As you know by now, the Royals signed Mike Minor to a two-year deal, which means we suddenly care about Mike Minor again here at Royals Review. After signing a two-year deal with the Royals prior to the 2016 season, Minor was able to contribute in 2017 and was quite excellent out of the bullpen, parlaying that into a three-year deal with the Rangers to get back to starting games. The first two years in Texas went great. He even finished eighth in the Cy Young voting in 2019 after throwing 208.1 innings with a 3.59 ERA and infamously getting his 200th strikeout after one of his teammates dropped a foul popup on purpose to give him another shot at the milestone. And then 2020 happened, and like so many of us, it was kind of a disaster for Minor. But why?
The easiest thing to see right away is that he went from averaging 92.5 miles per hour on his fastball to averaging just 90.6 in 2020. But here’s what’s interesting about that. It didn’t change the effectiveness of the pitch. He had an xBA on his fastball in 2019 of .246. In 2020, it was .245. The xSLUG went from .454 to .460, which is negligible. He had a 23.3 percent whiff rate in 2019 and 24.6 percent in 2020. Velocity is important, but Minor spins his fastball with the best of them, so that certainly helps him a bit. In 2019, he had the fifth most spin on his four-seamer and then had the tenth-most spin in 2020. I also wonder a bit if the drop in velocity had to do with the bizarre season more than anything to worry about, but I have no way of knowing that and I guess we’ll find that out here in a few months. The velocity is worth being concerned about, but he succeeded with it in a brief 2020, so that’s at least a lesser concern at this time.
Minor’s changeup was a big reason why he had such a great second half in 2018 and a great 2019 season. And it’s kind of weird to be talking about the effectiveness of a pitch that held batters to a .196 average and .339 slugging percentage, but it’s the slugging percentage that caught my attention just a little bit as it was 74 points higher than his 2019 season. Maybe some of that has to do with collateral damage from the decreased fastball velocity, which is why it has me at least taking a look at it. If the fastball velocity decreased anymore, I wonder how much more than slugging percentage rises on the changeup. Minor uses the changeup as sort of a two-seam pitch, so maybe it won’t have any impact, but hey, we’re looking for answers here and I have to build some drama before we get to the culprit.
You know in some of those cheesy movies where a group of main characters are looking for something and then find it and it’s a climactic moment in the movie? This is it for Minor. He threw 203 sliders in 2020 and gave up six home runs. In 2019, he threw 651 sliders and gave up seven home runs. And it already wasn’t a great pitch for him in 2019, so to see the effectiveness of that pitch drop is what brings us to the .702 slugging percentage allowed on it.
The shape of the pitch didn’t change much from year to year. It actually had a bit more drop than in 2019, which might have been the problem, but the movement was roughly the same. The spin was roughly the same. He even had hitters hitting it softer than in 2019 with an average exit velocity of 84 MPH compared to 88.2 in 2019.
Look at the locations here:
That’s a lot more of the plate caught by that slider in 2020. Maybe it’s worth noting that he lost almost a full mile per hour of velocity on that pitch as well. It’s kind of hard to find a real change in what happened, which in itself is a bit concerning. The release points were essentially the same from year to year. That’s something I like to look for to see if there’s something easily fixable. Something the data doesn’t tell us that is probably worth exploring some video is maybe. But I even went frame by frame on a couple comparison videos from 2019 and 2020. At first, I thought maybe he wasn’t turning quite as much in 2020, which is, again, fixable. But take a look at the screenshots from the highest point before release:
So I just spent all that time talking about what made Minor go from a down ballot Cy Young candidate to a guy who struggled mightily in 2020. Take a look at the results of the two pitches and I think we might have ourselves an Occam’s Razor situation where the obvious answer was obvious.
Here’s the strikeout:
And here’s the home run:
Baseball is very complicated, but it’s also very simple. If you hit your spots, you’re much more likely to succeed as a pitcher than if you don’t. The pitch he struck Albert Pujols out on was unhittable. Maybe he doesn’t get a swing from everyone, but I can almost guarantee you he doesn’t give up a home run. The pitch to Chadwick Tromp was out of the zone, but over the plate. And it got crushed. Simple as that.
So yeah, I’m a bit worried about the velocity, but willing to see if that comes back with a normal season. If he doesn’t locate that slider better, though, none of it is going to matter and Minor may not make it through his full two-year deal with the Royals. We don’t know the money on the deal yet, so my opinion could change pretty quickly if it’s more than I expect, but betting on a guy just a weird year removed from a very good season seems like a pretty fair bet with that fastball spin rate and his changeup. If he can locate his slider better, the Royals have a nice piece to both allow them to not rush some of the young guys and maybe have a trade piece down the road. If he can’t, well, hopefully the deal isn’t for too much money.