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Highly touted pitching prospect Brady Singer impressed in his first full season of professional baseball, surpassing many expectations the Royals set for his first season in the minors.
Kansas City’s first-round draft pick from 2018 has lived up to his reputation as a polished pitcher and intense competitor with dynamic stuff, but he also did his share of learning and even hit a few minor bumps in the road on his fast track to the majors.
His first season in the minors added to the intrigue surrounding the former national college pitcher of the year and provided a clearer picture of the strides he still needs to make before he’s ready to become a mainstay in the Royals’ major-league rotation.
“When you reflect on the year he had, he met all expectations and probably exceeded expectations,” Royals assistant general manager/player personnel JJ Picollo said. “He didn’t get the chance to compete in 2018 just because of that groin issue he had going. We decided to go slow with that. He didn’t have the benefit that some of the other guys had in ‘18 of getting his feet wet.”
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Baseball America and MLBPipeline.com each rank Singer, who turned 23 in August, among the top 100 prospects in baseball. MLBPipeline ranks him the top pitching prospect in the Royals’ farm system.
This season, between High-A and Double-A, Singer posted a 12-5 record with a 2.85 ERA in 26 starts (148 1/3 innings). He struck out 138, walked 39 and posted a 1.19 WHIP and an opponent’s batting average of .247.
He earned Carolina League midseason All-Star honors and finished the season by garnering the Royals’ Double-A Pitcher of the Year award.
“One of the things that has been emphasized to Brady — and he’s done a good job embracing it and trying to get better with it — is the development of his changeup,” Picollo said. “His usage (of the changeup) went up as the year went on, which is a great sign that he was gaining confidence in using that pitch.”
Singer’s fastball and slider have been viewed as major-league-caliber pitches since he was coming out of the University of Florida.
While Singer has shown ability to dominate in the minors with those two pitches (though left-handed hitters batted 100 points higher against him in his 10 starts in High-A), the third pitch will be crucial as he faces more advanced and experienced hitters.
By the end of the season, Singer felt like he’d gained a consistent feel for the changeup.
“I could throw it in the zone and out of the zone when I wanted to, just kind of like my slider,” Singer said while in Kansas City at the end of September. “I could get ahead with my slider and then I could throw it out of the zone. I feel like I could do that with my changeup as well.”
Singer credited both Wilmington pitching coach Steve Luebber and Northwest Arkansas pitching coach Doug Henry for working through Singer’s growing pains with the changeup as he tried different ways of throwing it.
“We made a little bit of adjustments, grip-wise and where to put some pressure on. I think a lot of it is just the way I’m thinking of throwing it — throw it just like a fastball,” Singer said.
Henry described Singer’s changeup as “a little firm” at times, meaning it’s harder than ideal to create the desired separation between it and the fastball to a hitter (he’s thrown a low- to mid-90s fastball and a changeup in the upper 80s at times). But Henry contends that Singer just needs to trust it down in the strike zone.
“It’s a plus pitch,” Henry said. “It’s not something he’s going to have to take a whole lot of time working with again. It’s a big-league pitch. It’s definitely not just a show pitch. He can use it to get outs, and he realized that by the end of the year.”
Henry, who spent 11 seasons as a pitcher in the majors, served as the Royals’ bullpen coach for five years prior to 2018. That included the AL pennant run in 2014 and the World Series championship run in 2015.
The pitching coach in Wilmington in 2018, Henry hadn’t worked with Singer until this summer. Singer quickly confirmed everything Henry had heard about his character, off-the-charts work ethic and competitive fire.
“He’s an incredible competitor. As a coach, he’s fun to work with,” Henry said.
When Singer arrived after his promotion from Wilmington, Henry sat him down in front of a computer video system. At the time, Singer didn’t know much, if anything, about all the video and information available to him.
While that could’ve been overwhelming or daunting, Singer deciphered what he needed and didn’t to prepare effectively and efficiently inside of his first two weeks. To Henry’s surprise, he simplified things in a way his old-school pitching coach appreciated.
“He just goes, ‘I’m here to get people out,’” Henry said. “I just thought: ‘I think I like this guy.’”
Henry noticed while working with Singer and his former Florida teammate and right-hander Jackson Kowar that they’d been wired the same way from their college days. Their approach simply centered around getting outs.
If that meant they threw their best stuff repeatedly, the results mattered infinitely more than the route taken to get there.
“Singer’s competitive edge puts him at an elite level,” Henry said. “That’s the key for me.”
Of course, being that fiery can lead to some interesting interactions.
One day about four innings into a start at Double-A in which Singer hadn’t thrown his changeup more than twice, Henry pulled aside Singer and catcher Meibrys Viloria and implored them to work the changeup into the sequencing.
The next inning started off with about 12 changeups in a row from Singer. Henry fumed, because that was not the intent of his advice — nor would using the changeup that way help Singer.
Henry “aired out” both pitcher and catcher when they got to the dugout to make his point crystal clear.
Henry chuckled in conveying the story and admitted, “The thing is, he went out there and threw those changeups and I don’t think he gave up a hit on them.”
The Royals believed Singer could’ve probably began this season at Double-A and handled the transition, but the organization decided not to rush his development and thus started him at High-A Wilmington.
Picollo indicated there will likely be spirited discussion about whether Singer begins next season back in Double-A or at Triple-A Omaha and the scoring-heavy Pacific Coast League.
Part of the decision will depend on the need for Singer to strengthen certain areas of his game, such as holding runners on base and fielding his position — as well as the continued progress of his changeup.
Other factors taken into account will include maturity, building confidence, dealing with adversity and learning against higher-level hitters, the environment he’ll be in just two years into his professional career.
“The goal of this isn’t how quickly he gets to the major leagues, it’s how prepared he is when he does get to the majors leagues,” Picollo said. “Whether or not he starts the year in Double-A or Triple-A really shouldn’t impact how quickly he get to the major leagues.
“He’ll put it together when he puts it together. We’ll know when he’s ready.”