Who is Heath Fillmyer? And can he help this Royals rotation?

The dreams of an undefeated second half came to an abrupt end four games after the All-Star break (I know I’m kidding), as the Royals wasted a 3-0 lead in the seventh and 4-2 lead in the ninth to lose 5-4 to the Detroit Tigers at Kauffman Stadium Monday night. (This Reddit thread will let you know who fans feel is responsible for the loss.) However, there were a few bright spots in the loss: the Royals had 13 hits, a sign that their offense is coming around; Brian Goodwin, acquired in a trade with Washington over the weekend, was 2-for-2 in his Royals debut (albeit as a pinch hitter); and rookie Heath Fillmyer, making his second big league start, was superb, going 6 2/3 innings, with six strikeouts and only 3 hits and 1 ER allowed.

Fillmyer’s performance has been the second-most-talked-about story from yesterday’s loss (as Brandon Maurer and his 14.25 ERA, unfortunately, has usurped all the Royals fan comment headlines). And it’s easy to see why, especially when one checks out the highlights from his start.

There’s been no question that the Royals starting pitching has been an Achilles heel for the club this season. While Danny Duffy has started to turn a corner after a rough start, the Royals staff has struggled to not only stay healthy but also consistently effective as well this year. Ian Kennedy, Jakob Junis, Erik Skoglund, and Jason Hammel are all examples of starters who have flashed some solid starts but have either failed to string effective ones together or stay off the disabled list. So, to see Fillmyer, recently acquired this past Winter in a trade with the A’s, to demonstrate promise in only his second Major League start is definitely cause for excitement amongst Royals fans, especially as Dayton Moore, Ned Yost, and the Royals organization try to figure out who will be part of their rotation plans in the near future.


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Who is Fillmyer and what has he done so far as a pitcher?

As stated before, Fillmyer, who originally played shortstop in junior college his freshman year, came over in a deal this winter along Jesse Hahn from Oakland for Ryan Buchter, Brandon Moss, and $3.25 million in cash. The deal was a bit of a dump for the Royals, who wanted to shed Moss after a disappointing 2017 campaign in Kansas City. Hahn was expected to be the prize of the deal and would booster the Royals rotation, as Hahn experienced some success with the San Diego Padres and A’s rotations in the past.

Unfortunately, Hahn hasn’t done literally anything yet as a Royal, as he was shelved on the disabled list early in Spring Training due to UCL discomfort (he recently has just begun a rehab assignment in Surprise, Arizona, the Royals Training facility). Thus with Hahn not pitching until just recently, the spotlight from this trade has been squarely put on Fillmyer, the 18th rated prospect in the A’s system according to Baseball America going into 2018.

Royals Farm Report had a pretty good little scouting report on Fillmyer shortly after the trade, which can be found here. Here’s a couple of key bullet points that Patrick Brennan wrote up on Fillmyer in the piece:

“Fillmyer works with a pretty slow, straight-forward, over-the-top delivery. Doesn’t feature a lot of moving parts and it seems easy to repeat. The arm speed looks really good, allowing for a sneaky mid-90s fastball that holds some good sinking action. From what I’ve seen, he commands this pitch really well, having a good feel for both sides of the plate…

“I like the chances that he ends up as a 4/5 starter in the major leagues. If not, I think his sinker along with his plus-secondaries can probably play in the bullpen…

“The Royals landed themselves a pitcher that will already rank high among the other arms in the organization. As mentioned above, Fillmyer was ranked the #18 prospect in a deeper Oakland Athletics farm system, so if we had to pin an early ranking on him post-trade, he’d probably find himself in the 10-15 range.”

So far this year, the results have been a little mixed in Omaha. In 13 starts with the Storm Chasers this year, he posted a 5.75 ERA, 4.64 FIP, 0.67 HR/FB ratio, and a K/BB ratio of 1.68. Those really aren’t great numbers, especially for someone in Triple-A. That being said, one could contribute his inflated numbers to his first experience beyond Double-A (he’s 2.6 years younger than the average Triple-A player), and the hitter-friendly environments of the Pacific Coast League. This is further evidenced in the high BABIP (.342) and abnormally low strand rate (62.5 percent). With more time, it may have been possible that Fillmyer’s numbers would’ve evened out a bit, especially considering the outings he’s showed before, as evidenced by his six-inning performance against Memphis earlier this year in the video below:

At the Major League level, some numbers look a lot nicer: six games total, two starts, 22.1 IP, 2.50 ERA, 0.81 HR/FB ratio. However, the advanced numbers aren’t so generous: 4.50 FIP, 1.30 K/BB ratio, .246 BABIP. If Fillmyer could credit inflated numbers due to high BABIP and hitter-friendly conditions, then the inverse could be true of Fillmyer’s performance thus far in Kansas City. Of course, Fillmyer’s sample is so small that it’s really hard to make any credible judgment of him as a pitcher just yet. We’ll need 2-3 starts before we can really make a solid, practical analysis of Fillmyer’s performance and outlook as a pitcher at the Major League level.


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What can we say about Fillmyer going forward?

There’s a lot to like about Fillmyer’s performance last night. It wasn’t exactly the best lineup hitting behind him, or defense (the Royals had Hunter Dozier at 3rd instead of Mike Moustakas; Drew Butera behind the plate; and Salvador Perez playing first). And yet, Fillmyer didn’t need much help as he pretty much cruised until he allowed two runners on in the seventh (and then promptly witness the bullpen tear his win to shreds). In the Royals sweep over the Twins, we have seen Duffy, Junis, and Keller all pitch well this season at some point, so while their wins and strong performances were nice, they didn’t shock Royals fans at all (it’s just surprising that they all came at once). Fillmyer’s, on the other hand, came a bit unexpectedly, especially considering the Tigers had a more established starter going against him in Francisco Liriano.

Fillmyer’s next few starts will be interesting to track. In addition to Hahn, Skoglund has begun his own rehab, and Kennedy may come back to the rotation at some point when he recovers. But, as evidenced by tonight, Fillmyer deserves an extended shot in the rotation for the time being, even with those other options available in the near future. As we have seen before in Omaha, Fillmyer has been a bit up and down with his starts, and no question his BABIP will rise in future starts, which will undoubtedly damper the ERA a bit. The only question will be how much will it rise?

It’s hard to trust Fillmyer because he’s not really an “elite” prospect by any means (BA graded him a 45 with High Risk). The K numbers don’t wow you, and he gives up too many walks, based on his numbers in the minors and even with the Royals. But, he definitely showed some confidence and poise in Monday’s start, and his moxie to convince Yost to keep him in shows that the kid at the very least is a competitor (even though it didn’t work; he gave up a hit the next batter and Yost promptly too him out on the second visit). Maybe Fillmyer’s future will be in the bullpen eventually (I could see those K numbers improving in fewer innings), but for the remainder of this season, I would rather see the Royals take a chance on a young prospect than take another look at Kennedy or Hammel at this point in the season (and I think many Royals fans would agree with me on this).

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