The Kansas City Royals and Their Problems Developing Starting Pitching

 

Sep 17, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Yordano Ventura (30) delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Cleveland Indians at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

To paraphrase the mid 1980′s band Timbuk3, the future for the Kansas City Royals pitching staff is thought to be so bright that one needs to wear shades. However, unlike the band’s ironic usage of the term in their song about nuclear holocaust, the Royals are expected to have a bright future with their starting rotation. Yordano Ventura is thought of as a potential second starter, and is expected to be a part of the Royals rotation by the end of this year. Kyle Zimmer is expected to develop into a future staff ace, and may make his debut as soon as September of this year.

Both pitchers have been invited to the major league side for Spring Training, although it is unlikely that either breaks camp with the team. Yes, that experience may help prepare both pitchers as they get ready for the moment when they receive the call that they will be heading up to Kansas City, hopefully to stay and remain as top options in the starting rotation. Along with Danny Duffy, Zimmer and Ventura are expected to be the Big Three that will take the Royals through the rest of this decade.

The Royals have been here before. John Lamb, Mike Montgomery, Duffy, Tim Melville and Sam Runion, to name a few, were all expected to be key parts of the Royals pitching staff at one time or another. With the exception of Duffy, none of those pitchers have reached the major leagues yet. In fact, of all the pitchers that the Royals have drafted under the regime of Dayton Moore, only Aaron Crow and Greg Holland have really made an impact upon the Royals roster.

Is it simply bad luck due to injuries? Duffy and Lamb both had Tommy John surgery, with Lamb struggling to come close to resembling the top pitching prospect that he once was. Even Noel Arguelles had injury issues, which may have led to his minor league struggles and being subsequently released. Or are the difficulties that the Kansas City Royals have in developing pitching prospects just simply a byproduct of their scouting and player development?

Looking at Dayton Moore’s time with the Atlanta Braves, where he was involved in the scouting and player personnel development departments, there is actually a similar pattern. Since the Braves of that era had Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, their inability to develop starting pitching was overlooked. The best pitchers to come out of that era for the Braves, Adam Wainwright and Matt Harrison, were traded away before they reached Atlanta.

That same sort of scenario may be playing out once again. Jake Odorizzi had been a solid pitching prospect when he was acquired as part of the Zack Greinke trade, but had lost some of that luster before being traded to the Tampa Bay Rays. With the Rays, Odorizzi had greater success during his time in the majors, and may be back to being thought of as a middle of the rotation type of pitcher. Mike Montgomery was inconsistent last season for the Rays during his stops in Charlotte and Durham, but he appeared to be getting closer to the form that made him a highly touted prospect.

Granted, the Rays have had plenty of success with their pitching reclamation projects. They have also been able to develop young pitchers with a high level of success. Seemingly every year, there are another two or three young starters ready to fill the roles vacated by high priced veterans. The biggest keys to that success may be how the Rays teach their pitchers how to throw a viable changeup and get ahead of the batter. Change speeds and throw strikes. Is it really that simple?

It very well may be. The Rays have certainly been able to get results with their organizational plan for developing pitchers, while Moore and the Royals have a less than stellar track record. Yet, it is important to note that not all of these failures are directly due to Dayton Moore and his inability to scout talent. Since he was hired, the Royals have typically been considered to have had some of the better drafts each season, and the farm system has gone from an arid wasteland devoid of life (or northern New Jersey) to consistently ranking among the best in baseball. It would seem that, eventually, one or two of these prospects would pan out.

The Belgian artist Rene Magritte once said “The mind loves the unknown. It loves images whose meaning is unknown, since the meaning of the mind itself is unknown.” The same can be said of prospects. When a franchise has been as downtrodden as the Royals had been, there is a natural gravitation to those prospects, since they could be the saviors of the franchise. Yet, with the Royals, few of those prospects have actually panned out, and the success rate for those starters that were supposed to lead the franchise back to glory is minimal at best.

Once again, the Kansas City Royals are considered to have a bright future for their rotation, headlined by two starters that are considered to be destined to be top of the rotation arms. It may well be possible that Yordano Ventura and Kyle Zimmer pan out and become the pitchers they are anticipated to be. There is still time for Danny Duffy to develop into the solid starting pitcher that he showed flashes of before his injury problems. The Royals unenviable streak of being unable to get their top pitching prospects to perform to expectations may well be coming to an end soon.

Until that time, there are going to be questions about how Dayton Moore and the Kansas City Royals develop their pitchers. Yet, all of those questions could go away if Ventura and Zimmer have the success that they are expected to have.

Topics: Danny Duffy, Dayton Moore, Kansas City Royals, Kyle Zimmer, Yordano Ventura

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  • jimfetterolf

    The change for the Royals came when Trevor Bauer informed them that he wouldn’t sign if they tried to change his training. Later on Kyle Zimmer told them the same thing. Luke Hochevar and Mike Montgomery should have told them that and avoided the waste of top tier talent. Email Mike Engle and Kevin Scobee and ask them about this, they, along with Greg Schaum at Pine Tar, informed me on the subject.

    • Dave Hill

      Thanks for the tip Jim. It was fascinating seeing the parallels between the Braves and Royals during Moore’s tenure at both stops, but there really was not a lot of information as to what exactly the Royals had/have as a philosophy when it comes to developing pitchers. Hopefully, that will make all the difference and Ventura and Zimmer can become the pitchers we, and the Royals, hope they can be. It would be great to see a home grown ace fronting the rotation and bringing the Royals back to the playoffs.

      • jimfetterolf

        Me and “more trouble” have been arguing about this for a long time, but some teams; Oakland, San Francisco, and Texas come to mind, embraced long-toss and program training early and reaped the results while many other teams took young prospects who enhanced their abilities through program training, Luke Hochevar an obvious one, Mike Montgomery even more tragic, and limited their training thereby weakening them. The competitive response to that is to continue trying to throw 98mph, but that compromises mechanics and command and in the case of those two pitchers, shoulder injuries resulted and they have yet to reach potential. On the other hand is Tim Lincecum, a possible comp for Yordano Ventura, drafted by an organization that embraced program training early.

        • Dave Hill

          I wonder if it really just boils down to allowing pitchers to have somewhat individualized training programs as a part of their regular training. While that would cause additional work for the coaches and training staff, the potential benefits could outweigh those issues.

          • jimfetterolf

            Greg refers to the old way as a “cookie cutter” approach, everybody on the same program and maximum throwing distances limited to the 120′ rehab distance rather than the 250-350 that a lot of kids grew up on. Have read several prospects claiming to routinely throw foul pole to foul pole in training, but that’s 450′ and I kind of doubt that one. Not sure Frenchy can throw that far.

            There is a lot of info out there and several “professional” programs where all they do is max out velocity on young arms in a commandable manner. Jaeger is one off the top of my head, but a quick search of “long-toss training” will get some background. “Greg Schaum, long-toss” should get you to a piece he wrote a few years back. There’s another one on Zimmer’s training when he converted to a pitcher at USF. Sports Illustrated did one on young power arms and how they became that a few years back. Have seen pieces on Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole. I have too much free time :)

          • Dave Hill

            It’s definitely appreciated Jim. It didn’t occur to me to search for long toss training programs – I put my research into Moore’s history and trying to find out what the Royals and Rays pitching development philosophies were to compare and contrast them. It was actually very easy to find information on the Rays program, especially compared to learning about the Royals.

            In regards to Bauer, I actually think his long toss program is part of why he has the control issues he does. It’s great that he can hit a trash barrel from 300 feet away, but when I saw him pitch last season, it seemed like he was overthrowing the ball.

            If you ever want to write up a guest post for KoK, let me know. You are a fount of information, and your comments have given me several post ideas over the past few months.

  • moretrouble

    For posters to say that a kid in the draft named Trevor Bauer completely changed Kansas City’s philosophy about pitching development is ridiculous. Who is Trevor Bauer? A kid who has pitched all of 33.1 innings at the MLB level with this lack of success: Cumulative ERA: 5.67; WHIP: 1.740. He’s a kid the Arizona Diamondbacks got rid of, determining him to be uncoachable. He’s now on the Indians and might — and I stress might — have a shot at a rotation spot, but only because the Indians rotation is full of holes.

    The author left out a lot of names of KC pitchers who have flourished in KC’s system: Besides Duffy, Ventura, Crow and Holland, how about Greinke, Herrera, Collins, Will Smith, Luis Coleman, etc. How about the reclamation projects: Jonathan Broxton and Jeremy Guthrie. And, how many of those names have had better success in the MLB than Trevor Bauer? All of them.

    To say someone has secret knowledge of the KC Royals is to say they’ve talked to someone with an axe to grind. Here are the facts: The KC organization is no different than any other MLB team. Everyone in the MLB works for everyone else. It’s an old boys network. There is such a cross pollinization of personnel and ideas that every MLB team teaches the same thing. Fans should realize this: There is no super-secret knowledge that exists in a particular organization that doesn’t exist elsewhere. KC has done a fine job acquiring, developing and managing pitching talent. Anyone who thinks different ought to look at the pitching stats from last season.

    • jimfetterolf

      Hochevar and Crow are major disappointments for 1st rounders, and seemingly every top prospect has gone under the knife. Greinke is the only successful starter and it took him a few over four years to get to get more useful than an Ervin Santana. A pattern starts to emerge. I would add that Collins came through the Atlanta organization, Will Smith from the Angels. Jake Odorizzi was a top prospect with Milwaukee, a potential #5 starter for the Royals, and is once again a highly regarded prospect with Tampa.

      I would also add that it’s not just Bauer, it has become quite a fad for top pitching draft choices. Kyle Zimmer is another one just with the Royals. What makes Bauer interesting is that he’s such a theorist on the subject.

  • Tman

    There is more than one way to create a rotation. The job has been tougher for the Royals than it should have been. A way was found in 2013 at an unsustainable high cost. In that year the Royals starters ranked 12th (out of 30) in Starter ERA for all of MLB. That is just above average. Teams that have ranked 12th or better over the last 5 years are the Dodgers, Braves, and Cardinals. They are all in the NL, which probably helps ERA due to lack of a DH. Pacing the AL group is the A’s and Rays with 4 appearances in the top 12.

    Comparing the A’s to the Rays is a perfect illustration of contrasting styles. The Ray’s draft and produce starters while the A’s are dominated by non-drafted acquisitions. In 2013 the A’s had good performances by A.J. Griffin (drafted 2010) and Dan Straily (2009). The 2012 team did not have any successful starters that was drafted (A.J. Griffin only had 82 innings so I didn’t include him.) The 2011 team had Trevor Cahill (2006). The 2010 team had Dallas Braden (2004) and Cahill (2006). All together, 4 pitchers had successful seasons that the A’s drafted in 5 years. Only 1, Cahill had more the one year of success.

    The Rays have had a ton of success drafting and developing. 2013 had Matt Moore (2007), David Price (2007), and Alex Cobb (2006). 2012 had James Shields (2000), Jeremy Hellickson (2005), Matt Moore (2007), David Price (2007). In 2011 it was James Shields (2000), Jeremy Hellickson (2005), David Price (2007) and Jeff Niemann (2004). In 2010 James Shields (2000) and David Price (2007) performed successfully. In 2009 only Jeff Niemann (2004) was successful. I think I counted 6 starters having success. Most having more than one successful year.

    The question is, what do these two teams have in common that go about their business so differently. I submit to you, it’s consistency of the organization.

    Here’s why:

    The A’s legendary Billy Beane has been with the organization since 1990 and GM since 1997. We know his story. Curt Young probably needs to get a ton a credit. He has been the A’s pitching coach since 2004. He did have a 1 year detour with the Red Sox in 2011 but came back in 2012. The A’s have had 3 different managers over Young’s stay so there isn’t much credit to share that way.

    The year that changed everything for the Rays organization is 2005. New owner Stuart Sternberg replaced GM Vince Naimoli, who was known for being cheap, with the Director of Player Development Andrew Friedman. Manager Joe Maddon was hired in 2005 while Pitching Coach Jim Hickey came along in 2006. Once these guys started taking over, they invested heavily in player development. They inherited infrastructure and provided financial commitment that was lacking.

    Those two organizations are exceptional at identifying starters that can produce, regardless of how they are obtained. So what does an average American League organization look like? The most consistent ranking between 12th and 20th for starting pitcher ERA belongs to the Yankees with 4 out of 5 years. The lone year they didn’t finish in the middle of the pack is 2010, ranking 22nd. They have consistency, too. Brian Cashman has been the GM since 1998. Joe Girardi has been the manager since 2008. The best ranking the starting staff had was 13th in 2009. That is also the last time they won a World Series. In 2013 the Yankees had Pettitte (1990) and Ivan Nova (2004) representing draftees pitching successfully. In 2012 they didn’t have a successful starter they drafted. Hughes was iffy with an ERA over 4.00 and Pettitte was hurt much of the year. In 2011 Ivan Nova (2004) was the lone successful drafted starter. In 2010 Pettitte (1990) is the only one. In 2009 they had Chamberlain (2006) and Pettitte (1990) pitching successfully. In all, there are 3 pitchers the Yankees drafted and got successful seasons from.

    Obviously, this puts the Royals in a terrible light. Even the Yankees drafted, developed and got a year out of Chamberlain since Dayton Moore was hired. A little good news is Dave Eiland coached him in 2009.

    How does this relate to the Royals? Again, it’s consistency. The newest management of the organizations described above is the Rays. In that time the Royals have gone through 2 GM’s, 3 managers, and 2 pitching coaches. The only consistent thing the Royals have had is the ownership.

    Since the Rays are the newest, let’s compare their executives to Royals. As I said above, in 2005 the Rays replaced the GM, Manager, Pitching Coach, and they also hired Matt Silverman as President (who doesn’t appear to be related to the owner). They found a permanent Scouting Director in RJ Harrison a year later. They do not have a CEO.

    When Dayton Moore was hired he replaced, well, nobody. He supposedly “chose” to keep Manager Buddy Bell, Pitching Coach Bob McCLure, and Scouting Director Deric Ladnier. He couldn’t do anything about the CEO and President.

    We can discuss Dayton Moore and his inadequacies all day long. He has plenty. However it’s hard for me to blame only him. It’s hard for me to blame mostly him. Especially when he inherited a terrible organization that ownership obviously did not want to change.

    He currently has a staff that he appears to genuinely like. The staff is made up of Manager Ned Yost, Pitching Coach Dave Eiland (who has worked for Yankees and Rays), Director of Scouting Lonnie Goldberg and Asst GM JJ Picollo. They have been together fully formed since 2010. That is change that should have happened 4 years before that.

    What do all these seemingly related words tell us. It’s been a tougher job putting together a pitching staff with the extra obstacles than it should have been. However, Dayton Moore’s staff has been together for about 3 years now. I would normally say it takes 3 to 5 years to start seeing good results. Even I, a Dayton Moore supporter, will be wondering how much longer this will take if we do not see success from a developed starter by the middle of 2015. If a drafted and developed starter does not break out, I hope for Dayton and my sake he finds other reasonable options.