So far in 2018, Eric Skoglund has held down the 5th starters spot in the Kansas City Royals rotation, albeit with mixed results. In his three starts this season, Skoglund has given up 14 runs in 14.2 innings while allowing 18 hits and five walks. The positive is that Skoglund has slightly gotten better in each start, with his best outing this past weekend in Detroit.
The negative is that outing still was below expectations: four runs, four hits and two walks in five innings of work. Technically the numbers are improving, but definitely not enough to forego discussing other options for the rotation. There is already talk that Clay Buchholz will more than likely take over for Skoglund this weekend against Chicago and he is as good an option as any that the Royals have right now. But if we are talking options we might as well throw Trevor Oaks’ name out there.
Oaks is in his age 25 season and was the biggest “get” in the Scott Alexander/Joakim Soria trade that went down earlier this winter. Oaks has primarily been a ground-ball pitcher throughout his career and relies on a nice four-seam fastball (with some natural sinking action), a sinker, and a slider with the occasional change-up thrown in there as well. He’s not going to miss many bats, but his ability to induce groundballs would be a welcome change for the Royals rotation.
The Royals have relied on fly-ball pitchers over the last 4-5 years and back when the team was making regular trips to the postseason it made sense. The team was employing an outfield of plus defenders like Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson, so the thinking was as long as the pitcher could keep the ball in the ballpark, their outfielders would run it down.
But since then the focus in baseball has been on getting the ball in the air and more importantly, home runs. When even middle infielders are focusing on elevating the ball, it only makes sense to try and swing the pendulum to the other side and work on keeping the ball on the ground. The Royals still have a good infield defense and it would seem Oaks could be one to take advantage of that.
To give you an idea of how often Oaks keeps the ball on the ground, let’s do a comparison to some of the top ground-ball pitchers in baseball today. Over the last two seasons, Oaks has been in the range of 64-50% of groundballs, which would rank him in the top 20 if he would be able to make that transition to the big leagues. Lance McCullers, Jr. of Houston has the highest rate so far this season at 63.6% while the highest eligible Kansas City pitcher is Jason Hammel at 43.9%.
Oaks did have some issues with his sinker when he returned from injury last year but former big-league pitcher Justin Masterson, who has also heavily relied on the sinker over his career, was able to pass on some words of wisdom:
“I was struggling to find consistent movement. In years past, it’s always just kind of been a natural pitch for me, so I hadn’t really thought much about it or really tweaked around the grips too much. So while I was going through that period of struggle, he was able to show me things. It was like, ‘Hey, why don’t you try this?’
“A lot of it was just little tweaks here and there, from stuff he had learned over the course of his career throwing the sinker. And he was also kind of calming me down. He’d say, ‘Hey, don’t freak out if it’s not your best stuff that day.’
“I think that’s why I still had a decent year. While I didn’t have my best sinker, I was still able to go out there and compete. I had the confidence to be like, ‘I can get these guys out, even without my best sinker, and then once that pitch comes back for me, I can really take off.”
So while Oaks’ sinker is a big part of his repertoire, he seemed to make an adjustment last year which is always a big part of the maturation process. While Oaks only had a 50.8% ground-ball rate in AAA last year, the lessons he learned seemed to help him grow as a pitcher.
It’s still early into 2018, but Oaks has pretty much kept pace with what he did in AAA for the Dodgers last year. Groundballs, flyballs and line drives are all pretty much on par with 2017 while the strike out rate has been a tad lower (11.8% compared to 21.1.%) and the walk rate is a bit higher (6.5% to 5.3%). This is only over 23.1 innings in Omaha, so it’s a small sample size, but more than anything there does appear to be a hint of consistency.
I’m not against Buchholz getting his chance before Oaks and I even understand why it is happening. Buchholz cost the Royals practically nothing and if he can show a glint of his former All-Star caliber talent then it only makes sense for Kansas City to see what they have in him.
While it won’t hurt Oaks to stay in the minors a bit longer, it’s just a matter of time until he is in the Kansas City rotation. He has thrown 170 innings in AAA over the last couple seasons while proving he can hang at that level.
The next couple seasons are all about opportunities for Kansas City and seeing what they have. If Buchholz turns out to be a find then that can only be a positive for the team moving forward. But if we are talking long-term, that is where Oaks comes into the discussion. Last year Jake Junis was given the chance to prove his worth. 2018 should be Trevor Oaks’ turn to shine for the Royals.