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Moore's vexing inability to develop starting pitchers

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The Royals have succeeded on many fronts--but not in developing starters.

Minda Haas

With their first pick in the 2015 Amateur Draft, the Kansas City Royals selected RHP Ashe Russell out of Cathedral High School in Indiana.  With their second pick in the draft, the Royals selected RHP Nolan Watson out of Lawrence North High School in Indiana. With their third pick in the draft, the Royals selected RHP Josh Staumont from Azusa Pacific University.

Russell, Watson, and Staumont, the 21st, 33rd, and 64th overall picks, respectively, are the newest trio of young pitchers to join a good farm system, a system which has traditionally contained numerous superb arms. Russell and Watson are good bets to join Baseball America's Top 100 Prospect list for 2016, especially if they have a good 2015.

What you might have noticed is that, despite the history of good arms in the minors, Kansas City has been mostly devoid of talented starters. Danny Duffy's 2014, alongside Yordano Ventura's 2014, are basically the only two positive seasons by Royals home-grown starters in General Manager Dayton Moore's entire tenure.

How? How did it get like this? What happened?

Let's start by examining who was in the aforementioned Baseball America Top 100:

2007

  • Luke Hochevar, no. 32

2008

  • Dan Cortes, no. 57
  • Luke Hochevar, no. 63 (second time on list)

2009

  • None

2010

  • Mike Montgomery, no. 39
  • Aaron Crow, no. 40
  • Noel Arguelles, no. 100

2011

  • John Lamb, no. 18
  • Mike Montgomery, no. 19 (second time on list)
  • Danny Duffy, no. 68
  • Jake Odorizzi, no. 69
  • Chris Dwyer, no. 83

2012

  • Mike Montgomery, no. 23 (third time on list)
  • Jake Odorizzi, no. 68 (second time on list)

2013

  • Kyle Zimmer, no. 24
  • Yordano Ventura, no. 25

2014

  • Kyle Zimmer, no. 23 (second time on list)
  • Yordano Ventura, no. 26 (second time on list)

2015

  • Brandon Finnegan, no. 55
  • Kyle Zimmer, no. 75 (third time on list)
  • Sean Manaea, no. 81

So what happened to these guys? Thirteen players have appeared on the list since Moore's hire--Hochevar, Cortes, Montgomery, Crow, Arguelles, Lamb, Duffy, Odorizzi, Dwyer, Zimmer, Ventura, Finnegan, and Manaea.  Of those, 11 were drafted under Moore's regime, so Cortes and Odorizzi can be thrown out for now.

***

Luke Hochevar

Career WAR: 5.2

Hochevar was the first pick in the first round of the 2006 draft.  The Royals passed on future legit stars Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, and Max Scherzer to select Hoch.  He was a quick riser, making his MLB debut in 2007 and went on to start 22 games for the Royals in 2008, his first big year of action.

Unfortunately, Hochevar was maddening. As a starter, Hochevar would show flashes of brilliance punctuated by waves of incompetence.  He would throw an 80 pitch complete game, then he would throw a 13 strikeout complete game.  In hindsight, there were two main problems.  The first was Hochevar's poor changeup, a pitch that hitters hit 68% above league average against.  Left handed hitters rightfully punished him, with an OPS of .818 over Hochevar's career.

The second problem was the Royals 'defense.' From 2008 to 2011, when Hochevar made 95 of his 128 career starts, the Royals defense was worth -236 runs according to Defensive Runs Saved*.  Hochevar's FIP was consistently much higher than his ERA. With Willie Bloomquist, Mark Teahen, Yuniesky Betancourt, Billy Butler, Alberto Callaspo, Jose Guillen, and Mike Aviles as your defenders, that makes total sense.

*The DRS numbers for KC from 2012-2015 are the best in baseball, a complete 180 from the previous four years. By the end of this year, the net difference between 2008-2011 and 2012-2015 should be about 400 runs.

Mike Montgomery

Career WAR: 0.3

Montgomery was one of the 'Fab Four' lefties in the Royals system, alongside Dwyer, Duffy, and Lamb. Monty and Lamb were considered to be the two best. A quick riser, Montgomery shot from low A ball in 2009 all the way to AAA to begin 2011.

Inexplicably, Monty just stalled in AAA. He spent the vast majority of 2011 and 2012 in Omaha, toiling with a mid-5s ERA.  He was included in the Royals' package for James Shields and Wade Davis, where he spent the vast majority of 2013 and 2014 toiling in AAA Durham with a mid-4s ERA. The Rays shipped him to Seattle for Erasmo Ramirez, where he parlayed a mid-3s ERA in AAA Tacoma into his Major League debut for the Seattle Mariners just last week.  Monty turns 26 next month.

Monty has been healthy this entire time. His stuff just wasn't good enough with his control; in AA and AAA, his walk rate jumped to the upper 3s and his strikeout rate fell to the low 7s.  Surprisingly, he's never been used in relief, where he would probably be excellent.

Aaron Crow

Career WAR: 1.1

Crow was drafted 12th overall in the 2009 draft out of the University of Missouri.  Questions existed about his viability as a starter, and the Royals chose for Crow very early on. After only one year in the minor leagues, the Royals broke camp with Crow in 2011 as a member of the bullpen, where he succeeded and made the 2011 All-Star team as the Royals' lone selection. He did not pitch.

Crow was basically Luke Hochevar 2.0 if Hochevar would have been immediately put in the bullpen and didn't have as much pure talent. Crow's fastball/slider combination worked fine from 2011-2013, even if he wasn't amazing, but a precipitous drop in fastball velocity doomed him in 2014. Traded to Miami, Crow underwent Tommy John surgery this offseason and has not pitched.

Noel Arguelles

Career WAR: N/A

The Royals gave Arguelles, a Cuban defector, a 5 year Major League deal worth $7 million in 2009. Arguelles suffered a number of arm injuries, lost speed and movement on his pitches, and was finally cut last year. Arguelles has not played baseball this year.

John Lamb

Career WAR: N/A

Among the Fab Four, Lamb peaked the highest on the Baseball America top 100 prospect list.  Between the rookie leagues, A ball, and A+ ball, Lamb struck out about 9 batters per 9 innings and walked only 3.  A low to mid 90s fastball alongside a good changeup helped him to succeed against right and left handers.

Lamb suffered Tommy John surgery in early 2011, which would basically nuke his age 20 and 21 seasons.  When he came back, he was terrible, pitching in the upper 80s and lacking the power or strikeout ability he once had.  However, he's clawed his way back, regaining some of his velocity and wrestling his command back under control. Lamb turns 25 in July, so he's neither terribly young nor too old, but he may make his debut this year.

Danny Duffy

Career WAR: 3.8

Duffy, man of the beard and the not beard and the hashtag #burymearoyal, has been a complete enigma.  The middle man of the Fab Four, it was no surprise he made it to the majors, but Duffy was considered to own less pure talent than Montgomery or Lamb.  Still, Duffy did what the others didn't--he conquered the minors, making it to the majors in 2011, and made 20 starts his rookie year. Duffy displayed tantalizing skill but exhibited terrible efficiency on route to a mediocre year.

One year after Lamb underwent his Tommy John surgery, Duffy blew out his own elbow after making 6 promising starts in 2012. In 2013, he came back to make a quintet of successful starts. Duffy had his best year in 2014, starting 25 contests and putting up a sterling 2.53 ERA.  His efficiency problems evaporated and his walk rate lowered, both at the cost of some strikeout ability.

Another injury to Duffy happened in the fall, keeping him out of most of the postseason. A prepared Duffy was expected to help shoulder the load this season in Shields' absence.  He did not do so. Duffy is currently rehabbing another arm injury and was poor in his eight starts with Kansas City.

Who is the real Duffy? 2012 and 2013 were marred by Tommy John. 2011 was his rookie season at age 23, 2014 his only real season of complete production, and it had questions of its own. We still don't know the real Duffy.

Chris Dwyer

Career WAR: 0.1

Dwyer was often the forgotten lefty, lagging behind his peers in talent.  Older than the others, the former Clemson University pitcher is now 27 and only has three innings worth of Major League experience in a September cup of coffee for Kansas City in 2013.

Dwyer always struggled with control in the minors, which has hurt his effectiveness in the high minors.  He reached AAA Omaha in 2012 and has not left. This year, the Royals put him in the bullpen, but he has stumbled in that role as well. In 244 innings in AA, Dwyer walked 4.9 batters per nine innings. In 302 innings in AAA, Dwyer has walked 4.8 batters per nine innings.  His future looks bleak.

Kyle Zimmer

Career WAR: N/A

Zimmer has great talent, but has had a myriad of arm injuries so far in his short caree...

Wait. I think I have some footage of Zimmer rehabbing:

FleshWound

Yordano Ventura

Career WAR: 3.2

Velocity is not a teachable characteristic. Ventura has it. Unlike everybody else on this list, Ventura possesses a blazing fastball that touches 100 MPH--easy heat, they call it. A small man with a clean, over the top delivery, Ventura does not look like someone that can burn up hitters with that kind of speed. He' just plain physically blessed.

Ventura was a 2008 signee out of the Dominican Republic, and he tore through the minor league ranks like a hot lightsaber through baseballs. He made three starts for the 2013 Royals in his age 22 season in a firestorm of a September call-up. It was 2014 where Ventura destroyed opposing hitters, turning in a 3 WAR rookie campaign and gathering a few Rookie of the Year votes along the way.

Unfortunately, 2015 has been a bit of a meltdown for him. His ERA is 4.62, and he has had a rash of weird things happen to him--four of his 11 starts have been cut short by cramps or ejection.  He's curiously been...off.

For now, let me posit that Ventura is losing his main weapon, his fastball, very quickly. In his three 2013 starts, his average fastball velocity was 97.1 MPH. In 2014, his average fastball velo was 96.0 MPH, and in 2015 that pitch went down to 94.3 MPH. Unless there is something mechanically wrong with Ventura that is a fixable issue, his long-term viability as a good starter hinges upon his ability to develop and consistently utilize his secondary pitches.

***

It's important to note that developing pitching, especially starting pitching, is notoriously difficult. It's why true aces barely exist, and why mediocre starters get tens of millions of dollars on the open free agent market.

So why did these most players fail, and why have Duffy and Ventura succeeded? For Hochevar and Crow, the lack of changeup was hugely problematic. Dwyer and Montgomery didn't have good enough stuff to overcome their tendency to walk opposing hitters.  Lamb, Arguelles, and Zimmer have been crippled by injuries.

Duffy has had success because he's a power lefty with decent secondary options. Ventura has succeeded because his fastball gives him an extraordinarily rare weapon.  But both have had issues. Moore hasn't developed a single player who has been solidly above average. Duffy and Ventura have had success, yes. Ventura will be especially interesting going forward and has the chance to be great.

The weird thing is that Moore's drafting has been generally pretty good, well-received by pundits and contemporaries. It's weird because Moore's position players have generally done pretty well--Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, Jarrod Dyson, Christian Colon, Wil Myers, and David Lough all have had varying successes at the Major League level.  But it's not just the top guys that have failed. The mid-tier draft guys have also floundered.  Guys like Tim Melville, Buddy Baumann, Kevin Chapman, Jason Adam, Michael Mariot, Bryan Brickhouse, and Sam Selman have all crashed, burned, stalled, or some combination of those three.

This isn't to say that there can't be a developed starter from Kansas City.  But it is caution against excitement for Russell, Watson, and Staumont.  There exists a precedent that has yet to be shattered.