Bubic's Slider Could Be the Difference
Kris Bubic has added a new pitch and it might be what puts him over the top.
You all know the story of the 2018 draft for the Royals. They took Brady Singer. And then Jackson Kowar. And then Daniel Lynch. And then Kris Bubic. And then Jonathan Bowlan. They took some others along the way as well to rebuild an entire system devoid of pitching in basically record time. So far, the majority of these arms have progressed to the upper minors and the big leagues. The track record at the top level has been…suspect. But while the shine has worn off some, you could ask six different people who the best of the bunch will be and you might very well get six different answers. Including Kris Bubic.
While I don’t think anyone would argue Bubic has the best stuff of the bunch or the highest ceiling, I think there’s an argument to make that he’s such a cerebral pitcher (think Trevor Bauer in terms of the way he approaches pitching and only pitching) that he has a chance to emerge as the best of the whole bunch. It’s pretty clear Mike Matheny likes him quite a bit. And at times, it’s easy to see why he was one of those first round picks when he was taken with the 40th overall pick in 2018.
Games like his no-hit bid in Chicago stand out to me. He ended up losing the no-hitters after the rain delay with no rain, but for those first six innings, you could see a future where he’s any of a number of top of the line lefties who don’t have big velocity but still get it done for years on end. It was all working. The fastball was humming, averaging 92 (more on that in a bit) and his curve was flummoxing a bad Cubs lineup. His changeup was too before the delay. What I loved about the changeup that day is his placement of it. In those first six innings, he missed a couple times but they were always after pitches that set it up so well that he could afford to miss.
And that’s where I find a lot of hope with his slider. It’s a pitch that I believe can set up his changeup incredibly well. In 2021, he gave up 22 home runs. Of those, half were on changeups to right-handed batters. Three more were on changeups to lefties. His changeup can be an absolute devastating pitch, but sometimes it’s devastating to him and not for him. I wrote a lot about that changeup last year after a start against the White Sox where it was inconsistent.
I assume you all remember that word for word, so I won’t rehash too much, but a lot of the issues I found with his changeup were in his delivery and follow through. Small changes can make huge differences both good and bad. But sometimes it’s unrealistic to be able to change your head position an eighth of an inch or plant your foot half an inch to the right or whatever it might be every single time. As much as we want these players to be so precise that they can, it’s difficult. And with that in mind, I think a slider is the absolute perfect pitch for Bubic to help balance out his repertoire in full.
Let’s take a look at the heat map of his three current pitches from 2021.
Two things stand out to me and I’m going to get to the second in a minute, but the first is that there is nothing coming down and in on Bubic’s glove side. Sure there’s the occasional curve getting there, but it’s slow enough that hitters can identify that. His changeup sits armside (and too much middle for my taste). His fastball goes glove side, but sits more in the middle of the zone than down. And the curve is generally pretty much 12-6 where it splits the plate (again, too much for my taste).
So what a slider can do for him is give him a pitch that changes a hitter’s eye level a bit and be presented with a different shape than anything else he throws. Delivery-wise, comparisons between Bubic and Clayton Kershaw are definitely there. Nobody is saying he is the Hall of Famer, but they at least have some similarity in the way they throw their pitches. And this is the heat map for Kershaw’s slider.
If Bubic can locate it like Kershaw does, it should open up a lot of doors for him, especially against those right-handed bats. Again, I’m not comparing the two, though they also have an identical repertoire with Bubic’s new slider, but imagine being able to use his changeup off a slider like this:
When you consider what Bubic can do with the changeup…
…it’s easy to see how that could be a huge new weapon for him. Again, this is something that goes back to my point about not loving the location of his changeup. Yes, it’s great that it tends to be toward the left-handed batter’s box quite often, but I believe it would be more effective if he dropped the general spot on it about four to six inches, more often where you see it in the gif above than where he threw it a lot in 2021. That is obviously easier said than done, but the numbers back it up.
In the bottom third of the zone and below, not looking at waste pitches, Bubic allowed a .169 average and .208 SLG on his changeup last season. He didn’t allow a single home run. He had a 43 percent whiff rate on changeups that were down in the zone. Generally I’m the guy yelling that keeping the ball down isn’t the recipe for success that announcers make it out to be, but in the case of Bubic and his changeup, it actually is true. In the top two-thirds of the zone and above, again ignoring waste pitches way up high, he allowed a .453 average, 1.125 SLG and 13 home runs. He had a 10.5 percent whiff rate. Numbers don’t lie, friends.
But remember when I said I’d get to the fastball? First of all, take everything I said about changeup location and forget it. Where the changeup struggled, the fastball excelled. He gave up a .222 average and .333 SLG on fastballs in the upper two-thirds of the zone and above with a 27.9 percent whiff rate. Now, fastballs down weren’t the same problem that changeups up were, but he did give up a .422 SLG with a .616 xSLG on fastballs down in the zone. But those pitches earned him whiffs on only 6.4 percent of swings. That’s not a recipe for success.
But if you’ve read me at all, you know that my theory is that Bubic needs to rip it with the fastball more than he has. On fastballs thrown 92 MPH or harder, Bubic allowed a .125 average and .188 SLG with an 18 percent whiff rate. On fastballs thrown softer than 92, the numbers jump to .310 with a .560 SLG and 3.6 percent whiff rate. I don’t know that the data could be any clearer. It doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easy to simply throw hard and maintain that throughout a game, but it’s pretty clear that there’s a recipe for Bubic’s success. It’s throw hard fastballs up, changeups down.
He did mention a desire to throw harder in this article on MLB.com from Anne Rogers. And in that article, he mentioned what the slider can do to help the fastball, which puts a tidy little bow on this whole discussion.
“[Eager] recommended sliding my fingers up toward the top of the horseshoe, and then I told myself to preset it a little bit because if I stay behind it too much, it’s going to look exactly like a fastball.”
All of what I’ve said above for Bubic is just incredibly easy to type, but not quite so easy to actually execute. Having that slider to change the eye level for right-handed bats especially will help his changeup to excel even if he does leave it higher in the zone than he wants to or I want him to. It will allow hitters to have to think twice to gear up for a fastball that’s down in the zone as well. It should be the pitch that can start off as something to set up what he already does well and knowing Bubic will likely end up as an out pitch for the lefty.
While the shine might be a bit off the Royals prospects after some less than stellar numbers for most of them over the last couple of seasons, there is still plenty to like about these guys. Bubic’s willingness to tinker until he finds the right mix makes me believe in him as much as anyone in this entire rotation, even guys with better stuff on paper. I’m very interested to see the slider in action and how it impacts the rest of his pitches and potentially elevates his game.
Fun With Numbers
It’s just spring training, but as you know, the Royals are hitting the snot out of the ball this spring. Here are some fun numbers:
They lead all of baseball with 93 runs, which is an average of 8.45 per game.
They’re hitting .346/.407/.597 as a team.
The average is 23 points higher than the next closest.
The OBP is 34 points higher than the next closest.
The SLG is 36 points higher than the next closest.
They’ve scored 30 runs in their last two games. The Nationals have scored 29 runs this spring.
Their 250 total bases is 23 more than the next closest team.
So we know it’s been good, but here’s how crazy it has been to start. With just six games left, they’d still have had a solid spring in total in a lot of ways even if they don’t score another run. They’d finish with 5.47 runs per game. That’s if they’re shut out in six straight to end the spring. You’d sure hate to see it, though. And here’s the biggest kicker. If they’re not only shut out, but their opponents throw six straight perfect games, the Royals final spring line would be .250/.302/.431. Based on current spring rankings, that would put them 14th in average and 18th in SLG. Their OBP would drop them pretty far, but that would be after six straight perfect games.
I don’t know how much of it is sustainable into the regular season. I might take a look at that over the next few days, but I know the regulars are doing damage and so are the backups and even if none of it carries over, at least it’s fun now even without it counting for much of anything.