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The state of Royals’ pitching development

2021 was supposed to be the year of the pitcher

Starting pitcher Brady Singer #51 of the Kansas City Royals leaves a game against the Baltimore Orioles in the third inning at Kauffman Stadium on July 17, 2021 in Kansas City, Missouri. Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The Royals have had an outstanding season in the minor leagues with their hitting development. They have seen MJ Melendez and Nick Pratto bounce back with great seasons going from nearly forgotten to Top 100 prospects. Some off-the-radar players have put up big seasons with Emmanuel Rivera, Michael Massey, and Vince Pasquantino standing out among those, while some others are turning things on late in the season. The hitting development staff has garnered plenty of praise from the Royals blogosphere and beat writing staff with the bats doing so well publications like Baseball America are recognizing the players as a top five system. That’s outstanding for the organization’s future, but wasn’t this supposed to be the year of the pitcher?

Going into 2021, most expected the pitching side to lead things. Whether it was Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, Asa Lacy, or any number of arms, big things were expected from the Royals pitching prospects. The year of the pitcher in the system was hoped to feature at least two or three members getting things going at the major league level and others pushing their way through the minors. Instead, it’s been a rough go with the Royals ranking 28th in BB%, 26th in team ERA, and 22nd in FIP at this writing. On the minor league side, Omaha ranks 17th out of 20 teams in ERA and NW Arkansas ranks 9th in a ten-team league. To say this year has been a disappointment for the Royals pitching group would be an understatement. The late-season resurgence of Carlos Hernandez and Daniel Lynch is somewhat salvaging the season on the pitching side. Still, in reality, all they’re doing is moving the needle from disaster to disappointing.

What are the reasons for this year’s disappointment?

The number of injuries going on in the pitching ledger of the organization has been one of the biggest struggles that stick out. It started with Jonathan Bowlan’s Tommy John surgery that curbed a tremendous start for the prospect at Double-A and has metastasized from there for the club. Soon after Bowlan, surging prospect Alec Marsh fell victim to injury, and more and more high-profile or well-known pitchers went down from there.

Eric Skoglund (AAA)- May 13 60 Day (TJ)
Jesse Hahn (MLB)-May 22nd 60 Day
Jonathan Bowlan (AA)- June 3rd 60 Day (TJ)
Adam Lukas (High-A) - June 7th 60 Day
Christian Chamberlain (High-A)- June 14th 7 Day
Ronald Bolanos (MLB)- June 18th 60 Day
Alec Marsh (AA)- June 22nd injury date (inflammation)
Ben Hernandez (Low-A)- July 3rd 7 Day
Delvin Capellan (Low-A) - July 7 Injured 7 Day
Jacob Junis (AAA)- July 9th 7 Day
Scott Blewett (AAA)- July 13 Injured 7 Day
Asa Lacy (High-A)- July 27th Injured 7 Day
Zach Haake (High-A)- August 2nd 60 Day Oblique
Noah Murdock (High-A) - Aug 2nd 60 Day

This doesn’t include everyone on the shelf but represents a large number of their pitcher injuries. Other pitchers Brady Singer, Austin Cox, and Danny Duffy have had to be shut down at different parts of the season or worked through injuries before their season could start. Was this a miscalculation in how to work pitchers coming off a Covid pause? The Royals stated they thought they understood each pitcher’s workload coming into this season and had prepared for a different type of season for their staff. They hinted that they wouldn’t need to take it too easy on pitchers during the season. Other teams are also struggling with injuries, but the losses of Lacy, Bowlan, and Marsh are significant ones in the system. Additionally, the losses of Jesse Hahn, surging Ronald Bolaños, and Danny Duffy damaged the major league rotation and bullpen to a level that helped sidetrack the season.

Beyond the injuries, there are struggles throughout any system from the top to the bottom levels expected, but the Royals haven’t seen the rise from enough pitchers to counterbalance that. Brady Singer’s difficulties stand out at the major league level. After finishing extremely strong in 2020 much was expected from Singer and things haven’t come together as he or the team had expected. The frustrating part for some is his reluctance to add that third pitch and while it’s written and spoke about with much more ease than I’m sure it is to actually develop a third usable pitch that one has faith in, his statements to the media grind more teeth than they should. His statements give the impression that the work wasn’t put in because he has confidence in the first two when he has them working. I’m sure that is the case, but it also ignores the precedent that the best starters in the game rarely offer fewer than three quality offerings. It also sets up the frustration of his teammates by fans when others arrive and struggle. College teammate Jackson Kowar’s struggles sent him back to the lab and the arrival of a slider not long after. Daniel Lynch was tipping pitches and got crushed before heading back to Omaha with a reworked delivery.

Why are they still attempting to develop pitchers in the major leagues after seeing so many struggles? Why wasn’t Kowar equipped with a slider on arrival if they thought he may need it? Why hadn’t Singer worked on his changeup before and why did Lynch have to rework the delivery beforehand?

Kowar was dominant at Triple-A when he got promoted only to get tagged. Maybe that’s what the front office saw and the reason they waited as long as they did to promote him. That’s justifiable, but since he’s been back, he’s gone backward, giving up a 6.16 ERA in nine outings. If he’s trying to find a pitch, then those numbers don’t matter, but why have him eat it and not Singer? Singer has an MLB 5.98 ERA since June 1, not including the seven runs he gave up in his less than five innings at Triple-A. A demotion is certainly in order for a pitcher struggling to the point where his stuff is getting knocked around at both levels. The Royals had him throw 10 or more changeups in those two minor league outings, but things diverted on his return against New York. Why doesn’t Singer need to take his lumps and find that third pitch? Are they doing a disservice to these player’s careers by not being more difficult on them?

The jump from Triple-A is extremely difficult for many pitchers, and it’s always been a tough one for Royals pitchers under this staff but even more concerning perhaps is the rough patch of some lower-level pitchers. Lefty Asa Lacy never found any level of consistency before encountering injury, walking 7.1 hitters per nine and backing up good outings with more walks the next time out. The success stories are few and far between with Kowar, despite his struggles, likely competing with Drew Parrish and A.J. Block for minor league pitcher of the year. The difficulties of Yefri del Rosario (6.42 ERA) and Yohanse Morel (7.09 ERA) stand out alongside Lacy’s, but there aren’t many standout seasons in there. Overall the Royals have just five starting pitchers in the minors with 40 or more innings and a sub 4.00 FIP in the minor leagues, with the three I named earlier among them. There are small victories in Anthony Veneziano’s stuff improving and Rylan Kaufman flashing and staying healthy but still not what the Royals will need to compete in 2022.

Perhaps this is the law of TINSTAPP and the difficulty in developing pitching. The Royals have made adjustments on the pitching development staff like they have on the hitting side. Maybe they have not taken hold this year because of the Covid pause? Their overall rates in organizational strikeouts and walk percentage have improved over 2019, but that final development piece appears to still be missing. The next question is do they know how to find the piece that is missing?