Could Brooks Kriske and His Splitter Find a Place in the Royals Bullpen?

The Royals finally lost their first Cactus League game, as the Brewers lineup got to the Royals’ bullpen in Milwaukee’s 10-4 victory in Surprise.

While Zack Greinke did throw two scoreless innings in his first outing of the 2023 Cactus League campaign, the Royals relievers gave up a total of 10 runs on 11 hits and four walks. The main ones who struggled the most included Josh Staumont (two walks and one run allowed), Nick Wittgren (three hits and three runs allowed), Jackson Kowar (three runs on three hits allowed), and Andres Nunez (three runs in only 0.2 IP).

One surprising standout though was Brooks Kriske, who not only allowed no hits or walks in his inning of work against the Brewers but also struck out one to boot.

In two outings and innings of work so far in Cactus League play, the 29-year-old Kriske has struck out three batters while allowing zero walks, no hits, and no runs allowed. The former USC product and Yankees pitching prospect who played last year for the Yokohama Bay Stars is certainly making his case in Surprise that he could be a dark horse for a spot in the Royals bullpen on Opening Day.

And his splitter could be the key to making that a reality this Spring.

Kriske and the Splitter

Safe to say, Kriske’s career numbers in the Major Leagues are brutal to look at, and that’s putting it lightly.

In 12 games and 11.1 IP for the Yankees between 2020 and 2021, Kriske produced an ERA of 15.09 and a K/BB ratio of 1.15, according to Baseball-Reference. Command and control were major issues for Kriske during his time in the Bronx. That was on full display back in late July of 2021, as Kriske had a disastrous outing against Boston where he threw four wild pitches in one inning which ended up costing the Yankees the game at Fenway Park.

While the wild pitches and walks certainly defined Kriske during his time in pinstripes, Kriske also struggled with hits allowed and the long ball.

He gave up 20 runs in his 12 outings with the Yankees, highlighted by 15 hits and six home runs. Thus, it’s not a surprise that the Yankees eventually designated him for assignment in September, and he was promptly swooped up within the division by the Baltimore Orioles.

Kriske’s time in Baltimore was not much better based on the surface-level metrics. He only made four appearances with the Orioles in 2021, and in 3.2 IP, he posted a 12.27 ERA. That high number was primarily fueled by him giving up five runs on five hits and two home runs.

That said, a deeper dive into Kriske’s tenure with the Orioles, and 2021 in general, shows that his issues were primarily with the four-seamer that season.

Before diving deep into his four-seamer specifically, let’s take a look at Kriske’s pitch usage trend by the month during the 2021 season, via the chart below from Baseball Savant.

As one can see, Kriske’s four-seamer usage dropped dramatically after July (which is when his meltdown against Boston occurred). By the time he got to Baltimore, the former Yankees pitcher was throwing his splitter more often than his four-seamer against opposing batters.

And it made sense, especially when one compares Kriske’s zone wOBA chart on the four-seam fastball with his zone wOBA chart on the split-finger from the 2021 campaign, via Savant.

(Scroll left for the splitter; scroll right for the four-seamer.)

There are still some areas where Kriske’s splitter is hit hard, so Royals fans have to take it with a grain of salt. Then again though, there are a lot fewer red-colored zones and a lot more blue-colored zones in the split-finger zone chart than in the four-seam chart. That is a good sign of the splitter having potential, especially considering he threw the pitch 39.7 percent of the time that season.

While Kriske averaged 95.3 MPH on the four-seamer, which put him in the 80th percentile in fastball velocity, it tended to be a hittable, low-spin offering. The four-seamer ranked in the 42nd percentile in fastball spin, according to Savant, and it only generated a whiff rate of 10.5 percent and put away rate of 7.7 percent as well.

In the clip compilation below, notice how Kriske is able to pump his four-seamer around 96 MPH both with the Yankees and Orioles in 2021. And yet, it still produced the same result.

Kriske’s splitter, on the other hand, proved to be a much better swing-and-miss pitch, especially once he made the transition to Baltimore where he seemed to be encouraged to throw it more.

Let’s take a look at his run value data from Savant, and notice the impressive whiff, strikeout, and put-away rates on the splitter in 2021 (especially when compared to the four-seamer and slider).

In this clip compilation below, notice the nasty movement on Kriske’s splitter. He is able to get Jose Iglesias of Boston and Teoscar Hernandez of Toronto, both pretty good contact hitters, to chase the sharp-dropping splitter out of the zone in two-strike counts.

While Kriske’s splitter wasn’t enough for an MLB team to take a chance on him in 2022, the quality and potential of the pitch did convince the Yokohama Bay Stars of the Nippon Professional Baseball league to sign him to a contract.

The Splitter in Japan and Kriske’s Improvement in Yokohama

Kyle Kishimoto of Frangraphs and Yakyu Cosmopolitan had an interesting Twitter conversation where they both shared information about the differences between the MLB and NPB. Yakyu talked about NPB pitchers looking to set up lower in the strike zone, which tended to be the inverse of the strategy of MLB pitchers (especially when it comes to four-seam location).

Kishimoto backed that up with pitch usage data from both leagues in 2022 and comparing the two on a pitch-by-pitch basis:

In Major League Baseball, the changeup tends to be the preferred offspeed pitch of choice. In Japan though? The splitter/forkball is the preferred third-pitch option.

Hence, it makes sense why the Bay Stars sought Kriske’s services in 2022. Thankfully, for both Yokohama and Kriske, it worked out.

In Central League play, Kriske made 18 relief appearances for the Bay Stars. In 21 innings pitched, he not only posted a 2.57 ERA, but he also only allowed an H/9 of 6.4 and an HR/9 of 0.9. Furthermore, he also generated a K/9 of 11 and a K/BB ratio of 2.00 against Central League competition a season ago.

Instead of the splitter being seen as an “uncanny” pitch (as it typically is in the United States), it not only worked for Kriske in 2022 in Japan but was encouraged and celebrated.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that Kriske’s ability to utilize the splitter effectively out of the bullpen was a big reason for his turnaround performance in Yokohama last season, and that ended up resulting in a non-roster invite to Spring Training by the Royals this offseason.

What to Look For in Cactus League Play From Kriske

The split-finger will be an important pitch not just for Kriske, but a Royals bullpen that is looking for a groundball specialist to help them get out of innings.

The Royals are hoping for improvement in the infield in 2023, especially with Bobby Witt, Jr., who had a rough season at shortstop in 2022. If that ends up happening (the Royals are banking on infield coach Jose Alguacil having a positive effect), then having pitchers out of the bullpen who can keep the ball on the ground and low in the strike zone will be more valuable than a year ago, where the outfield defense was way more ahead of the infield defense.

Initially, I figured the battle for the “groundball” reliever would be between Jose Cuas, Collin Snider, and Nick Wittgren. However, after Wittgren’s rough outing, and Kriske’s solid start, I think Kriske has the early lead, especially considering Kriske has been utilized earlier in games than Wittgren (meaning that Kriske is facing hitters from the starting lineup more often than Wittgren).

If Kriske wants to continue his success this Spring with the Royals’ Cactus League roster, it will be important that he continues to locate his splitter low in the zone to generate whiffs, much like he did in 2021, according to his split-finger whiff heatmap, via Savant.

Kriske has often been a punching bag by baseball fans since 2021, especially among those from New England who are fans of the Red Sox and look for anything to throw in jest at the rival Yankees.

However, he may be on his way this Spring to being known for something else in 2023 and beyond:

Becoming a sneakily effective reliever out of the Kansas City bullpen.

If he keeps this up in Arizona, of course.

Photo Credit: Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images


4 thoughts on “Could Brooks Kriske and His Splitter Find a Place in the Royals Bullpen?

  1. […] Brooks Kriske looked like an early sleeper, but he had a rough recent outing against the Mariners, and he may be better off in Omaha, much like Daniel Mengden a year ago. I also thought Nick Wittgren and Mike Mayers could be candidates to make the roster as well, but they have had mixed results this spring as well, with Mayers coming off a particularly rough outing against the Mariners that inflated his ERA up to 8.64. […]


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