Daniel Lynch stood in front of his locker inside the Royals clubhouse late Monday, his frustration discernible with one quick head shake to the right and then one back to his left. Three weeks earlier, his production had represented a bright spot in a Royals rotation that has offered few of them.
By Monday, though, as he coupled body language with words of exasperation — “I just didn’t really give us a shot to win there,” he said — he was no longer the outlier to a scuffling rotation. He was now simply one more piece tucked into an alarming narrative.
The Royals’ pitching is historically bad this season, the worst in decades by one measure, but what causes greater concern is a different theme.
The absence of obvious improvement.
As the organization pins its future on young arms, this year’s initial 55 games should prompt questions about those pitchers’ major-league development — or whether they’re developing much at all under the current guidance here.
The ups-and-downs of pitching are present on every roster, and to be fair, there ought to be even more examples of the bumpy ride in a rotation comprised of three starters age 25 or younger. That’s not an excuse but a reality we must acknowledge first — a young rotation almost assures you will endure the valleys before the peaks.
But the Royals are too frequently enduring the valleys after the peaks. They’re actually startlingly consistent with that.
Take this, for starters. The Royals have called up seven pitchers from Triple-A Omaha at some point this season — Brady Singer, Kris Bubic and Jonathan Heasley in the rotation; and Matt Peacock, Ronald Bolanos, Dylan Coleman and Foster Griffin to throw out of the bullpen.
Put together, they’ve been quite good on the back end of a reset in Omaha. Collectively, in their first outing after a call-up to Kansas City, they have combined to allow just one run over 19 2/3 innings, which computes to a 0.46 ERA.
In their second outing after a call-up, those same pitchers have combined to allow seven runs in 18 1/3 innings, a 3.44 ERA.
OK, that will still play.
But alas, here comes the theme:
In their third outings and beyond, that same group has allowed 33 runs over 52 innings, a 5.71 ERA.
Whatever the excuse — whether it’s more video available on these pitchers, a small sample size or something else entirely — the consequence is we can factually say this: The longer the call-ups have stayed in Kansas City, the worse the production has grown. It’s not just one player inflating the statistics — all involved in the example have been worse after their initial outing. A perfectly imperfect score.
Add to that, the lone two mainstays in this year’s rotation have followed similar trajectories, without the trip to and from Omaha. Lynch had a 3.30 ERA after six starts, and then an 8.68 ERA over the next four. Brad Keller was at 1.74 through five starts, certainly not a sustainable number, but it has ballooned all the way to 6.31 over the ensuing six.
Even accounting for the fickle nature of the sport itself, it doesn’t compute to a glowing endorsement of pitching coach Cal Eldred, who was cordial in a conversation this week about the staff’s struggles.
“These are not the results I want — I guarantee you that,” Eldred said. “It’s not the results they want. It’s not the results their teammates want or our management and ownership or especially the fans.
“I think you pay attention to (the fact) there’s a lot of young arms here. You’ve already seen a number of them take a step back so they can take two steps forward. Kris Bubic has done that — still in the middle of it. Carlos Hernandez has done it. Brady Singer has done it.”
It’s true, but in most, if not all, cases, we’ve seen the one step back and are still waiting on the two steps forward.
Lynch is certainly inexperienced enough to endure some clunkers, even a few of them stacked together. Singer, too. Bubic. Heasley. Many of them.
But the broader picture would all be easier to digest if there were a slew of signs that they’re moving in the right direction. We’re not asking for 25-year-old aces. The request is sustained improvement within a core that will ideally comprise a future competitive rotation. Singer has developed a change-up, though it required a trip to Omaha to find confidence with it, and he’s allowed 13 runs in 15 2/3 innings over his past three starts. It would be nice of those kinds of enhancements were more regular occurrences in Kansas City.
The Royals have the worst ERA- since 1954, a statistic that accounts for the ballpark and your peers’ numbers across the league. The Royals’ ERA- is 34% higher than league average. Only one team in a century has been worse — the 1954 Philadelphia Athletics. With the Athletics, for what it’s worth, that prompted a staff overhaul.
The Royals own the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio of any team in baseball since 2010. They are dead last in the American League this season in both walks and pitches per inning, both particularly disappointing since those were points of emphasis during spring training for Eldred’s pitching staff.
“That was the main goal,” Royals manager Mike Matheny said of working ahead in the count and eliminating walks. “How are we doing? Not as well as we’d like.”
In a stretch of 18 games that wrapped from May into June, the Royals allowed six-plus runs in 14 of the 18. The staff basically turned to a below-average offense and said, “hey, we’re going to need you guys to carry us tonight.”
A young rotation provides an excuse for the struggles. But it also gives the Royals room to show real signs of improvement, because improvement is all relative — and the upgrades should come as the experience does. They’re gaining experience. The results are headed in the opposite direction.
All compiled together, the statistics and trends provide a conclusion that the current setup is not producing. A team with this major-league resume must recognize and identify a kink in a chain that includes Eldred and a multitude of other voices, and that kink appears to be here in Kansas City.
The Royals have offered patience with Eldred because of the youth. That’s fair in theory — but only if progress follows that patience.
And the Royals had a 4.34 ERA in April and then a 5.62 ERA in May. If you’d like to point out that warmer weather that prompts better offense, fine, but even in comparison to their peers, the Royals have grown worse. That April ERA ranked 24th in baseball, while the May mark ranked 30th of 30. And guess what? A little more than a week into June, the Royals have a 5.94 ERA.
Regression, we meet again.
Look, the Royals were not aided by the lost year of meaningful minor-league games in 2020, nor did they benefit from not being permitted to remain in contact with their players during a lockout. It’s a dilemma all teams faced, and, sure, it affects the inexperienced players a bit more.
Singer had 39 career starts before the year; Bubic had 30, Lynch 15 and Carlos Hernandez 14.
All four are 24-25 years old. They need more guidance than, say, Zack Greinke.
And that has to be the crux of the question inside Kauffman Stadium. Who do they want leading their young but talented arms? It’s the question that will guide the organization’s future. It’s a question the Royals must answer accurately. Small-market teams don’t get do-overs.
It’s actually the question that initially landed with Eldred. They envisioned pairing him with the 2018 MLB Draft class upon their arrival and their development beforehand. The Royals still believe Eldred is good at building relationships with younger pitchers. They also thought his own career arc — which included a bit of early success, followed by struggles, concluding with finding his way again — would be relatable to a group almost certain to encounter some adversity.
Well, they were right that the adversity has arrived.
We’re still waiting on the other side of it.