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Taking stock of the Royals’ pitching situation

Are the early season woes indicative of how the rest of the season will play out?

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Kansas City Royals Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals look to be in a bit of trouble early this season. The main culprit, without a doubt, has been pitching. The Royals proved they can put up offensive numbers in spring training and are currently sit 18th in runs scored. The pitching staff has been something of a hodgepodge with a disconcerting bullpen and limited (legitimate) options for starting pitching. Its very early, but Kansas City needs to squash this predicament soon before it spins out of control.

Thus far, Brad Keller and Jakob Junis have done pretty well for the front end of the rotation. Homer Bailey and Jorge Lopez have been (at best) serviceable if not shaky. That being said, the bullpen is demonstrating that its mired in much deeper issues at this point.

Fangraphs currently has the Royals ranked 26th overall in regards to team pitching WAR (starters ranked 18th, bullpen ranked 29th). Its way too early in the season for serious assessments but trouble is clearly brewing. Are some of the arms as bad as they seem and the guys who seem to be pulling their weight as good as we think they are this early?

Early on, Keller has been staff ace for the Royals. A 2.84 ERA through 19 innings without allowing a home run is as good as you can ask for. Yet his SIERA lets us know that his pitching might not be as good as his ERA is telling us.

Something to keep in mind with both ERA and SIERA is they are extremely volatile under small samples. On the one hand we could assess that a guy is pitching awful but on the other we could presume that it won’t be that bad for long.

Keller started the season out strong at home against the White Sox but struggles followed against the Twins and Tigers. Keller’s last two starts see a nearly 1-1 walk to strikeout ratio (8 Ks, 7 BBs). If the walks continue, Keller isn’t going to be the pitcher I thought he could be this season.

One reason for the ERA/SIERA variance could be due to Keller’s BABIP (.222) being really low. With that said, Keller is a ground ball pitcher and his contemporaries tend to have slightly lower BABIP. Since league average is a tick above .300, this could indicate that he’s been getting a lot of help from his defense and some regression is to be expected.

Most of Keller’s pitch data is stable, however his slider (his most effective pitch thus far) has seen a 15 degree change in its spin axis and about a half inch less break than we saw in spring training.

Since its still getting good results, there’s not much to worry about but its certainly worth monitoring. He’ll need that pitch because his sinker hasn’t been very effective and his four-seam has seen some location issues early on.

Junis has only made two starts but his ERA is pretty inflated. Like Keller, his SIERA is telling us he’s been pitching better than what the standard numbers are saying. Junis isn’t getting rocked as his hard contact accounts for just 25% of all contact. He has kept his walks low (8%), but when hitters are putting the ball in play, they post a .355 BABIP. That number is pretty unsustainable so we could reasonably anticipate Junis to have some better numbers going forward.

Junis’ fastballs are working out well for him but his offspeed stuff is causing some early problems. Junis, like Keller, has seen a change in his slider activity. His slider has gone from a 77-degree spin axis (March) to 97-degrees (April). That adjustment as apparently caused a change in the slider’s action as you can see he’s lost a good inch and a half vertical break.

Keep in mind, Junis is still getting plenty of whiffs on the pitch, but when hitters do make contact, they produce a .556 BABIP.

Moving to the bullpen things are a lot more volatile. Since the sample sizes for hitters faced and pitches thrown is still really small, I won’t do much of a deep dive.

As we know, Kyle Zimmer was demoted. While casually observed as the fall guy, it isn’t without merit. Zimmer clearly has the stuff, but might need a little more work in the minors to produce it consistently int the majors.

Mechanically, not much seems off for Zimmer although is fastball is getting an extra inch or so vertical break. Given that his release points and spin axis on the fastball has barely changed, it would seem he might be releasing the pitch a bit earlier than he should or his spin rate has dropped a bit. Either of which could be the tied to three of his five walks from the fastball thus far.

It could also be his mental approach needs to be refined as Zimmer folded under high leverage situations. In those spots he faced three hitters and walked each of them. Zimmer has worked hard to get back to the big leagues and its unfair at this point to claim he can’t handle the pressure. We need to give him some more time before we call his spring training performance a fluke.

Wily Peralta, who I wrote about at the beginning of the season, has not been good at all. He had a good inning against the Twins on April 2nd, which saw him strike out two of the four batters he faced. However those are the only two strikeouts Peralta has produced. He’s had a walk in each of his outings and has had each hit he’s given up turn into earned runs.

Leverage situations aren’t really at play here as he’s done equally bad in high and low leveraged spots. However, he’s been in far more high-leverage situations and through nine hitters faced, Peralta has given up five runs on two hits (one a grand slam home run) with three walks and two strikeouts.

In the aforementioned article, I suggested that Peralta keep his four-seam use to a minimum and switch to his sinker. He’s done that with some pretty good results. Its his secondary stuff that’s creating problems. Peralta is also looking fairly predictable and that’s cost him, especially with two strikes.

This situation was by far the most damaging.

We could deduce that this was a missed location for Peralta. Notice where Martín Maldonado held his glove compared to the HR pitch location in the video above. I’d assume that Maldanado expected a lower pitch with a fair amount of vertical break instead of the undeviating hung changeup Peralta served to the hitter.

Are there any positives, any glimmer of hope in the arms of the bullpen? Maybe.

Both Brad Boxberger and Jake Diekman’s numbers look bad, yet their expected stats are alluding to future improvement. Diekman has an ERA of 6.23 but a SIERA of 3.99. Boxberger has an 8.31 ERA with a 2.93 SIERA.

Diekman has faced 20 batters and given up three hits, which resulted in three runs. He’s also plunked three hitters that likely contribute to his elevated ERA. While its not an excuse, we certainly can’t expect this to be something that will regularly happen for Diekman. But what we should expect is Diekman not to give up as many runs as he has hits.

He’s also producing a lot of weak contact (50%) and creating a lot of fly balls (50%) that don’t result in any home runs. Better still, Diekman leads the bullpen in whiff rate (14.1%) allows a low rate of zone contact (82.5%), both figures much better than league-average

The guy who leads the team in lowest zone contact, Boxberger, also appears to be one of the worst pitchers in the bullpen. The free agent acquisition's early returns have been less than impressive. Boxberger is striking out hitters much higher than any other arm in the bullpen (about 16 per nine innings) though he’s also guilty of too many walks (almost seven per nine).

Boxberger faltered as the closer for the Diamondbacks in 2018. The possibility of him taking that role with the Royals is still in play but he’s going to have to clean up his messy stats fast.

While I’ve thrown a lot of numbers at you, one thing to consider that I spoke about last Saturday on 810 WHB is that the pitchers were expected to gel with a new catcher after spending a decent amount of time this spring with Cam Gallagher, whom many are familiar with, along with prospects from the lower farm system. Maldanado came into camp late and perhaps its going to take a little bit of time for the arms to build chemistry with him. Maldanado is a veteran guy who has bounced around a little bit so he has experience with creating good rappaport with new pitchers. That could help the transition move a little bit faster but it remains to be seen if this is a factor at all.

As I mentioned, we aren’t even a month into the season so expectations need to be tempered on both ends of the spectrum. This isn’t an idea situation by any stretch of the imagination for the Royals and we’ll probably see quite a bit of shuffling early on. The potential is there for the Royals to have a pretty decent staff. If they continue to be unable to execute, none of that will matter.