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‘A Night-and-Day Difference’: How the Royals Revamped Their MiLB Pitching

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By: Anne Rogers, Kansas City Royals

 

(mlb.com/royals) – Paul Gibson was in the car on a hot July day last year, making the 3 1/2-hour trek from Springdale, Ark., where the Royals’ Double-A team plays, to Kansas City. The Royals’ senior pitching director was deep in thought.

Things were going sideways on the farm, specifically in Double-A, where the Royals had a host of top pitching prospects. Alec Marsh, Jonathan Bowlan and Anthony Veneziano were struggling. Will Klein and Christian Chamberlain couldn’t get right after their early-season injuries, and Asa Lacy couldn’t shake the injury bug — he still hasn’t.

On the road that day, Gibson was trying to figure out how to get the Royals’ pitching development on track.

“We needed to make some adjustments,” Gibson said. “And it wasn’t just in Double-A, it was all over.”

The Royals struggled last season throughout the entire system. Key pitchers did not take steps forward. Players were frustrated, and officials searched for answers.

As a small-market team trying to win at the Major League level, the Royals must have a unique blend of homegrown talent and acquisitions to supplement the core. But even beyond this seven-year (and counting) rebuild, there are deep-rooted problems in pitching development. Kansas City has not drafted and developed a 10-WAR pitcher since it selected Danny Duffy in 2007. In the 2018 Draft, the Royals went heavy on college pitchers, taking four — Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch and Kris Bubic — in the top 40 picks to fast-track their rebuild. All four have debuted in the Majors, along with Austin Cox and Jonathan Heasley from that Draft, a milestone for the organization.

But it hasn’t been easy. Those six pitchers have a combined 6.8 wins above replacement, per Baseball Reference. That’s 3.6 WAR less than Zack Greinke’s Cy Young Award-winning season for the Royals in 2009.

Kansas City has work to do to identify and develop the right players to help it win at the Major League level.

“It’s not a quick fix,” chairman and CEO John Sherman said. “We’ve always said that pitching is the key to this. Making sure we’re evaluating, acquiring and developing pitching talent certainly is a priority.”

Gibson, an eight-year MLB veteran turned respected pitching coach, recognizes how important steering this ship is; behind the wheel last season, he knew change needed to happen.

It’s a slow process and sometimes a frustrating one. But this year, in the Minor Leagues, there have been signs of progress.

At the All-Star break, five Royals pitchers ranked in the top 100 of all Minor League pitchers (minimum 30 innings) in strikeout percentage and strikeout-to-walk percentage; six rank in the top 100 in swinging-strike percentage. In 2022, Kansas City had just one pitcher — Noah Cameron — rank in the top 100 (minimum 60 innings) in strikeout percentage and strikeout-to-walk percentage. The Royals have seen improvements across the board in what they call key performance indicators — ERA, WHIP, hard-hit percentage, first-pitch strike percentage and more.

“It’s been remarkable,” Gibson said. “The numbers are encouraging. On the individual front, I can’t even begin to count how many guys are in a better space than they were last year. Some of that is injury. Some of that, I go back to preparation, routines and communication.”

The turnaround started with Gibson and a 25-year-old former-pitcher-turned-coach, who helped spearhead highly specific plans for each individual pitcher, built around personalized pitch selection, grips, delivery and location. The Royals paired that with workout regimens and warmup routines designed to bring those skills onto the mound.

The work isn’t done, but in reviewing the processes, the Royals are optimistic about where their development is going.

Detailed plans drive offseason
In early March, under the sunny-yet-windy skies in Surprise, Ariz., Royals Minor Leaguers convened for the start of Spring Training. Excitement filled the air like every spring, but something about the vibe was different.

Jay-Z bumped from a big speaker behind the eight-pitcher bullpen mound, an area that is typically quiet as pitchers begin to throw. Players laughed and talked as they warmed up. In the middle of it all was Justin Friedman, the Royals’ assistant director of pitching performance/strategist. At 25 years old, Friedman looks like a player until you notice that day’s pitching schedule sticking out from his back pocket and a bag of baseballs in one hand, ready to help the next player who needs it.

Part of Gibson’s reflection last season had him thinking about the pitching development staff. Especially Friedman, who had been hired in 2022 to join the Triple-A staff in Gibson’s push to bring new ideas and perspectives to the organization. There, Friedman connected with players right away.

“He’s one of the smartest people I’ve met,” Cox said during the spring. “He definitely has a really good understanding of the analytics, the way the body moves and how it all connects. … He was all on board with integrating it together with actual pitching.”

After being released by the White Sox in 2020, Friedman retired from pitching. He took a job at Rockland Peak Performance — a training facility for high school, college and professional players in New Jersey — overseeing throwing programs and helping with pitching analysis.

He has always had an eye for the anatomical and analytical side of pitching. As a coach, he enjoys getting the best out of players using those guardrails.

“Even in my own experience, it’s such a small window of opportunity,” Friedman said. “Getting to the best version of you as fast as possible and as efficiently as possible is paramount.”

As Gibson observed the way Friedman thought and coached, he realized Friedman could be valuable at a larger scale.

“He needed to get at our grassroots and help us build this out,” Gibson said.

Friedman headed to Arizona, where he and then-manager of pitching performance Mitch Stetter — now Kansas City’s bullpen coach — worked countless hours with several departments to build individualized player plans for the offseason. These included a pitcher’s delivery, movement, arsenal, grips, splits, locations — the Royals looked at it all, and together with the player, they created a detailed plan for the offseason.

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