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The Royals’ pitching staff has been great, but they have their first test

What will it take to fix Dylan Coleman?

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Texas Rangers Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

The best storyline surrounding the Royals early on in their young season is the pitching staff. The Kansas City pitchers don’t just look improved to start the season — they look good. For a team that’s struggled to develop pitchers, that’s a big deal. It’s a small sample, but the staff currently ranks seventh in ERA at 3.74. They rank eighth in FIP, 14th in strikeouts per nine innings, and sixth in walks per nine.

The 2022 iteration of these Royals ranked among the four worst teams in all of baseball in each of those categories. The early improvements nurtured by Brian Sweeney and Matt Quatraro are clear, and headliners of that success such as Brad Keller and Kris Bubic tell the story well. On Monday, however, a departure from that storyline started to make itself clear. Dylan Coleman has been a solid reliever since making his major league debut in 2021, but he’s struggled thus far in 2023.

Coleman, you might remember, was acquired as the player to be named later from San Diego in the Trevor Rosenthal trade. Since making his debut, he’s appeared in 77 games for the Royals, notching a 2.97 ERA with a 9.38 K/9. According to Statcast metrics on Baseball Savant, Coleman was well above-average in many key metrics last season. He ranked 80th percentile in expected Batting Average (xBA), 77th percentile in expected Slugging Percentage (xSLG), and 86th percentile in Whiff%.

Unfortunately, it’s been very different for Coleman this year. He currently ranks just 17th percentile in xBA, 21st percentile in xSLG, and 63rd in Whiff%. His ERA on the season is up to 18.00 after allowing six runs over 0.2 innings Monday night. He walked four hitters in the Rangers’ seven-run sixth inning. All four would come around to score. The 25-year-old reliever is walking more batters, striking out less, and allowing more contact than we’ve seen in the past. Something isn’t right with him, which leads Brian Sweeney and the Royals' new pitching development team to their first real test of the season: what needs to happen with Coleman from here?

Is a trip to Omaha necessary to fix Coleman’s struggles?

It’s easy to think that Coleman may end up optioned to Omaha in the coming days or weeks if better results don’t come. I thought as much myself at first. However, it may not be so simple — and may not be the approach of the new coaching staff. We’ve seen the Royals option players often in the past, especially after struggles in the major leagues. Carlos Hernández was optioned three separate times in 2022. Others, including Kris Bubic, Brady Singer, and Jackson Kowar have all seen themselves demoted to work through their struggles.

Despite the recent trend, it shouldn’t be assumed that the new coaching staff will have the same approach to fixing struggles on the mound. For one, a pitcher like Josh Staumont wouldn’t have been optioned to Omaha to start the season in years past. However, he struggled with walks in the spring and was optioned prior to Opening Day. This in itself points to a change in mindset for the Royals.

Will that change in approach translate to how Coleman is handled? After all, despite his struggles, he seems to be “drinking the Kool-Aid” early on. The team’s pitching motto is “Raid the Zone” and Coleman is throwing more first-pitch strikes than ever. After throwing 54.3% first-pitch strikes in 2022, he’s thrown 66.7% this season. That’s the same rate as veteran lefty Ryan Yarbrough and more first-pitch strikes than early stand-out Kris Bubic.

It begs the question: if Coleman is applying the direction that the new coaching staff wants, would they punish that willingness to adjust with a demotion? The fix for Coleman may be something he can learn and apply at the major league level. He’s still hitting the strike zone at a similar rate and getting ahead in counts more than ever before, but his arsenal isn’t quite the same. The fastball is slower than last year by three mph. He’s hitting just 94.4 mph on the pitch, which is the slowest mark of his career. On top of that, his pitches aren’t moving as much as we’ve seen before.

Dylan Coleman Pitch Arsenal

Pitch Count (%) - 2022 Hor. Break (in) - 2022 Count (%) - 2023 Hor. Break (in) - 2023
Pitch Count (%) - 2022 Hor. Break (in) - 2022 Count (%) - 2023 Hor. Break (in) - 2023
4-Seam FB 678 (56.3%) 4.8 in. 33 (45.2%) 2.7 in.
Slider 147 (12.2%) 8.8 in. 17 (23.2%) 5.8 in.
Sweeper 364 (30.2%) 16.0 in. 23 (31.5%) 19.4 in.

The four-seamer this year has seen an average of just 2.7 inches of horizontal break — 65% below league average. That’s also 2.1 inches less than in 2022. Those struggles with pitch shape don’t just apply to Coleman’s fastball. His slider is breaking 3.0 inches less than last year as well. Although he’s living in the zone often (and earlier in counts than before), it’s actually hurting Coleman on the mound because his pitches aren’t moving as before.

If Coleman can recapture some of the movement that made his arsenal effective in previous seasons, he will be fine. As good as he was before, it’s hard to overreact to such a small sample of poor results. The work this offseason and through spring training laid the foundation for Brian Sweeney, Zach Bove, and the Royals' new pitching development staff. It’s paid off in a big way, as we’ve seen from many on the major league staff, but the way they handle Dylan Coleman is the first real test of the team’s new coaching staff. Will they be able to help him get back on track, or will he flounder like many of the Royals' arms before him?