The Royals Should Continue to Be Optimistic About Daniel Lynch (But 2023 Will Be Key)

The Royals starting pitching was pretty much a disaster beyond Brady Singer and Zack Greinke, and that was a big reason why the Royals parted ways with pitching coach Cal Eldred this offseason, in addition to manager Mike Matheny.

Starting in 2018, Kansas City began to heavily invest in starting pitching in the MLB Draft, as they not only acquired Singer in the first round of that draft, but also Daniel Lynch, Kris Bubic, and Jon Heasley at various points in that respective draft. All four pitchers contributed to the Royals rotation in 2022, albeit with mixed results, as Royals fans can see in the table below.

Singer finished the 2022 season as the Royals’ most valuable starting pitcher, as he accumulated a 2.9 fWAR over 147.2 IP, which led all Royals starting pitchers with 10 or more IPs. However, while Lynch, Bubic, and Heasley all made 20+ starts and threw 100+ innings this season, they combined to accumulate an fWAR of 0.5, not exactly an encouraging number on a value end.

A big priority for the Royals this offseason will be to improve the starting pitching, whether it’s through free agency or trade. Unfortunately, Royals GM JJ Picollo didn’t seem optimistic that the Royals would be able to make a big splash financially for a starting pitcher, or any big-name player, through free agency, as he somberly mentioned in an interview with 610 AM radio this week.

If the Royals want to see some kind of improvement upon their 65-97 record in 2023, they will need to see their young pitchers step up.

This is particularly true with Lynch, Bubic, and Heasley, who will be relied on heavily to bounce back on the bump after mediocre 2022 campaigns. The starting pitching need is also heightened by Greinke’s return to Kansas City in 2023 seemingly in doubt as well (it’s likely that he may retire this offseason).

Bubic and Heasley will get their own individual posts at some point this offseason, as they are both complicated cases that require deep dives, as well as more creative thinking when it comes to their future. On the other hand, Lynch is a more clear-cut case: he belongs in the rotation, and he showed some small improvement this year, even if the 5.13 ERA doesn’t necessarily demonstrate that.

Let’s take a look at what went right and what went wrong for Lynch, and what should be a priority for Lynch, the new pitching coach, and manager, and the Royals front office this offseason and Spring Training in Surprise.

Lynch’s “Non-ERA” Metrics Signify Some Improvement from 2021

Lynch’s ERA improved by 56 points from his rookie campaign in 2021, which is an improvement but still not necessarily good enough to be a starting pitcher at the Major League level long-term.

That said, while his ERA only showed marginal improvement from last season, he did see a lot more growth in some other “non-ERA” pitching numbers, such as xERA, FIP, and xFIP, for example. Those metrics can be a bit better indicators of future success than just plain ERA, especially considering they all take into consideration factors (defense, park factors, etc.) that ERA ignores.

Here’s a look at the difference between Lynch’s 2021 and 2022 seasons, via Fangraphs.

On an xERA and xFIP end, Lynch saw 1.24-point and 0.92-point improvements in 2022, which are both significant gains. There wasn’t a huge difference in the point difference in the area of FIP (19 points), but his FIP was under five, and at 4.63, it was the second-best mark of those four categories of metrics as well.

Another nice trend from Lynch in 2022 was the increase in K/9 (8.34), K/BB ratio (2.35), and a decrease in BB/9 (3.55). Those improvements demonstrated that Lynch had much better control with his pitches in 2022 in comparison to his rookie year, which is a good sign going into 2023.

Additionally, he also increased his groundball rate to 41.5 percent, a nearly three percent rise from 2021. That indicates that Lynch is not only hitting the strike zone more (which is good considering the Royals’ walk issues as a staff in 2022), but generating more balls on the ground, which can lead to more outs in the long term, especially if the Royals infield defense can improve in 2023.

Lynch’s Command and Home Run Issues Still Remain a Problem

While Lynch demonstrated better control in 2022, his command still was a work in process, as he gave up far too many hittable pitches that hitters took advantage of this season.

Lynch did not demonstrate elite movement on his fastball or breaking pitches last year, as they ranked in the 21st percentile and 6th percentile, respectively, according to Baseball Savant. That puts more pressure on him to command his pitches consistently well. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen in 2022, which explains his increase in HR/FB rate, as it went from 11 percent in 2021 to 13.5 percent in 2022.

The former Virginia Cavalier product pretty much relied on his four-seamer, slider, and changeup, which he threw 40.5 percent, 28.6 percent, and 16.3 percent of the time, respectively. Thus, I decided to create two pitch heatmaps from those three pitches, via Savant: one that captured the location of those pitches on strikeouts and another that captured those pitches on base hits.

Here are the results (scroll right for strikeouts; left for base hits):

When Lynch was able to command those three pitches effectively (four-seamer up; slider down and away; and changeup down in the middle), he was far less predictable to hitters, and thus, was able to generate swings and misses effectively. On the other hand, when he couldn’t command those pitches, all three pretty much landed in the same area of the strike zone, which was pretty much center-cut and in the middle.

Royals fans know why throwing the ball in the middle isn’t good, especially considering how other Royals starting pitchers (Bubic, Heasley, and even Brad Keller) fared in 2022 when they threw mistakingly in that area.

Nonetheless, to confirm why it isn’t a good thing to command pitches in that area, here’s Lynch and his batting average zone chart from a year ago, and one can see how hitters feasted on those pitches thrown in the heart of the strike zone.

Let’s focus on his four-seamer command and the difference between when Lynch commanded the pitch effectively and when he didn’t.

Here’s an example of Lynch commanding the four-seamer efficiently on the inside against Minnesota’s Gio Urshela on a 1-2 count in a game at Target Field in September. Lynch is able to get Urshela to chase and strike out to end the inning.

Now on the flip side, let’s take a look at Lynch NOT commanding his four-seamer effectively in a 2-0 count against Detroit’s Jeimer Candelario in a September 9th game at Kauffman Stadium.

Lynch threw that ball in that upper middle area, where hitters hit nearly .500 against him this past year, far too much. And that is a big reason why his ERA and HR/FB numbers fared poorly this year, even though a lot of his other advanced metrics showed some positive trends.

The Slider as an Area of Focus for 2023

On a run-value end, the slider was CONSIDERABLY Lynch’s worst pitch in 2022, according to Savant. That can be seen in the run value data table below:

As one can see, Lynch was around average by 1-2 runs on the four other pitches he threw primarily a season ago. The slider though was double-digits BELOW average at +13 (and remember, plus is not good for pitchers). And this is despite his slider being his best pitch in 2022 on a whiff rate (33.1 percent) and K rate (28.6 percent) end.

What’s interesting though is that Lynch’s slider was one of his better pitches in 2021 on a run-value end. In fact, not only was it 13 runs better, but his slider also posted better numbers in nearly every other category as well, which can be seen in the comparison below:

Lynch threw his slider 1.8 percent less in 2021. And yet, he generated a lower wOBA on the pitch, as well as significantly higher whiff, K, and put-away rates in comparison to 2022.

Because of the difference in the effectiveness of the pitch from 2021 to 2022, I wanted to see if there were any differences in the nature of the pitch itself. And thus, I decided to compare spin rate trends from both 2021 and 2022, via Savant.

Here’s a look at the spin rate charts from 2021 and 2022 for Lynch’s slider.

It’s very difficult to tell, but essentially, Lynch was generating less spin on the slider in 2022 in comparison to 2021.

Furthermore, he was having more abnormally “high” spin offerings in 2021, while in 2022, he was having more abnormally “low” ones. There could be various reasons for the regression in spin rate from 2021 to 2022 (different ball; trying something different mechanically; trying to “aim” the pitch too much, etc.). Nonetheless, the slider spin rate data from this past season doesn’t necessarily bode well in Lynch’s favor

Spin rate is particularly important for all pitches. For a main breaking ball offering like Lynch’s slider though, seeing that regression in the pitch seemed to have an impact on him being able to command the pitch consistently in 2022.

Here’s a look at Lynch’s slider in 2022 against Miguel Cabrera and the Tigers in a late September game. It’s a loopy offering, and Cabrera rips it for a home run.

On the other hand, let’s take a look at a harder, higher-spin slider back in 2021 against Mark Canha and the Athletics at Kauffman. The pitch has more drop and movement, and it generates a swinging strikeout in the process.

Without a doubt, working on the slider, specifically its command and shape, should be an important priority this offseason for not just Lynch, but whoever the Royals hire as pitching coach.

Because improvement on the slider, in addition to continued growth on the four-seamer and changeup, could help Lynch break out and be an effective member of the Royals rotation starting in 2023.

Why 2023 is Important for Lynch (And the Royals Rotation)

As of now, Roster Resource on Fangraphs lists Lynch as the Royals’ No. 2 starter for 2023. It is not surprising since Greinke is technically a free agent right now, and there really aren’t a whole lot of great options beyond Lynch for that No. 2 spot in the rotation. While Lynch wasn’t great, he certainly was better than Bubic, Heasley, and even Brad Keller in 2022.

While Lynch probably SHOULDN’T be the Royals’ No. 2 starter for 2023 (it will be interesting to see who the Royals add to supplement their rotation this offseason), he certainly has solidified his position in the rotation. While one could argue that maybe Bubic or Heasley deserve to transition to the bullpen (more on that in separate posts), Lynch has shown that he can eat innings and be effective when his command is on.

In fact, Lynch had multiple good months throughout the season in 2022 based on his Fangraphs splits. Furthermore, his xFIP numbers suggest that his second half wasn’t as bad as many Royals fans may think.

That said, when Lynch was bad, he was REALLY bad.

His win-probability added (WPA) last year was -2.07, which was the second-worst mark for Royals starting pitchers with 10 or more innings pitched a season ago, according to Fangraphs. (Only Bubic was worse at -2.19.)

The fact of the matter is this: the Royals can’t afford to gamble on what kind of Lynch is going to show up from start to start. This rotation needs consistency in the long term. And if Lynch can’t show more consistency under a new manager or pitching coach in 2023, it may be time to move him to the bullpen in 2024.

And instead of being another Blake Snell as an “optimistic” comparison, Lynch instead may just be an “Andrew Miller” type…

That would be disappointing considering Lynch’s draft and prospect hype from 2019 to 2021.

Photo Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

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