Brandon Maurer is 6 feet 5 with long flowing hair and a fastball that averages 96.5 mph. In baseball, there are only 20 relievers who throw harder.
He supplements the velocity with a biting slider, and when viewed in totality, the package suggests an above-average piece of a major-league bullpen. He offers the kind of talent that pitching coaches covet.
Maurer, 27, is also a right-hander who entered Thursday with a 6.00 ERA in 51 innings this season. And the disconnect between pure stuff and results can confound. Maurer has the arsenal to be effective. His results do not match up. Yet Royals manager Ned Yost says the club believes it has one idea to unlock his potential.
In the weeks since joining the Royals’ bullpen following a July trade, Maurer has surrendered nine earned runs in 11 2/3 innings across 13 appearances. His peripheral numbers have been decent, 13 strikeouts against eight walks. But in recent days, Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland suggested a simple adjustment: a move from the extreme first-base side of the pitching rubber to the third-base side.
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“It’s a somewhat simple adjustment,” Yost said. “But for pitchers, it’s not.”
The Royals hope the move will create more deception in the delivery and help hide the ball from hitters. Maurer said this week that he has become comfortable with the change.
“It’s actually been easier than I was thinking it was going to be, to be honest,” Maurer said. “As long as you’re just staying with the same mechanics, it’s pretty much just delivering the same pitch.”
Acquired from the San Diego Padres on July 24, Maurer was expected to slide into a role in the back end of the Royals’ bullpen. Yet his first month in Kansas City has been marked by some of the same struggles that surfaced during his first two seasons as a full-time reliever in San Diego.
The command issues have been glaring — Maurer is walking 6.2 batters per nine innings with the Royals — but some of his problems can perhaps be chalked up to poor luck. To understand the theory, one must be familiar with the statistic Fielder Independent Pitching, or FIP, which attempts to measure a pitcher based on the three things in which they have the most control: Strikeouts, walks and homers.
The statistic removes the variable of defense and the randomness of batted balls in play. When converted into a number comparable to ERA, it provides a look at which pitchers might be suffering from bad luck on batted balls. And Maurer is a classic example.
In his career, Maurer has posted 5.04 ERA and a 3.82 FIP. In the last two seasons, the trend has been most noticeable. In 2016, his ERA spiked to 4.52 while his FIP was 3.46. In 2017, he has a 6.00 ERA and a 3.41 FIP. One reason: Opposing hitters have hit .354 against him on balls in play, well above the major-league average.
A 23rd-round pick of the Mariners in 2008, Maurer came up through the Seattle system and made his major-league debut in 2013. He was dealt to the Padres for outfielder Seth Smith before the 2015 season. In his short time in Kansas City, Maurer has felt like the victim of some bad luck, he said. He also pointed to some poor pitch execution.
“The stuff has been OK,” he said. “I’ve just had some unlucky outings, I think, and I’ve also missed a few pitches here or there that got hit pretty well.”
Maurer posted two scoreless innings as the bullpen stabilized, in part, during a six-game homestand. If the Royals needed a closer to fill in for Kelvin Herrera, who experienced forearm tightness earlier this week, Maurer would be on the short list.
And the discrepancy between FIP and ERA could suggest that his right arm has untapped value in a relief role. Maurer saved 20 games in 23 opportunities for the Padres before being dealt to the Royals. And he is under club control through the 2019 season. For now, though, he is focused on the stretch run.
“It’s just coming to a new team and getting adjusted,” Yost said. “Getting settled and comfortable in the environment a little bit.
“You come to a new team, you’re really out there pressing because you want to do good. And you end up walking a guy, and you put too much pressure on yourself. I just think his stuff has been really, really good. And he’s getting closer and closer all the time.”