“Some of it’s a little bit different. Some of it’s the same.”
That was Zack Greinke’s response—delivered in his trademark laconic, unhurried tone, of course—when I asked him if the preparation process and dissemination of analytics was different this year compared to last year.
In the pitching world, though, even something done “a little bit different” can yield huge results. The Royals knew they had to make changes to their pitching development in order to be competitive. They’ve swapped out the scouting-focused minds of Dayton Moore, Mike Matheny, and Cal Eldred for the more analytical Matt Quatraro, Brian Sweeney, and Mitch Stetter.
The Royals made these changes because they needed to. While there are better ways to evaluate performance than looking at All-Star selections, it’s a good shorthand to compare players against their peers. Kansas City’s lack of pitcher representatives in the All-Star Game is a reflection the fact that their pitching development has long lagged far behind other teams: the last internally developed starting pitcher to be crowned an All-Star was Greinke in 2009.
So, what are the Royals doing differently? And why is there still plenty of doubt that these changes will work? Well, pitching development has never been easy. Exploring why is half the fun.
The Royals want to have good pitching. Every team does, certainly. But having good pitching has been a core part of the philosophy of Royals baseball for a long time. Dayton Moore, the longtime-but-now-outed head honcho of baseball operations, famously stated that “pitching is the currency of baseball.”
Unfortunately, the Royals have been broke more often than they have been flush with cash. In the years since their World Series victory, the Royals have had the third-worst team ERA in baseball, the fifth-worst team FIP in baseball, and ranked dead last in strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Fixing the pitching was high up on the to-do list for JJ Picollo, new head honcho of baseball operations. He did not waffle on addressing what he saw were the biggest problems with the organization’s development. The day the 2022 season ended, Picollo fired manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Cal Eldred, later replacing them with Matt Quatraro and Brian Sweeney, respectively. Along with Quatraro came Paul Hoover as the new bench coach. Mitch Stetter moved into the bullpen coach role from his previous position as manager of pitching performance.
Picollo was technically promoted to the GM position last year under Moore, and in that new position there were a few important hires and changes. That year, Picollo promoted Paul Gibson to Senior Director of Pitching Performance, a position that he maintained going into the next year. Additionally, the Royals quietly made a change in their draft operations that raised some eyebrows among some fans: Danny Ontiveros was promoted to scouting director, and it was Ontiveros—not Lonnie Goldberg—who ran the 2022 draft.
Many Royals fans see Picollo as simply a scion of Moore, the same song but a different verse. Under the hood, that is not quite the case. Recently, owner John Sherman called the change to pitching development a “re-engineering” of the process, and in a recent interview about the Aroldis Chapman trade, Picollo lauded Roni Cabrera’s “batted ball data.” It’s a small piece of evidence, but you’d never hear that phrase come out of Moore’s mouth in an interview about a player. Change is in motion.
With so many of the same players involved, how do the Royals expect to have a better pitching development process? From their point of view, they weren’t using the data they had very effectively. Communication, priority, and unification of message is the name of the game (emphases mine):
“We have the data. That is not a question,” Sherman said on Sept. 21. “It’s really about how you use it and where is it in its prominence when you’re going through Draft preparation, when you’re going through the analysis of a trade. I think that’s the issue. It’s not developing the data. We’ve got more data than anybody wants; it’s unbelievable.
“It’s using it in the proper way and making it prominent when you have decisions about people and systems and other things. It helps take emotion out. Anecdotes are fine, but I really want to see what’s underneath those stories. It’s really about making that a priority when we’re making decisions.”
Matt Quatraro echoes the same ideals:
“Most teams have the same amount of data,” Quatraro said. “And it’s a matter of opening up the lines of communication between field staff, front office, R&D, strength and conditioning, everybody. That’s what I plan to do and what [I want] our staff to do.”
And Picollo himself emphasizes its importance.
We are more analytics-minded than a lot of people think. What we need to do is put that into place more often than we have, and a lot of that comes down to the coaches. How do the coaches use data? How do they turn that into development? How do you see actionable change? Who is able to communicate well, and to see change and foster change? That is where it’s going to have to be utilized in a different and a more productive way.”
Reading between the lines, you can glean that such communication up and down the organization seemed to be missing last year. I wanted to see how much of that change was filtering down to the players. The answer? Well, it was pretty consistent. I asked Scott Barlow, one of the dozen or so pitchers who have experience with the Royals this year and last year, a pointed question: what was different?
“Openness about everything,” Barlow responded. “Over this past offseason I added a two-seamer, and I think they gave me the freedom to play around with it on my own and experiment in the offseason.”
“Everything is simplified, and easy to remember.”
How, I wondered, and I asked about if their day-to-day communication on emails or Slack was different. “Everyone’s in there,” Barlow said. “All the pitching coaches, the catchers, catching coach, Salvy, everyone’s in there so everyone’s on the same page. Before, right-handed relievers had their own meeting and left-handed relievers had their own meeting. Everybody’s in one room, everybody’s in the same fight, and it’s a good feeling.”
Brady Singer went a stop further: it wasn’t just the communication that was different. More and better numbers were available. “Obviously the analytics are being a huge priority. We have just a lot more information that’s being used on the analytical side,” Singer stated. But he also agreed that the communication was better. “They have a really good way of explaining it to us, understanding what we like and don’t like.”
Does this kind of unification really matter, though? Other organizations have more emphasis on analytics. They are more transactional. They have bigger budgets to spend. Can the Royals compete with these other organizations?
The good news is that Chris Langin, Director of Pitching at the famed Driveline Baseball, unequivocally agrees. “Scouting, high performance, and pitching departments in a big league org need to be aligned. There’s a lot of synergy involved—each department is basically at the mercy of the other,” Langin responded to me when I asked him about the effectiveness of communication. But that’s not all he said. There’s one big, looming factor here, one that the Royals have struggled with for a long time, and were some of the first words Langin typed in his email back to me.
“Everything starts with the draft.”
The Royals have traditionally done a decent job in crafting bullpens out of internal prospects, Rule 5 selections, failed starters, aging veterans, and comeback candidates. But under Moore, they never cracked the code for drafting and developing a starting pitcher. Since 2011—the year Moore’s first draft picks and international signings started really appearing en masse—there have been 144 player seasons that produced 4.5 Wins Above Replacement or more, per Fangraphs. The Royals have had zero.
It’s not just individual season value; the Royals just haven’t been able to develop anybody to accrue significant value. As Tom Verducci put it in a June article titled “The Royals Are the MLB Disaster No One Is Talking About:”
The pitching development troubles are more deeply rooted. The Royals have not drafted and developed a 10-WAR pitcher since they took Danny Duffy in 2007. From ’16 to ’19, Kansas City drafted and signed 79 pitchers, including 72 from college programs. They have returned 8.4 WAR, which is less than Shane McClanahan, who was in that ’18 draft, has by himself, and a major league record of 53–100.
Again, the question remains: how could a front office and scouting staff, largely retained from a previous administration that flamed out, possibly draft better? This is where the communication part comes in. It is not enough to simply have an analytics team and a scouting team. They have to be aligned.
“When you draft someone, you’re competing against what the consensus view is of this player’s current and future talent level,” said Langin. “So, if I’m the decision maker on that selection, I need to know what characteristics the pitching department can enhance, and how does this compare to industry standards of what can be enhanced or trained.”
“Scouting might be right that a guy has the ‘highest future value in the draft’ but if that future value calculation comes with the assumption a guy can improve the movement profile of his fastball—and the pitching development team has strong opinions that he can’t—you’re obviously not setting up any of those departments for success.”
Reading into what Picollo, Quatraro, and Sherman have stated regarding communication, the disconnect between scouting, analytics, and development likely played a factor into why the Royals struggled so much under Moore, a scouting guy through and through. After the Royals made a surprise pick of Frank Mozzicato with the eighth pick in the 2021 MLB draft, Moore appeared in an online press conference to discuss the pick. It was abundantly clear based on his answers which department had the biggest say in the pick, which two specific responses sticking out.
“[Mozzicato] has always been at the top of the board when you look at upside, projection, now, where this guy fits. I’ll tell you this, the scouting world absolutely loves Frankie.
...There’s no substitute to a scout, an evaluator, speaking passionately, intelligently, thoughtful, in a very enthusiastic way about a player.
Scouts have a part in the process. But they are not the be all, end all of the equation: they are simply part of it. “There’s just a consistent obsession with trying to alleviate reliance on human intuition,” Langin noted about pitching development, “And to do that, you need people who think probabilistically and are committed to upgrading their process and model by incorporating some of that expertise into that model so it better predicts what the hell you should do to squeeze additional value out of all your pitchers.”
If the Royals really have fixed their pitching development, and because of how much hinges on player acquisition, the 2023 draft looms large.
I had to ask about Singer’s changeup. His changeup has been a sticking point for his whole career, and it makes sense that this pitch would be one of the things a new pitching coach emphasized. “They want me to throw it, I want to throw it, it feels really good and I love the pitch. It’s just there are times when the other two are better,” Singer casually responded. “My changeup is better than it ever has been, it’s the best it’s ever looked in my career right now. I think I’m going to use it a lot more this year. I have a lot of confidence in it, so I can throw it whenever I need to.”
Unfortunately for Singer, his changeup is not better than it ever has been and he has not used it a lot more this year. I talked to him in April; it’s July now, and Singer has used the changeup a measly 5.4% of the time—over 2% less than last year. It’s also notably worse than last year, per Statcast’s Run Value figure.
This ultimately represents the biggest threat to pitching development: how players and coaches feel and react to an imperfect process. “Coaches will see a poor game, or maybe correctly imply that ‘this reduction of breaking balls doesn’t fit this pitcher’ and that’s fine… until everybody starts winging it and you’ve lost your process,” Langin stated.
Change is in motion, that much is true. However, the threat here is that the Royals aren’t changing enough—or doing it as quickly as they need to. Most regime changes see infusions of talent. That hasn’t happened with the Royals, who have already exhibited some of Moore’s flaws such as a hard-headed pursuit of MLB-ready talent. The danger for Kansas City is that they don’t make the hard decisions that they need to in order to get back to successful talent. With so many old faces still around, the concern isn’t that there is a new process for pitching development. It’s a concern that the organization will be able to commit to it as everything continues to burn or if players and coaches start “winging it.”
Picollo and his staff are still in the honeymoon phase, inasmuch as you can be in a honeymoon phase in charge of an MLB organization crashing towards 100 losses. That’s because no GM could have turned the franchise around in nine months considering the state of the team and the farm system at the end of 2022. This will not last forever. At some point, the Royals must show results, and if Picollo’s changes aren’t effective enough, we won’t know until years down the road when it will have been too late.
Zack Greinke has pitched forever. He made his big league debut in the George W. Bush administration—in the first term of that Bush administration—and only a year after the book Moneyball hit the shelves. When I asked him about what’s changed overall since he first pitched, he provided a similarly loose answer: “Everywhere in baseball has changed a lot. This organization has probably made similar changes at similar times to other organizations. Definitely a lot of new stuff going on.”
That “new stuff” is what will propel the Royals to new heights. Let’s hope we’re getting there.