Notes: Keller on changeup; Staumont arrives

February 22nd, 2021

Royals manager Mike Matheny didn’t hide how much the Royals are going to need ace in 2021 -- not just for his performance, but also for his dependability. Managing the innings jump from 60 games in 2020 to 162 games this year means teams will get creative with their pitching staff to keep it healthy, and every team will need reliable arms to help with that.

“Brad’s whole goal is how do we get you feeling strong,” Matheny said after Keller threw live batting practice this past week. “We need you strong and ready to go when the gate opens.”

Keller, entering his fourth year in the Majors, knows this. He spent the offseason with an emphasis on his conditioning, knowing he was going to be counted on as the Royals get creative with their pitching to help ease their younger pitchers into a full season. Keller’s career-high 165 1/3 innings in 2019 gives the rotation some much-needed strength heading into 2021.

“I put a lot more emphasis on conditioning this offseason to come in and be ready to take innings right away,” Keller said Sunday. “I think personally that was the best way to do it. With the way that schedule lined up, we got to be ready right off the rip.”

Keller fine-tuned some pitches, too, including his changeup -- a pitch he hasn’t relied on much. He threw his changeup 38 times in 2019 (1.4%) and 17 times in ’20 (2%), but the 25-year-old said the success he had with it -- he threw it all to left-handers and did not allow a hit -- helped build confidence throwing the pitch.

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With Keller’s goal to throw as many innings as he can for the Royals, that means going deep into games with a mix of pitches to keep the lineup off balance.

“I think that was a big thing in years past, I just never had a lot of confidence in being able to bring it into a game,” Keller said. “And last year they kind of forced me to throw it in games, and I got really good results from it. I think that was just an eye-opener to myself that I can throw this in games, have confidence and get results.”

Staumont in camp
Reliever made it to Royals camp after a short delay and was able to participate in workouts Saturday. Matheny did not give a reason for Staumont’s delay but said the right-hander “looks great” after arriving.

The Royals will likely be cautious with Staumont for a few days because of the delay, easing him into live batting practice and other drills.

“Whenever there are those shutdown periods, we got to get them built back up to where we feel comfortable with their arms,” Matheny said. “Especially on a guy that’s high octane. There’s a plan in place, but it’s medical-driven first. And then we’ve got our pitching coaches and the player talk through, ‘Here’s what I’ve been doing, here’s how I feel,’ and then put a plan in place that we follow.”

Pitchers and have not been able to participate in workouts this week, Matheny said.

Hernández’s versatility
When asked about ’s role this season, Matheny said the right-hander is being stretched out early in camp but could find a spot in the Royals’ bullpen based on need. Hernández, the Royals’ No. 9 prospect per MLB Pipeline, made his Major League debut in 2020 and struck out 13 in 14 2/3 innings. He made three starts and two relief appearances -- including his debut on Sept. 1, when he allowed two hits over 3 2/3 innings.

Hernández didn’t pitch above Class A before 2020, so he could spend time in the Minor Leagues this year to continue his development. Questions remain for the long term about whether his pitch mix is better suited for the bullpen; he has stood out for his plus fastball that comfortably sits in the mid- to upper-90s and an above-average curveball.

Matheny was quick to say if Hernández was performing as well as the other Major Leaguers in camp, the Royals could find a spot for him in Kansas City this year, whether it’s as a reliever or a starter.

Regardless, the Royals want Hernández to continue to build up early in camp to keep developing all his pitches -- the more he throws in a bullpen session or live batting practice, the more feel he can get with his curveball, slider and changeup. If the Royals need him to pull back to get ready for a bullpen role, that can happen later in Spring Training.

“People [say] he’s got a pretty nice four-pitch mix, but he’s got the kind of stuff that would probably translate into the bullpen,” Matheny said. “And to me, it isn’t an either/or situation. I’ve had a number of really good pitchers who had exceptional careers and started out as ‘pen pitchers because that’s where the opportunity was that eventually evolved into long starting careers. I never want to rule that out, especially for a young pitcher.

“There’s so much they can learn at the Major League level regardless of what their role is that you just cannot teach at other levels. But if the guys are willing to work, willing to understand, and then just come in and do their piece, there’s value they can bring. I would say Carlos Hernández fits in that conversation.”

Full squad arriving Monday
The rest of the Royals’ roster will join pitchers and catchers on Monday, when the full squad reports to Surprise, Ariz., for a week of workouts before games start on Feb. 28. Position players went through intake testing for COVID-19 on Saturday and were scheduled to get results back Sunday night to be ready for Monday’s arrival.

Matheny will meet with his whole team before workouts start for an opening message -- but stressed that he wouldn’t be meeting in a “big” group, following health and safety protocols. He’ll give his speech to two groups in the Major League and Minor League clubhouses to limit the number of people in one room. When the team heads onto the fields for the first full-squad workout, the players and coaches will physically distance when they can. The complex’s six fields help with that.

“It’s been challenging,” Matheny said. “Put together a schedule that really has people in space, and we’re really preaching, even when we’re talking to groups, space out and masks when possible.”