Brady Singer was the first pitcher of Kansas City’s 2018 draft class to make his major league debut and, entering the 2022 season, he was the most successful of those pitchers in his big league time. He was solid in his debut season with a 4.06 ERA and 4.08 FIP in 12 starts, then followed that up with a 4.91 ERA but 4.04 FIP in 27 starts in 2021. It was easy enough to forecast positive regression for Singer, as he had lousy BABIP luck (.350 BABIP against) and an abnormally low strand rate (67.8%) in 2021 that contributed to that inflated ERA.
Evidently, the Royals did not believe this, as Singer was left out of the rotation to begin the season in favor of Daniel Lynch, who was worse in 2021. The Royals then proceeded to use Singer in a baffling manner. Through Kansas City’s first 16 games, Singer only made three appearances totaling 5.2 innings. On April 28, the Royals sent him to Omaha to work on a third pitch and build up his innings.
After making three starts with mixed results in the minors, Singer was called back up to make a start against the White Sox on May 17. He immediately showed why he should be starting with seven scoreless innings and followed that up with another seven shutty against Minnesota in his next start.
Singer would spend the rest of the season throwing the ball better than any other starting pitcher on the roster. The highlight came on July 28 against the first-place Yankees. Singer tossed seven scoreless innings against their high-powered offense with ten punchouts and just one hit and one walk allowed. He would finish the season with a 3.23 ERA and 3.58 FIP in 153.1 innings. Disregarding his relief appearances, he threw 147.2 innings with a 3.11 ERA and 3.55 FIP.
Before we go any further, note that stats I reference will, where possible, only account for Singer’s starts and will disregard his three relief appearances.
Singer was unquestionably the ace of the staff this season. He led Royals starters (minimum 20 IP) in innings pitched, ERA, FIP, xERA, xFIP, strikeout rate, and fWAR, while only Zack Greinke had a lower walk rate and home run rate. He was a bright spot in a starting staff that had the highest ERA and third-highest FIP in the American League. This season stands out not just among this season’s staff but among recent Royals staffs in general. There have only been nine better seasons by fWAR by a Royals starter since the turn of the millennium:
Best Royals starters since 2000
On the surface level, Singer did just about everything you could ask from a starting pitcher. He averaged over six innings per start and almost always gave the Royals a good chance to win the game. He had a rough June with a 5.97 ERA in five starts. Seven of the 17 home runs he allowed on the season came in June. Singer had an ERA under three in every other month in which he made starts.
The poor luck indicators Singer suffered last year evened out, with his BABIP dropping down to .297, just a hair over league average, and his strand rate increasing to 80.3%, considerably higher than league average. The peripherals stand out as well. His strikeout rate, walk rate, and home run rate were all slightly better than league average. This in spite of running a HR/FB% a bit higher than the league. While the strikeouts were down and home runs were up a bit for Singer compared to 2021, he slashed his walk rate from 9.0% to 5.6%
That’s all well and good, but what exactly has led to these improvements? One big and obvious reason for the improvements in walk rate: throwing more strikes. Singer threw strikes at the highest rate of his career and also improved his first-pitch strike rate by almost 5%. (Note: evidently Statcast and Fangraphs define the strike zone differently as the numbers don’t match up, but it was a career-high for Singer regardless). Breaking news: throwing pitches in the zone is an effective pitching strategy, potentially even if they’re down the middle. Even more so for a guy like Singer, who has the second-highest called strike rate in baseball since his debut.
Not only did Singer throw more strikes, but he also threw more quality strikes. Just look at the difference between his slider location in 2021 vs. in 2022:
That’s a thing of beauty, absolutely locked in on that glove-side corner down in the zone. The characteristics of the slider were nearly identical to last season, but he threw it in the zone much more often and was able to generate even more whiffs, improving his whiff rate on sliders from 29.1% to 33.9%. Singer allowed just a .288 xwOBA on his slider with a run value of -7 according to Statcast. The slider was his best pitch by that metric.
Singer’s sinker was a problem last year. It was something of a tweener, with a movement profile somewhere between a typical sinker and a four-seam fastball. Combining that with non-elite velocity led to batters teeing off on the pitch to the tune of a .401 wOBA. That’s 50 points higher than his xwOBA on the pitch, but still a dreadful number. This year, Singer managed to get more movement on his sinker than ever before - compared to 2021, Singer added 2.9 inches of vertical drop and 1.7 inches of horizontal run - and the results dramatically improved as batters managed just a .309 xwOBA against the pitch. Despite the whiff rate on the pitch dropping nearly 10%, the run value of it was -4, far better than last year’s +11 mark.
The 2022 season was mostly very discouraging for Royals pitching at both the major and minor league level, but Brady Singer’s season provided at least one positive development.
I’ve been a Singer stan since the very beginning and I’m really going to find something bad to say about this season? Absolutely, because although I’ve always been high on him, it’s possible I’m now lower on him than most. I say this because I’m not entirely convinced that he’s a legit top-of-the-rotation starter. Allow me to explain.
I have long been a proponent of FIP for evaluating pitchers. However, I have recently started to prefer xERA over FIP. Like FIP, xERA takes into account peripherals (strikeouts, walks, and hit-by-pitches), but xERA incorporates a crucial factor that FIP lacks: contact quality. The main drawback at this point of xERA is that it is unavailable for spans, so I cannot neglect Singer’s relief outings with it.
While Singer fared quite well by ERA and FIP, his xERA was a less remarkable 3.97, which is slightly worse than his 2020 mark of 3.84. This is even more damning when accounting for the fact that 2020 was a considerably higher offensive environment than 2022, with a starter's ERA of 4.46 compared to 4.05 this season. Do these percentile rankings look like those of a frontline starter?
That hard-hit rate is not pretty. Giving up a lot of hard contact isn’t necessarily a death sentence. Shane Bieber and Framber Valdez are among the pitchers that allowed a higher hard-hit rate than Singer this season. But they make up for it in some way: Bieber by not walking anybody and getting his fair share of chases and whiffs, and Valdez by generating a ton of groundballs.
Singer was sort of like a diet Bieber this season, but it’s confounding how he managed an above-average strikeout rate despite poor whiff and chase rates. The called strikes are certainly a contributor; hitters leave the bat on their shoulder so often despite Singer filling the zone. This isn’t a small sample thing as batters have consistently swung less than league average at Singer’s pitches, both in and out of the zone, throughout his career. Is this a product of deception or questionable game-planning by opposing offenses?
Before and early on in the 2022 season, the consensus with Singer was that he needed a third pitch. “Need” might be too strong of a word there, as guys like Alek Manoah, Carlos Rodón, and Robbie Ray have had success as effectively two-pitch starters. Regardless, it is generally advantageous for a starting pitcher to have at least three good pitches. In his first two seasons, Singer was almost exclusively a sinker-slider pitcher, throwing the changeup just 4.2% of the time.
When Singer returned from Omaha in May, he immediately looked like a different pitcher, using the cambio 17.0% of the time over his first two starts. It seemed like he was fixed, right? Not so fast. In June, he threw the changeup 8.6% of the time. Not a high number, but more than double his previous career rate. As I mentioned earlier, June was rough for him. Perhaps that made him lose confidence in the pitch; he threw the change only 6.6% of the time after June and 6.3% of the time after the All-Star break. His two starts against Tampa were his only two in the second half in which he threw at least 10% changeups.
It’s worth noting those numbers are skewed by the fact that he basically never throws it to righties. Just 12 of his 182 changeups this year were thrown to right-handed batters. Against lefties, he uses the pitch 13.3% of the time, so it’s at least something they need to think about. Even though Singer has shown a willingness to use the pitch now, the fact remains that it’s just not a very good pitch. It gets well below average movement for a changeup and there’s very little velo separation with his slider - the changeup averaged 86.9 mph, while the slider sat 85.5. He allowed just a .266 wOBA on the pitch, but that came with a .449 xwOBA. He’s fortunate batters did not do more damage to the changeup.
All of this is not to say that Singer’s 2022 was fluky or unsustainable. He made very real improvements with his pitch shape and command that should lead to success going forward. But if Singer is going to take that next step to being a Cy Young-level guy, he’ll need to find a way to garner more swings and misses and/or further limit hard contact. I’m also curious to see if batters will continue to be so passive against Singer as he pounds the strike zone.
Regardless of any reservations that I may have, the 2022 season was an unequivocal success for Brady Singer. If guys like Lynch and Kris Bubic can turn the corner the way Singer did this year, the Royals may actually be able to piece together a solid rotation.
What grade would you give Brady Singer for his 2022 season?