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Cal Eldred's Replacement is Insanely Important
Talk about an obvious statement, huh?
As you know by now, the Royals made the move to cut ties with Cal Eldred on Wednesday night. Over the course of his five seasons in charge of Royals pitchers, the Royals rank 28th in ERA, 28th in FIP, 29th in strikeout rate, 30th in walk rate, 27th in starter ERA, 18th in starter innings, 27th in reliever ERA, 28th in reliever strikeout rate and 29th in reliever walk rate. I could go on, but, well, you get it. The Eldred era was a failure on just about every level from a pitching standpoint.
I had my worries in 2018 given his lack of experience in coaching and some rumors I had heard about his inability to properly utilize advanced measures. But it was also hard to evaluate someone with the pitching staff he had at his disposal. Starting in 2020, though, young pitching began to infiltrate the staff. Brady Singer led the team in innings pitched. Kris Bubic was third on the team in starts. Carlos Hernandez, Brad Keller and others led the way for pitchers 26 and under. In fact, more than half the innings pitched were from pitchers 26 and under. They had a similar percentage last year as other young pitchers made their debuts. That percentage was even higher in 2022.
And in the new direction the team is taking with a more “data-driven” approach to everything, the person in charge of relaying what the data is saying is everything. But it’s not just that. Look at the makeup of this team. We don’t know who they might target in free agency, but as it stands right now, here are the rotation candidates (alphabetically and with very little filter) with their 2023 seasonal age in parentheses:
Jonathan Bowlan (26)
Kris Bubic (25)
Max Castillo (24)
Austin Cox (26)
Jonathan Heasley (26)
Jackson Kowar (26)
Asa Lacy (24)
Daniel Lynch (26)
Alec Marsh (25)
Drew Parrish (25)
Brady Singer (26)
Anthony Veneziano (25)
Angel Zerpa (23)
There are others, sure, but that’s 13 pitchers who will be in their age-26 season or younger next season. I suppose you can add Brad Keller to the mix for a pitcher who will be in his age-27 season, but even so, there isn’t a single internal candidate who is even especially close to 30 years old. That’s a young staff. And a young staff needs the right voice at the top. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at some of my favorite pitching coach candidates. I’ll go through them alphabetically as well.
Axelrod has a pretty diverse background. He pitched in the big leagues for parts of five seasons between 2011 to 2015. Then he went to work in the private pitching world in coaching. He has some work with Driveline as well on his resume, so he’s clearly in tune with the way of the modern pitching world. The Angels hired him as a pitching coordinator in 2020, so he’s had some experience coaching professionally as well. I’m not sure he’d be my first choice for this role, but I would be interested in Axelrod somewhere within the system as they overhaul the pitching throughout the organization.
Banny knows pitching, plain and simple. He joined the Red Sox for the 2015 season and before that season was even over, he was promoted to director of pitching analysis and development. He was on their coaching staff for a few years, bouncing around in different roles. He has been the Giants director of pitching since 2020 and has seen some really interesting changes with their pitching staff. They fell off a bit this season, but he wasn’t with the team this year due to vaccination status (same rule applies as back in July, people, we’re not turning this into an argument that’s off-topic). Bannister has the smarts. He has the ties to Kansas City, obviously, and he would be an excellent fit to either lead the big league staff or oversee the entire organization’s pitching.
It took until the second name alphabetically to arrive at the first member of the Guardians staff. Buckel is currently the assistant director of player development but has also been a pitching strategist for the Guardians. He’s young. He won’t be 31 until June of next season, but that might be a good thing with this staff. He’s said to do a fantastic job of combining the data with communication. He also has a unique career story that might be able to help. He was once a top-100 prospect, but his career was completely derailed by the yips. Maybe that doesn’t help, maybe it does, but as a player, he saw some pretty high highs and some pretty low lows and I think that could help in connection with young pitchers.
Hands down, Doom is the best name on this list. Also, it lends itself well to some pretty solid jokes on social media if his mound visits don’t go well. But he is the pitching strategist for the Rays, which is an organization every team should want to poach from when trying to fix pitching. Doom’s role helps to work with the coaches on the Rays to get them the information they need, but that means he’s the guy behind the guy, which is kind of interesting if you’re the Royals and looking to emulate some of the practices of the more successful franchises. He clearly has a handle on what the Rays are doing, so that could be a nice choice for the Royals.
Here is the only internal candidate on this list. And while the Omaha pitching staff hasn’t lit the world on fire, when pitchers like Singer and Bubic have been sent down and came back up, they looked different. In the case of Bubic, it’s worn off some, but in the case of Singer, he clearly excelled from his short time in AAA. I don’t know if that’s Johnson’s doing or if the work was just done in the big leagues and the pitchers figured some things out in the minors working on what they were told to do, but I’d believe Johnson deserves an interview. If they were to go in this direction, I’d definitely want them to hire an assistant with some analytical experience.
With apologies to the next two on the list, Haren has the most accomplished playing career of any of the coaching candidates on this list. As a pitcher, he was always in tune with the analytics and he has been the pitching strategist for the Diamondbacks since the 2017 season. What he does with the Diamondbacks is he works to help communicate what the data says and how the pitchers can utilize that data to get better. That seems…yep, that’s exactly what the Royals need.
I feel like Harkey has had kind of a weird career. He was the Marlins bullpen coach in 2006 and joined the Yankees as their bullpen coach in 2008 where he worked for six seasons before he became the Diamondbacks pitching coach for a couple of seasons. He was fired by them and went back to the Yankees and has been there ever since. In talking with a handful of people, I’d bring up Harkey’s name and they all were in agreement he’d be a good choice. He’s led a very good Yankees bullpen for years, which is certainly a good thing. Many believed he shouldn’t have been fired in Arizona when he was. If the Royals were to hire Harkey, I think I’d want him to come with an assistant pitching coach who is heavy into analytics.
The Phillies have made some huge changes in their player development methods. And one of them included bringing Kaplan in. I think there’s a little bit of old school in him. He said in an interview earlier this year that his starters are going to start. No piggybacking. But a lot of that is because he has a very strong understanding of how the human body works and how to train the body, which is super interesting to me given the way the game is heading and watching some of the young Royals fade both down the stretch and during games. He also both understands and embraces the numbers. Someone like that could be pretty perfect to help either put finishing touches on young pitchers or help them to get back on the right track.
The Dodgers can really pitch. McGuiness is the assistant pitching coach to Mark Prior. He also is the co-founder of CleanFuego which is super cool. It’s a tool that provides visual feedback to help with spin and proper grips for pitchers. Someone who co-founded that company is someone who I would absolutely want working with my pitchers and my data if I’m running a big league team. McGuiness has had an interesting rise through the Dodgers system, along with a lot of their young talent. And he said this in an article during the 2021 season, “The one kind of niche I fall into is the spin data and the mechanics and trying to be proactive on how to attack that before it becomes an issue.”
Let’s go back to the Rays and talk about their minor league pitching coordinator. Again, why wouldn’t a team like the Royals want to take someone from the Rays? Moncada is part of the brain trust that helps to keep the Rays pitching churning in the right direction. One area the Rays do great is with their big league acquisitions, but they’ve also long developed solid pitching as well. My one concern might be the injuries we’ve seen from some of the Rays young starters. Is that just part of the fragility of young pitching or is that something they’re doing in their training? That’s an answer I don’t know, but I’d still hire someone from the Rays without real hesitation.
I feel like the Astros don’t get talked about enough in their ability to develop quality young pitching. Their rotation this year is led by Justin Verlander, but they also have gotten quality pitching from a 29-year-old (Luis Garcia) and a 25-year-old (Cristian Javier). They’ve also seen Hunter Brown come up and look excellent. Murphy has been a part of those young pitchers finding success in the big leagues. There remains a lot of what Brent Strom taught while he was in Houston, but there’s youth added to that too and that’s part of what Murphy brings to the table. He has been through the Astros system, starting as the complex pitching coordinator and working his way through to get to the big leagues in 2019. A common denominator among names I like is that they communicate and Murphy is known as an incredible communicator. The only question I have is if he’d leave Houston. If he did, it’d be to run his own show rather than be a co-pitching coach, but it’s tough to leave the kind of success he’s had.
Staying in Houston, Niesen is the pitching coordinator in their system. Niesen has the history you see with a few pitching coaches across baseball now (and some former ones) in that he was a college coach fairly recently. He led Georgetown’s pitching and they were very successful with him at the helm. He also has a local tie, having served as the director of pitching at Premier Baseball KC for a year from late 2020 to late 2021 before eventually moving on to the Astros where he was a minor league pitching coach in 2021 and then has been their pitching coordinator for the last year or so. He’s another who might be a better fit in a development role, but I’d at least interview him if I’m the Royals.
Oh hey, let’s head back to Cleveland. Osterer was hired by the Guardians a few years back to be their pitching resource coordinator and he’s now their director of pitching development. Yes, the same Guardians who seem to have young pitchers do whatever they want at the big league level. Before joining Cleveland, he co-founded a private pitching facility in Toronto. The guy is actually kind of fascinating in his background. He graduated from Cornell with a degree in biology and has a doctorate of chiropractic from the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College in 2014, so that could theoretically provide a big mechanical edge.
Oh hey, more Guardians. Sweeney is currently the bullpen coach for Cleveland where he’s in charge of one of the best bullpens in baseball. He’s been a big league coach for them since the 2018 season and has been in the bullpen for the past three years. Oh, he also spent four months working as a volunteer firefighter in New York during the time off during Covid. Sweeney has a reputation as a pitching guru who excels in analyzing data. I don’t know what more needs to be said. I think this would be a pretty perfect hire.
This might surprise you, but Torres is the assistant pitching coach for…the Guardians. Torres replaced Ruben Niebla, who became the Padres pitching coach after I begged and pleaded (in my brain) for the Royals to fire Eldred. Torres has earned his way to the big leagues as a coach. He was the pitching coach for them in the Arizona Rookie League in 2017 and then in two different Class A teams in 2018 and 2019 before he became the minor league pitching coordinator. I don’t really know a ton more about him, but the results kind of speak for themselves, I think, with the Guardians.
Weiner is the guy if you want someone young who views the game a different way than most of the guys who have been in baseball forever. He’s currently the pitching coordinator for the Mariners, who have done a really nice job with pitching development. One of the most talked about aspects of Weiner is his ability to communicate, which might be the most important thing for a coach these days. But he also runs The Arm Farm, which is all about both mental and physical skills. Andy McKay, the Mariners senior director of baseball development had lauded his ability to design pitches, understand spin and biomechanics and basically everything else you want in a modern coach. Oh, and he was also a minor league pitching coach with Cleveland while Sherman was there.
I’ll be honest. I don’t really know who is best here. I’m not sure there’s a bad choice on this list. Bannister will be a very popular name with many, but I can’t imagine any of the above being anything but very helpful to the Royals young staff. If they hired any of these 16 candidates, I’d be happy.
As is always the case, there are more, but these are some of the top choices I would have if I were picking through a list of candidates. Many are from organizations John Sherman himself as mentioned. I would note that some of these might likely fit better on the development side, which I just don’t know as much about to be able to form a list, but there are plenty of candidates out there. I maintain what I’ve said over these last few weeks. It’s nearly impossible to determine what the Royals have in their young pitching until they find the right instruction. I feel confident they’ll find the right instruction in this search, so the clock is about to start.