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Royals Pitching Postmortem: Dissecting 2021

2021 is in the books for the Kansas City Royals, so now is the time to take a look back at the good, bad, and the ugly from the last 162 games. With the jump back to a normal slate after 2020’s truncated campaign, there were lots of question marks to be addressed.

With a full season now behind us, we take a look back at the pitching side of the Royals" 74-88 campaign and look at what we can be happy with, what"s concerning, and what the Royals may need to address going forward.

What Happened

As stated above, the Royals finished 74-88, good for fourth place in the American League Central. With a staff filled with young arms, but also five pitchers aged 30+ in their second stints in Royal blue, the Royals had a mostly unimpressive year, posting a 4.65 ERA, good for 11th in the 15-team AL. Most concerning, the Royals walked the second-most batters in the league while no other categories stood out in a major way.

It should be noted that the pitching staff started to skew younger in the latter part of the season, and results improved drastically. After posting a 5.15 team ERA in the first half, the Royals notched a much more palatable 4.05 mark (and a 38-35 record) after the All-Star break.

While the starting rotation improved (5.38 ERA to 4.87), the bullpen made even greater strides, lowering a 4.51 mark to 3.44 (and going 18-8 as a unit in the second half), which was the fifth-best bullpen ERA in Major League Baseball in the second half.

So, in other words, while the overall numbers were not stellar, there was enough improvement to at least be encouraged by the progress made so far.

What Went Right

The bullpen in the second half definitely qualifies as a big success and a big part of that are some of the bargain-basement pickups the Royals made.

Hard-throwing 26-year-old lefty Jake Brentz was signed as a minor league free agent after being released by Pittsburgh late in 2019. After making the Opening Day roster, he notched a 3.66 ERA and 10.7 K/9 while appearing in 72 games, fourth-most in the AL. He also became possibly the final Royals pitcher to ever reach base on August 20—two years to the day after the Royals signed him.

In-season, the Royals made another shrewd pickup that cost them almost nothing. Late-blooming 29-year-old Domingo Tapia was purchased from Seattle on May 22, then proceeded to go 4-1 with a 2.84 ERA over 32 outings, allowing just 6.0 H/9 and becoming a legitimate late-inning weapon.

Additionally, Josh Staumont built off his big step forward in 2020, notching a 2.88 ERA over 64 games, while most notable walking only 27 batters and striking out 72 over 65.2 innings—a big deal for a hurler that struggled mightily with control as a prospect.

At the back end of the bullpen, Scott Barlow established himself as a legitimate MLB closer, going 5-3 with a 2.42 ERA, striking out 91 batters in 74.1 innings (the most of any KC reliever), and recording a team-high 16 saves. Frequently deployed not just as a closer, but also as a high-leverage “fireman," the advanced numbers also loved Barlow, as he posted a sterling 190 ERA+ and 2.63 FIP, while his 2.9 WAR led Royals pitching and was third in MLB among relievers.

Among others, 24-year-old flamethrower Dylan Coleman and 26-year-old Gabe Speier both were sharp in limited stints, while 25-year-old Richard Lovelady posted a 3.48 ERA in 20 appearances before going down late in the year and undergoing Tommy John Surgery.

The rotation, unfortunately, was not as positive. The unquestionably brightest spot there was right-hander Carlos Hernandez, who rose from relative obscurity to lead the pack of Royals young pitching.

Hernandez posted a 6.04 ERA through July 24, pitching 12 out of 14 times out of the bullpen, with two stints in Triple-A mixed in. However, in 10 outings (nine starts and one 5.2-inning relief effort), Hernandez was electric, going 5-1 with a 2.51 ERA. Even more impressive was his success against quality opponents, as six of those outings came against 90-win teams.

That included three wins over the AL Central champion Chicago White Sox (allowing a combined three runs in 17.0 innings), plus a quality start against the Yankees, a four-runs-in-6.0-innings effort against Houston, and a stellar relief appearance in Seattle where he allowed just one hit and an unearned run (a Manfred runner in the tenth) in 5.2 innings against the Mariners.

Now, during his stellar stretch run, Hernandez struck out just 36 batters (against 20 walks) in 57.1 innings and posted a .238 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and 3.97 FIP, suggesting good luck and that regression may be in order. Even with those potential red flags, he was still an unqualified success.

What Went Wrong

Buckle up, because this is a long list. But, we might as well start with the portion of the pitching staff that is unlikely to be part of any future championship core.

The 2021 Royals featured a quartet of pitchers who were Royals in better days (2013-17): Ervin Santana, Mike Minor, and two-thirds of the once-vaunted H-D-H trio: Greg Holland and Wade Davis. That quartet combined for just 1.0 WAR cumulatively, posting a combined 5.17 ERA over 322.1 innings.

Minor, the fourth-highest paid Royal this season, went 8-12 with a 5.05 ERA, allowing four or more runs in nearly half of his starts. His 1.0 WAR was a great disappointment in the first season of a two-year deal. That would be the best performance of the bunch.

After a resurgent 2020 (1.91 ERA, 31 strikeouts in 28.1 innings) from Greg Holland, the three-time All-Star regressed to a 4.85 ERA. Wade Davis was considerably worse, recording a 6.75 ERA over 40 appearances. Even more jarring, he allowed more runs just this season (33) than he did over 185 outings from 2014-16 (25). As for Santana, he wasn"t all that bad, but posted a pedestrian 4.68 ERA over 65.1 innings, mostly in garbage relief.

As for the young guys, it was a discouraging season from much of the bunch as well. After posting a 3.50 ERA over his first three MLB seasons (including 2.47 in the truncated 2020), Brad Keller backslid terribly, going 8-12 with a 5.39 ERA and posting the highest H/9, walk, and home run rates of his career, posting a disappointing 85 ERA+.

That was right in line with much of the Royals" draft class of 2018. Kris Bubic was probably the best of the bunch, going 6-7 with a 4.43 ERA over 130.0 innings, posting the only above-average ERA+ (104) of the group. Brady Singer was behind him, going 5-10 with a 4.91 ERA, a noticeable jump after finishing 8th in the Rookie of the Year balloting in 2020.

As for Singer, he battled a pair of (short) IL stints, while also seeing his ERA jump by nearly a run, while allowing nearly three more hits per nine (7.3 to 10.2) than 2020 while his walk rate increased slightly as well. However, his FIP actually went down from 2020 (from 4.08 to 4.04), suggesting he may be in for better luck in the future.

Daniel Lynch was certainly the most enigmatic of the bunch. After a promising MLB debut on May 3, his second start was, um, a disaster. One more poor start earned his two months in Omaha, after which he returned a much better pitcher. He tossed 8.0 shutout innings against Detroit in his first start back on July 25, kicking off a seven-start stretch where he went 4-1 with a 2.23 ERA.

However, Lynch wobbled to the finish, posting an 8.69 ERA in September and averaging less than 4.0 innings over his five starts that month. Overall, that left him with a 4-6 record and 5.69 ERA for the year, good for -0.1 WAR and an 81 ERA+.

Then there was Jackson Kowar

The second of the five college hurlers drafted in 2018 (at 33rd overall), Kowar has enjoyed a solid minor league career. This season he was 9-4 with a 3.46 ERA in Omaha, striking out 115 batters in just 80.2 innings (12.8 K/9), and was named Triple-A East Pitcher of the Year.

His big-league time this season, though, was nothing short of nightmarish. His MLB debut on June 7 lasted seven batters. He threw 39 pitches and failed to finish the first inning. His second start elapsed 57 pitches and only four outs. One relief outing and one week later, he was back in Omaha.

On September 1, he returned and posted the best start of his young career, allowing two runs in 6.0 innings. A blown seventh-inning lead cost him his first MLB win. That would be as good as it got for him at the MLB level this year.

In his next outing, he allowed six runs against lowly Baltimore, kickstarting a five-start finish where Kowar allowed 26 runs in just 19.1 innings (a 12.10 ERA), including the season finale on Sunday where he allowed five runs in the first inning, including four before recording an out.

The final carnage? An 0-6 record and 11.27 ERA. Other ghastly numbers include a 2.08 WHIP, 12.8 H/9, 5.9 BB/9, and a hideous -1.5 WAR. Even if you want to argue he was unlucky, a 6.43 FIP suggests that Kowar still had a poor season. The WAR total was fifth-worst in MLB (with the lowest innings total among that bunch). His ERA was the worst of any MLB pitcher who tossed more than 25 innings this season. Any way you shake it, it was a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad season for Kowar.

All-told, the quartet of Singer, Kowar, Bubic, and Lynch, plus holdover Brad Keller, combined to go 23-41 with a 5.41 ERA in 490.1 innings—and a -0.5 WAR as a group. The Royals deserve credit for identifying a large group of pitchers that could be drafted, developed, and reach the major quickly, but the fact of the matter is that the 2021 Royals posted a 4.97 ERA from the starting rotation, the seventh-worst mark in the majors. If the Royals are going to be competitive in the near future, a lot of that same group will have to pitch much, much better.

What To Address for 2022

This is an interesting question to tackle because there"s no easy answer to what the Royals should do to shore up the pitching staff. The bullpen was definitely a bright spot in the second half, and it could be even better as Santana, Davis, and Holland ride off into the sunset and Coleman, Speier, and other options like Ronald Bolanos fill those roles.

As for the rotation, the Royals don"t have the problem of a bunch of over-the-hill veterans who are underperforming. Mike Minor is the only graybeard in the rotation (even then, he"s only 33) and he"s only under contract for one more year. Once you factor in Keller, Hernandez, the four 2018 draftees, as well as dark horses Jon Heasley (who made three starts this season) and Angel Zerpa (who made one start), and even lost-in-the-shuffle Jakob Junis, the Royals have a lot of potentially productive in-house options for the 2022 rotation.

Even though the young core mostly struggled this season, Singer and Keller were the only ones who had any sort of meaningful MLB time before 2021. It"s simply way too early to write off any of them yet, even Jackson Kowar (if you want to dream, see Roy Halladay‘s 2000 season). As many executives have said, player development is rarely a linear process. There will be hiccups, struggles, and false starts along the way, even in many successful players.

Now, one option the Royals could pursue is to part with one or two of the pitching prospects in exchange for a proven MLB starter, which may be beneficial if the Royals are concerned about any one of them torpedoing their potential value with continuing MLB struggles. Lynch and Kowar especially were highly valued as prospects, so it"s possible the industry could still see them as potential trade prizes, though the risk in moving prospects so early in their MLB careers is always high.

Going into 2022, the Royals are in an interesting spot pitching-wise. There"s enough young pitching on the staff that the Royals could more or less stand pat this offseason and see improved results simply from young pitchers developing, though that could also backfire and you"re back at square one.

Either way, Dayton Moore and JJ Picollo will have some interesting decisions to make regarding the pitching staff this offseason.

Please be sure to follow me on Twitter (@BrennanMense) for more of my content. Don’t forget to listen to our baseball podcast, Cheap Seats Chatter! We’ll see ya there!

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main image credit: Embed from Getty Images

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