KANSAS CITY -- In the bullpen on Wednesday night in Arlington, Brad Keller did not have his curveball. The Royals starter was warming up before his start against the Rangers, and he couldn’t find a feel for his newest pitch.
But when Keller was on the mound, he committed to the pitch anyway. And he regained feel quickly: He struck out Josh Smith swinging on the hook in the bottom of the first and proceeded to get five whiffs -- four of which were strikeouts -- and seven called strikes on the pitch in 6 1/3 innings.
“I really need to throw the curveball,” Keller said. “It really helps my whole arsenal out, so even when it’s not there, just to show it. I think that’s one thing I kind of got discouraged in the past about. [If] I didn’t have it, just scrap it and go to something else. Talking with [pitching coaches Zach] Bove and [Brian] Sweeney, we’ve got to continue to throw it.”
This anecdote is one example of the differences in the Royals’ 2023 pitching staff. We heard about them throughout Spring Training, and I wrote about several: How Bove has embraced analytics, the reintroduction of Kris Bubic’s slider, the development of Keller’s curveball and the club’s “Raid The Zone” motto for filling up the strike zone.
Now two weeks into the season -- a small sample size, but 13 games that have mattered -- Royals pitchers have a 4.28 ERA (ranked 14th in baseball), and the rotation has a 3.47 ERA (sixth).
In 2022, the Royals ranked last in the American League in walks (589) and tied for last in walk rate (9.4%). They were second worst in baseball in strikeout percentage (19.1%) and last in first-pitch strikes (58%).
Entering Thursday, the Royals had a 22.4% strikeout rate and a 7.7% walk rate. The league’s strikeout rate was 22.7% and walk rate was 9.2%. The Royals’ first-pitch strike rate was 59.6%, and their starters ranked 10th entering the day at 62.9%.
Last year, the rotation finished last in that statistic at 59.1%.
The Royals are filling up the zone. They rank eighth in the Majors in zone percentage (42.8%). League average so far this year is 41.3%.
“It’s something we reinforce on a series-by-series basis,” Sweeney said. “To say, ‘Hey, this is where we’re at, this is what we’re talking about.’ Whether it’s first-pitch strikes or early and ahead, making something happen within the first three pitches. That’s really important, too. If you get ahead with the first-pitch strike, what’s happening in the next two pitches?
“Is there action? Are you throwing more strikes? That’s something we’ve been following as well, and zone rates and swing-and-miss.”
Thirteen games is hardly a large enough sample size. But it’s clear that this philosophy is making a difference.
“These guys have good stuff that plays in the strike zone,” Sweeney said. “I think it takes the experience of being out there in a stadium full of people, and when I say, ‘Fill up the zone,’ they’re saying, ‘Holy cow, that was kind of in the middle, but I got an out.’ Getting a few reps of that helps them trust it.”
So does seeing the data.
“It is statistically proven right there in front of us,” Keller said. “When they’re showing us that, reinforcing it, it gives us confidence we can continue to do it. … The mentality has definitely changed. We’re not trying to nitpick where to throw, we’re just going after the hitter.”
Catching is a big part of this conversation. In 2022, the Royals ranked among the worst in pitch framing metrics -- they were 27th last season in “stealing strikes,” or called strikes that were outside the strike zone. Entering Wednesday, they were tied for fourth in the Majors in this category. There has also been an emphasis in setting up in the middle of the plate early in the count, letting the pitch movement take over and increasing the pitcher’s margin for error in the strike zone.
“It kind of goes against conventional thinking,” Bubic said. “But what’s crazy is after you try it a few times at least, go through spring and just a little bit of the season embracing that philosophy, it’s kind of wild to realize, ‘OK, this actually does probably work more than I would have thought in the past.’”
Bubic remembers noticing opposing catchers doing this last year. Looking back, he understands why. Now, he’s trying not to worry about dotting the edges of the zone. He’s focused on attacking it.
“If your pitches have decent movement, that will take care of the fineness,” Bubic said. “Because it will find the edges of the zone. As opposed to setting up a ball off and getting the chase. You’re relying on a swing out of the zone, and a lot of the time, if you see someone set up too far, too aggressively, that ball is never going to be a strike to hitters.”
Royals pitchers are not only seeing a difference in the numbers. They’re feeling a difference on the mound.
“I feel like I have an edge back,” Bubic said. “What I had previously, coming through the Minor Leagues. It’s been up-and-down the last couple years in the big leagues. But I’m still just getting started and learning more about myself each outing.
“... What we are doing simplifies things. It allows us to be ourselves a little more. Trust ourselves a little more. It’s been fun.”
The 2003 Royals returned to the news cycle this past weekend because of their 9-0 start. Since then, no other Major League club had won its first nine games -- until the Rays this year. They won their ninth in a row to open the season on Sunday and are now 12-0.
On Twitter, I asked for some memories of that 2003 season. And man, did you guys come through.
The Royals had lost 100 games in 2002, and not much was expected for manager Tony Pena’s first season in 2003.
The Royals led the AL Central by seven games at the All-Star break and were in first place at the end of August. They settled for an 83-79 record and missed the playoffs. In 2004, they lost 104 games.
The 2003 season might not have been a sign of things to come for the Royals. But hey, they’ll always have donuts. (Starting in 2003, fans who were at a Royals home game could get a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts the following day if the Royals had 12 hits.)