The Royals have rested a lot of their hopes on getting back to contention on the backs of their young pitchers. Although there were some early struggles, the rotation has gotten younger and better over the summer, giving the team more of a chance to compete. Since the All-Star break, Royals starters have a respectable 4.04 ERA, good for the 7th in the American League, and the Royals have a winning record of 20-17 over that time.
For the first time in several years, the Royals will have many intriguing rotation options going into the 2022 season. While they will likely end up using all of these pitchers at some point in the season due to injuries and ineffectiveness, it might be useful to rank them to see who should get first crack at the rotation when the season begins.
2021: 93 IP 4.94 ERA 5.85 FIP 7.9 K/9 4.5 BB/9
The good: When he’s on and hitting his spots, he has been excellent. Of his 14 starts, 6 have been Quality Starts, including a no-hit bid last week against the Cubs. His curveball has seemed sharper this year, and he ranks in the top third in baseball in curveball spin. He has been hurt by the long ball, but his flyball-to-home run ratio is one of the highest in the game, suggesting perhaps he has been a bit unlucky and those numbers could regress to the mean next year. He reminds me a lot of former Royals lefty Jason Vargas, a change up specialist who ate innings and capably served as a mid-rotation starter on a pennant-winner.
The bad: That high home run rate could also be due to living on the edge with his change up. The change hasn’t been great this year and when he leaves it middle-middle, it has gotten hammered. In five starts he has given up 5+ runs, including a 7-run outing in August against the Cardinals in which he failed to get out of the second inning. For as much spin as the curve is getting, it hasn’t been very effective, ranking as one of the worst in baseball this year.
2021: 59 IP 3.97 ERA 4.03 FIP 9.2 K/9 4.3 BB/9
The good: Hernandez has really come into his own lately, with a 2.05 ERA over his last five starts and opponents hitting just .215/.270/.355 over that time. He throws harder than anyone on the staff with a fastball that even exceeds Josh Staumont this year. And with his broad shouldered-frame, he looks like he could be a workhorse who can keep that velocity deep into games and give you innings. He has a four-pitch arsenal that has generally been pretty effective.
The bad: Command can still be an issue at times, and he has one of the lowest called strike percentages in baseball. He can also be hit hard at times, ranking in the top 25 worst percentile for exit velocity, although that hasn’t translated into a lot of home runs yet.
2021: 129.1 IP 5.43 ERA 4.62 FIP 8.1 K/9 4.2 BB/9
The good: After a terrible start, Keller has really come on lately with a 3.35 ERA and over a strikeout per inning in his last eight starts. He leads the team in Quality Starts with nine. He has been rather unlucky this year with the highest BABIP among qualified starters. Keller has a track record, since 2018 he has been the 44th-most valuable starting pitcher in baseball by WAR, according to Fangraphs. His poor start this spring could very well be the outlier in what has otherwise been a very solid career.
The bad: Keller has always had trouble missing bats, something that has become even more in recent years. Since 2018 he has one of the lowest strikeout rates among starters, and this year he is near the bottom in swinging strikes. Keller has had the worst fastballs in baseball this year after having one of the best last year. He has one of the highest average exit velocities in baseball.
2021 (in Omaha): 75.2 IP 3.45 ERA 2.89 FIP 12.8 K/9 4.0 BB/9 (18.00 ERA in 5 IP in MLB)
The good: He has done everything asked of him in Omaha and seems ready to be in the big leagues. He has added a slider with some promising returns, according to Alec Lewis of The Athletic, which could give him a deep arsenal with his 96 mph fastball, a plus change, and a decent curve.
The bad: He looked like a deer caught in the headlights in his first few Major League outings. The command of his fastball can be erratic at times and his walk numbers in Omaha haven’t been great.
2021: 43.2 IP 4.74 ERA 4.08 FIP 7.4 K/9 3.4 BB/9
The good: After a shaky start initially, Lynch has been fantastic lately with a 2.27 ERA in six starts since returning to the big leagues, including a masterful outing against Detroit in which he tossed eight shutout innings. He has shown good velocity with one of the best sliders on the team.
The bad: Despite his velocity, he hasn’t struck out as many hitters as you would like. He is second-worst on the team in called and swinging-strike rate. No Royals starter has a higher hard-hit rate than Lynch.
2021: 147.2 IP 5.30 ERA 4.38 FIP 8.7 K/9 2.5 BB/9
The good: He has been steady, going at least five innings in 23 of 26 starts. He has also been a victim of poor luck, topping all qualified pitchers in largest difference between ERA and FIP. He has had more of his runners score once he has exited than any pitcher in baseball, possibly skewing his ERA numbers. With a quicker hook, he could post much better numbers - he has one of the highest ERAs in baseball the third time through a lineup. He has the lowest walk rate among all Royals starters.
The bad: I mean, he has still given up all those runs, more earned runs than anyone in the league. He has the sixth-highest home run rate among qualified pitchers. He has lost some zip on his fastball, down a tick from when he enjoyed success with the Rangers two years ago.
2021: 103 IP 5.07 ERA 3.72 FIP 9.3 K/9 4.0 BB/9
The good: His ERA isn’t fantastic, but he’s been pretty unlucky on balls in play with a .368 BABIP, the highest among all pitchers with at least 100 innings. He has the third-highest difference between ERA and FIP in the game. He has one of the highest called strike rates in the game, surprising for a pitcher that relies so much on movement. He has added a change up in his last outing, getting some whiffs on it.
The bad: The change up is still a work in progress. He has been hammered the second time through the lineup, perhaps because of his lack of a third pitch so far. He has a high average exit velocity and has one of the worst-ranked fastballs this year, according to Fangraphs.
In terms of who should be in next year’s rotation, I would rank them:
- Daniel Lynch - the results lately have been encouraging and he should be in next year’s rotation
- Carlos Hernandez - ditto, the kid has been impressive and has earned a spot
- Brad Keller - some encouraging results lately and he has the track record, but his future is cloudier than it seemed earlier this year
- Brady Singer - his ceiling may be lower, but he has had some decent success over 30+ MLB starts
- Jackson Kowar - still some question marks, but he has nothing left to prove in Omaha
- Kris Bubic - still quite inconsistent but the upside may be better than previously thought
- Mike Minor - could be a really good reliever as he sails through lineups the first time, but he struggles to be the innings-eater they want him to be
How would you rank them?