During the off-season the Royals biggest moves were on the coaching staff, firing Manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Cal Eldred. When asked why they didn’t make more significant changes, General Manager J.J. Picollo responded that the team felt their minor league development was doing fine, they simply needed to improve their major league coaching. A week into the season, we have a plethora of evidence to suggest they may have been on to something.
FanGraphs has a really interesting set of stats that we can reference to determine the quality of the pitches being thrown: Stuff+, Location+, and Pitching+. As with all other “+” stats, the average is set to 100, every point above or below that number represents a 1% increase or decrease from the average. As you might imagine, Stuff+ looks only at the physical characteristics of a pitch; things like the velocity, spin rate, and movement. Location+ judges a pitcher’s ability to put pitches in the right place. Pitching+ attempts to describe the whole of the quality of the pitches. If you want to do more reading on these stats, FanGraphs has an excellent primer that you can read here.
Overall, the Royals starters’ numbers haven’t changed drastically in those stats. In 2022, they put together a Stuff+, Location+, and Pitching+ of 90, 99, and 96 respectively. In 2023 so far, they’ve managed 89, 100, and 99. However, there is a world of difference in their ranks among other teams. That 99 Location+ was tied for worst in baseball in 2022, the 100 in 2023 sits them in the middle of the pack. Similarly, the 96 Pitching+ in 2022 tied them for third-worst, but 99 in 2023 ties them for 17th.
Where it really gets fun, however, is in looking at individual pitcher changes. Brady Singer had an above-average slider by Stuff+ in 2022, but this season he has improved his fastball by 27 points to take it from abysmal to merely a bit below average. Brad Keller added a curveball and by Stuff+ it’s already a killer pitch worthy of the reliance he placed upon it in his first start. Kris Bubic took a group of poorly regarded pitches and came out with a well-above-average fastball with 111 Stuff+, bested only by his brand new slider at 119 Stuff+.
There are all kinds of good signs to be found on Baseball Savant, as well. Last year, Brad Keller’s pitches had below-average movement on all except his slider. This year, they’re all above average except his fastball and changeup. The changeup is still average, too. Kris Bubic added 1.5 MPH to his fastball and his slider has above-average movement. The spin rates on his fastball and changeup are both drastically higher than previously, as well.
Multiple PD people & coaches in my DMs saying the Royals aren't doing the development, fwiw.— Lance Brozdowski (@LanceBroz) April 5, 2023
So, if they're sending players to a 3rd-party PD company, good on them for doing that instead of thinking guys can succeed with bad stuff.
Or good on the players for taking initiative. https://t.co/UadgrUhpA9
Interestingly, it may not be the Royals’ coaching staff that has accomplished these changes. According to Lance Brozdowski, a player development analyst who used to work at Driveline, someone outside the org is doing all this development. We know that Greinke and Keller went to Driveline in the off-season because they told us as much. It’s unclear where the remainder of the pitchers might have been getting their new approaches. Still, as Lance says in the above tweet, good on the team for seeking outside assistance if they have indeed done that. I’ll go a step further an at least give them credit for not being upset at players for taking their own initiative if that’s how it went down, instead. Fans may remember Jakob Junis seeking outside aid to improve his pitching and finding that the Royals’ coaches weren’t exactly happy with him.
Junis was hardly the only player to face difficulty with the previous regime, either. During Monday’s broadcast, announcer Ryan LeFebvre was describing the Royals’ approach to hiring their new pitching coach, Brian Sweeney. According to LeFebvre, every prospective pitching coach was presented with data on one of the Royals current pitchers and asked how they would work with that player. Sweeney got Kris Bubic and allegedly asked the Royals why he wasn’t already throwing a slider - a pitch with a stunning 33% whiff rate in his first start of the season - LeFebvre noted that Bubic had developed a slider last year but that then-pitching coach Eldred hadn’t allowed him to throw it.
Whether the Royals are doing the coaching or simply refraining from negatively interfering with the coaching players can get elsewhere, they at least appear to be on the right track. Here’s hoping that if the team is currently over-relying on outside people to improve their pitchers they get those guys inside the organization in a hurry before they can similarly improve other pitchers.