In the recent Royals Review roundtable discussion I voiced my concern regarding the starting pitching. The Royals starting staff ERA currently sits at a paltry 4.71, 13th in the American League, averaging a measly 5 1/3 innings per start in the process. The back-end duo of Kris Medlen and Chris Young were the main culprits in the rotations struggles. In 13 combined starts, they pitched to the tune of a 7.15 ERA, while only pitching into the 6th inning just twice. Last week, both landed on the disabled list.
It was fairly obvious that Medlen was pitching through an injury, with his complete lack of control. His 43% first-strike percentage is the lowest among qualified starters. I didn’t peg Chris Young for being injured. The shape of his pitches, velocity, everything in line with last year. He even had a slight uptick in velocity. Young just simply doesn’t have the ingredients worthy of holding down a rotation spot for the duration. Young is a two-pitch pitcher with "gopheritis" issues that is completely unusable outside of the friendly confines of Kauffman Stadium.
Dillon Gee piggybacked Young’s last start, so he was lined up to take his spot in the rotation. Danny Duffy replacing Kris Medlen was an obvious decision, especially with his previous experience starting and a lack of a defined role in the bullpen. They both made their rotation debuts over the weekend, and flashed enough in their brief outings to make fans rest a little easier at night.
There was a lot of buzz among national writers that Gee was one of the best minor league free agents signs in baseball last winter. I endorsed it was a solid depth move, but was a little more tepid on him than most. Gee pitched five scoreless innings against the Atlanta Braves on Saturday before getting touched up a little in the sixth allowing three earned runs in just over five innings of work. He left some curveballs in the wheelhouse, but all in all pitched much better than the final line dictated. What I found the most encouraging was 10 whiffs in his 74 pitches. It is the Braves we’re talking about, so I must curb my enthusiasm but a 14% swinging-strike rate was very encouraging. His swinging strike rate on the season is 11%, which would be a career high.
What is the root cause of the increase in whiffs? Gee’s fastball is more effective than it’s been in years past. He is getting a little more perceived "rise" with the higher vertical movement. He has also been a little more successful in commanding the ball up in the zone. The four-seamer also has an extra two inches of armside run compared to his career norm. Despite the lackluster velocity, perhaps he isn’t a "bad" fastball guy that I renowned him to be coming into the season. His career high in cutter usage must also play a part in his success generating whiffs, as it breaks the opposite direction of his fastball. A switch in leagues is also a thing to consider, as his American League opposition has not seen him nearly as often. Pitch sequencing is always something to consider as well when some of the data doesn’t add up. Gee has a deep arsenal, but the shape of his curve, changeup, slider have all taken a step backwards. Keenly he’s dropped the usage of those offerings by almost 10%.
Duffy has always had immense potential. Southpaws with plus-plus velocity simply don’t grow on trees. His inability to repeat his mechanics throughout a game, let alone a season has been the roadblock to his sustained greatness. There is a lot working in his favor thus far in 2016. His mechanics have been a little crisper lately based on released points, but that isn’t what’s fueling his success. Adding an additional 3 ticks to your fastball can mask a lot of flaws. His swinging-strike rate is a ridiculous 19%, leading the club. Another recipe to his success is that he’s tossing more strikes. His first-strike percentage is at a career high 62%, up 5 points from last year.
Duffy is renowned for his "rise" fastball, but it isn't inducing all the pop ups we’ve grown accustomed to. They have cratered thus far, nine percentage points from his career average. With the additional oomph on his fastball, I would like to see him attack up the ladder a little more often.
In his start against Atlanta, Duffy tossed 81% four-seamers and breaking balls. It was very smart to use his best weapons against a paltry lineup. There might be classification issues regarding his breaking ball, but based on shape it is a combo platter of his 2015 curve/slider. It has the glove side break of his curve, but much less drop. The velocity is more in line with sliders as well. I haven’t noticed as many slow curves from years past, perhaps because batters spit on it and umpires are often inaccurate calling strikes on the loopers.
According to Brooks Baseball, Duffy's pitch usage on his sinker and changeup is a combined 25% this year. He didn't completely abandon ship on those offerings against the Braves, but did reduce it down to 19%. They both happen to have the exact same shape. Moving forward, he will have to use the change up against right-handed heavy lineups a little more often, but I’d be fine with him continuing to use the sinker more sparingly. Duffy’s change has a 9 MPH separation from his fastball, which is very good, but it does only have a few inches less drop from his four-seam. He’ll have to tread cautiously with it if he does begin to utilize his fastball up in the zone. With me advising a heavy fly ball approach, it is nice that he still has one pitch that’s ideal for inducing grounders.
A changing of the guard was necessary, but it remains to be seen just how productive the starting staff reinforcements will be moving forward. They’re still ramping up their pitch counts and will have to make adjustments when facing opposing lineups multiples times through. Gee shouldn’t change his ways much, but I will be paying close attention to every Duffy start. We’re all yearning for more consistency from quite possibly the the most polarizing skillset Kansas City has had in recent memory.