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Cole Ragans, Ace?
The Royals lefty turned in another stellar outing and just added to the legend.
It feels a bit repetitive to keep heaping praise on Cole Ragans, but also how can we not? Sometimes during a miserable season like this one, it’s easy to mistake above average for good and good for great. But there is no mistaking the greatness we’ve seen from Cole Ragans at the big league level since he’s been a part of the Royals organization. I’ll get to the numbers in a minute, but his ability to mix pitches, throw strikes and hold velocity deep into games has me wondering just how high the ceiling for Ragans is. A victory in a season of losses is nothing to scoff at.
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Since joining the Royals, this is what Ragans has done by start:
5 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 K, 2 BB
6 IP, 7 H, 0 R, 8 K, 1 BB
6.2 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 11 K, 1 BB
5 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 5 K, 4 BB
6 IP, 8 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 9 K, 2 BB
6 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 11 K, 1 BB
7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 9 K, 1 BB
If you’re scoring at home, the overall numbers are 7 GS, 41.2 IP, 34 H, 10 R, 8 ER, 56 K and 11 BB. That all adds up to a 1.73 ERA that pretty matches the 1.68 FIP to go along with it. And since his one rough start, he’s given up 13 hits in 19 innings with 29 strikeouts and four walks.
On one hand, it’s seven starts. Seven starts isn’t that many. On the other hand, seven starts is almost a quarter of a season. I went and looked from 2020 through now to see how many pitchers had a seven-start stretch where they threw 40 or more innings with an ERA of 1.85 or below and 50 or more strikeouts and the names are generally very impressive:
They’re not all stars, but I count 10 Cy Young winners out of that group. It’s not a guarantee for future success, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to be on this list.
I don’t know if we can expect to see Ragans continue to look this good, but I also don’t know why we can’t expect him at this point to continue to be a legitimate front-half of the rotation big league starter. The Pirates aren’t a great offensive team, but they do have some weapons and I don’t think Ragans had his best command at times. We saw him lose it a little in the middle innings and have to figure out which pitch he could go to in a time of command crisis. And he did. That’s the beauty of having five pitches he feels he can go to.
Last night, for example, I don’t think he had a great feel for his curve. He’d used it to get plenty of called strikes in his last few starts, but he only threw eight of them against the Pirates and just two landed in the zone. But it didn’t hurt him because he both seems to have a great understanding of how to pitch, but also because he was able to utilize the other pitches in his arsenal. A pitcher with five pitches is rarely going to throw each one 20 percent of the time, but having options when one or even two aren’t working is very helpful.
And last night, he was feeling it with his fastball. It wasn’t quite as electric as it was against the A’s the other day, but it averaged 96.6 MPH and had some excellent spin to it. While the Pirates only missed on three out of 20 swings, they weren’t able to do damage. They did appear to learn something from the A’s last week and they laid off pretty much anything outside the zone.
There’s one missed call in there, but I count at least four really impressive takes from Pittsburgh. If you want to talk encouraging, he didn’t have the weapon that was his most impressive in his last start because the Pirates took it away from him and he found other ways. In this one, those other ways were specifically his changeup and his slider. Both were filthy.
I was actually impressed by some of the Pirates takes on his changeup, but his slider had them all messed up all night long. He threw 20 of them and only 10 were in the strike zone. Of the 10 out of the zone, they swung at seven of them and whiffed on three. Of the 10 in the zone, they swung at eight of them and whiffed on four. When you have a pitch that you can throw in or out of the zone and get swings and misses, you’re dangerous. And not to harp on this fact, but this slider is a pitch he didn’t have when the Royals traded for him two months ago. That’s remarkable.
In the end, Ragans threw a career-high 108 pitches. Very few were high-stress. He didn’t allow a runner until the fifth inning. He walked a man and gave up a hit. He also gave up a two-out single in the seventh inning. Not to go all old school here, but I saw some concern over his pitch count. First of all, it’s 108 pitches, not 180 pitches. Second of all, he had an extra day going into this start and will get an extra day after this start. I think it’s fine. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, but I’m guessing he’ll look about the same when he takes the mound on Monday (I’m guessing) against the White Sox.
Do the Royals have an ace in Ragans? He’s certainly the best pitcher they have. He’s certainly pitched a legitimate ace over the last month or so. He did become just the second pitcher in Royals history to strike out 50 or more batters in a calendar month, joining Dennis Leonard. And Leonard did it in seven starts instead of the six for Ragans. I was probably overly cautious a couple of weeks ago when I didn’t list Ragans in the sure things in the rotation. This is what I wrote:
If Cole Ragans does what he’s done for another three or four starts, I’ll be totally in. He doesn’t even have to do exactly what he’s done, but if he goes 22-25 innings with a 4.00 ERA in his next four starts, I’m in.
Well, it’s been three starts. He’s gone 19 innings with a 1.42 ERA and 29 strikeouts and three walks. I’m going to call it. I’m in. JJ Picollo is in. Matt Quatraro is in. The rest of baseball is in. The Royals have a building block in their rotation and they deserve all the praise in the world for how they got there. Pitcher success and health can be fleeting, but having a guy every fifth day like this is a great feeling.
Now…if only they could fill the other 20 or so spots that seem to have no answers at this point. And that’s what cost them this game in the end. The offense has gone into a bit of a shell over the last four games after playing so well for awhile. That sort of thing happens, but it’s always so frustrating when the slump becomes a team-wide slumber. Bobby Witt Jr. has even been slacking a little bit over the last few games. I did see some positive signs from Michael Massey hitting the ball hard and Freddy Fermin getting his groove back a little bit offensively, but they need to get Maikel Garcia and Salvador Perez going as well. I’d get Dairon Blanco some more time because he’s one of the few guys actually hitting the ball well lately.
The lack of offense highlights bullpen deficiencies. Ragans was great through seven and Austin Cox got two outs in the ninth, but when the lineup turned over, Quatraro turned to Carlos Hernandez, who did what he’s done so much over the last month and gave up a home run that flipped the score. It was on a slider, which seems like it’s been a rough pitch for him this month, but that’s actually the first homer he’s allowed on it since April. It’s actually been pretty good, but he simply hung this one.
The stuff still looks generally fine, but the command continues to be off for him. What I’d like to see is an increased usage of the splitter in relief. His fastball can be hittable. If he took his fastball usage from about 56 percent to maybe 45 percent and upped his splitter usage from 11 percent to 22 percent, I think he’d really have something. That would allow for a potentially hung slider to not get crushed because of the fear of a splitter diving. I don’t think his issues are just with pitch mix, but I think going with an effective pitch more would help him quite a bit.
Then in the ninth, with just a 2-1 deficit, Quatraro made what I thought was a bit of a curious decision to go with Steven Cruz in his big league debut. But as I thought about it more, I get it. They’ve made no bones about this being an evaluation year, so they wanted to throw him into the fire. I wouldn’t have done it, but it sort of lends credence to my thought from the weekend. The Royals went with the tactical move in pinch hitting with Matt Duffy against a team competing, but when they’re facing a team where the result doesn’t matter for either, he went with the developmental move. Hopefully Cruz will bounce back because the stuff is obviously there for him. I’d have gone with John McMillon there, but I’d also probably just pitch McMillon until his arm fell off, so I might be a bad person to ask.
Ultimately it was just another loss. And it was a bad one. But the shining hope for the Royals continued to shine, so at least that’s something to hang a hat on. Maybe, just maybe, the Royals have found an ace.