On Friday, the Royals formally unveiled their new coaching staff, with most of the moves already being announced earlier in the offseason both before and after manager Matt Quatraro’s hire.
While the Royals have been more prudent on a player personnel end this winter, it’s been quite the opposite on a coaching end.
The Royals will have 10 assistant coaches at the big league level to help out Quatraro this season. That is two more than the number of coaches Mike Matheny had on his staff a season ago.
There is a hope that the increase of coaches and a refinement in their responsibilities and expertise can have a positive effect on what should be a young Royals roster in 2023. This is especially true on the pitching end, as the Royals have hired an assistant pitching coach (Zach Bove) and promoted Mitch Stetter to bullpen coach to help new pitching coach Brian Sweeney click with a Royals pitching staff that ranked in the bottom of the league in most categories in 2022.
In order for the Royals to see improvement in the AL Central standings in 2023, the Royals will need to see some growth from the pitchers currently on the 40-man roster.
While tapping into the potential of the starting pitchers should be the number one priority for Sweeney and the staff, the bullpen also has to take a step forward this season in order to ease the burden (and innings) on closer Scott Barlow, who just turned 30 years old. It will be hard for the Royals to improve upon their 65-win total from a season ago if the bullpen ranks 27th in ERA, 30th in BB/9, and 30th in WHIP again.
And two pitchers who could be key to the Royals’ bullpen improvement are Jose Cuas and Collin Snider, both sidearm specialists who had inconsistent rookie campaigns last year.
Can Cuas Find The Control That He Flashed in the Minors?
There is no doubt Cuas is one of the most positive stories on this Royals roster. Originally drafted to be an infielder, Cuas struggled to hit in the Minors, and after a brief hiatus from the game (where he worked as a FedEx driver in New York), he ended up switching to the pitcher position while in the Brewers organization in 2018 and found success in the Royals’ Minor League system.
After being signed in 2021 by the Royals, and spending a season-and-a-half in the Kansas City farm system, Cuas finally got his shot in the big leagues in late May.
It was a bit of a rocky rookie campaign for Cuas, but he still ended up posting a 3.58 ERA in 47 appearances and 37.2 innings of work. Furthermore, he also won the Tony Conigliaro award this offseason, which is awarded to one of the most inspirational players in baseball from the past season.
For a guy whom many thought was done after the 2017 season, what Cuas has done so far is something worth celebrating in itself. That said, there still is plenty for Cuas to improve upon this offseason and Spring, especially if he wants to keep a spot on not only the active roster but the 40-man one as well.
An issue for Cuas a season ago was his rise in walk rate from his time as a pitcher in the Royals farm system. In 2021 in Northwest Arkansas, he only issued a walk rate of 5.3 percent in 32.1 IP. Last season before his callup, he only allowed a walk rate of 7.4 percent in 22.1 IP with the Storm Chasers.
In the Majors? His walk rate was 13.3 percent. In addition, his K-BB rate was only 5.6 percent, a fraction of what it was in Omaha (14.7 percent) and Northwest Arkansas (18.8 percent).
Surprisingly, it’s not necessarily a matter of simply “throwing strikes” for Cuas at the big league level.
Last year, Cuas produced a CSW (called strike-plus-whiff) rate of 29 percent as a reliever. That was the third-best rate for Royals relievers with 10 or more IP in 2022, according to Fangraphs.
So what was the problem for Cuas then when it came to walks?
Simply put, hitters didn’t bite enough on his pitches. As a result, that patient approach led to Cuas walking more batters than desired at the Major League level.
When diving into Cuas’ Pitcher List data card, he was pretty below the league average when it came to generating swings (3.8 percent below) and chases on two-strike counts (0.7 percent) overall, which can be seen below:
Last year, Cuas pretty much relied on two pitches: his sinker (which he threw about 63 percent of the time) and his slider (37 percent of the time). Here’s how his swing data looked on those two pitches, according to Pitcher List (slide right for sinker; left for slider).
The sinker was much better at generating strikes in early counts but was two percent below average in terms of getting two-strike chases.
As for the slider, while it was a much better pitch in terms of getting chases in two-strike counts and avoiding contact, the pitch failed to do much early in the count. That as a result made Cuas more predictable as the season progressed, which can be seen in the stagnation of his chase rate on both pitches (with the sinker being the more dramatic drop).
Here is an example of Cuas in September throwing a sinker that has some good rising movement that should produce a chase out of the zone. But Abraham Toro of the Mariners is able to pick it up early, let it go, and generate a walk (which was Cuas’ second of the afternoon; he walked three total).
And here is an example of Cuas missing the target badly with the slider, which produces a hit batter on an 0-2 count against Gary Sanchez of the Twins.
It will be important for Sweeney and Stetter to help iron out these issues this Spring in order to tap into Cuas’ natural strike-throwing ability. Because letting at-bats get away like this, despite quality pitch structure, is a waste of his talent as a middle reliever.
Can Snider Limit the Barrels (Especially on the Sinker)?
Early on in the year, Snider looked like he was going to be a mainstay in the Royals bullpen as a groundball specialist.
In 10 appearances and 8.1 IP in the month of April, the former Vandy pitcher posted a 3.24 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and a 2.67 K/BB ratio. It was common for Royals fans in the first month of play to see Snider get out of jams by inducing key groundball double plays, like this one below against the Twins on April 20th:
Last season, Snider produced a GB/FB ratio of 2.11, which was the highest ratio for Royals’ relievers with 20 or more innings pitched, according to Fangraphs. Unfortunately, things went south for Snider after a solid first month in the big leagues.
In May, Snider posted a 9.00 ERA in 13 appearances. In June, he posted a 16.88 ERA in four appearances, which eventually led to a demotion to Omaha. When Snider returned in August, he was a little better in the second half overall, posting a 4.73 ERA in 15 appearances and 13.1 IP. That said, he did get blown up a little in September, allowing an 8.22 ERA in 10 appearances and 7.2 IP.
The 27-year-old reliever seemed to follow a common trend: Start off well, but drop off quickly once batters adjusted to him and his two-pitch sinker-slider repertoire.
A key to Snider’s struggles can be seen in his barrel rate struggles throughout his rookie year, which can be seen in this month-by-month barrel rate chart. Notice how hitters barreled Snider pitchers with more frequency over the course of his rookie season.
On a pitch end, Snider’s slider, which he throws 49.4 percent of the time, according to Savant, was actually okay. His sinker proved to be the bigger issue last season.
For context, his slider generated a zero run value, and it actually produced a PLUS percentage (percentage of times that pitch produces a positive event) of 55.6 percent, according to Pitcher List. While it is still the league average of 56.8 percent for that pitch, it is only 1.2 percent below, unlike his sinker, which is 8.7 below the league average (and also produced a +5 run value).
Here’s a look at Snider’s zone charts from both his sinker and slider in 2022. There are a lot more red areas in the strike zone with his sinker than his slider, and that is putting it lightly. (Scroll right for Sinker; Left for slider.)
And for context, here is an example of Snider’s sinker getting crushed for a three-run home run against Cleveland’s Andres Gimenez on May 30th at Progressive Field (which ended up costing the Royals the game).
It’s hard for Snider to see a lot of positive results when he serves up a sinker in the middle of the zone like that.
In fact, it’s interesting to see the difference in pitch heatmap between pitches that were base hits in 2022, and ones that results in outs, which can be seen below:
When Sinder generated outs with the sinker, he was able to keep the ball low and in the arm side area of the strike zone. However, when he gave up base hits, the ball tended to be more middle and more up, according to his heatmap.
Will Sweeney and Stetter be able to iron that out with Snider in Spring Training?
That will be a big question for them, as well as Snider to answer.
If he isn’t able to iron out that sinker command (or throw it less and develop his changeup more; he only threw the change 1.9 percent of the time last year), then it is likely that he could be an early DFA candidate before Opening Day.
Photo Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports