Royals Pitchers Whiffed on Getting Whiffs
It's no surprise, but the biggest thing that needs to be fixed is the lack of swing and miss.
It’s no secret that Royals pitching was a disaster in 2022. They were bottom five in ERA, FIP, strikeout percentage, walk percentage and WHIP. Ultimately, it cost Cal Eldred his job, which should have happened years ago, but I guess better late than never. When you’re that bad, there isn’t any particular reason, but one of them was just the insane amount of traffic on the bases. Of the five statistics I listed above, the only one they were dead last in was WHIP. That’s from allowing the second-most hits and the second-most walks. Today I want to look at one aspect of why that happened: they couldn’t get the swing and miss.
That also is a big reason why their strikeouts were bottom of the barrel as well, so maybe their issue actually can be brought back to one particular point. In today’s baseball, where the whiff rate per pitch is 12.2 percent, for the Royals to be getting whiffs on just 10.9 percent of pitches, it signals a huge problem, especially when they’re supposed to be filled with young pitchers who have the stuff to compete. I suppose that’s a mark in favor of them simply not having the arms they need, though I’m not entirely sure that’s true. I’ll get to why that is later, but first, let’s just dig into the numbers a bit.
To look at the list of highest percentage of swings and misses per total pitches, the list is pretty telling. The top six teams made the playoffs. The seventh was Miami and they have a playoff pitching staff but can’t hit. Then it was Seattle and Cleveland. And then it gets a little murky with some pitching staffs with studs like the Angels, White Sox and Brewers. The Padres, Phillies and Blue Jays ranked 13th through 15th. So if you’ve been counting at home, 11 of the top 15 pitching staffs in terms of swing and miss percentage were playoff teams. That 12th one that’s left hanging is the biggest mystery to me and maybe I’ll dig into it another day, but the Cardinals were dead last.
The point is that teams that make the playoffs get swings and misses. Down with the Royals at the bottom were the A’s, Pirates, Tigers, Diamondbacks, Nationals, Rockies and the aforementioned Cardinals. Three of those teams lost 100 games. Two more, including the Royals lost 96 or more. And then the Diamondbacks lost 88 and the Cardinals just 69. I really, really don’t get that last one. But again, another day. Focus, David. In fact, in the back half of that list, only two teams, including the Cardinals even finished over .500. That was the Orioles. The Giants were 16th and they finished right at .500, so even if you include them, there’s a pretty strong correlation between getting whiffs and winning.
Just to look at it in a slightly different way, let’s take a look at whiff percentage on pitches actually swung at. The list is pretty similar. League average was 25.5 percent. The Royals were at 23.5 percent, which was sixth-worst in baseball. Again around them were the same teams. The bottom 10 were Boston, Pittsburgh, Oakland, Baltimore, KC, Detroit, Arizona, Washington, Colorado and St. Louis. The top 10 were the Mets, Atlanta, the Yankees, Houston, Milwaukee, Miami, Tampa Bay, the Angels, the White Sox and the Dodgers. In this list, 10 of 12 playoff teams were in the top half with Toronto dipping down to 18th. Still, pretty strong correlation.
Now that we know the broader background, we can dig in a bit to the Royals. The first thing I will note is that I do wonder if there isn’t something to a younger staff wearing down as the season went on. The Royals two lowest whiff percentages by month, both by total pitches and on swings, were in August and September/October. And it’s a significant difference on whiffs per swing too, dropping by quite a bit.
The Royals did feature the second-youngest pitching staff by average age weighted by use. But more than age, the Royals also had a staff that was full of pitchers who didn’t pitch in 2020. The Guardians, for example, got only 81 innings from pitchers who were older than 27. But I think it’s fair to note that the pitchers who tossed the majority of their innings this year also threw competitively in 2020.
Of the Royals young pitchers, they did have a few pitch in 2020. Some, like Brady Singer and Kris Bubic, pitched extensively. But in thinking about pitchers like Daniel Lynch and Jonathan Heasley specifically, they didn’t pitch competitively in 2020. It’s very easy to forget that two years later, but as young pitchers build up, a season without any competitive baseball could take a couple of years to come back from. So I want to keep that in mind as we track the development of the young starters. Okay, but enough about that. You’re still wondering why they don’t get swings and misses. I have theories.
The biggest isn’t a theory, but a fact that hitters simply don’t chase out of the zone against the Royals. Remember the teams on the lists above? Yeah, they’re sitting down at the bottom of the league with the Royals on chasing pitches outside the zone. The Royals find themselves as the fourth-worst team at getting hitters to chase, ahead of only the Cardinals, Nationals and Rockies. It’s hard to get swings and misses without getting hitters to chase because big league hitters are good. The top six teams at getting chases were all playoff teams. Every playoff team but the Cardinals was in the top-16. Again, there’s a direct correlation.
But! Hitters aren’t even swinging at pitches in the zone against the Royals. They rank seventh-lowest on getting swings in the zone. A lot of that is Singer’s doing as he ranks second-best at getting hitters to take strikes among pitchers with at least 150 innings. Even so, if the Royals aren’t deceptive enough to get swings and misses, how are they getting hitters to take so many pitches in the zone? This is just a theory, but I think it makes sense. There are two things at play.
First, hitters know that if they wait out the Royals, they will eventually see pitches outside the zone. I think opponents are smart enough to understand that. You don’t necessarily need to worry about falling behind in the count because Royals pitching is less likely to put you away than just about any other team. With two strikes, the Royals allowed a .191/.276/.298 line. That .574 OPS was second-worst in all of baseball. When ahead in the count, Royals pitching allowed a .230/.238/.332 line for a .570 OPS, which was third-worst in all of baseball. So hitters aren’t swinging at early pitches in the zone because they flat didn’t need to unless they were good for hitting.
And second, hitters may assume they don’t have to swing to get a pitch called a ball. Given how analytical teams are, I imagine they know this, but the Royals had the second-most pitches inside the “Gameday” zone called balls this season, just four behind the Padres and 40 ahead of the third-place Nationals. By percentage of pitches in the zone, they’re actually slightly ahead of the Padres for the most pitches in the zone called balls.
Is that a function of their catchers? Both MJ Melendez and Salvador Perez are notoriously terrible pitch-framers. I think that’s probably not a huge factor because it’s still just a handful of pitches, but anything close goes back to the previous point where hitters have to feel like they can take it even if it does get called a strike.
With the league average whiff rate of 25.5 percent, the Royals had just seven who threw a single pitch sitting above that average. Five will probably be no surprise - Scott Barlow, Jake Brentz, Dylan Coleman, Amir Garrett and Josh Staumont. The other two - Jackson Kowar and Wyatt Mills - probably would, but also the sample was pretty small for both. That leaves 15 pitchers below average. That’s no surprise at all. I would say it’s worth mentioning that Daniel Lynch, Jose Cuas and Taylor Clarke were all near average as well as the other three on the team above 25 percent.
Let’s take a quick look at Lynch because he’s the guy who you’d maybe expect to have been part of the seven above average because of his slider. But even that pitch dropped to a 33.1 percent whiff rate from 42.2 percent last year. His changeup made big strides overall, but the whiff rate on that dropped from 33.3 percent last year to 26.8 percent this season.
One way pitchers get whiffs regularly is from a concept known as tunneling. If you’re not familiar with it, I’m sure you’ve seen it and maybe didn’t even realize it. It’s basically the practice of pitches holding the same path as long as possible before they diverge and go the direction they’re going to go. The “tunnel” is basically at roughly 24 feet before home plate, so about 60 percent of the way from the rubber to the batter. That’s the point where you want your pitches to look the same until and then they make their moves.
This is a single at bat that stood out to me from one of Lynch’s worst games of the year where he walked four and didn’t get a single strikeout. This was an at bat by Elvis Andrus in that game that scored the White Sox third run of the inning when they were trailing 4-0.
You can see that only two pitches were even remotely on the same plane and both ended up a fair amount outside. This isn’t the best example because he didn’t throw a single four-seam fastball in the at bat (why not????) and those are the best pitches to tunnel with, but I think it’s still illustrative of an at bat that he needed a whiff and just couldn’t get it.
He ended up trying to get a swing and miss with two strikes on the slider, which is a good swing and miss pitch, but couldn’t do it. I will be breaking down the young pitching throughout the offseason and you can be sure that’ll be something I key in on with each of those newsletters. It’s not the be all, end all and I’m not going to give you a screenshot of every single at bat, but look at what some elite tunneling can do to get ugly swings.
What is a hitter supposed to do there? I’ll admit that I’m not sure what the best course of action is to improve tunneling. Improving spin rate helps, cleaner delivery probably helps. And honestly, it’s a huge reason why the instruction at the big league level matters a lot more than the Royals appeared to realize by keeping Eldred around for as long as they did. If you go back through my list of pitching coach candidates, you’ll see a few who are especially known for improving grip and spin rate.
Connor McGuiness is the one who jumped out at me and I still believe the Royals are very interested in someone like Brian Bannister leading all pitching with a pitching coach reporting to him. To me, that’s of huge importance heading into the 2023 season. How can they get more whiffs?
And it’s not just utilizing existing pitchers. The Royals need to add to their staff. I know what JJ Picollo has said recently about not being in a spot to spend. No matter what he says, they have to go get some pitching. They can bring back Zack Greinke, sure (17.3 percent whiff rate), but they need more than that. You know Singer can start. If they bring back Greinke, you have a back-end guy.
Of some of the free agent starters who fit the mold of guys who don’t walk hitters and guys who get enough swings and misses, guys like Tyler Anderson, Nathan Eovaldi and Ross Stripling fit the bill. None are elite swing-and-miss guys, but they do well enough combined with their ability to throw strikes. On the trade side, so many of the Marlins guys fit - Braxton Garrett, Pablo Lopez and even Jesus Luzardo if you bump the walk rate maximum up a bit. Eric Lauer gets a decent number of whiffs. So there are options out there.
It doesn’t matter how they do it. Whether they can figure out how to get Jonathan Heasley to get more whiffs on either his breaking balls or his fastball (or both, ideally), he needs to jump by 5-6 percent. Maybe it’s Lynch taking a leap and going from slightly below to average to well above average. I’d bet on him over any of them figuring it out. Maybe it’s a complete retooling of Jackson Kowar, who actually did get a better-than-average number of whiffs. Maybe it’s Alec Marsh, who does get swing and misses, figuring out how to actually get professional outs. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know they need to find an answer here because they will never be able to prevent runs at a high enough level until they can prevent contact better.