The Royals finally won their first game of the year on Monday night, which also proved to be my first win of the season in person, as I was in attendance for the Royals’ 9-5 onslaught of the visiting Toronto Blue Jays.
The Royals’ offense has been a mixed bag thus far through four games in 2023, as I chronicled a few days ago. On the other hand, the pitching has been much more impressive, especially on the starting pitching end, which was a major concern for this Royals team in Matt Quatraro’s first season as Royals manager.
Veteran starters Zack Greinke (5.1 IP, 6 H, 1 BB, 4 K, 3.38 ERA) and Jordan Lyles (5.1 IP, 5 H, 2 BB, 2 K, 1.69 ERA) held their own in their first respective starts at Kauffman Stadium for the Royals this season, even though neither came away with a victory. That said, they are not going to be the focus of this article. Greinke and Lyles are veteran arms on short-term deals. And as veteran arms, they are expected to contribute immediately and provide stability, whether it’s for the remainder of the season, or for one more year in 2024 (Lyles is guaranteed through 2024).
Rather, the whole point of this post is to dive a bit into Brad Keller and Brady Singer’s respective first starts of the year, as those two have hazier futures in Kansas City. Keller will be a free agent after this season, and Singer went to arbitration this past offseason and is looking to earn a long-term deal soon, whether it’s in Kansas City or somewhere else.
This is a crucial season for both pitchers, in addition to the Royals organization as a whole, as JJ Picollo and Matt Quatraro are trying to determine who will contribute to this pitching staff in the long term, and who will be expendable after this season (if not sooner).
Let’s take a dive into Keller and Singer’s individual starts, and what Royals fans should be looking for in their future starts, especially in the first couple of months of play.
Keller Displays Diverse Pitch Mix; But What Role Will Stick?
It wasn’t an easy year for Keller in 2022, as he not only lost 14 games, but he also posted a 5.09 ERA and 0.7 fWAR in 35 appearances (22 starts) and 139.2 IP. It was the second-straight season he posted an ERA over five (5.39 in 2021) and pitched over 130 innings (133.2 IP in 2021).
Even though the peripheral numbers don’t look good in 2022, Keller actually showed some improvement when one dives into his more advanced metrics.
His 4.50 FIP last year was better than his 4.72 mark in 2021, and his xERA of 4.37 was 2.10 points better than the one he posted in 2021 as well. Even though it was a rough finish for Keller, and he ended up pitching in the bullpen in the last couple of months of play, he still showed that he could flourish in the right situation and perhaps with a different coaching staff.
Already, Keller has seemed to show a much different pitch repertoire in 2023 thanks to new pitching coach Brian Sweeney and assistant pitching coach Zach Bove. Here’s a look at his pitch breakdown data from his start against the Twins via Baseball Savant:
As Royals fans can see, Keller threw six different pitches on Sunday, including a new sweeper, which he threw 15 percent of the time, and a new curveball, which he just introduced this spring while in Arizona.
For context, let’s see what Keller’s pitch distribution (and its PLV effectiveness) looked like in 2022, according to PLV data courtesy of Pitcher List.
Keller primarily relied on his slider (36 percent usage), four-seamer (35.4 percent usage), and sinker (23.2 percent usage), with a changeup thrown in there sporadically (5.4 percent usage) to mix things up.
In 2022, on a PLV end, his slider and four-seamer were above-average offerings with PLV marks of 5.27 and 4.93, respectively.
His four-seamer and changeup on the other hand? Not so much, as they were 29 and 75 PLV points below the league average.
So as one can see, Keller still utilized his two best pitches frequently in his first start of the year, but he supplemented them with two new pitches so he could utilize his sinker and changeup less.
And here are the results on a batted ball exit velocity and CSW end, according to Savant:
Keller only through his changeup once, and his sinker 13 times, which was the second least-thrown pitch in his first start, along with the sweeper. That said, the sweeper generated a CSW rate of 46 percent, while his sinker only generated a CSW rate of 23 percent.
Don’t be surprised to see Keller utilize the sweeper more and sinker less in his next outing.
But the real standout pitch was his newly-added curveball. Keller not only threw 22 times (his most-thrown pitch), but he also generated a 32 percent CSW rate, which is impressive for a recently introduced offering.
Here’s a look at the new-look curveball getting former Royal Michael A. Taylor to whiff:
While the new pitch mix looked solid on a CSW end, Keller did get into some trouble in the fifth inning as he struggled to find the strike zone and ended up issuing three straight walks with two outs before getting pulled.
Let’s take a look at what Keller’s pitch chart looked like on pitches that ended in walks and ones that resulted in strikeouts, via Savant:
Notice how all the pitches that resulted in walks were up and arm side, while pitches that resulted in strikeouts were low and down in the zone. One has to wonder if Keller simply ran out of gas in the fifth, and he lost the feel on his pitches, which resulted in the shoddy command in the fifth inning. All those walks hint at Keller losing his grip on the ball, thus resulting in those pitches tailing up and arm side.
And thus, one has to wonder if this is just a sign of Keller adjusting to his workload, or if it’s a sign that the Royals need to a.) pull him sooner or b.) transition him to a role where he’s only pitching 3-4 innings at max.
Royals fans will get a better sense of what role fits best for him after his next couple of outings and how his command fares once he gets to a lineup a third time around.
Solid Debut for Singer; Still Little Changeup Usage
Singer was the Royals’ best starter last season, as he not only posted a 3.23 ERA in 27 outings (24 starts) and 153.1 IP, but he also generated a 3.58 FIP and 2.9 fWAR to boot. It makes sense why Singer was an extension candidate this winter, in addition to being seen as the “ace” of the Royals pitching staff by the veteran Greinke.
It seems like the main reason Singer was not named the Opening Day starter can be mostly contributed to the inconsistent work he received this spring due to his appearance in the World Baseball Classic. While it was nice for Singer to be around so many stars in the dugout of Team USA, it would have been beneficial to Singer’s preparation for the regular season had manager Mark DeRosa given him more than just one outing, which wasn’t exactly stellar by any means.
I was able to be in attendance for Singer’s first outing at the K on Monday, and for the most part, it was a positive one considering the context of his inconsistent work this spring.
Singer not only got the win, but he also went five innings and only allowed one run on two hits with three walks and three strikeouts. The Royals pitcher of the year last season primarily relied on his sinker, which he threw 60.5 percent of the time, according to Stacast data. He also showed some solid command with the pitch, as evidenced by his pitch chart from his Monday outing below:
As Royals fans can see in the chart above, Singer was heavily reliant on his primary two pitches: his sinker and slider, the latter of which he threw roughly 37 percent of the time on Monday.
Here’s a look at how the CSW on his pitches looked, according to Savant.
The sinker and slider complemented each other well against the Blue Jays. He only generated one whiff with the sinker, but he garnered 13 called strikes with it, which resulted in an overall CSW rate of 30 percent.
As for the slider, he only got two called strikes with the pitch. However, it proved to be an excellent swing-and-miss pitch for Singer against Toronto, as his primary breaking pitch produced a whiff rate of 40 percent and a CSW rate of 29 percent.
Here’s a look at Singer’s slider breaking hard and at Daulton Varsho’s feet, which causes him to strike out in a silly fashion.
The only concern with Singer’s outing was that he only threw his changeup once against the Jays.
Singer upped the usage of his changeup last season after being demoted to Omaha early in the year to work on the offspeed offering. The increased usage of the pitch had a positive effect on his overall performance, even if the pitch itself was not a great one in terms of shape or individual effectiveness.
According to Singer’s PLV breakdown, his changeup was considerably below average on a PLV end in comparison to his sinker and slider last season.
Thus, I get why Singer can be hesitant to throw his changeup, especially since it’s a pitch that is 64 points lower in PLV than his overall PLV last season.
Still, if Singer wants to be a starter long-term who can annually post ERA numbers of 3.50 and below, he will need three pitches to do so. There’s not a long track record of starting pitchers in the history of Major League Baseball who can perform like that but only sport two pitches, even if Singer’s two pitches are very good (which Royals fans can see in Singer’s PLV chart).
Is Singer still ramping up to his normal workload due to a weird spring and the lack of changeup usage was just a growing pain in this process? Or has Singer begun to trust the pitch less, and the new regime isn’t trying to push him at this point, especially if he’s finding success?
Singer’s changeup usage will be important to pay attention to in his next couple of starts.
Photo Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports