KANSAS CITY -- As new Royals manager Matt Quatraro sat down to sign autographs for fans during Saturday’s Royals Rally event at Kauffman Stadium, he could sense excitement and passion about the 2023 season. Questions and opinions circulated through the line, but one topic stood out above the rest.
“Everyone wants to talk about the pitching,” Quatraro said. “I’ve been sitting next to [Royals pitching coach] Brian [Sweeney], so I just say, ‘That’s on him.’”
The pitching is a major topic for good reason. Nearly five years after the Royals went all-in on college pitching in the 2018 MLB Draft, several of those pitchers are now at the Major League level or close to it. Given some of the struggles, questions surround the Royals’ ability to develop their pitchers into reliable and effective Major Leaguers.
With Brady Singer as the exception, the Royals' pitching staff did not take a step forward in 2022 like many had wanted, ranking in the bottom five in baseball in team ERA (4.72), strikeouts-per-nine (7.57) and walks-per-nine (3.74).
“This will be an interesting year for us,” Royals chairman and CEO John Sherman said Saturday. “I think we have -- and this is just my opinion -- the young core of a lineup that has the potential to be the next championship-caliber team. We've got some work to do on the pitching side. You can see we’re accumulating pitching right now. 'Q' certainly knows that pitching is the key to us being successful. … There’s some new ideas about how to make sure we’re in the zone and reducing our walk rates.”
To be clear, the Royals aren’t giving up on their young pitching staff. The progression of Singer, Daniel Lynch, Jon Heasley, Kris Bubic and others -- along with the improvement of the young hitters -- will be crucial in whether the Royals’ rebuild ends or starts over. That’s why, this offseason, Kansas City made it a mission to surround those young pitchers with a team of resources to help development in 2023.
Quatraro was brought in as manager, Sweeney as pitching coach and Zach Bove as assistant pitching coach, a role designed to help with in-game strategy and analytics. And Mitch Stetter was promoted to bullpen coach.
All four have been praised for their innovative and progressive minds when it comes to pitching. How quickly that helps pitchers in 2023 remains to be seen.
The conversations so far this offseason, though, have been encouraging.
“The biggest thing I’m excited for is the background from all of them,” Singer said. “'Q' with the Rays, huge success there. Sweeney with the Guardians, obviously they have a really good young pitching staff. I think just a different change of techniques and ideas they have from different organizations is going to be really helpful. I think the analytical part is something that we haven’t implemented as well, and I think they’re going to bring some really good ideas.”
Singer mentioned his desire to improve with in-game strategy, using data to help him form a better plan as the game goes on and hitters adjust. How should Singer and his catcher attack a hitter after facing him twice before already? How can they make adjustments with mechanics from inning to inning to help results?
That will be Bove’s main responsibility -- his assistant pitching coach title also includes director of Major League strategy. Singer knows Bove from his college days at Florida, when Bove was the pitching coach for the College of Central Florida.
“He’s really good with all that stuff,” Singer said. “Knows a lot about the numbers, about pitch designs, pitch grips. His analytical side, with pitch spin and usage, plus Sweeney’s knowledge coming together is going to change a lot of things."
“I’ve talked to Sweeney and Bove about different things, different subjects,” Lynch said. “It’s cool to have two resources like that. Just sort of recognize that you have three guys now with all different strengths. … We’ve talked about pitch design and shaping. I came to them with an idea of what I wanted to do, because I really wanted to be on the same page.”
Sweeney earns praise from pitchers he’s worked with in the past for balancing each player’s needs well. He wants them to tell him how they want to develop, then he guides them along the way. The dialogue about analytics and data is different than what some pitchers have heard or thought about in the past.
That change is welcomed by players, who are always looking for ways to improve -- especially with how the past two seasons have gone.
“The actual conversations are different, talking more like pitches and pitch shape, a lot more analytically driven versus conversations I’ve had in the past,” Keller said. “I haven’t thought this way before in the past, and it’s really cool to see this view. I really like the change of scenery in a way.”