DETROIT -- The Royals overhauled their pitching department last offseason by bringing in three new voices to the big league staff: Pitching coach Brian Sweeney, assistant pitching coach Zach Bove and bullpen coach Mitch Stetter. Paired with new people and philosophies at the Minor League level, the Royals are attempting to change the trajectory of their pitching development history across the entire system.
At the end of 2023, there is still a lot of work to be done.
“Longer than I expected,” Sweeney said when asked how much time it would take. “Adversity causes some men to break, others to break records. We had a lot of it this year. Not just the players, but the staff, too. It’s been difficult. You want to win. But these guys are learning.”
Sweeney’s No. 1 goal this year was to get the Royals to throw more strikes. Pre-All-Star break, the Royals had the 10th-worst walk rate in baseball at 9%. But they steadily got better each month. Post-All-Star break, they have an 8.2% walk rate, tied for 12th-best in the Majors.
The league average for the season is 8.6%.
“We want to be average or better in walk rate,” Sweeney said. “If we’re higher than that, we better be punching some tickets. We have a hard time doing that. How are we able to miss more bats? If we’re not able to strike guys out, how are we generating some weak contact?”
To Sweeney’s point, the Royals got slightly worse with their strikeouts this year. In the first half, they ranked fourth-worst in baseball with a 20.8% strikeout rate. In the second half, they’re fourth-worst with a 20.4% strikeout rate.
The league average is 22.7%.
Sweeney also hammered the idea of first-pitch strikes. Before the All-Star break, the staff had a 61.6% first-pitch-strike rate. Entering Wednesday, that rate was at 60.1%.
Just being in the zone is not enough, though. On plate appearances that ended on the first pitch, the Royals have allowed 49 homers -- tied for most in the Majors -- and a .382 average, which is the third-highest in baseball.
The strikes must be good, after all.
“We have to continue to evaluate those things,” Sweeney said. “We know throwing strikes is important. We’re always going to value that. But how do we continue to tweak each process to make it better? … I think situations during the game dictate what pitch you use and where you use it. We’ve got to pay attention to all the details because that’s where we’re going to win, on the margins.”
The Royals can feel good about their processes and individual wins entering next year, but adding pitching this offseason will be a major focus.
In fact, the new pitching process might help the front office target strikeout pitchers for next year with confidence that the staff can help fix control issues.
Sweeney and his team will also be coming off a full season with these pitchers with a full offseason to put plans in place for each player. That could help massively when it comes to what each player is working on this winter.
“We can’t let the learning opportunity pass us because we’re not going to get better if we do,” Sweeney said. “We have to hit it head on and say, ‘We sucked at this. How can we be better at it?’ This is where we’re at, so where do we want to go and how do we want to do it? …
“It’s important to take a little bit of time to reflect on what happened and say, ‘All right, what’s our vision for next year and where are we going?’ I’d like to create clarity for the guys on the pitching team so we can hit the ground running when spring starts.”