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Rookie pitchers don’t usually struggle this much early on

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Should we be alarmed at the early results from Royals rookie pitchers?

Kansas City Royals v Los Angeles Angels Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Royals fans have been hearing about their vaunted 2018 draft class for some time, in the past year, have seen that class begin to make their MLB debuts with mixed results. Brady Singer came out of the gate strong, and Kris Bubic impressed early on in 2020. However the 2021 debuts of Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar have been disasters, with Lynch giving up 14 runs in 8 innings in his first three starts, and Kowar failing to even make it to the third inning in his first two starts, pitching a combined 2 innings with 8 runs allowed.

It is the performance of the latter two prospects combined with a dearth of pitching prospects developed under Dayton Moore in nearly 15 years on the job that has caused alarm among Royals fans. Fans should have some patience, as three starts does not a career make. As I tweeted out after Kowar’s inauspicious debut, baseball has had several pitchers get lit up in their MLB debut, only to have prosperous MLB careers.

However, in his second start, Tom Glavine pitched into the eighth inning, allowing just three runs. In his third start, Matt Garza allowed just one unearned run in six innings. In his second outing, Ervin Santana tossed a five-hit complete-game shutout. Some of them would have mixed results in their rookie season, but they at least showed some signs of the pitcher they would end up becoming.

We know that pitchers peak in performance at an earlier age than hitters, usually around age 26, with their velocity peaking in the early 20s. So a pitcher that is going to be good is usually good early on, and if he hasn’t figured it out by about age 26, he’s not going to get many more chances.

So it is imperative that Royals rookie pitchers perform early on. And that hasn’t happened. If it seems like other teams get much better performances from their rookie pitchers out of the gate, that’s because recently that has been true.

I took a look at pitchers who made starts in their first five games at the big league level. Since 2019, only the Brewers have gotten worse performances from such pitchers, and that was because they started just one first-year pitcher, a 25-year old right-hander named Alec Bettinger, who gave up 11 runs in four innings in his only start.

Rookie pitchers, starting in their first five games

TEAM IP H R ER HR BB SO ERA
TEAM IP H R ER HR BB SO ERA
MIL 4.0 11 11 11 2 2 0 24.75
KCR 66.7 89 60 57 14 36 60 7.70
COL 52.7 63 43 43 16 19 37 7.35
BAL 91.0 104 79 68 23 46 89 6.73
DET 91.3 107 70 67 19 34 86 6.60
SFG 65.7 81 53 47 13 25 55 6.44
WSN 19.3 19 15 13 7 11 19 6.05
TEX 98.7 106 69 63 16 56 73 5.75
PHI 42.3 48 28 26 8 16 35 5.53
NYY 35.3 33 22 21 6 12 34 5.35
TOR 98.7 95 61 57 17 45 97 5.20
PIT 105.7 112 65 61 16 43 78 5.20
NYM 28.0 26 17 16 2 12 22 5.14
SEA 100.7 98 65 56 17 37 75 5.01
CHC 18.0 16 11 10 4 11 15 5.00
CHW 67.0 59 40 37 12 29 65 4.97
BOS 35.0 33 24 19 3 26 50 4.89
LAA 68.7 64 37 36 14 28 74 4.72
HOU 97.7 86 49 47 19 37 88 4.33
TBR 71.7 72 34 34 13 14 72 4.27
ARI 78.0 68 39 37 12 30 63 4.27
SDP 130.7 107 60 59 12 50 122 4.06
OAK 19.7 15 8 8 4 8 20 3.66
MIN 39.3 35 16 16 8 10 38 3.66
STL 56.7 50 30 23 7 20 35 3.65
MIA 212.3 183 95 82 26 94 198 3.48
ATL 57.0 39 28 22 7 38 59 3.47
CLE 97.7 73 37 36 13 31 94 3.32
LAD 43.3 40 20 15 4 7 33 3.12
CIN 21.3 13 6 6 1 12 17 2.53
Total 2014.0 1945 1192 1093 335 839 1803 4.88

Since 2019, the average rookie pitcher making a start in his first five games has had an ERA of 4.88. Not great, but you wouldn’t expect rookies to be great, and this includes a lot of pitchers that came up to the big leagues, and won’t likely pitch much in the big leagues if they ever come up again. But Royals pitchers - and this includes Brady Singer and Kris Bubic, who pitched capably in 2020 - have fared much worse than average.

Of course, the pandemic threw an unprecedented wrench into the development of young pitchers last year, canceling the entire minor league season. What if we just look at how first-year starting pitchers have done in 2021, after a one-year layoff?

First-year starting pitchers in 2021

Player Tm G GS IP H R ER BB SO ERA
Player Tm G GS IP H R ER BB SO ERA
Tony Santillan CIN 1 1 4.7 5 1 1 4 5 1.93
Zach Thompson MIA 2 2 8.0 8 2 2 1 7 2.25
Alek Manoah TOR 4 4 20.3 14 7 6 8 21 2.66
Vladimir Gutiérrez CIN 4 4 23.0 15 7 7 10 19 2.74
Cody Poteet MIA 5 5 24.0 16 10 10 8 21 3.75
Logan Gilbert SEA 6 6 28.3 24 13 13 8 29 4.13
Shane McClanahan TBR 9 9 38.7 41 20 19 13 46 4.42
Bailey Ober MIN 3 3 13.0 17 7 7 2 15 4.85
Kohei Arihara TEX 7 7 28.7 32 22 21 12 17 6.59
Tyler Ivey HOU 1 1 4.7 6 4 4 1 3 7.72
Brent Honeywell Jr. TBR 3 2 4.3 5 4 4 3 4 8.31
Daniel Lynch KCR 3 3 8.0 18 15 14 5 7 15.75
Eli Morgan CLE 1 1 2.7 8 6 6 2 1 20.26
Jackson Kowar KCR 2 2 2.0 8 8 8 5 1 36.00
210.4 217.0 126.0 122.0 82.0 196.0 5.22

If anything, Kowar and Lynch should be the cream of the crop as vaunted top 100 prospects. Other top prospects like Alek Manoah, Logan Gilbert, and Shane McClanahan have had much better success. Brent Honeywell, Jr. is a top prospect that has struggled a bit, but he is also in his first year since recovering from Tommy John surgery.

The sample size here is very small, so I don’t want to read too much into a couple of poor outings at the outset of these careers. Baseball is a game of adjustments, and Kowar and Lynch seem like very smart young men who time to refine their game.

But this shouldn’t be hand-waved as typical early-career struggles either. Alec Lewis highlighted the problem in a recent mailbag column.

By sheer velocity and movement, Lynch and Kowar have MLB-ready pitches. The problem is velocity and movement don’t matter if the location is wayward, and Kowar already outlined how unable he was to locate his pitches.

The year off cost pitching prospects a critical year of in-game development. The Royals were proud of their Alternate Site development, but it is still difficult to re-enact the grind of pitching in real game situations. Perhaps Kowar and Lynch were ready for the big leagues and just had a couple of bad outings. Or maybe they were rushed to the big leagues before they had a chance to refine a third pitch and clean up their mechanics.

Dayton Moore has long stressed that “pitching is the currency of baseball”, but he hasn’t exactly been the U.S. Mint when it comes to churning out that currency. If the Royals are to rebuild back to the contender they want to be, they’ll need their young pitching crop to develop into a solid pitching staff. And while the returns are still very early, they’re not good at all.