Everyone in Royalsland is talking about Cole Ragans now, and rightfully so. We just have not seen the team do anything like this before. Most are focusing on the dominant outcomes in games, so I wanted to dig a little deeper and see how the pitch modeling metrics look. Spoiler alert, it looks really good.
The three parts hopefully make sense, but here is a primer if you want more. Pitching+ asks does the pitcher have a good process? Anything above 100 is above average, and 110 would be a standard deviation above average, 120 two standard deviations, and so on. Ragans has gone from a guy with stuff below the 40th percentile to above average, which is nice, but he has also improved his location and process significantly in the process. You can see that a lot of the increase in stuff happened in Texas, likely due to the increase in velocity over last year. The other two improvements have come since moving to KC after the trade deadline.
His pitches have also changed. Last year his fastball, cutter, and curveball were all just straight up bad. However his change was rated 115, so he had one plus pitch. This year the fastball became a plus pitch in Texas off of the velocity change, but his changeup had regressed. That was over a pretty small sample, but still. The Royals had him add a slider, along with whatever else they were working on in the minors, and it is now modeling as 131 in Stuff+!! That is one nice addition, but that isn’t all. His other pitches that were sitting in the two to three standard deviation below average territory are all now in the 90s along with a fastball that is a little above league average.
Only 31 pitchers with 30 or more innings this year have five pitches all above 90 on the Stuff+ metric this year. Ryne Nelson is also one of them, so it is not any kind of guarantee of success, but it is not a common trait to have. There are very few in the group that are not at least decent pitchers, and many are good or better.
Beyond the improvement in stuff, pitching, and location, as if that wasn’t enough, there is this:
His Baseball Savant page has gotten very pretty. Being in the top decile of xERA/xwOBA, xSLG, and Fastball Spin is not a bad place to start. Plenty of other metrics are up there in the good red or better area too. Only extension and walk rate are not at least average-ish. Also, look at those rolling xwOBA averages with downward slopes. He is getting better over time.
Multiple quality pitches, and one very solid out pitch plus limiting hard contact/barrels is a very good recipe for success. The only thing I am worried about at this point is his elbow. It has blown out twice before, and he is sustaining way higher velocities deep into games. He topped out at 98.7 mph on Tuesday and was sitting 94 to 98 the whole way. That is a tick down from the previous start, and I would like to see him not max out all the time. When he popped the 101 against the A’s visions of Jacob deGrom flashed in my head.
Given the eye test and underlying stats, it is hard to see how Cole Ragans is not at least a number two starter if he can maintain the velocity and stuff he has shown so far as a Royal. Injury and regression are, unfortunately, constants in the pitching world from year to year however. Either way, the fact that the Royals identified him, traded for him, improved him, and unleashed him on their foes is a really good sign that the pitching development team is more competent than we have seen in quite some time. Now if they can just find a couple more starters like this maybe next year could avoid being a disaster again.