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This Royals pitching staff is high...on fastballs

The high fastball revolution has made its way to Kansas City.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals have always been a bit of an odd team, even when they’re winning. They don’t have the typical pitching staff or the typical offense of the rest of the big leagues. Whether you think they’re zigging while everyone else is zagging or simply incompetent isn’t what’s important. What is important is that they’re weird.

Take the 2014 pitching staff, which was probably the best in the Dayton Moore era. They posted a 3.51 ERA, 3.69 FIP and 3.88 xFIP. The 2013 team’s ERA was a touch lower, but the other two were the lowest of the now 14 seasons Dayton Moore has been at the helm. They did that with a strikeout rate of 19.1 percent (6th best of the DM era, including 2020) and a walk rate of 7.2 percent (lowest of the DM era). That’s a good staff. They didn’t get a ton of ground balls with the sixth lowest rate since 2007, but they didn’t really need to with the ball not being nearly as live as today.

Now let’s talk about today. They currently have a 3.95 ERA (4th best), 4.40 FIP (8th) and 4.10 xFIP (3rd). Their 22.9 percent strikeout rate is the highest by far. The next best was in 2016 when they struck out 20.8 percent of all batters. Their strikeout to walk percentage of 14.1 percent is also the far. Their ground ball rate of 46.7 percent is higher by 2.4 percent than their next best season. This staff is clearly different.

But why?

I think it has something to do with their fastballs (classified by Baseball Savant), both how much they’re used and where they throw them. If you’ll recall, I mentioned something a couple weeks ago about them using the high fastball much more. If you think about it while watching a game, you’ll notice that the Royals seem to be living in the top of the zone and just above it with their hard stuff. And you might have noticed what seems like a lot more weak contact this year (the Fangraphs numbers don’t actually bear that out, but the Baseball Savant numbers do). In fact, the infield fly ball rate in 2020 is also the highest of the DM era.

I think the Royals have entered the 21st century in terms of pitching philosophy. I don’t know if it was on purpose, but they’re there this season. The idea is that big league hitters can hit a fastball. And with the ball juiced up, connecting with a fastball is a fast path to runs allowed. So the Royals are throwing fewer of them. This year, they’re throwing 54.4 percent fastballs, which is down from 58.2 percent last year and 59.3 percent in 2018. Their usage is in line with some of the best pitching teams in the league from last season (and some of the worst, it’s not a catch-all).

And on top of the fact that they’re using the fastball less, they’re using it up in the zone more. Sure it flies in the face of the factless logic that old school announcers use when they talk about keeping the ball down to limit the long ball. I mean why wouldn’t you want to put the ball right in the perfect spot for a lofted swing to get to the ball and drive it out of the yard? The high fastball, when used correctly, can make it very difficult for a hitter to make strong contact. Take a look at the image above and look at 11, 12, 13, 21, 22 and 23. That’s where you want to live with your fastball. You could argue that 31, 32 and 33 are fine, but they’re pretty obviously out of the zone, so I didn’t include them. Through Sunday’s action, teams are hitting .155 against fastballs in those six zones with a .270 SLG. In the rest of the zones in and around the zone, hitters are hitting .267 with a .461 SLG. Pretty clear difference there.

Royals Fastballs From 2016-2020

Year Fastball % Fastballs Up % FB AVG Allowed FB SLG Allowed
Year Fastball % Fastballs Up % FB AVG Allowed FB SLG Allowed
2020 54.4% 24.2% .265 .385
2019 58.2% 18.4% .300 .497
2018 59.3% 18.8% .294 .477
2017 56.5% 19.8% .290 .485
2016 61.6% 19.6% .280 .465

For what it’s worth, the Royals are allowing a .082 average and .184 SLG on the fastballs up. The average is second best and the slugging percentage is eighth best. So it’s working. On fastballs everywhere else, they’ve allowed a .308 average (fourth worst) and a .431 slugging percentage (actually 10th best). A lot of this is they simply have more talent and better stuff this year, but some of it is definitely that there’s a plan in place.

Danny Duffy is the biggest beneficiary of this philosophy as opponents are just 1 for 15 against him on fastballs in those spots with the one hit being a double. The other three hits allowed were by Ian Kennedy (a single), Glenn Sparkman (a double) and Kevin McCarthy (a home run).

Questions that come from this that I can’t answer have a lot to do with Cal Eldred, the Royals pitching coach for whom I have not even attempted to hide my disdain. Is he behind this? If so, maybe I was wrong and a guy like him can change. Is it the organization’s new emphasis on analytics that seems to be permeating through all levels? If so and Eldred isn’t on board, it won’t be long before he’s out, no matter how close he is with Matheny. And, is this Matheny and his new analytical lean? If it is, then color me even more impressed with him than I already have been.

What we do know is that this has been a welcome change to see a quality pitching staff for the first time in a few years. They seem to be doing it with methods that the most successful organizations use, and that’s all you can really ask for. It doesn’t hurt that guys like Josh Staumont, Trevor Rosenthal, Scott Barlow, Greg Holland and Kyle Zimmer have been nails in the bullpen and the rotation has been good enough with that bullpen and no need to prepare for 162 games behind them. If this continues, and there’s no reason to think it won’t, we could be in for a lot of fun watching this team actually get the most out of their pitching staff rather than limiting them as we’ve seen for too long.