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What the Kansas City Royals saw in Cole Ragans — and what they say is his next step

Before the Kansas City Royals shipped Aroldis Chapman to the Texas Rangers for Cole Ragans last June, they asked a question in a group-think setting:

What is this guy missing?

Royals pitching coach Brian Sweeney said the team noticed Ragans’ drastic uptick in velocity through work with Tread Athletics — Ragans’ threw his 2023 fastball 4.4 miles per hour harder, on average, than his 2022 version according to Baseball Savant — but the pitch profile wasn’t quite complete.

“As a pitching team, we said the cutter’s great, but he needs something with a little more depth — a gyro slider — to really help him build out versus righties and lefties,” Sweeney said. “Because it’s a platoon-neutral kind of pitch for him that he can use to both sides.”

The consensus?

“We’d like to teach this guy a slider,” Sweeney said.

Nearly a year later, with Ragans sitting third in the American League in both strikeouts and Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), Ragans credited the slider with changing his trajectory as a pitcher, from a player who arrived in Kansas City with a 5.92 ERA to one boasting a 2.99 ERA in 24 Royals starts.

Ragans said the slider allowed him to attack all parts of the strike zone. His fastball and changeup both have arm-side run, breaking in toward left-handed hitters and away from righties. His curveball is more of a vertical offering. And while his cutter does move away from lefties and toward righties, it didn’t do so at the extent Ragans needed to befuddle hitters.

Ragans’ cutter encouraged Sweeney that he might be able to add a fifth pitch. And so Sweeney, with the help of Paul Gibson, the Royals’ senior director of pitching performance, and Dane Johnson, the pitching coach with the Royals’ Triple-A affiliate Omaha Storm Chasers, approached Ragans with the suggestion.

Ragans was open to it. They all got to work.

“It played so well once he figured it out,” Sweeney said, crediting the organization’s “holistic approach” in the adjustment. “It was truly amazing to see him grab onto that. Because he could throw the cutter, we felt like he could adapt. ‘Just think about something very similar, just change the grip.’”

Sweeney called it a “four-seam orientation” on Ragans’ cutter.

“Really, he just tried to spin it like a bullet and throw it down the middle and let it do its thing,” Sweeney said. “He adapted really well. It was something that was natural to him. When you pitch design, you like to see it happen pretty quick, otherwise it’s like, ‘Eh, are they going to be able to do it?’ If they have a little feel right away, there’s hope.”

‘A perfect storm to grow and learn’

Ragans quickly surpassed “a little feel.”

And while the slider became (and has remained) a complementary offering — he’s throwing it on about 10% of his pitches this season and did so last year as well — Ragans said it was a major key to his dominant August, when he had a 1.72 ERA and struck out 53 batters in just 36 2/3 innings.

The southpaw was named AL Pitcher of the Month for that stretch.

“I would say it was probably a month until I felt really comfortable with it,” Ragans said. “I started mixing it into games and getting confidence with it, and I would say like a month in was really when it kind of started to take off a little bit. And then throughout the month of August it got better and better.”

His numbers jumped across the board from a 5.92 ERA — with 8.9 strikeouts and 5.2 walks per nine innings with Texas — to a 2.64 ERA, 11.2 strikeouts and 3.4 walks per nine.

But neither Ragans, nor the Royals, were ready to rest on their laurels. Sweeney said the Royals approached Ragans like a rookie — after all, the 26-year-old had just 21 starts in MLB, and in some ways skewed even more inexperienced because of time lost to injuries.

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Cole Ragans (55) pitches during the sixth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Kauffman Stadium on March 28, 2024.
Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Cole Ragans (55) pitches during the sixth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Kauffman Stadium on March 28, 2024.

“Let’s think about Cole Ragans as an individual: He’s still really a rookie, right? He had a lot of years off. He doesn’t have many innings underneath his belt,” Sweeney said. “... There’s a growth opportunity. The ceiling’s a lot higher. And then you’ve got people like Michael Wacha and Seth Lugo, Will Smith, Chris Stratton, the veterans that we brought in that can teach him the nuances of being a professional and how to go about things. It’s a perfect storm to grow and to learn.

“I couldn’t be happier (with where he’s at), but we’ve got to understand he’s not a 10-year veteran. He’s newer in the league and he started Opening Day for us. That’s a huge accomplishment and a testament to the hard work that he’s put in.”

Ragans was ‘ready to compete for a job’

As Ragans and the Royals neared the last offseason, Sweeney said the club wanted “to be direct” about his plan for improvement.

“You give them a player plan, and then he has goals that he can work on,” Sweeney said. “And when he comes into spring, we can hit the ground running.”

Ragans was on the same page.

“It was come into the season and compete for a job with the big-league team. That was my (offseason) thought process,” Ragans said. “I didn’t feel (accomplished). … It was two months. A season is long. I still have to compete for a spot. I don’t just have a walk in the park to be on the team. So that was my thought process going into the offseason: Work hard, fine-tune some things, come into spring training ready to compete for a job.”

That included continuing to work on his newfound toy slider, but also improving his overall command.

Kansas City Royals pitcher Cole Ragans (55) pitches against the Minnesota Twins in the first inning at Target Field on May 28, 2024.
Kansas City Royals pitcher Cole Ragans (55) pitches against the Minnesota Twins in the first inning at Target Field on May 28, 2024.

The Royals’ pitching theme this year is “Reign the Zone,” a directive that doesn’t just play off the Royals’ team name, but also implores their pitchers to avoid handing out walks.

“If I fill up the zone with all my pitches, they can’t just sit on one pitch,” Ragans said. “It’s a variety of things they have to look for.

“I’ve had a few rough ones this year where I felt like I’ve left some pitches over the plate. I’m just trying to execute to the best of my ability. I know my stuff is good. I trust the guys behind me. I trust my catchers. It’s a game of trust.”

The result has been a successful encore.

Learning from Seth Lugo & Michael Wacha

Heading into Sunday’s scheduled start against the San Diego Padres, Ragans was 4-4 with a 3.36 ERA. His strikeouts have stayed up. His walks are slightly down and his FIP of 2.27 (down slightly from last year’s 2.49) suggests he’s been a bit unlucky.

The Royals’ starting pitchers as a whole have been among baseball’s best, with Ragans enjoying Lugo’s big season.

“Getting to watch the other four guys, it’s special what they’ve done,” Ragans said. “You’ve seen what Lugo’s done, it’s pretty spectacular. It’s fun to watch. It’s fun to pick his brain and talk to him about how he thinks about the game.”

That goes for Wacha, too, Ragans said.

“They’ve been around for a while,” Ragans said. “They have a lot of knowledge, and so it’s us guys learning from them, watching them how they go about their business, how they think about the game of pitching.”

The next step, according to Sweeney, is improving Ragans’ “craft” as a pitcher.

“You think about the best pitchers in the game, the majority of those starters have stuff,” Sweeney said. “They have stuff, but they also have what we like to call with the Royals ‘craft’ or ‘execution.’ Good pitchers have stuff. The best have stuff and craft.

“... We know Cole has the stuff, right? He’s got a fastball, he’s got a curveball, he’s got a slider, he’s got a changeup and a cutter. He’s got the repertoire to be really good. Next is the execution part. Does he know how to put it to the zones? Does he know how to generate swings and misses, get weak contact, generate strikes and get outs? He’s learning that.”

That distinction, Sweeney said, will be “really key” to Ragans taking another step.

“How do you sequence all of these pitches? Now that he’s got five pitches, how do you do it?” Sweeney said. “His fastball and his changeup have been really successful early on. We’re in the major leagues. Hitters adapt. They’re counterpunching a little bit. What’s our counter? What does he have to do in order to be better?”