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Crown Jewels: A New Pitching Coach, The Blame on Pitching and An Inflated Market
The Royals have taken the next step to fix their pitching issues. It's a good move, but is it enough?
The Inside the Crown schedule has been a bit thrown off, but it’s for a very good reason. I am so happy to announce that my first child, Nora, was born on Tuesday afternoon at 3:23pm. The little peanut is learning how to be a human, Mom was a warrior and a champion and Dad is learning the joys of the middle of the night wakeup call to get a crying baby to sleep. I’m lucky that I have the same touch my dad did and does. Maybe I’m just extra boring. But either way, I’m lucky to be able to get babies to sleep relatively quickly. I figured while I was out of pocket that the Royals would be active, and while they weren’t on a player front, they did make a splash, finally bringing in a pitching coach.
I’ll get to the details of Brian Sweeney with some thoughts I’ve accumulated from others (and will get more as I have a little more time), but the staff is starting to fill out and the Royals talked about how they’re going to work to fill out the rest. They also hired Jose Alguacil as an infield coach (and he might end up on the bases) to go along with bench coach Paul Hoover, hitting coaches Alec Zumwalt and Keoni DeRenne and Damon Hollins, who was a holdover from the previous regime. Alguacil is especially interesting because he has a reputation of an excellent developer of infield talent, and the Royals could use that. What many figured would be a big strength of the 2022 Royals, their infield defense, was a weakness. A lot of that was due to struggles from Bobby Witt Jr., but even a guy like Nicky Lopez struggled at second base. It was a teamwide epidemic.
The New Pitching Coach, Nothing Like the Old Pitching Coach
The biggest news was the hiring of Sweeney as the pitching coach. He was an undrafted player but made it to the big leagues for parts of four seasons along with some time in Japan. He was in the Phillies organization for three years before joining Cleveland and ultimately becoming their bullpen coach after the 2019 season. Here’s what I wrote about Sweeney in my article from October about pitching coach candidates:
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.
The word “guru” has been thrown around in multiple instances about Sweeney. I think it’s very easy to say it’s as simple as hiring someone from an organization with a strong background on pitching and call it done, but the reports about Sweeney say that he appears to be an excellent fit for this organization. From an article in The Athletic in January of 2020, Zach Meisel helps to outline what makes Sweeney special.
His responsibilities evolved more in 2019, when he assisted with pitching drills and studied the metrics behind pitchers’ deliveries. Sweeney developed a knack for applying advanced data and video, tools he wished he had at his disposal during his career. Chernoff described Sweeney as “a big-time learner,” which helps him relate to players who are searching for some revelation with their mechanics or approach.
“I had to figure it out through feel, through repetitions,” he said. “I would have been all in (on data and video), because I wasn’t that good. I needed the help. I may have played for 18 years, but a lot of it was hard.”
Let me just repeat something from that. “Sweeney developed a knack for applying advanced data and video, tools he wished he had at his disposal during his career.” Be still my heart. I remember back a few years ago, I mentioned something about Cal Eldred’s disdain for analytics and using the data at his disposal. A certain former Royals pitcher who you can hear regularly in the mornings on a certain radio station I appear on frequently took umbrage with that comment from me and even mocked me on the air, but then refused to appear in a segment with me. That was fun. The Royals went from that to this in their hire of Sweeney.
One scout reached out to me after the hire was official and told me that Sweeney’s best attribute is getting talent out of pitchers who just haven’t fully tapped into it yet. Does that sound like something the Royals might be needing? I go back to that article in The Athletic that preceded Dayton Moore’s firing and talking about how the pitchers currently in the organization would be studs if they were with one of the better developmental organizations in baseball. Well, they poached one of the better organization’s gurus. It has me extremely curious to see how he can help Daniel Lynch turn his fastball into a weapon or how he can help Kris Bubic find command (I’ve got a big one on Bubic coming soon, by the way). Or even how he can get Jackson Kowar back to being what he was supposed to be a couple of years ago.
I also spoke with another person in the Guardians organization who told me that they’re super happy for Sweeney to get this opportunity but there’s a little grumbling going on that they’ve lost him. He speculated that the idea was for him to replace Carl Willis at some point after Willis decides to retire. I know that you hear it a lot from organizations, that they’re upset they’ve lost this person or that person, but my source here said it felt like legitimate disappointment that their plan couldn’t be enacted. That’s a good feeling as a Royals fan to know that the guy one of the best pitching teams in baseball wanted to keep was someone they couldn’t keep.
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I also thought Sweeney’s comments about building a pitching development team were interesting.
I’ve written a few times about the idea of Brian Bannister overseeing all of the pitching in the organization. I honestly haven’t had time to find out if that’s completely out the window or if that’s still a possibility, but I’ll try to get some answers on that front. And it did break last night who would be that assistant pitching coach. The answer is Zach Bove, who was the Twins assistant pitching coordinator in 2022 and has been with the organization for four years. I found some really interesting things on what he’s done in his career.
There it is again. Talking about data and having a process and all that good stuff. I like that quote. I also learned that Nate Pearson’s breaking ball was helped along by Bove. Pearson worked with Cove on the design of that pitch in the offseason heading into 2018 and it became a plus pitch for him. In this article in The Athletic from 2017, we get some insight into how Bove helped him.
Bove, the Central Florida pitching coach, is always looking for new ideas to help pitchers develop breaking balls. To help Pearson, Bove contacted Jerry Weinstein, the double-A manager for the Colorado Rockies, who has coached in college and the pros since 1966. At 73, Weinstein is a highly respected mentor who uses his Twitter timeline to impart a steady stream of coaching tips, often illustrated by photos from major-league games.
Weinstein suggested using a softball to help Pearson develop a slider. Soon thereafter, Slider Sundays were born. Sundays were off-days for the team, but Bove would show up at the field along with Pearson and a couple of other teammates motivated to improve their breaking pitches.
The article went on to explain why a softball helps to develop a breaking ball.
“It’s obviously bigger, and a lot of it is about pressure and grip and how you release it,” Bove said. “He would throw the softball for a couple of pitches, and then take the baseball, and the baseball would feel like a golf ball in his hand. Pitchers like that feeling of the ball feeling smaller. We talked a lot about throwing the slider hard like the fastball and letting the grip do the work.”
I don’t know about you guys, but that sort of pitch development seems like it could come in handy for a Royals staff that needs a lot of help. I’m very pleased with both of these hires.
But JJ Continues to Say Development Isn’t the Issue
When they hired Sweeney, it wasn’t the first time the head of baseball operations for the Royals has tried to pin everything on Cal Eldred. There was a great article on Fangraphs yesterday that was an interview between David Laurila and Picollo. In it, Picollo dropped this nugget:
Laurila: You’re obviously aware of the criticism your organization has received regarding its pitching development program. What are your thoughts on that?
Picollo: “I think what needs to happen is mostly at the major league level. We’ve examined what we’re doing developmentally. And by no means do we think we’re perfect in developing pitchers, but I believe we had the third-highest number of pitchers from the 2018 draft in the major leagues. When you compare what they’ve done to other teams, we’re a top-five development system. It’s just that they haven’t had the success at the major league level, as a group, that is needed for us to compete at the top of the division.
“We have to figure out what helps each guy, and every guy has different things that he needs to work on. The new pitching coach we hire, and the manager in the pitching department we’ll put together… it will be in their hands to have everyone take the next step.”
There is a lot more to this interview and I thought it was excellent, so I’d encourage you to read it, but I wanted to key in on this. It’s similar to what he said when he spoke about not overhauling the development system entirely. For what it’s worth, there are changes that will come to that system that haven’t been in place yet that I think are going to be led by Sweeney, so let’s not pretend like things will be exactly the same. But he is implying again that the issue isn’t what happens before they get to the big leagues, it’s what happens after. I’ve written this before, so it may not surprise you to know that I actually may agree with him in some ways.
I think there are issues with the pitching development that can’t be argued, so I’m very curious to see what the organizational structure looks like moving forward. And I have heard some things that I, unfortunately, can’t divulge that have me fairly skeptical. But until 2022, the performances in the minors by the top prospects actually were pretty good. They just ran into a wall at the big league level. There can be two reasons for that. The first is that they weren’t well enough prepared for the big leagues in their development time. If that’s the case, Picollo’s wrong and I’d say there’s a non-zero chance he doesn’t get to see 2024 as general manager. But the second explanation is something I’ve actually written about quite a bit and I think there’s a chance it’s the real reason.
The big leagues are hard. There isn’t a single pitcher who comes out of the minors and is fully ready to face big league hitters without a single hiccup. There are some who handle it better than others for sure, but pitching development doesn’t end the second a minor league manager calls a guy into his office and tells him he’s getting the call. There is more to learn and there are more adjustments to make.
It’s very clear that the top of the Royals organization believed the problem was in that aspect. Again, it’s hard to know how different development will be moving forward, but we’re going to find out, I think, which area is to blame here because by keeping the key people in charge on the minor league development side, they’re saying they like the messages down there and just don’t like how it translates in the big leagues. I’m nervous about that, but we’ll find out what’s right and what’s wrong soon.
Salaries Going Up
The free agent market hasn’t thawed yet, but there have been a handful of signings and one thing they’ve signaled is that there is money to spend. It started in the free agent relief market where Edwin Diaz, Robert Suarez and Rafael Montero stayed with their teams for a boatload of money. But now we’ve seen Zach Eflin sign for three years and $40 million. We saw Tyler Anderson get three years and $39 million with a qualifying offer attached. We saw Mike Clevinger sign for $12 million and Matthew Boyd for $10 million. I had a feeling this would be a more lucrative market for free agents than in past seasons, but that doesn’t mean that the dollars already handed out don’t have an impact. Someone like Jameson Taillon might end up getting priced out of where the Royals want to go. The same is true for Taijuan Walker, Michael Wacha, Chris Bassitt, etc.
That doesn’t mean bargains don’t exist. Noah Syndergaard remains interesting to me and he might only require two years. There are bad two-year deals, which is different from one-year deals because there aren’t bad one-year deals, but it’s hard to find a truly bad one. If they got him for two years and $30 million, how bad could that really be? But the point is that if the Royals don’t believe they’re ready to win, and they’ve basically signaled that they don’t, then they might stand pat other than re-signing Zack Greinke, which I still expect. It’s not the path I’d take. I’d go get three starting pitchers and spend whatever it takes, but that’s where I have a difference of opinion with the team. Okay, it’s one of the areas I have a difference of opinion. And that goes back to the biggest point in this week’s Crown Jewels. The pitching coach is super important and I think they nailed that.