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Crown Jewels: Singer's Timing, Hope and a Weekend Preview
It's been a long season for the Royals. It's May 26th. But is there hope for their best pitcher and the team in general?
I was excited about the 2023 season. I didn’t expect the Royals to be good, but I expected them to be competitive enough. I thought the young bats would take some steps forward and for the pitching staff to improve with the addition of actual competent coaches. Things started off poorly against an admittedly brutal schedule to start the year. And while the team fared well for a bit against teams we expected them to beat, they’ve lost five of six now against the White Sox and the Tigers (though the White Sox are playing well and the Tigers are better than expected). On the bright side, they have been oddly competitive lately.
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Their largest margin of defeat since April 28 is four runs. The Baseball Reference definition of a blowout is five runs, so that’s why I picked that number. Four runs means that one batter can tie the game, so I guess I see why that’s a good number to look at. That’s sort of a moral victory that doesn’t matter, but they’re in these games even though they’re 8-16 in those games. And for whatever it’s worth, their Pythagorean record in these last 24 games is 11-13. Does an 18-33 record feel much better? I don’t think so, but it is better. The question to ask is why are they underperforming so much over these last few weeks. Maybe it’s because a small sample makes an expected record a lot less trustworthy, but I don’t think it’s digging too much to think that they have looked better recently and I wonder if they can finally translate that to some wins.
The biggest issue on this pitching staff right now is Brady Singer and his struggles. I’ve mentioned a few times that I wanted to dig into it, so here we go. For someone to go from a 3.23 ERA, 24.2 percent strikeout rate and 5.6 percent walk rate to a 7.48 ERA, 18.9 percent strikeout rate and 8.8 percent walk rate, quite a bit has to have gone wrong. For awhile, I did wonder what the impact of the World Baseball Classic and his lack of work had, but I just can’t imagine he’s still dealing with the impact of that, short of being injured during the tournament and him not telling anyone. So I started by looking at some of the raw numbers.
You can see some similar numbers. The spin rates are generally the same. The horizontal movement on his pitches is pretty close. The vertical movement on his slider is basically the same. But some of these are drastically different. The velocity and whiff percentages are results and both of those show a pretty big difference. The biggest difference that stands out, to me anyway, is his extension on pitches. For those unfamiliar with what that number is, it’s how much closer to the plate a pitcher releases the ball. His extension numbers are considerably higher this season. Is that leading to different release points?
The short answer is not really. At least not that you can see a scatter plot. But let’s see some video to see if there’s anything different we can capture.
Okay, there’s something here…maybe. These are two random pitches. One is from 2022 and one is from Monday night. I’ve looked at a few other random pitches and this seems to be a recurring theme. It’s almost indistinguishable, so maybe it’s absolutely nothing, but the screenshots below show Singer’s arm when his front foot first lands and his arm this season is ever-so-slightly ahead of where it was last season.
So either his foot is landing too late or his arm is firing too early. I’m guessing many will look at these images and think there’s nothing here. I asked a couple of people who know a lot more about pitching than I do and they agreed this could lead to different extension, which could also lead to a change in the shape of the pitch. One said, “It’s a super simple fix, but boy is it not easy. They’ll work on it and it’ll just happen in a start and be fine. But nobody can guess when it’ll be.”
And from what I can gather, the Royals are completely aware of this and I think agree with the assessment. Think about something you do hundreds of times a week and then think about how difficult it is to change that once you’re used to it. It’s hard to tell in the above videos of the pitches, but with his arm being ahead or his lead foot being behind, he’s letting the ball go a little closer to the plate, which is reflected in the numbers. It’s amazing how something so tiny can cause the command issues that it has caused, but it’s also the truth of the matter in this game.
I’ve been thinking about this for a few days. Is it good news or bad news? I think in the long run, it’s good news. There’s a fix that multiple people agree should be the answer, but also multiple people don’t know when it’ll happen. Could he have five more bad starts? 10? 15? Maybe it’s just two or maybe it’s now fixed. So I don’t know how much it can impact 2023, but I also think Singer could be a big ticket toward contending sooner if he can get right and the Royals shop him, so it’s important that he figures this out sooner than later.
Is There Hope?
I do think there’s reason for optimism offensively with Vinnie Pasquantino hitting well, Nick Pratto looking improved and the likely return of Drew Waters tonight as he’s hitting well. I also think it’s fair to exercise some patience with Bobby Witt Jr. and MJ Melendez, who have both shown just how talented they are. Melendez has batted ball metrics to back up why he could be a tweak away from unlocking something and Witt has the elite talent that appears to not be breaking through yet, but could at any minute.
And I don’t want to forget Michael Massey, who has horrible overall numbers, but is now hitting .267/.366/.467 since April 29, the day he drew his first walk. His swing decisions have been much better and the results are there. Add in that he’s played very good defense at second base and I think you can find some cautious optimism about him. When you combine that with Maikel Garcia (.279/.346/.368 since his callup) and the fact that the oldest non-Salvador Perez player getting regular at bats is Edward Olivares at 27 years old, I believe it’s reasonable to feel good about this offense moving forward even if they need to show it consistently throughout the rest of the season.
But man, that pitching. I’ve written the good news about it, which is that they’re doing things in a different way in the minors and doing them quite well. But the minors isn’t the majors and right now, the big league staff is struggling in a big, big way. A lot of it doesn’t matter much. Zack Greinke isn’t part of the future. Jordan Lyles certainly isn’t. But the injury to Kris Bubic and Singer regressing beyond even the worst dreams anyone could have have been bad. Daniel Lynch hasn’t thrown a big league pitch (but I’m guessing that’ll change this weekend or Monday). I knew the starting pitching depth would be thin. I didn’t expect it to thin out even more so fast. The bullpen struggled on Wednesday, but you know I believe it’s been impressive in a lot of ways.
I think the rest of the season is a test for the coaching staff. Can they help Singer turn back into something similar to the 2022 version? Or even the 2020 version? How does Lynch look when he gets back? What about Brad Keller if and when he comes back? But I’m most interested to see how they handle the bullpen when Aroldis Chapman is dealt and when Taylor Clarke is dealt and when Scott Barlow is dealt. JJ Picollo said before the season that he believed the issue at the big league level was coaching and not the players. Some would argue he’s been proven wrong.
I do see improvement from Carlos Hernandez, Josh Staumont, Jose Cuas and Bubic before his injury. Again, Lynch’s return is going to be a nice test for them and the way they can help Singer figure things out, but there are success stories. Singer, right now, is their biggest failure, in my opinion, though he can turn into a big success quickly. Keller sort of is as well, but with a shoulder injury, I wonder some how much that impacted his command. It wouldn’t be surprising if he was that bad because of being hurt. Still, they’ve got a big test on their hands as they have to replace those bullpen arms and work to piece together a staff to get them through the final 111 games.
A National Preview
The Nationals won the World Series four years ago. It feels like more than a decade. That team had Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and a bunch of very good role players. Who is left from that team? There’s Victor Robles and Patrick Corbin. They have done a great job of trading their legitimate stars to rebuild their upper level talent fairly quickly. They got Josiah Gray and Keibert Ruiz back for Scherzer and Turner in 2021. They got back CJ Abrams and Mackenzie Gore for Soto. They also got their top two prospects, James Wood and Robert Hassel III for Soto. Even Lane Thomas was a return for Jon Lester and Riley Adams for Brad Hand.
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Gray and Gore have jumpstarted the rotation. They’ve got their pitching issues beyond those two but two pitchers with that much team control who are both 25 or younger is huge. The offense is still a bit of an issue, though they do lead the National League in batting average, but they’ve got reinforcements on the way. This is not a good team, but they have talent and can have their moments, which is why they should be farther away than the Royals but are 6.5 games better than them.
Tonight, the Royals will face Patrick Corbin, who has a much better ERA this year, but has an xERA of 6.09 (though a FIP of 4.45). He’ll be followed by Gray and Gore, meaning the Royals do have their hands full with a couple of good, young arms. They’ll counter with Jordan Lyles, which means tonight is probably a loss, and then Singer and likely Lynch. That makes this weekend interesting. The Nationals swing a lot and they swing a lot outside the zone. That means Singer has a chance to get his slider working and he’s likely to get five or six lefties against him, so maybe the changeup is the pitch to go to for him. And they’ve hit lefties extremely well, so if Sunday is Lynch, that’s a challenge for him.