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The Athletic details worrying issues with Royals pitching development

There’s a reason why the Royals haven’t pitched well.

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San Diego Padres v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

It has been no secret that the Royals have struggled to develop starting pitching under Dayton Moore, and those struggles have continued, despite what was supposed to be a stellar college pitching draft class in 2018. The crop did yield Brady Singer, who has turned the corner to become a solid performer this year, but other pitchers from that class have regressed and the Royals find themselves with few solid rotation options going into 2023. Currently, Royals starters have a 4.77 ERA, fourth worst in baseball, with the sixth-worst walk rate, and fifth-lowest strikeout rate.

The pitfalls in the Royals’ pitching development practices were detailed this week in an excellent piece at The Athletic written by three former Royals beat writers - Rustin Dodd, Andy McCullough, and Alec Lewis. The article collects input from executives and scouts in rival organizations and from former players to paint a picture of a pitching development structure that does not get the most out of its talent. Read the piece for a full picture, but the indictments against the process can be summarized into three major points.

Rigidity in process

The Royals have been accused of taking a “one-sized-fits-all” approach to pitchers in the past, something the team concedes in the piece. The rigidity was particularly evident when Bill Fischer had a large influence on development. Fischer relied on his “four absolutes of pitching” which included: (1) don’t bang your heel; (2) throw four-seam fastballs; (3) don’t throw across your body”; and (4) right-handers throw from the right-hand side of the pitching rubber; lefties throw from the left-hand side of the pitching rubber.

The Royals revamped their pitching development under director of pitching performance Paul Gibson, taking a more individualized approach. Dayton Moore told Lewis back in 2020 that pitchers come in all shapes and sizes so it made more sense to adapt to them.

“They’re all different,” he said, “so you can’t develop two pitchers the same (way).”

But in this week’s piece, it seems the Royals are still rigid in some of their rules, despite the difference in their pitchers. A former Royals pitcher told his new team that “the Royals’ methods didn’t lend themselves to the individual.” The team still requires most bullpen sessions to begin with fastballs down in the zone, “no matter the shape or spin rate of a pitcher’s fastballs.” The team emphasizes fastball usage - Royals minor leaguers throw more fastballs than most other organizations - and does not emphasize pitch usage or pitch design until the upper minors.

Having some uniform rules makes sense if it is backed up by data and science. But Moore is right in saying that different pitchers must be developed differently. This also stifles innovation, by discouraging trying anything unconventional. The Royals need to take a flexible approach with their pitchers.

Lack of player empowerment

The Royals have made advances in collecting and using data, but it does not do them well if they can’t share that data and receive buy-in from players. The article mentions how one minor league pitcher was puzzled that he was not allowed to watch video of a bullpen session without a coach present until he reached Double-A. Players were relying on teammates to collect data for them, with one former pitcher saying “it was nice for them to have someone who wasn’t judging them for trying to learn more.” As one scout in the piece puts it, Royals pitchers “haven’t been introduced to the metrics that gives them an idea of how they can pitch most effectively.”

This could be a reason why the club has seemingly struggled to get through to pitchers. The club tried for years to get Brady Singer to develop a change up, and it was only this year that he doubled the usage of his off-speed pitch. Picollo admitted that the Royals could not get buy-in from Jakob Junis on using his slider more, only to have Junis go to the Giants and be convinced on its effectiveness. Junis had worked with his brother Noah, a devotee of the philosophies of Kyle Boddy of Driveline Baseball, one off-season. The Athletic piece contends the Royals are also dismissive of pitchers going outside the organization for help and experimenting because it contributes to them “losing their identity.”

Ned Yost certainly had his faults, but one area he excelled in as a manager was in empowering his players to make decisions on their own. He trusted his players to bunt, steal, or put the ball in play, and they loved him for it. Players need to be given the tools to succeed, and depriving of them of information and the chance to experiment and learn is the wrong way to go about it. Players need to trust the organization has their best interests at heart, and isn’t looking to use data against them.

Behind the curve

Perhaps the most concerning theme throughout the piece is that the Royals are still simply behind the curve in pitching development. The Royals do have radar and camera technologies like TrackMan, Rapsodo, and Edgertronic, but it took them until 2019 to adopt something like Rapsodo, a full year after a handful of the most cutting-edge teams had already used the pitch-tracking technology. The Brewers, a fellow small-market team, have had a dedicated pitching lab since 2019, while the Royals were still in the “exploratory” phases of such a lab in Arizona this spring, and instead use a performance lab at the University of Nebraska.

According to the Athletic, pitchers have questioned the effectiveness of the “towel drill” the Royals still use to improve extension. One pitcher praised a minor league coach for his tutelage, yet admitted the coach didn’t know how to use data. Picollo admits the team needs an expert on “pitch design.”

It is great that the Royals finally seem to be embracing analytics and the use of data, but a small market club needs to be ahead of the curve, not playing catch up. The Rays and Guardians are each stingier than the Royals in player payroll, yet continually lap them in pitcher development. Perhaps this is why J.J. Picollo was named general manager - to get the team up to speed on data usage and technology, and he simply needs more time. Under Ewing Kauffman, the Royals were constantly looking for unconventional innovations - using computer-driven analytics decades before anyone else did and opening the innovative Royals Baseball Academy. The Royals need to be back at the cutting-edge, leading the pack in data and technology, not looking back to what worked 30 years ago.

The Royals have made some changes in their pitching development, and it may take some time before those changes can be evident at the Major League. They should receive credit for what Brady Singer has accomplished this year - and even pitching coach Cal Eldred should get some praise for helping Singer with an adjustment with the tilt of his hand that may have helped propel the young pitcher’s career. Perhaps in another year we will be able to say the same about another young Royals pitcher or two.

But for a small-market team, there is less room for error. The Royals have put a lot of eggs in one basket of pitchers, and that basket is smelling a bit rotten. Maybe this article will be a wake-up call for the front office. Or maybe it will be the clarion call ownership needs to clean house.