Many had high hopes for Kris Bubic coming into this season. He had debuted for the big league club in 2020 and made ten starts, averaging five innings an outing and putting up a workable if not particularly good 4.32 ERA. He was worth approximately 0.5 fWAR and had an ERA- of 95 with a FIP- of 109 (both stats are set to a league average of 100 and lower is better.) It was a weird year, he was making the leap from A-ball all the way to the MLB level, and he had some success.
His 2021 did not get off to a good start, unfortunately; his Spring Training was so poor that he didn’t even make the initial roster and was demoted to AAA before the season started. Injuries and ineffectiveness led to his promotion before the AAA season actually got underway and he pitched well enough to stick with the big league club for the rest of the season.
He was initially used as a reliever but by his third and fourth outings he was pitching five-plus scoreless innings and the Royals decided to promote him back into the rotation. He responded by making what was then the best start of his young career, six shutout innings against the Brewers while allowing only a single hit. He eventually struggled a bit and spent the year up and down between the rotation and bullpen depending on whether he was riding a hot streak or a cold streak.
If you look at his season stats he ends up looking almost exactly like what he looked like in 2020. Almost every stat remains within spitting distance of where he was last year, both simple and advanced, except for one: his strikeout rate dipped by an entire strikeout per nine innings. The stats might be the same, but how he got there was completely different.
2021 saw Kris Bubic make both his three best and three worst starts by Game Score v2 (GSv2), a stat that attempts to sum all the outcomes and total innings pitched into one, easy-to-compare number; 50 is set to be the average. There might be no better way of looking at 2021 Kris Bubic than two starts he made in August. The first was against the Cardinals and saw him allow seven runs on nine hits while earning only four outs. His very next time out he took a no-hitter into the seventh inning with everyone reason to believe he could have finished it off had the Cubs not manufactured a 30-minute rain delay sans any rain. Quite frequently in 2021, he was either unhittable or unpitchable.
He did end the year on a high note, his final five starts in September were all above-average by GSv2 and combined he allowed only seven earned runs in 30.2 innings for a 2.05 ERA. The big changes for him were reductions in both walks and home runs; the rates at which opposing batters earned those were less than half of what they were the rest of the season.
It’s also important to note that Bubic only just turned 24 in mid-August and while this was technically his sophomore season he only pitched 50 innings in a pandemic-shortened 2020. The experience he gained last season hardly seems enough to consider him a veteran in 2021. Given that and his age, it’s easy to see room for him to improve next year.
Even if Bubic doesn’t improve he is currently a league-average, left-handed starter on a rookie contract. Finding even league-average starting pitchers can be very difficult in Major League Baseball. Assuming he doesn’t completely fall apart prior to his rookie deal ending, the Royals should consider his draft selection a success even if it doesn’t ever significantly move the needle on their wins total.
Based on his performance in 2021, I award Bubic a C. He could have earned a higher grade by improving more but given the progress he did make and the relative inexperience with which he started the season, I think he did enough to provide a little hope for a brighter future and therefore pass this season.
What grade would you give Kris Bubic for the 2021 season?