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Evaluating the Royals three rookie starters

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Let’s break down something positive.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Kansas City Royals Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals recently just had one of the hotter stretches of the season, grabbing their first sweep of the year and even winning a whopping four out of five games at one point! Quite the achievement for this mess of a team. In that stretch, we saw three encouraging starts from three different members of their rotation, all three of them happening to be rookies.

Brad Keller

Last Game Score: 64, 3rd highest out of nine career starts

All in all, we’ve seen a mixed bag in Keller’s first nine starts of the season. Like he was in the minors, he’s mostly been a pitch to contact guy, but interestingly enough, the strikeout rate has stayed somewhat steady as a starter (though still low) and some of the plate discipline peripherals have seen a slight uptick, some of that coming of a career-high for strikeouts in his last start with eight. As you’d expect, their has been a velocity decline with a higher workload, jumping down from 95 MPH in the bullpen with the fastball to 93.8 MPH as a starter.

I thought when Keller moved to the rotation that we’d see him trying to incorporate a third pitch into the works, something he didn’t really need to do in the bullpen. He has yet to do that, with his pitch usages barely changing.

  • Starter: 71.6% fastballs, 24.3% sliders, 4.2% changeups
  • Reliever: 72.2% fastballs, 24.4% sliders, 3.5% changeups

Basically any of Keller’s success as a starter has had to with him limiting the damage on balls in play. Narrowing every pitcher with 100 batted balls allowed and finding their xwOBA on just balls put into play, Keller ranks 22nd out of 176.

The ceiling for Keller in the rotation seems pretty low, being a back-end guy at best, a reason I was skeptical of him making the jump. But so far, we have seen little change in him between his two roles, with a lot of the batted ball and plate disciple peripherals staying the same, even with the velocity decrease. It should be interesting to see how long he can walk this K-BB% tightrope, but I think his future is still best served in the bullpen.

Heath Fillmyer

Last Game Score: 69, highest out of two career starts

In a game that summarized the ugliness of the 2018 Royals in one inning, one of the few positives that stood out was the performance of Heath Fillmyer. He left little to be desired with his performance in AAA, showing extreme inconstancies with command and control. Mixed in his overall lackluster performance though were a few starts that showed his capabilities of becoming a viable major league starter, such as...

  • April 15: 5.1 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 4 SO
  • April 20: 6 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 6 SO
  • May 22: 7 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 3 SO
  • June 7: 6 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 9 SO

It should be noted that Fillmyer owns one of the better pitches in the organization in his changeup. The reports on it have always been good and watching it in AAA didn’t disappoint. Having trouble consistently command it with his fastball have caused struggles though. He avoided those problems in his last start though, holding hitters to an exit velocity of 78.4 MPH and posting a SwStr% of 13.6%, quite the ideal combination.

The changeup has been as good as advertised for Fillmyer at the major league level, as hitters have slashed .188/.188/.188 off the pitch. The sample size is small, but he’s been able to generate a plethora of ground balls of it.

GB% off the changeup

Player Results GB%
Player Results GB%
Zach Duke 15 86.7
Mychal Givens 15 80
Heath Fillmyer 14 78.6
Trevor Bauer 23 78.3
Mark Leiter Jr. 18 77.8
Jose Alvarez 22 72.7
Ross Stripling 33 72.7
Noah Syndergaard 32 71.9
Aaron Nola 86 70.9
Brian Duensing 17 70.6
Mininum 10 batted balls off the changeup Baseball Savant

It’s unlikely Fillmyer will have a spot in the rotation much longer with Ian Kennedy, Eric Skoglund, and Jesse Hahn all working to return from the disabled list. He’ll most likely spend the last month of the minor league season down in AAA, where it would be nice to see more consistency and results, much like we saw in his last start.

Burch Smith

Last Game Score: 71, second highest out of 10 career starts

In the last calendar month, 243 different pitchers have thrown at least 10 innings. Only 35 have had a better FIP than Burch Smith. We’re starting to see what made Smith one of the more coveted Rule 5 Draft prospects, as in the past month he’s shown the ability to locate his stuff at the major league level, walking a mere 2.1 batters per nine in that time. It has help negate some of the velocity he’s lost since moving to the rotation.

Let’s head back to the changeup. Heath Fillmyer has a pretty good changeup. Smith’s may be better. Hitters have had trouble squaring it up, as out of 130 pitchers with at least 25 batted balls off the changeup, he has posted the lowest exit velocity.

Exit Velocity off the changeup

Results Player Exit Velocity
Results Player Exit Velocity
30 Burch Smith 76.7
37 Tony Watson 77.9
61 Mike Montgomery 78.2
45 Trevor Williams 79.1
33 Robbie Erlin 79.1
128 Kyle Hendricks 80.0
28 Raisel Iglesias 80.3
51 Tyler Clippard 80.4
71 Chase Anderson 80.5
48 Chris Devenski 81.0
Minimum 25 batted balls off the changeup Baseball Savant

Smith has only walked one batter in his 7 13 innings as a starter this year, while the SwStr% has seen a jump from 9.5 percent to 11.6 percent and the O-Swing% has gone from 23.7 percent to 32.1 percent.

The only thing that has held Smith back from being a major league starter is his durability issues. With a deep arsenal, decent velocity, and a signature pitch, he has all the makeup needed to be one. In my opinion, his performance in the rotation should be one of the more closely watched subjects for the Royals the rest of the season. I’m cautiously intrigued.