New Hitting Coaches Are a Start, But There's More Work To Do
The Royals fail both hitting and pitching. The hitting has been addressed.
If we’re being honest, the game was the secondary story of the day yesterday. The big story was that the Royals made a change to their coaching staff that I thought was coming soon, but not that soon. They fired Terry Bradshaw and brought both Alec Zumwalt and Mike Tosar to the big league level to re-join forced with Keoni DeRenne who is already at the big league level as the assistant hitting coach. When I wrote yesterday that I didn’t see a big change coming if they do fire a coach, I also didn’t quite anticipate them making that big of a move.
Why do I think this is a bigger move? Well you might recall a lot of conversation about the minor league hitting development plan changing quite a bit following the 2019 season. We didn’t get to see the results in 2020, but last season, the Royals were improved across the board in so many ways. We saw players like Bobby Witt Jr., MJ Melendez and Nick Pratto break out and become top-100 prospects. We saw other players like Vinnie Pasquantino become a legitimate prospect and Michael Massey, Nick Loftin, Maikel Garcia, John Rave, Brewer Hicklen and others get onto the prospect radar. The changes were put into place by Zumwalt, DeRenne and Tosar.
If Tosar’s name is familiar to you and you don’t know why, it’s likely because he was the one who worked with Jorge Soler before his breakout in 2019 and Salvador Perez (and Maikel Franco) ahead of the 2020 season. One of the biggest things it seems that he teaches is how to hunt the best possible pitches to do damage on. That’s something Royals hitters struggle with quite a bit, so having Tosar at the big league level could be a big help and relatively quickly, I would think. And one more note on Tosar, a lot of people remember the Royals trading Soler and him then taking off. What is easily forgotten is that Soler visited Tosar during the break last year and hit .227/.333/.659 with 6 HR, a 13.7 percent walk rate and 17.6 percent strikeout rate in 12 games with the Royals before he was dealt. That’s what allowed him to get traded at all.
It’s unfortunate that it didn’t work with Bradshaw. I think way back to Mark Teahen’s days when he was sent down to AAA in 2006 after struggling in 2005 and to start the ‘06 season. Bradshaw was the hitting coach there and he worked with Teahen to unlock an ability to pull the ball with power. After a month with Bradshaw, he hit .313/.384/.557 when he came back in 356 plate appearances. There were a few other hitters who worked with Bradshaw and came back to the big leagues looking much more prepared. As I’ve written before, it’s all about how you present the message, though, and from what I’d heard, the message just wasn’t being received especially well from Bradshaw. It doesn’t matter if everything you say is right if it’s going in one ear and out the other.
And one thing that I keep hearing about Zumwalt from people both near and outside the organization is that he is one of the most prepared people you will ever come across in the game. So while the results might not be there right away, and they weren’t last night, my biggest complaint about Bradshaw is that the Royals never seemed prepared. That will change, and if it doesn’t, it’s on the players completely.
The issue right now, to me, is that the pitching was a bigger problem than the hitting even if the stats this year indicate it was a push. And as we sit here today, Cal Eldred remains in his post as pitching coach. I will say that the bigger move to bring in Zumwalt and Tosar in addition to DeRenne makes me think that maybe the Royals are working on something bigger with the pitching coach side, but they can’t look at the offense and think that’s a problem without looking to the coach on the other side of the ball who has seen even more valuable pieces take steps back this season and in previous seasons.
I mentioned this on Twitter, but Jackson Kowar had a great start on Saturday and the staff in Omaha has been working to adjust a lot of things on him. With that in mind, it makes sense that he’s struggled. He’s been pitching a certain way basically all his life and it’s hard to make that adjustment. Saturday was just one start, but if he can build on that and continue to get better, then I think that’s very damning for the big league staff.
I’d done a full 180 on Bradshaw in recent weeks after hearing about the connection issues with the team, so good on them to make that move, but the work isn’t done yet. And if the reason that work isn’t done is either Dayton Moore or Mike Matheny putting their foot down for “their guy” to keep Eldred in place (and it sounds like Moore is wanting Eldred to stay based on his infuriating press gathering yesterday), then I go back to what I wrote a week ago that there needs to be a much more serious conversation in place about their jobs. Again, as I wrote last week, I’d move on entirely as I know many others would, but I just don’t see that happening.
What confuses me about the whole situation is that Moore made it pretty clear that he wouldn’t have made the move, but JJ Picollo was wanting it. I just can’t imagine Picollo would see this offense and their struggles and not think the pitching side deserved the same fate. In a year where offense is at such a premium, the Royals pitching staff continues to fail at the most basic tenets.
They don’t throw strikes. They don’t get swings and misses. They don’t get outs. Royals pitchers strike out a lower percentage of batters than any team in baseball. They have the sixth-highest walk rate in baseball. Their infield defense is outstanding, even with Adalberto Mondesi now out, but their pitching staff has the 11th-lowest ground ball rate in baseball. Though to be fair, the outfield defense is also quite good, but in the hierarchy of results, it goes strikeout —→ groundball —→ flyball.
And the number one thing that the team talked about this spring and in the early part of the season was throwing first pitch strikes. And yet, they throw a lower percentage of first pitch strikes than any team in baseball. They get the third-fewest called strikes in all of baseball by percentage. It should be no surprise then that their percentage of pitches that end in called strikes or swinging strikes is the fourth-lowest in baseball.
And the problem is that it’s the young arms doing the heavy lifting of bringing the staff down. Whether they’re on the team now or not, the worst first pitch strike offenders are Jake Brentz, Jackson Kowar, Gabe Speier, Ronald Bolaños, Brady Singer, Collin Snider and Kris Bubic. Other young pitchers who are below the team average, which I’ll remind you is the worst in baseball include Dylan Coleman and Brad Keller. You remember Keller, the guy who the organization touts as the best person in the world for Eldred to work with. I guess that’s not entirely fair because Keller has had a good season, but still.
The point here is that if they want to talk about accountability, and they did plenty yesterday, there is zero accountability on the pitching side. Moore’s conversation with the media just kept making me think of one line from The Office. Jo Bennett comes in on her first day and says, “you can’t give me gravy and tell me it’s jelly, ‘cause gravy ain’t sweet.”
Moore gave everyone gravy yesterday and told them it was jelly. He put the accountability on him because he was the one who pushed the young pitchers. He then also made some bizarre statements including looking at Clayton Kershaw’s start to his career (3.17 ERA, 10 WAR, 483 IP) as an example of pitchers struggling at the start. I appreciate a leader trying to take the heat off one of his guys, but the day where another one of the guys was fired for underperformance makes that message ring hollow.
So overall, it was a good start for the Royals to maybe start to fix what ails them, but there’s still more to do. I feel good about where the hitting is heading with the three architects of the Royals minor league plan in place. But if they don’t. do something to fix the pitching issues, none of it will matter in the end.