'Reconnected with the feel,' Wittgren eyes return to form

Righty eager to reunite with Brian Sweeney, rekindle success from Cleveland days

January 18th, 2023

KANSAS CITY -- stood on the mound for the Aguilas Cibaenas in the Dominican Winter League a couple months ago preparing to face old teammate Starlin Castro, who suited up for the Leones del Escogido this winter. 

Wittgren attacked Castro with a heavy dose of sliders, struck him out and got out of the inning. As Castro ran out to third base for the next inning, Wittgren called from the dugout to say hi. What the right-hander heard next confirmed what he was feeling back on the mound.

“I was sitting on [a] slider, and that thing was a lot better,” Wittgren remembers Castro saying. “I was like, ‘Perfect, that’s why I’m here. That’s what I wanted to do,’” Wittgren continued. “Getting that confirmation was nice, showed me what I was doing was working and the swings are what they are because it’s better.” 

The eight shutout innings he threw in the Dominican League, his track record and his familiarity with new Royals pitching coach Brian Sweeney from their years in Cleveland led Wittgren to sign a Minor League contract with Kansas City earlier this month. The 31-year-old will come to Spring Training as a non-roster invite looking to earn a role in what is currently a wide-open bullpen.

Wittgren spent three years in Miami from 2016-18 before being traded to Cleveland, where he blossomed into an effective middle reliever. That was where he met Sweeney, who was a coach with the Guardians since 2018 and their bullpen coach since ’20. The Royals hired him to be their pitching coach this offseason.

“He’s a very even-keeled guy, and his mind is amazing,” Wittgren said. “He’s awesome with the analytics, but he also has a side where he looks at feel. … Then you’ll look down at the numbers and they’ll back you up. Sometimes you’re too focused on one or the other, and he just understands what guys need.

“He knows one thing will work for one guy, and another guy will be completely different and need something worded differently. He gets through to players really well.”

The Royals went into the winter looking for bullpen help. So far, their Major League acquisitions have been focused on starting pitching with Jordan Lyles and Ryan Yarbrough, although Yarbrough will likely pitch in relief at times this season. Strengthening the bullpen has been a focus of conversations in recent weeks; the club is one of a few interested in reliever Aroldis Chapman, per sources.

But Wittgren offers an intriguing arm at a low risk on a Minor League deal. He posted a 2.99 ERA in 2019-20 for the Guardians, with 88 strikeouts in 81 1/3 innings, before he struggled the last two years. If he gets back to the pitcher he was when Sweeney was his coach, Wittgren could be impactful in the Royals’ ‘pen.

“What Brian brings to the table is absolutely huge,” Wittgren said. “Working with him improved my pitching and took my game to the next level in Cleveland. Being reunited with him and working with him, he knows me really well, and hopefully it helps me get back into that 2019-20 years when we were just kind of rolling in Cleveland. … It’s always nice, too, working with new coaches. Looking forward to getting to know [bullpen coach Mitch] Stetter.”

Wittgren has spent the winter months watching film and trying to figure out what went wrong the last couple of years. After signing as a free agent with St. Louis last offseason, Wittgren posted a 5.29 ERA across 29 innings, and he was released on July 9. Throwing more two-seamers than he had ever before, Wittgren’s strikeout rate plummeted to 12.7 percent; it was 23.6 percent in 2021 and a career-best 28.6 percent in the shortened 2020 season.

“I was pitching a little bit backwards to what I usually pitched like,” Wittgren said. “It got me out of my groove.”

In the Dominican Winter League, Wittgren focused on his cutter and slider, two pitches he hadn’t thrown much nor had produced much success.

“I love my cutter now,” Wittgren said. “And with the slider, I’ve focused on getting it tighter, which is how it was back in the Minors coming up. That’s the slider [Starlin] Castro saw in winter ball.”

Eight innings this winter is hardly a hefty sample size, but Wittgren feels better about his stuff than he has in some time. Spring Training with the Royals will be his opportunity to prove that.

“I reconnected with the feel,” Wittgren said. “It showed me that what I was doing was working, and the swings are what they are because the pitches are better. This offseason and this spring will be about pitching my way and making sure I don’t veer off that track.”