KANSAS CITY — Kris Bubic isn’t afraid to admit that he overthinks things when he steps on the mound — “He’s a Stanford guy,” catcher Cam Gallagher explains — but part of the success the left-hander showed this season, especially in his last five starts, came from not relying so much on the thinking part and leaning on the pitching part.
“I love numbers, and I love analytics, and I love game-planning,” Bubic said. “But at the end of the day, you can’t fault 100 percent conviction behind every single pitch. That’s what this game is. As long as that remains, the results will be there.”
Bubic allowed three runs (two earned) in 6 2/3 innings in the Royals’ 4-0 loss to the Twins on Saturday night at Kauffman Stadium, with five strikeouts and no walks for the first time in his career as a starter — a streak of 29 consecutive starts.
It was a start that showcased the strides Bubic made this season both mentally and physically, and despite being handed the loss because Kansas City’s offense managed three hits — two by Gallagher — Bubic heads into the offseason with momentum to build on for 2022.
In his final five starts of the season — 30 2/3 innings — Bubic posted a 2.05 ERA and a 0.913 WHIP.
“At the end of the day, I know I can belong,” Bubic said. “You never know what you’re going to get your first go-around in the league. Could be great, horrible, somewhere in between. There were some really positive moments this year and some moments, like that stretch in June where I was giving up homer after homer and was like, ‘Man, this is tough.’”
Bubic had a particularly rough start against St. Louis on Aug. 15, when he allowed seven runs in 1 1/3 innings. He turned around and had a no-hitter going into the seventh inning his next start against the Cubs.
That’s when the mindset changed.
“Right after that St. Louis outing, where you get blitzed and can’t get anybody out, I just [stuck] to my strengths for that next outing,” Bubic said. “I think that was probably the point where, ‘Hey, you pitch to your strengths regardless of who’s there and not try to do too much, look what could happen.’ I’m not saying that’s going to happen every time out, but more often than not in the second half, I’ve been able to give us a chance to win every time I go out there.”
By far the biggest improvement in Bubic’s season has been his curveball. It’s now a solid third offering that he incorporates into his starts and keeps hitters off his fastball and changeup. Against the Twins, Bubic threw 50 fastballs, 28 changeups and 14 curveballs. He registered eight whiffs and 16 called strikes — 11 of which came off his well-located fastball.
Bubic attacked the zone, which did lead to more hard contact and seven hits, but the Royals will take that mindset any day. And it wasn’t just with his fastball; he was aggressive with the curveball, too.
“The 2021 season is one that Kris Bubic, I believe, has bought into the importance of that pitch and really has a much better chance of keeping hitters off balance,” manager Mike Matheny said.
Bubic added: “To be able to go to it as consistently as I am now just gives me the confidence that I can throw it essentially in any count, and believe in it like I do my changeup. But going into the offseason, there are a couple of things that I want to get working on and that I know can unlock a little bit more for me.”
Those things include a slider, which Bubic has been working on during side sessions but didn’t have confidence in to throw in games this season.
And both Bubic and Matheny think there is better and consistent location to unlock. Bubic found a way to slow things down mentally when he’s on the mound, and that led to better command in his outings.
“He and I have had this conversation, and he knows it too,” Matheny said. “He sees the work that he does, and it’s just a matter of really keeping the emotions in check. With the way that he throws the ball and the way that he can locate, there’s just so many ways you can get guys out. He showed some of that today. But there’s even more in the tank.”