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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Can Danny Duffy Not Pitch at Kauffman? (A look at Duffy’s 1st Half)

In many ways, as a Royals fan, I feel like I have been hard on starting pitcher Danny Duffy this season. Maybe it was the shellacking he received on Opening Day against the White Sox that has stuck with me for these first few months of baseball. Or maybe it’s the fact that Duffy hasn’t turned into the “savior” ace that we hoped he would be ever since he was drafted in the third round by the Royals in 2007. (Tall, big, hard-throwing lefties can generate that kind of fervor; remember, the Natural?) For whatever reason, Duffy’s reputation as a Royals starting pitcher seems to be more synonymous with words such as “inconsistent” and “frustrating” rather than “successful” or “star”.

But we need to give Duffy some credit: he has been the Royals’ best pitcher this year in the first half. Period. No doubt about it.

Jason Hammel and Ian Kennedy seem to be on their way out of Kansas City, as Hammel has been regulated to the bullpen, and Kennedy can’t seem to stay off the disabled list. (It will be interesting to see what the Royals do with Kennedy; while Hammel will be a free agent after this year, Kennedy still has two years and nearly $33 million owed to him left on his deal). Jake Junis, who looked like the Royals’ lone bright spot in the rotation at the start, has fallen off a cliff, as he has developed a propensity for giving up the long ball the last couple of months before he too found himself on the DL. And youngsters Erik Skoglund and Trevor Oaks didn’t offer too impressive outings either before they eventually made their way off the Royals’ active rosters (Skoglund to the 60-day DL and Oaks being optioned back to Omaha). For the most part in 2018, the Royals’ rotation has been a revolving door of mediocrity and lacklusterness.

(I could go into more starting pitchers, like Brad Keller and Nathan Karns, but what’s the point? A whole lot of “cups of coffee” and spot starts that won’t have much impact on the rotation going forward, so I figured not to waste the word count.)

Duffy, on the other hand, has been the closest to “dependable” of the Royals’ starting pitchers this year, even though the stats may not look like it at first.

For the year, Duffy’s peripheral numbers don’t look great. In 20 starts and a 113.2 IP thus far, he’s 5-8 with a 4.59 ERA, 4.98 FIP, a K-BB ratio of 1.94, a HR/FB rate of 12.7 percent, and a GB/FB rate of 0.77. For those who don’t know what those numbers mean, I can break it down into bullet points:

  • His FIP is higher than his ERA, meaning that he’s been worse or luckier than his ERA suggests, though not overwhelmingly so. His BABIP (.290) and strand rate (76.5 percent), are pretty league average, hence demonstrating not much of a difference between ERA and FIP.
  • The K-BB ratio is below league average, as typically average is 2. It usually means that he struggled with command, as Ron Shandler of Baseball HQ typically quantifies K-BB ratio as a sign of command.
  • He’s giving up the long ball a decent amount, though batter typically hit more fly balls off of him than groundballs (as evidenced by the GB/FB ratio being under 1). Granted, Duffy is the kind of pitcher who will induce more fly balls than ground balls due to his repertoire (fastball-heavy pitchers will do so; while sinker, less fastball-reliant pitchers will induce more groundballs, but have fewer strikeouts). But he is giving up the long ball more in comparison to last year, where his HR/FB rate was only 7.6 percent in 2017.

So, Duffy has been okay, serviceable, which is probably good enough considering the Royals’ starting pitching woes this year. But there has been an interesting pattern and trend to Duffy’s starts this year:

Duffy has been pretty good on the road, and horrendous at Kauffman Stadium.

On the road, Duffy has shown reasons why the Royals’ gave him a five-year $65-million extension in 2017. In 13 starts and 76.1 IP, Duffy has a 5-4 record, a 3.54 ERA, a 1.38 WHIP and hitters only hitting .238 against him. His advanced numbers are even more impressive, as his K/9 is over 1 better on the road than at home (8.49 to 7.47 at home), his K-BB ratio is better (2.06 to 1.72), he is posting a better FIP (4.58 to 5.79) and he is inducing more groundballs (37.1 to 28.3 percent) and less hard hit balls as well (36.5 to 41.3 percent).

In Kauffman, Duffy has looked like a pitcher at a home run derby. In other stadiums, however, Duffy has been a lot more effective and consistent, worthy of a top spot in the rotation in a Major League rotation (though he isn’t a lockdown ace by any means; even his road numbers, such as the WHIP, could use some improvement).

I mean, Duffy has an ERA of 6.75, a WHIP of 1.63, a 0-4 record, and an HR/FB ratio of 1.93 in supposedly a “pitcher’s park” in Kauffman stadium. Should Duffy just not pitch anymore in Kansas City? Is he unable to handle the pressure of being the ace in front of the hometown fans?

While I think his starts at Kauffman are startling, it may be too early to make any conclusions. On the other hand, though, there are a couple of statistical trends that point to Duffy making an improvement, and that he can carry that development to not just his starts on the road for the rest of the year, but also in Kauffman Stadium as well.

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Duffy has a 0-4 record and 6.75 ERA in 7 starts at Kauffman this season.

Duffy hasn’t pitched a lot at home, and when he has, it’s been against REALLY GOOD competition

The sample size of Duffy’s starts at home is small. He’s only made 7 starts and pitched 37.1 IP in Kansas City. He has almost double of the number of starts (13) and innings (76.1) on the road, so his lackluster performance at Kauffman may just be a result of a small sample size. Also, if you take a look at who he’s pitched against, it hasn’t been the easiest of competition:

  • White Sox (2 starts, 1 loss, 1 no-decision, 10 ER, 10 IP)
  • Mariners (No-decision, 5.1 IP, 1 ER, 7 K’s)
  • Yankees (Loss, 4.0 IP, 5 ER, 2 HR)
  • Twins (No-decision, 6 IP, 4 H, 4 BB, 1 ER)
  • Astros (Loss, 7 H, 6 ER, 3 BB)
  • Indians (Loss, 6 IP, 8 H, 6 ER, 2 BB)

As you can see, that stretch of starts is brutal. The Astros are the defending champs and look to be in the running again. The Yankees have one of the most dynamic offenses in baseball. The Indians are atop of the AL Central, and the Mariners look to be a playoff favorite as well (though most likely in the Wild Card). The only bad teams he faced were the Twins (who are more mediocre than bad; and he actually didn’t pitch badly against them) and the White Sox, who have looked like a playoff team at Kauffman this year, and the worst team in baseball everywhere else.

So, in the second half, Duffy will not only get more starts at home but will also face some easier competition. And when that happens, it is likely that his splits at home will improve, and Royals fans will get to appreciate Duffy’s solid starts in person rather than just on television.

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July has been a good month, as he has a 2.84 ERA so far this month.

Duffy has been pitching well the past couple of months

In June and July, Duffy has started to find his groove, as he has begun to strike out more batters and walk less. In June, he increased his K/9 to 8.70 from 7.09 in May, and he decreased his walk rate slightly from 4.64 to 4.50. In July, those gains were even more pronounced, as his strikeout rate increased to 9.47 and his walk rate decreased to 3.32, which put his FIP at 2.98 for the month of July.

And not only are the K’s up and walks down, but he displayed better command overall, resulting in batters not making good contact against him in July. Hitters only made hard contact 27.3 percent of the time against him in July, down from 42.2 percent in June. His GB/FB was 0.77, down from 1.56 the previous month, and he had a K-BB ratio of 2.86, which was his best ratio overall in the first half.

Yes, a majority of Duffy’s July starts came on the road (2 out of 3), but it’s obvious that Duffy is turning it around as a starter, which should be encouraging for the Royals as they enter the second half of the season. It’s definitely plausible that if he can continue this strong approach, he’ll be successful in the second half, whether it’s home or away.

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Duffy has been a much better pitcher on the road this year. Can he turn it around at Kauffman in the second half?

What should the Royals expect from Duffy?

Duffy is far from perfect, and though comparatively, he’s strong for a Royals pitcher, he’s still pretty average in comparison to other pitchers in the league. He still struggles with runners on and in scoring positions, as his FIP in those situations are 5.39 and 6.40, respectively, and his K-BB ratio is 1.48 and 1.29 in those situations, respectively as well. If Duffy wants to really experience any lasting success (whether this year or beyond), he really has to learn to pitch better in the stretch.

At the same time, the trend for Duffy is a positive one, which should provide some glimmering hope for Royals fans in a season that has been pretty devoid of hope overall (other than the draft and signing prospects). The Royals are pretty all-in on Duffy as their “ace” going forward and Duffy will get the opportunities going forward (and with so much left on his deal, it’s pretty safe to say he’s going to be on the Royals for a good while as well). It’s been nice to see Duffy rebound after a rough start to the year, and at the very least, stay healthy, which is something he has struggled with over the past few seasons.

It’s been a good July for Duffy, and on the road overall, Duffy has been serviceable to somewhat masterful on occasion. As you will see in the video below, his win against Chicago last night was maybe his best of the year, sweet redemption for his awful opening day start against the White Sox.

Duffy is on the right track. Now it’s time for him in the second half to impress the Kauffman faithful, and not just Royals fans visiting opposing stadiums.