likely that he either signs with the Dodgers or perhaps the Rangers, mostly due to the fact that he grew up in Texas. Manaea has ties to the Royals organization (he was a Royals first-round pick who dealt to the A’s in the Ben Zobrist trade in 2015), but one has to wonder if he is interested in coming back to KC after being in Oakland and San Diego.

And while Syndergaard and Taillon could be the most affordable options of the bunch, I am not necessarily sure that those are two pitchers who could be “ace”-type pitchers, especially with their injury histories.

Thus, it may be in the Royals’ best interests to look for a trade, though the possible targets aren’t quite clear at this time of the year.

Could the Royals pull off a James Shields-esque deal this offseason, even if it means giving up some of their prospect capital?

That seems like it could be a better route, though it will be interesting to see if a pitcher or two with a couple of years of control will emerge on the market this offseason.

Where Does Cal Eldred Stand for 2023?

Eldred without a doubt has been a whipping boy for Royals fans the past couple of seasons, and it makes sense considering the pitching staff as a whole has ranked at the bottom of the league nearly every season since he took over in 2018.

Granted, he wasn’t given a whole lot of talent in his first two years at the helm (hard to produce results when Glenn Sparkman is one of your most dependable pitchers). However, the results over the past couple of years have been disappointing, especially considering the hype associated with the Royals’ group of young starting pitchers heading into 2022.

There’s no question that Moore is a fan of Eldred, even amidst the pitching coach’s struggles to maximize this pitching staff’s ability at the Major League level. That was evident in his comments in a June presser which seemed to set off a frustrated Royals fan base at the time.

The recent success of Singer, Bubic, and Lynch could perhaps push Moore and Picollo to keep Eldred around for at least another season. That would be a tough pill to swallow for Royals fans who have been clamoring for him to be let go since the start of Spring Training.

Thus, will Eldred be back when pitchers and catchers report to Surprise in February of 2023?

It still is up in the air, though the success of the starting rotation could be a key factor.

But it should not be the ONLY factor.

For starters, Eldred’s job is not just tied to the rotation. The bullpen has been pretty poor the past couple of seasons, and it hasn’t gotten much better, especially with Taylor Clarke hitting the IL recently, and Josh Staumont struggling since returning off the IL.

Add that with the inconsistency of Amir Garrett and Joel Payamps, and it makes sense why the Royals bullpen ranks 28th in reliever ERA and 30th in WHIP.

Based on those results, there still is a case to let go of Eldred by the end of the 2022 season.

But will Moore and Picollo see that and make that move?

Or will they continue to weigh the development of Singer, Bubic, and Lynch more heavily in their decision-making?

Granted, the latter makes sense, especially since those three will be key to the Royals’ rotation over the next few seasons. That being said, other than those three, Eldred has failed to connect with not just Heasley and Hernandez, but Jackson Kowar, who’s been an absolute shell of what he once was in Omaha in 2021.

Let’s just say, if Eldred is back next season, there will be a lot of angry Royals fans on Twitter, which is a shame considering how positive the vibes have been on there since the August 2nd Trade Deadline.

Photo Credit: Michael Reaves/Getty Images

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