The long-term success or failure of this franchise over the next few years will largely depend on their ability to convert their crop of impressive pitching prospects into a quality Major League staff. This is a task that has largely eluded the Royals under Dayton Moore - the only notable homegrown starting pitchers they have developed in the last decade and a half are Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura.
So there is a lot riding on the new minor league pitcher development program headed by Paul Gibson, and on Royals Major League pitching coach Cal Eldred. Eldred has been on the job since 2018, having come over from the St. Louis Cardinals organization, where he spent three years as a special assistant to the general manager, working with minor leaguers. Now, as he is in the middle of his fourth season with the Royals, he faces heightened scrutiny over how he is handling the pitching staff.
It is always difficult to evaluate hitting and pitching coaches, and their main utility sometimes seems to be to serve as a scapegoat to be fired when the team isn’t doing well. Fans simply aren’t given access to what pitching coaches do to help pitchers prepare, how they help them adjust, or even what they say in mound visits. We can look at the outcomes over the last four seasons, and they aren’t great. I added a column to illustrate how much better or worse the Royals fared compared to the American League average (-10% would indicate they were 10% worse than the AL average).
Royals pitching, 2018-2021
There was some improvement in 2020, although in just a 60-game season. The Royals have improved their whiff rate to league average, but the walk rate has taken a concerning turn for the worse.
However, there are reasons not to read too much into the numbers. First, the talent level was simply awful in 2018 and 2019, and while it has improved there is still not a tremendous amount of depth. Eldred can only do so much with the talent he is given. Second, there are numerous variables that go into pitching performance, of which a pitching coach is just a small factor. Injuries, matchups, and the unwillingness of pitchers to accept advice can all stymie even the best tutelage.
Still, this is a results-oriented business, and the results haven’t been there. Royals starters have the second-worst ERA in the American League (although they have underperformed their FIP). Royals pitchers overall have the worst walk rate in the league, with the fewest amount of first-pitch strikes, and third-fewest pitches in the zone. They walked 11 last night against the Yankees, already the sixth time this season they have walked 8 or more batters in a game, or double the amount of games they did from 2014 to 2015.
While I can’t say for certain that Eldred has been bad, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that he is a good pitching coach either. The regression of Brad Keller has been a very disappointing development this year, and it doesn’t seem like Eldred or the Royals have any good answers for why.
"It's tough to look at the positive," Keller said. "Talking to Cal, he said the same thing. He was like, 'I don't know what to say to you.' It's like well, obviously, something has got to change. We can't keep doing the same thing and expect different results.— Kurtis Seaboldt (@KSeaboldt) June 15, 2021
Maybe that’s making too much out of a throwaway line or maybe there simply isn’t anything Eldred can say, but it certainly doesn’t seem encouraging that the pitching coach seems as mystified as anyone else about Keller’s struggles.
But perhaps more worrying are the early struggles of Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar, two of the top pitching prospects in the organization, who have combined to give up 25 runs in their first 13 Major League innings. Both seemed very erratic with their command, with some even suggesting that Lynch was tipping his pitches. Eldred chalked up their struggles to the jump in facing Major League batters as opposed to minor leaguers.
“One, this is the major leagues and where they’re coming from is the minor leagues. That in itself, there’s a whole chasm of things that go along with that. From game planning … we obviously can get information quicker and faster and more of it. But the reality is they don’t get to face these kinds of hitters. That’s really tough. That’s the toughest part. And then it’s handling all that from a mental standpoint.
You could argue that Lynch and Kowar were rushed to the big leagues before they were ready, what with the year they missed, and that there was little Eldred could do about that. On the other hand, many other pitchers who made their MLB debut this year have fared much better.
Then there’s the development of Brady Singer, who has had some flashes of brilliance with his fantastic slider and sinking fastball, but results still too inconsistent for someone with his talent. He still has yet to develop a third pitch, an issue scouts have raised since he was drafted. He has thrown a change-up just 50 times this year, and has not generated a single whiff on any of them. Kowar has also struggled to develop a third pitch, and the hopes of him developing a breaking ball under Eldred are tempered by Singer’s lack of progress.
There have also been questions as to whether Eldred is suited for the analytics-driven era of baseball. David Lesky has been pretty critical on that front, writing that Eldred was resistant at first to some of the modern technology.
There’s been some pretty loud heat on Cal Eldred lately. I’ve made no secret that I’m no fan of Eldred and haven’t been really since the first season. To give you a look behind the curtain, I’ve heard from reputable sources that, at least at one time, he was very much against technology and analytics and that really turned me off to him because if you’re not willing to use everything at your disposal to do your job better than you’re not willing to do your job the best you can.
In fairness to Eldred, he has talked about using analytics more recently.
It feels like you never know enough. It really does. There’s always something else that comes out. But the basis never changes. That’s what’s fortunate. We may have another way to calculate it, or test it, or watch it. We know it’s great to get to ask, “What is the release point? Where should Brad release his slider? Where should he release his two-seamer? What does his hand look like on the Edgertronic camera when he does it right?”
The player can get immediate feedback. That’s probably the biggest advantage of this.
Of course, it is not simply enough to be well-versed in analytics, the Royals will need to be on the cutting edge. Is Eldred the right pitching coach to help them sprint past the competition in pitching development?
The Royals have their best crop of pitching prospects since their heralded prospects class of 2011. There will be attrition of course. The success rate for minor league pitching prospects is not great. But with other small market clubs like the Rays, Indians, and Athletics churning out homegrown pitchers, there is simply no excuse for the Royals not to be doing the same.
I don’t know if Cal Eldred is the right man to handle these young pitchers as they begin breaking into the Major Leagues. But the growing evidence does not seem to be in his favor.
Should the Royals fire Cal Eldred?
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