Game 150, Mariners at Royals

marc w · September 23, 2022 at 4:55 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Marco Gonzales vs. Brady Singer, 5:10pm

This game was supposed to matter for both teams. No, Kansas City hasn’t been good since their World Series win several years ago, but free agent compensation and the competitive balance process gave them 4 selections in the top 40 picks in the 2018 MLB draft. Kansas City used those picks on four college-trained pitchers. They’d won essentially *without* starting pitching, but starting pitching would make or break their rebuild.

Ok, so “break” it is. As this Athletic article lays out in damning detail, the Royals lack of development – particularly on the pitching side – has meant that the Royals come into play today with the worst team K-BB% in MLB, the worst K rate in the AL, and by far the worst fastballs of any team. Poor strategy in the minors, an inability to utilize or translate new technology and training methods, and a kind of rigidity criticized by pitchers who’ve left the org has left them unable to wring a lot of production out of their prospects even if, as in 2018, they focus their draft strategy around pitching. Less than a week after that Athletic piece came out, Kansas City parted ways with the head of Baseball Ops, Dayton Moore. GM JJ Piccolo will see if he can pick up the pieces of a calamitous failure.

That 2018 draft netted the Royals today’s starter, Brady Singer, his college teammate, Jackson Kowar, along with Virginia hurler Daniel Lynch, and Kris Bubic from Stanford. If you look at pitch type run value – a counting stat measuring the change in run expectancy after each pitch of a given type – you find Bubic’s fastball has been the worst in the game. This despite the fact that Bubic hasn’t thrown enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. He’s been nearly as bad as Justin Verlander’s fastball has been *good*, in far fewer innings. He’s essentially been the anti-Spencer Strider. Kowar get a cup of coffee last season, and pitched to an ERA well over 11. He’s tossed 15 2/3 IP this season and yielded 17 runs, which somehow brought his total MLB ERA down to 10.76.

Lynch has merely been bad, not “fascinatingly bad,” which is good for him but bad for us. Lynch’s ERA is overt 5, but his FIP is in the mid-4s. That’s still not great, but it holds some hope if he can reduce his walks and get his BABIP under control. Walks have been a worry for years with the Royals as a whole, which is remarkable given their strategy in 2018 was to go for high-floor, great command guys from big time college programs. Walks was the one thing these guys were supposed to be good at. What happened, and how do they fix it?

Admittedly, that’s not my problem, and I don’t much care if they fix it or not – as a neutral, it’s kind of nice to have such a rich target, an object lesson in what bad player development looks like. But they do have one shining example, one case where development actually occurred: Brady Singer. Singer had a poor 2021, and began this season in the bullpen. He joined the rotation in May, and promptly fired off two 7-IP, 0R games. But then June happened, the league adjusted, and he looked just as lost as his 2018 draft mates. But then, starting in July, he’s become one of the best pitchers in baseball.

Singer throws the same basic arsenal as Adrian Martinez, yesterday’s starter: a 94 mph sinker, a change, and a slider. Whereas Martinez’s best pitch and most-used secondary was his change, Singer’s is his slider, a remarkable out pitch. It’s not the best *looking* pitch, and it doesn’t generate tons of swings and misses. That’s OK – it generates a ridiculous number of swings. Because of the way it tunnels with his sinker, batters seem quite confused about what pitch is coming, and that’s led them to a particularly ineffective approach. Singer’s sinker is swung at less than 40% of the time, but his slider is swung at over 53% of the time.

Think about what batters are trying to do: they want to swing at in-zone fastballs. Really good outcomes for them happen on in-zone swings, and especially on fastballs. Exit velocity, wOBA or however you want to measure outcomes, all of them are *worse* on breaking balls, and breaking balls generate OUT of zone swings much better than fastballs. To get completely reductive, you want to swing at fastballs and not at breaking balls. That generally works – batters swing more at fastballs and less at other things, though change-ups are often so effective BECAUSE they generate high swing rates. Singer’s able to get the best of both worlds – he’s flipped the hitters’ strategy around. They take his fastball for strikes and swing at his slider. This is why he’s one of the league leaders in called strikes and called-strikes-plus-whiffs despite not really having swing-and-miss stuff.

In general, the pitchers with super high swing rates on their sliders throw incredibly hard. Justin Verlander gets a ton of slider swings, as does Andres Munoz. The #1 swing rate on sliders? Edwin Diaz. It makes sense: batters don’t have time to see the spin; they just have to react or they’ll be way late on the fastball. Singer isn’t anything like these guys. This general pattern is something some of the Cleveland Guardians young starters have honed – it’s something I talked about when the M’s faced them last year. Aaron Civale did it fairly well, and Zach Plesac has done it as well. But I’ve never seen anything like the gap between fastball swing rate and slider swing rate that Singer’s putting up.

Sinker-slider would seem to be a boon to left-handed hitters, right? Well, no, not really. Singer’s change isn’t great, but he has one to keep lefties honest. He’s also a very different pitcher to them. To righties, his two-pitch arsenal generates a ton of ground balls. To lefties, he uses the slider more as a strikeout pitch. He’s got far higher K rates against *lefties* than righties. The Royals are terrible, and this is a series the M’s should win 9 times out of 10. But tonight’s match-up is their toughest test.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Santana, 1B
4: France, 3B
5: Raleigh, C
6: Kelenic, CF
7: Winker, DH
8: Toro, 2B
9: Frazier, LF
SP: Marco Gonzales

Sooo, Julio’s back tightened up and the M’s are reviewing MRIs. It’s likely he might be IL’d today. So that’s great.

You know a 2018 draftee who turned out well, and helped support a more successful rebuild? Cal Raleigh. Kelenic was drafted 6th overall in 2018. Jury’s still out a bit, but it was awesome to see him have success yesterday.


2 Responses to “Game 150, Mariners at Royals”

  1. JMB on September 24th, 2022 9:54 am

    If you don’t think they’ll find a way to blow this, you haven’t been a fan long enough.

  2. Stevemotivateir on September 25th, 2022 3:03 am

    Losing Julio and Geno, with Raleigh missing was about the worst thing that could happen.

    But they’re still in the driver’s seat for a wild card, should have Geno’s bat back soon, and…

    It is huge to see Kelenic making the most of this opportunity. With the sudden, desperate need for a center fielder, he is rising to the challenge.

    He has hits off breaking pitches and lefties. Great start to this call-up.

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