Pitching is the currency of baseball. How many times have we heard that or some similar variation from Dayton Moore and his staff since he became the general manager? Don’t answer that. If you’ve kept count, I’m concerned for you. From 2013 to 2015, the Royals ranked first, fourth and third, in that order, in earned run average in the American League. It’s no coincidence then that they’ve won more games than any other team in the American League in that time.
In those three years, they’ve had six seasons of 200+ innings from various starters and nine seasons of a better than average ERA+ (in seasons with 25 or more starts). Among those with 200 or more innings in a season, none were developed by the Royals. Among those with a better than average ERA+, three of those seasons belonged to pitchers developed by the Royals. In the last three seasons, through this run of unprecedented success in Kansas City, the Royals have gotten 117 starts from pitchers they developed. That’s 117 starts out of a possible 486. If you were wondering, that’s 24 percent.
To put some context to that, let’s take a look at the rest of the American League Central. The White Sox have gotten 178 starts from pitchers drafted (or signed internationally) and developed by them. That’s 36.6 percent. The Tigers got 179 starts from their own, or 36.8 percent. The Indians got 124 starts, which is 25.5 percent. And finally, the Twins got 112 starts from homegrown talent, which is just 23 percent.
Clearly what the Royals are doing as a whole isn’t bad. It’s actually quite good. They won the World Series, so obviously they’ve figured something out to make them pretty darn successful at this whole baseball thing. But that doesn’t mean they’re a perfect organization.
And, of course, what is listed above is open to criticism. In the interest of both time and space (no continuum here, though), I chose not to devise a system to determine what amount of time a player needs to spend in an organization to be developed by them. For example, is Zach McCallister really an Indians product even though he was drafted by the Yankees? You could make that argument, but it wasn’t worth it for these purposes. My point is that the Royals have to rely heavily on outside sources for their starting pitching because they simply haven’t been able to develop any.
We saw the issues with that this offseason when they signed Ian Kennedy to a five-year deal worth $70 million. That’s a lot of money to pay a guy who hasn’t really been all that great for most of his career. Why did they do it? They need pitchers. And why did they need pitchers? Because they haven’t been able to develop them at a high enough level to not need to go get guys like Ian Kennedy.
The latest issue with starting pitching in the Royals system is reflected in prospect Kyle Zimmer. While Zimmer remains likely the best pitcher in the organization from a “stuff” standpoint, health has always been elusive. He came to spring training this year looking like he was ready to shed those issues, but here is, staying in Arizona because of arm fatigue. It’s just one thing after another. The organization says it’s a day-to-day situation, but we’ve heard that all before with Zimmer.
And it’s not just him. Miguel Almonte was a promising starting prospect who now looks more like a reliever. Christian Binford was cruising through the system but struggled mightily in Triple-A. Others in the past have flamed out for various reasons. Some like Mike Montgomery and John Lamb may yet have productive careers, but nothing close to the levels that were at one time thought possible. Some of that is due to overhyping of prospects, sure, but some of that is due to them simply not developing.
It should be made clear as well that many of the Royals issues in these situations is not their fault at all. Many of the prospects who have not been successful to this point are an issue of circumstance such as illness or injuries. And yes, it is on the organization to work to minimize the risk of injury, but sometimes that just isn’t possible.
I don’t mean that in the typical sense that every pitcher is likely to get hurt because I believe proper training can at least mitigate that risk somewhat. What I mean is that the Royals can only do what the Royals do. They can’t control what a high school or college coach did, and they can’t control (though they’d like to) what players do outside of their time with coaches and trainers inside the organization.
All this isn’t to say that the Royals aren’t capable of developing pitching. That’s not the case at all. They have a group of very good pitchers on their staff, many of whom were developed by them. It’s just starting pitching that they struggle with, and appear to be continuing to struggle with, even as they’ve transformed themselves into a championship organization.
I don’t write this to spell out doom and gloom for the Royals once their core begins to depart either through trade or by free agency. I write this to point out one of the few flaws this organization has. I actually think that, if anything, this flaw makes it all the more impressive in what the Royals have been able to do from the lower levels all the way to the big leagues. They recognize both the inherent difficulty in developing starting pitching and that it may be a weak spot for them and work to develop other players who can make that weak spot less and less important.
I also know that the Royals have revamped their minor league pitching program. No longer is it in the hands of someone who has the claim to fame of helping Roger Clemens develop (how much help do you think he really needed?), but rather there is an organizational pitching philosophy that has grown and developed over the last few years.
They’re doing something right as quality pitchers are churning through the system. It would just be nice if a couple of those developed as innings 1-7 guys rather than eighth inning guys. If something can come of the crop of young pitchers in Double-A and below, it might help them find that extra change in the couch cushions to put toward keeping more of their core together. And if they can’t, hopefully they can continue to just develop enough relievers and elite defenders to make us hardly notice their issues.