It’s no secret that the Royals struggled to develop the starting pitch under Dayton Moore, and those struggles continued, despite what was supposed to be a stellar college draft class in 2018. The crop has given Brady Singer, who has turned the corner into a solid performer this year, but other pitchers in that class have regressed and the Royals find themselves with few solid rotation options through 2023. Currently, starters in the Royals have a 4.77 ERA, fourth worst in baseballwith the sixth-lowest walk rate and fifth-lowest takedown rate.
The pitfalls of Royals pitching development practices were detailed this week in an excellent article by Athleticism written by three former Beat Royals writers – Rustin Dodd, Andy McCullough and Alec Lewis. The article collects feedback from executives and scouts of rival organizations and former players to paint a picture of a pitching development structure that isn’t making the most of talent. Read the article for the full picture, but the accusations against the process can be boiled down to three main points.
Rigidity in the process
The Royals have been accused of taking a ‘one size fits all’ approach to pitchers in the past, something the team concedes in the play. The rigidity was particularly evident when Bill Fischer had a large influence on development. Fischer relied on his “four pitching absolutes” which included: (1) don’t stub your heel; (2) throw four-seam fastballs; (3) do not throw on your body”; and (4) right-handers throw from the right side of the throwing plate; left-handers throw from the left side of the throwing surface.
The Royals revamped their pitching development under director of pitching performance Paul Gibson, taking a more individualized approach. Dayton Moore told Lewis in 2020 that pitchers come in all shapes and sizes, so it made more sense to fit in there.
“They’re all different,” he said, “so you can’t develop two pitchers the same way.”
But in this week’s article, it looks like the Royals are still rigid in some of their rules, despite the difference in their pitchers. A former Royals pitcher told his new team that “the Royals’ methods did not lend themselves to the individual”. The team still requires that most bullpen sessions begin with fastballs in the zone, “regardless of the shape or spin rate of a pitcher’s fastballs.” The team emphasizes the use of the fastball – the Royals minor leaguers throw more fastballs than most other organizations – and does not emphasize the use or design of the field before the upper minors.
Having uniform rules makes sense if backed by data and science. But Moore is right that different pitchers need to be developed differently. It also stifles innovation, discouraging trying anything unconventional. The Royals need to take a flexible approach with their pitchers.
Lack of player accountability
The Royals have made progress in collecting and using data, but it doesn’t do them well if they can’t share that data and receive player buy-in. The article mentions how a minor league pitcher was perplexed that he was not allowed to watch video of a bullpen session without a coach present until he reached Double-A. Players relied on their teammates to collect data for them, with a former pitcher saying “it was good for them to have someone who didn’t judge them for trying to find out more”. As one scout put it in the article, the Royals’ pitchers “have not been instructed in metrics that give them an idea of how they can pitch most effectively.”
This could be a reason why the club apparently struggled to be heard from pitchers. The club have tried for years to get Brady Singer to develop a change, and it was only this year that they doubled the use of their off-speed pitch. Picollo admitted the Royals couldn’t get Jakob Junis on board to use his slider more, only for Junis to go to the Giants and be convinced of its effectiveness. Junis had worked with his brother Noah, a follower of Driveline Baseball’s Kyle Boddy philosophies, one offseason. Athleticism The article argues that the Royals also reject pitchers who come out of the organization for help and experimentation because it makes them “lose their identity”.
Ned Yost certainly had his flaws, but one area he excelled at as a manager was empowering his players to make decisions for themselves. He trusted his players to buffer, steal or put the ball in play, and they loved him for it. Players need to be given the tools to succeed, and depriving them of information and the opportunity to experiment and learn is not the right way to go. Players should trust that the organization has their interests at heart and is not seeking to use the data against them.
behind the curve
Perhaps the most concerning theme throughout the play is that the Royals are always simply behind the pitch development curve. The Royals have radar and camera technologies like TrackMan, Rapsodo and Edgertronic, but it took them until 2019 to adopt something like Rapsodoa full year after a handful of the most advanced teams had already used pitch tracking technology. The Brewers, another small-market team, have had a dedicated pitching lab since 2019, while the Royals were still in the “exploratory” phases of such a laboratory in Arizona this springand instead use a performance lab at the University of Nebraska.
According athleticism, pitchers questioned the effectiveness of the “towel drill” the Royals still use to improve the extension. A pitcher praised a minor league coach for his tutelage, but admitted the coach didn’t know how to use the data. Picollo admits the team needs an expert in ‘field design’.
It’s great that the Royals seem to finally be embracing analytics and using data, but a small market club needs to be ahead of the curve, not playing catch-up. The Rays and Guardians are each stingier than the Royals in player payrolls, but continually outrank them in pitching development. Perhaps that’s why JJ Picollo was appointed as GM – to bring the team up to speed on data usage and technology, and he just needs more time. Under Ewing Kauffman, the Royals were constantly on the lookout for unconventional innovation – using computer analytics decades before anyone else and opening the innovative Royals Baseball Academy. The Royals need to be back at the forefront, leading the pack in data and technology, without going back to what worked 30 years ago.
The Royals have made some changes to their pitching development, and it may take some time before those changes are evident in the Major League. They should be credited for what Brady Singer has accomplished this year – and even pitching coach Cal Eldred should be given accolades for helping Singer with an adjustment with the tilt of his hand that may have helped propel the career of the young pitcher. Maybe in another year we can say the same about a young Royals pitcher or two.
But for a small-market team, there’s less room for error. The Royals put a lot of eggs in a pitcher basket, and that basket smells a little rotten. Maybe this article will be a wake-up call for the front office. Or maybe it will be the bugle call the property needs to clean the house.