Starting pitching has not been a strength for the Royals, not even when they were competitive. Since the beginning of the 2016 season, Royals starters have a 4.85 ERA - only three teams in baseball have been worse. But the starting pitching has imploded this May, with Royals starters posting an ERA of 6.78. Three times a Royals starter has yielded nine runs or more in a start this month. As Rustin Dodd points out, they are on track to post the fourth-worst ERA by Royals starters in a season ever - eclipsed only by the putrid 2004-2006 squads.
With the rotation scuffling, the Royals may have to consider a change, particularly if they want to get a look at younger arms. The Royals could get Scott Barlow or Trevor Oaks up for another start to see what they have, but perhaps the best option is sitting right in their bullpen - Brad Keller. Keller was a Rule 5 draft pick who had never pitched above AA prior to this year. But he has impressed Royals brass, with a 2.20 ERA in his rookie campaign with eight strikeouts and four walks in 16 1⁄3 innings of relief. The performance has been enough to cause the team to at least consider starting him this year, according to Dodd.
“Is it going to be in a month? Next year? I don’t know...but it’s definitely something that we’ve been discussing.”
How would his stuff transition as a starter? He was a starter throughout the minor leagues, making 26 starts in AA last year, tossing 130 2⁄3 innings, and he has made 24 or more starts in each of the last three seasons. His big 6’5’’ 235-pound frame may give him the durability to withstand a starter’s workload. You would expect the Royals to ramp his innings up slowly after spending the first six weeks in the bullpen, but it wouldn’t take long to get him up to speed.
Keller has been throwing in the mid-to-high 90s out of the Royals’ pen, even hitting 99 on the gun. That is a step up from the low-90s he had previously been throwing. The increase is probably attributable to him moving to the pen and amping up his velocity, but he had been increasing his velocity at the end of last year as a starter, according to Baseball America, topping out at 97 last summer.
Despite the velocity, his strikeout rate is rather low. His swinging strike rate is just 8.1%, compared to the league average of 11.4%. Hitters are making contact on 87.5% of his pitches in the zone, compared to 83.9%. So it doesn’t appear he is missing bats.
His big success comes from getting opponents to pound the ball into the ground. Out of all relievers with at least 10 innings pitched, Keller is eighth in groundball rate at 61.8%, just a hair below former Royals groundball artist Scott Alexander, who Patrick Brennan compared Keller to not long ago. It is not a sample-size fluke either - his groundball rate in the minors over the last three years combined is well over 50%. The sinker has developed as his most effective weapon, but he has a deeper repertoire than most relievers, throwing an impressive 96-mph cutter, as well as a decent slider and changeup.
Would starting Keller be throwing him to the wolves? Now that the Royals are rebuilding, they seem reluctant to rush young players and put them in situations they are not ready for. But the jump from AA isn’t that big of a jump. In fact, the Royals have frequently had their top prospects spend very little time in AAA or bypass it completely. And the fact Keller has already had some Major League success should lessen his nerves a bit when he takes the mound as a starter for the first time.
There haven’t been many Rule 5 picks who have made a significant amount of starts in their rookie campaign. Dylan Covey made 12 starts for the White Sox last year, but posted a 7.71 ERA. Luis Perdomo made 20 starts for the Padres in 2016 and fared a bit better with a 5.71 ERA. But Keller may be more ready than those pitchers were. KATOH identified him as one of the best Rule 5-eligible players last year. ZIPS projects him for a 4.92 ERA which isn’t great, but isn’t god-awful either, and is certainly better than what the Royals have been getting from Jason Hammel.
Perhaps Ian Kennedy will shake off his age and pitch like he did a few years ago. And Jason Hammel will reclaim some trade value. But a big turnaround seems unlikely, and the Royals will have to move into a direction of seeing what their young players can do. Brad Keller is part of the future of this rotation, the only question is when.