The Royals pitching staff has a whole was a disaster before the All-Star break. Their 5.15 ERA was better than only the Diamondbacks and Orioles, both teams that ended up losing 110 games. Those two teams plus the Tigers and Twins had worse FIPs, putting their 4.65 FIP in the first half fifth-worst in baseball. This isn’t any new information, but the real issue here is that the starters were pretty terrible. They threw the second-fewest innings of any team in baseball with the third-highest ERA (behind those Orioles and Diamondbacks again).
But the second half was a different story. It’s funny looking back because Mike Matheny said that we would see something special and then was pretty heavily mocked when they came out of the break and immediately dropped two of three to Baltimore, but the Royals had the 12th-best ERA in baseball in the second half of the season at 4.04. Their FIP was 10th-best. And partially behind the turnaround was the starting rotation simply doing more.
Royals starters threw the ninth-most innings after the break. Their 4.51 ERA was middle of the pack, but middle is better than bottom. Their 4.59 FIP was also pretty much middle of the pack. Again, better than bottom. This part, again, isn’t news, but it led to a bullpen resurgence. The Royals bullpen had 4.4 fWAR in the second half, which was the most in baseball, and they did that throwing the 15th-most innings, which is relevant because WAR is a counting stat, so they were able to put up the most value while throwing the 15th most innings. The 3.41 bullpen ERA was fifth-best in baseball and their 3.40 FIP was best.
Now that I’ve sufficiently bored you with the numbers, I want to look at what changed and if it’s sustainable. One of my favorite things to do when writing something like this is to get to this point without having looked at all, so you’re basically discovering what I’ve discovered along with me. Ready? Let’s dig in.
The first thing I want to look at is who was eating up the innings just to see how much of the shift was simply sorting through guys who couldn’t get the job done.
First Half Starters
Second Half Starters
There’s not a massive change here. Obviously the top three innings came from young guys and young guys who pitched very well at times as the season wound down. Daniel Lynch and Carlos Hernandez seemed to get tired in September, but that’s sort of to be expected. Bubic found another gear late, which is very encouraging. Injuries are probably what kept Minor, Singer and Keller from being the top three in the second half, but it’s encouraging that the starting pitching was so much better and everyone with more than one start but Mike Minor was 25 or younger.
First Half Relievers
Second Half Relievers
The biggest change here was simply that Mike Matheny went with his better relievers more often. Domingo Tapia emerging was huge for the bullpen, but maybe bigger was simply using guys who weren’t getting it done less and not in as important situations.
It seems so simple. Use better pitchers, get better results. But there’s also a process with a young staff of figuring out who those better pitchers are. I kind of wonder a little if spring training featuring shorter games hurt a team like the Royals sorting through relievers because they didn’t get quite as much of a chance to figure things out in Arizona regarding the bullpen setup. I don’t think that’s a huge issue, but it’s probably worth noting at the very least.
Location, Location, Location
Make no mistake about it, the Royals didn’t throw enough strikes in 2021. Just 48.1 percent of their pitches were within the strike zone, which was good for seventh-lowest in baseball. That’s not always the worst thing in the world because good stuff can get hitters to chase, but for the Royals it wasn’t a good thing, and a lot of that is that they had the seventh-most non-competitive pitches, throwing 9.3 percent in the “waste” zone.
They weren’t in the zone that much more in the second half, but they were in the zone more. But they threw the 11th-most pitches in the shadow and chase zones in the second half. The shadow zones are where you want to live as a pitcher because a lot of that is actually in the zone, but in spots where hitters can’t do nearly as much damage. And the chase zone is just that. It’s off the plate enough that it’s an obvious ball, but it’s a spot where hitters chase more often. They still threw too many non-competitive pitches after the break, but that was an improvement for them, though not a significant one.
One thing that I found pretty interesting is that they simply weren’t hurt as bad in the zone in the second half. Look at this zone chart with batting average from the first half:
And now the second half:
They handled their business out of the zone, but the average dropped almost 60 points in the middle of the zone. Is that sustainable? I would say no, but younger pitchers with better stuff might play a part in that. The other thing that might play a part is that they didn’t split the zone with breaking pitches and off-speed stuff right in the middle quite as much. You can see that the middle of the zone was used less and the pitches shifted a bit to the left-handed batter’s box.
So maybe that’s a part of it. And if that’s the case, good for the coaching staff for implementing that change.
This is where things get weird. While I hadn’t looked at any of this for this particular article prior to writing, I had looked at this before and Royals pitching actually struck out fewer batters in the second half than in the first. The whiff rate in the first half was 22.7 percent, which isn’t great, but it dropped to 21 percent in the second half, which is even less great. But that said, they did rank similarly between the two halves, so maybe there’s something to do with the crackdown on the sticky stuff for pitchers. The league strikeout rate did drop from 23.8 percent to 22.5 percent from the first half to the second.
But here’s where things get…weird and I don’t fully understand how the Royals succeeded, which makes me skeptical it can continue without some change. In the first half, Royals pitching got whiffs on 26.3 percent of swings. That was 15th best in baseball, so right in the middle. In the second half, that number tumbled to 24.6 percent and 19th best in baseball. So what I’m telling you is they struck out fewer batters and got fewer swings and misses but the pitching didn’t just perform better. It was worlds better. I’m officially confused by this.
I think the walk rate does help some, but it just doesn’t add up for me and, like I said, has me concerned regarding how much of this is something that can be replicated. The one thing that I will note is that there was definitely some massive fatigue that I thought was just obvious to the naked eye while watching. So I want to see one more thing and look at the whiff rates from the break through that first road trip in September. It’s an inexact science, but that was around the time I noticed the staff looking generally tired.
Okay, this makes a little more sense. The whiff rate was 14th in baseball at 25.8 percent. I might be a bit off on when the fatigue set in for a group of young pitchers who largely didn’t pitch or didn’t pitch much in 2020. I think it’s fair to give them a bit of a pass for that last month of the year. And that does make me feel a bit better moving forward.
For the duration of the season, Royals pitching wasn’t actually considerably different facing good teams and bad. Against the sub-.500 teams, they posted a 4.59 ERA with a 23.1 percent strikeout rate and 8.8 percent walk rate. Against teams .500 and better, it was a bit worse with a 4.70 ERA, 20.7 percent strikeout rate and 10.6 percent walk rate. So the peripherals did take a big hit. But after the break, it was different.
They had a 3.93 ERA after the break against sub-.500 teams with a 21.9 percent strikeout rate and 7.1 percent walk rate. That’s 32 games against subpar competition with 13 of them coming after mid-September which we’re using for the point where they wore down. Prior to then, their ERA against the sub-.500 teams was 3.87, their strikeout rate was 23.6 percent and their walk rate was 7.5 percent. I think they were beating up on the bad teams.
In the first half, they had a brutal 5.09 ERA against bad teams. They did have a 23.9 percent strikeout rate, but the walk rate was 9.8 percent. That’s a big bump.
Of course, that doesn’t mean they weren’t doing better against good teams as well. The 4.16 ERA was better. The 20.3 percent strikeout rate was not, but paired with a 9.9 percent walk rate was an improvement. It was all a big improvement on a first half ERA of 5.32, with a 21.1 percent strikeout rate and an unsightly 11.2 percent walk rate.
So they handled themselves against the teams they’re supposed to handle themselves against better and fared pretty decently against the good teams after the break. If you look at the AL Central in 2022, it’s hard to know what the division will end up looking like, but the Tigers appear to be better. The White Sox will still be good. The Guardians are always a threat and the Twins are just a year removed from a division title.
Pending realignment (that probably wouldn’t happen in 2022 regardless), that’s 78 of 162 games. Then add in 66 more games against teams that either made the playoffs last year, won 90 games or are hellbent on making the playoffs in 2022 and there isn’t much in the way of breathing room. Some teams will be worse than expected and some better, but it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if the Royals have to play 110 to 120 games against teams in the race.
My belief is that the uptick in the pitching largely came from the starters being fine enough to pitch a little deeper into games and keep a bullpen a little fresher. That bullpen also added Tapia, a healthier Staumont and Richard Lovelady reaching the big leagues and pitching like we all hoped he would years ago. While Lovelady won’t be a part of things in 2022, Dylan Coleman will and he looked like the real deal in an extremely limited sample. I think the bullpen improvement was for real and the starting pitching helped that even without the peripherals indicating they were actually significantly better.
If the young starters can pick up where they largely left off before mid-September and take that step, we could see the pitching staff from the second half from the start in 2022, whenever that happens. And if that’s the case, it of course takes the pressure off the bats and gives the Royals a shot to compete, especially if the postseason ends up expanded.