The Kansas City Royals bullpen was not very good in 2022, and that was evidenced by the squad ranking 27th in ERA, 30th in WHIP, 30th in BB/9, and 28th in H/9, according to Fangraphs.
The Royals will have a new pitching coach next season so there is hope that the bullpen could improve under the right tutelage. That said, it appears that JJ Picollo and the Royals front office are going to be patient when it comes to selecting Cal Eldred’s successor.
Kansas City hasn’t made any earth-shattering moves thus far, though they did announce the addition of Samad Taylor (who was acquired from Toronto for Whit Merrifield) to the 40 Man roster today.
The primary major moves of note have been the churn of relievers from the Royals’ 40-man roster.
Over the past couple of weeks, the Royals have released Ryan Weiss (a reliever in Omaha), Tyler Zuber, Luke Weaver, and most recently Gabe Speier, who was claimed by the Mariners today and had only seen spot duty as a LOOGY out of the Royals bullpen over the past four seasons.
While it was unlikely that any of the Royals’ relievers recently designated for assignment would have a major impact on the bullpen in 2023, it does perhaps clear some opportunities for the bullpen this Spring. And that includes not just spots on the 40-man roster and bullpen, but perhaps more responsibility, especially in the late innings.
In this post, I wanted to take a look at three pitches from three Royals relievers that stood out from 2022, and how those pitches could impact that particular pitcher and their outlook for next season. I primarily took data from Baseball Savant, using pitch arsenal stats as my primary data set when it came to evaluating Royals pitches and pitchers out of the bullpen last season.
Here are three of the most impressive pitches thrown a season ago by Royals relievers, and why Royals fans should be paying attention to these pitches and relievers this Spring in Surprise.
Scott Barlow’s Slider
When it came to overall run value, no Royals pitcher had a more effective pitch than Barlow.
His slider produced an overall run value of -11, which was two runs better than Zack Greinke’s four-seam fastball, which was the second-best pitch thrown by Royals pitchers a season ago, based on run value.
What’s interesting about Barlow’s slider is that it’s the primary pitch in his arsenal, as he throws it 44.6 percent of the time. And yet, even though opposing hitters know it is coming, they failed to have any kind of impact on the pitch last year. His slider produced a whiff rate of 33.1 percent and a K rate of 24.6 percent.
Granted, those numbers are down from a season ago, as his slider produced whiff and K rates of 44.2 and 33.6 percent, respectively. Despite hitters making more contact on the pitch though, they weren’t as effective in 2022, as they only produced a wOBA of .246 and xwOBA of .255. Those numbers are much better than the .296 wOBA and .277 xwOBA hitters produced against Barlow’s slider in 2021.
Hitters also produced a hard-hit rate of 28.9 percent against the slider last season, which was slightly up from 2021 (27.6 percent) but was also the fourth-straight season that had been under 30 percent.
The slider was effective against both left-handed and right-handed hitters in 2022. Against left-handed hitters, the slider generated a 38.6 whiff rate as well as a .231 xwOBA.
Here’s an example of Barlow utilizing the slider effectively to get Boston’s Triston Casas to swing over it and strikeout to end the inning (and get out of a bases-loaded jam on the road to boot).
But Barlow could also get batters to hit into easy outs as well when they did make contact. Hitters’ .176 xBA on Barlow’s slider proved that the contact they often made against the pitch in 2022 wasn’t the most productive, much to Barlow and the Royals’ advantage.
Here’s an example of Barlow getting Minnesota hitting machine Luis Arraez to ground out to second base on the slider, which ended the game and sealed a Royals victory at Kauffman Stadium.
Against right-handed hitters, the slider was a little less effective, as it only produced a whiff rate of 29 percent, an xwOBA of .255, and an xBA of .196.
On the other hand, against right-handed hitters, the slider generated a launch angle average of six degrees. That is nine degrees better than the launch angle average on the slider against right-handed hitters. This launch angle difference means that Barlow was producing more balls on the ground against right-handed hitters than left-handed hitters, which is a good thing when Barlow is not getting right-handed hitters to swing and miss.
An example of Barlow’s ability to be effective against right-handed hitters with his slider last season is illustrated in an at-bat against the White Sox’s Andrew Vaughn at Kauffman Stadium back in mid-August. Barlow’s slider gets Vaughn to pull the ball on the ground to the shortstop, and the Royals are able to generate the easy 6-4-3 double play in the bottom of the ninth.
Barlow continues to rely heavily on his breaking stuff to find success as the Royals’ closer. His second most-used pitch last year was his curveball, which he threw 31.1 percent of the time. That was a 10.8 percent increase from a year ago, and it made sense considering that Barlow’s curve generated a K rate of 40.2 percent, as well as a run value of -5.
However, Barlow’s four-seam usage dropped from 33.1 percent in 2021 to 24 percent in 2022. His four-seam posted a paltry K rate of 9.7 percent last year and 11.7 percent in 2021. Thus, it makes sense why Barlow had opted to rely on breaking balls to be more effective against hitters than his fastball last season.
Can Barlow continue to do that, especially in a closer role?
How his slider fares in 2023 could be the key to whether or not Barlow continues his success in the late innings, especially with his four-seam velocity (93.5 MPH, a near two MPH drop from 2021) and usage continuing to trend downward.
Josh Staumont‘s Four-Seam Fastball
It was a season to forget for Staumont in 2023 as he posted a 6.45 ERA in 42 appearances and 37.2 innings pitched. To make matters worse, Staumont struggled to stay healthy and ended the year on the IL with bicep tendinitis after a controversial appearance where he pitched 42 innings, a career-high.
Staumont’s struggles could be pointed to two main issues: control and a regression in his curveball’s effectiveness.
In terms of control, Staumont posted a BB rate of 16.5 percent and a K/BB ratio of 1.48, which were both career-worst numbers in their respective categories.
As for his curveball, the pitch produced a wOBA of .420, a career-high, and a whiff rate of only 31.1 percent. That latter rate was not only a career-low for the pitch but the second straight year it has regressed, according to Baseball Savant.
While the decline in control and curveball effectiveness from Staumont in 2022 were disappointing developments, Staumont did see a positive trend in his four-seam fastball efficiency.
On a run-value end, his four-seam fastball produced a -5 mark, which was the sixth-best pitch thrown by Royals pitchers in that category last season. Staumont’s four-seamer produced not only a whiff rate of 25.9 percent but also a K rate of 20.7 percent as well.
When Staumont was able to pump the four-seamer at full velocity (he averaged 96.1 MPH on the pitch a season ago), he was able to blow batters away on a frequent basis.
Here’s an example of Staumont pumping the four-seamer at 96.9 MPH right by Jo Adell of the Angels to end the game in a 7-0 Royals win at Kauffman Stadium in late July.
The strikeouts and whiffs were nice last season. However, it was what hitters did when they made contact on his four-seamer that should make Royals fans slightly optimistic about Staumont’s outlook in 2023 if healthy.
Last season, hitters only produced an average exit velocity of 88.2 MPH, which was not only a career-best mark but the second-straight season that the average exit velocity against his four-seamer has declined.
This is important because it can explain a lot of other improvements that Staumont saw with the four-seamer a season ago.
Hitters only posted a .227 xWOBA against the four-seamer, which was a nine-point improvement from 2021. He also saw positive regressions in xSLG (.369 to .337 from 2021 to 2022, respectively) and launch angle (21 to 14 from 2021 to 2022, respectively). Those are all big reasons why hitters only posted a .289 wOBA against the four-seamer, while they posted .420 wOBA on his curveball and .412 wOBA on his sinker.
In this at-bat against Chicago’s AJ Pollock in August, Staumont was able to pinpoint his 96.9 MPH four-seamer on the glove-side edge of the strike zone. While Pollock hit the ball, it was weak contact that generated a ground ball to Bobby Witt, Jr. which led to an easy out to end the inning.
Staumont will need to find the strike zone again in 2023 if he wants to keep a role in the bullpen, even if it may be in a lessened one after a down season. Additionally, how his velocity fares in 2023 could also be a key indicator of what kind of success he will find for the Royals out of the pen.
When Staumont’s four-seamer is at full velocity, he seems to be at his most effective on the hill. Staumont posted a 3.67 ERA and struck out 32 batters in 27 innings before the All-Star Break. Unfortunately, as he battled through various injuries, he produced a 13.50 ERA in 12 appearances after the All-Star break.
It’s also not surprising that his four-seam velocity dropped considerably over that time span as well.
Can Staumont find that velocity on his four-seamer again?
If he can’t, well…Staumont’s time in Kansas City (and maybe MLB in general) may come to a close sooner than he may want.
Anthony Misiewicz‘s Cutter
Weaver got more buzz when he was traded to Kansas City from Arizona, but Misiewicz ended up being the better “trade acquisition” reliever (he came over from Seattle) by a considerable margin.
But the biggest difference between the two? Weaver generated an 8.84 K/9 and 2.38 K/BB ratio while Misiewicz posted an 11.15 K/9 and a 4.75 K/BB ratio.
Hence, it’s not a surprise that Weaver is with the Seattle Mariners organization while Misiewicz is still with the Royals.
In fact, I believe Misiewicz’s strong performance and outlook are a big reason why the Royals were willing to part with Speier, and could non-tender Amir Garrett (especially if Jake Brentz returns fully healthy).
And a big key to Misiewicz’s success was his cutter usage in 2022.
Now, the Royals don’t have a great history of pitchers utilizing the cutter, as Alex Duvall of Royals Farm Report pointed out on Twitter recently:
I was curious about Alex’s statement, so I decided to see if that low cutter usage spanned across Eldred’s entire tenure as pitching coach (2018-2022).
Safe to say, the data held up his argument, even over the additional two years.
Only 1.7 percent of the total pitches the Royals threw from 2018-2022 were cutters, the lowest percentage of baseball over that five-year span.
This makes Misiewicz, whose primary pitch was the cutter (he threw it 37.2 percent of the time), a bit of a unicorn from the Royals bullpen a season ago.
That being said, Misiewicz was not just special because he simply threw the cutter. He was also unique because he found tremendous success with the cutter with the Royals as well, despite the organization’s resistance to the pitch during Eldred’s tenure.
His cutter produced a whiff rate of 22.3 percent, a K rate of 24.4 percent, and a put-away rate of 32.4 percent. And even though his run value on the cutter was only -2, his run-vale per 100 pitches was -1.3, which was the fifth-best mark of pitches thrown by Royals pitchers a season ago.
The cutter was most effective against lefties a season ago, which is evidenced by left-handed hitters only producing a .182 batting average and .161 wOBA against the pitch. In addition, Misiewicz also generated a 25.6 percent whiff rate and 46.2 percent put-away rate with the cutter against lefties in 2022.
Here’s an example of Misiewicz getting Cleveland’s Josh Naylor to look silly on a swing-and-miss strikeout in a September game at Progressive Field.
The whiff rate against right-handed hitters was a little lower at 19.6 percent. However, righties only produced a .150 batting average against Misiewicz’s cutter as well as a wOBA of .243, which are both impressive marks.
Here’s an example of Misiewicz hitting Salvy’s target perfectly, as the late break on Misiewicz’s cutter forces Chicago’s Josh Harrison to give a half-hearted swing and consequently strike out.
On the flip side, Misiewicz was a bit inconsistent with his command of the pitch, especially against right-handed hitters.
His cutter produced an expected slugging of .578 and xwOBA of .380 last season. These numbers showed that Misiewicz benefited from some batted ball luck, and when he made mistakes in location, opposing hitters made quality contact.
Here’s an example of Misiewicz making a mistake in cutter command (center-cut and doesn’t break enough) to Minnesota’s Gio Urshela. Even though Urshela is not known for his power, he absolutely mashes Misiewicz’s cutter for a deep home run at Target Field.
Avoiding those kinds of command mistakes with his cutter, especially against right-handed hitters, will be key to Misiewicz’s outlook in the Royals bullpen in 2023.
He has the command and the pitching arsenal (highlighted by the cutter) to be a unique and effective reliever in a more enhanced role for Kansas City. I really think he could be a sixth-to-seventh-inning reliever who could be utilized in medium-to-high-leverage situations against lefties. This could especially be a reality if Garrett doesn’t show any progress on the mound when Spring Training arrives.
But if Misiewicz wants to be more than just a LOOGY (which I think he can), then ironing out his cutter command issues against right-handed hitters will be key.
Let’s hope the Royals’ new pitching coach can tap into the potential of Misiewicz and his cutter this Spring.
Photo Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports