BOBBY, BOBBY, BOBBY!
A 1 for 4 day becomes a debut to remember when the 1 wins the game.
In the history of Royals debuts, there have been a handful at least on the same level of anticipation as we saw for Bobby Witt Jr.’s first big league game. When the lineup was announced, he received one of the biggest roars. When he stepped to the plate with one out in the bottom of the first, the crowd rose to their feet. But as he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the eighth, he was hitless. He made contact all three times and the third time he made some loud contact but he still was looking for the elusive first big league hit.
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Then on a 1-0 pitch from Triston McKenzie, Witt got a slider up just above the top of the zone and put that swing that we already love on it, pulling his hands in and doing what we hope to see him do about 500 more times over the next 15 years. It wasn’t the hardest hit ball he’ll ever have or even the hardest hit ball he had yesterday. But it rolled deep and scored Michal A. Taylor with the Royals second run in a game that only ultimately required two runs for a victory.
It was a pretty cool moment and also the literal definition of unique.
Then he got to cross another item off his to-do list when he scored his first big league run on an Andrew Benintendi single.
I promise we won’t do this every game, but this was a big league debut to remember and I think it’s worth looking at the progression of his at bats. In his first at bat, he was facing one of the best pitchers in the league in Shane Bieber and the first pitch got him. Bieber threw a slider way out of the zone and Witt swung sort of wildly. I think Bieber made a bit of a mistake with the next slider and maybe in a couple weeks or a month, Witt will do damage on it, but on this one, he hit a lazy fly ball.
Bieber started his next at bat with another slider, but this one wasn’t quite as tough to hit. Still, Witt swung through it before he got a bum call on a pitch that sort of went back and forth throughout the day to fall behind 0-2. Bieber tried to put him away with a slider low and away that Witt made contact with, but it wasn’t good contact. Still, he made this awfully close with his speed, which will be very fun to watch. I wish he didn’t swing at it, but the fact that he made contact is a pretty good sign.
After Bieber exited, Witt had the chance to face Triston McKenzie, who is a solid pitcher, but not exactly in Bieber’s league. He took a strike on a fastball and then took another strike on a fastball that was in that spot again. Phil Cuzzi didn’t seem to be impressed by him making his big league debut. But then what excited me is that McKenzie tried to put him away with the slider that gave him trouble against Bieber, but Witt spit on it. Then he threw a high fastball that probably just got away from him. And Witt got the best pitch he saw to hit all day and he absolutely blistered it.
It was the hardest hit ball of the day by anyone in the game. Of course, it was an out, but he smacked it.
And you’ll be happy to know that he handled himself just fine defensively. He fielded two grounders and one popup, but one of the grounders, he showed off why the Royals are so thrilled to have three shortstops on the infield
Contrary to popular belief, there was more to this first game of the year than just the first player in team history to be born in the 21st century. It was also the first start back in Royals blue for Zack Greinke. Seeing him on the mound pitching to Salvador Perez with Witt at third base was like some sort of weird Marvel movie with timelines coming together. Or maybe it was a Dickens novel with the ghost of Royals past, Royals present and Royals future. Either way, it was kind of a trip.
I thought Greinke was generally good and not great. It should be noted that the old adage of if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes was on display in this game. The wind was blustery and then it started raining and then it was sunny and then there was graupel and then it was sunny and then the wind gusted again and then it rained and…okay you get the point. Greinke said after the game that it was tough for everyone, though he did think it was tougher for hitters.
He gave up a hit to the first batter, but a double play erased that hit and he got through three facing just nine batters and throwing only 30 pitches. As the lineup turned over, he struggled a bit and gave up the only run, but he worked out of trouble and ended up pitching into the sixth. His pitch usage intrigued me.
Last year, he threw his four-seamer just under 40 percent of the time and his slider just over 15 percent of the time. He’s such a smart pitcher that I think he has a pretty good idea of what’s going to work and what won’t, so he’s able to alter things, but this is something I’m going to watch pretty closely this year with him. I want to see how he adapts. But he was big on his slider. I thought that was interesting given that he only got one swing and miss on it and was actually hit fairly hard. He did mention in his postgame remarks that he wanted to throw his slider more in general this year, so this was the start of that apparently.
His fastball was good and I’m very interested to see how that velocity increases over the next few weeks. It was on par with last season for him, but given the short spring and how cold it was, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see him reach back for a little more once he’s fully built up. He didn’t get many swings and misses early, but that ramped up and I think the Guardians also had a pretty solid approach against him. Still, he had this gem:
In the end, what stood out to me was that the Royals won that game in probably the exact way they envisioned winning games. They got strong starting pitching, good work by the bullpen and their offense took advantage of a late-inning opportunity. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the exact plan of attack from 2014/2015. I’ll obviously need to see more from the rest of the starting pitching staff to see how sustainable this is for them. And I’ll be very curious to see how the offense looks in a day that isn’t just a disaster for hitters. But for one game, that got the job done.
I thought the defense stood out a couple of times. It was probably more than a couple given how difficult any ball in the air was to catch, but two in particular. One was on that Witt play from the shortstop spot, but then the other was the play that Greinke thought was one of the best he’s ever seen.
It’s just one game, but one win is better than one loss and getting off to a good start against the Guardians has to feel good after going 5-14 against them in 2021 (though they did win the first game of the year against them last year by a similar score). The saying goes that you can’t win ‘em all if you don’t win the first and the Royals, thankfully, can still win ‘em all.
I promised to give away three sets of glasses to three subscribers who were subscribed by Opening Day, so what I did was I pulled everyone into a spreadsheet, ran a random number generator and just went to that entry on the spreadsheet. Pretty nerdy, huh? Well it led to these three below winning. I’ll get in touch today to get your address to send you your glasses!
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The Royals and Guardians get a much-needed day off after the hard work of a nine-inning game. I know why they put the off day there for a game in a place like KC or Cleveland or wherever, but it always feel so annoying when the game wasn’t actually rained (or snowed) out. Still, it’ll be Brad Keller vs. Zach Plesac on Saturday in a game that should be far more comfortable to both sit through and play in. Then Kris Bubic vs. Cal Quantrill on Sunday.
Matheny’s Bullpen Management
When the Royals hired Matheny, he spoke a lot about how much better versed in analytics he’d become. It was one of those things that you heard him talk the talk, but I think we needed to see him walk the walk. Then the 2020 season was so short that even though I loved the way he handled his bullpen, you had to wonder if it was sustainable. And when the 2021 season started, he used a lot of the same methods as he did in 2020 and the bullpen ultimately did wear down as the first half progressed. So in the second half, he had a bit more of a standard usage pattern and when you paired that with the starting staff looking much better, they had a nice last two and a half months.
But yesterday, he was back to what I thought was a great approach with his relievers. I thought he pulled Greinke at the perfect time and went to Brentz in the exact right spot. He forced the Guardians to make a move for a pinch hitter and while Brentz walked that batter, he did get the final out with a strikeout of Yu Chang. Then in the next inning, Brentz walked the leadoff man but got two more outs and then Matheny went to Josh Staumont. It was the obvious choice, but it was also the right one to face the top of the order. He also walked the first batter he faced, but got out of that with a soft lineout.
But where I was the most excited was when he put Scott Barlow in for the eighth. Barlow is, by all accounts, the Royals closer. “The book” says that you use your closer in the ninth inning of a tie game. At 1-1, Matheny put Barlow in for the eighth. Why? Easy, it was because the best part of the Guardians lineup was due up and Matheny wanted what he believes to be his best pitcher in there. I said at the time that even if it doesn’t work, it’s right. It did work as Barlow got all three on nine pitches and then he came out in the ninth and while there was some drama, he ultimately got the job done. This is why a deep bullpen is such a benefit. He can use Barlow there and if it takes more pitches than you’d like, go ahead and give the ball to Amir Garrett or Dylan Coleman or Taylor Clarke, who had a great spring. I hope he works a little harder to keep relievers fresh this year, but I loved what I saw yesterday.
Carlos Santana Looked Slooooooooow
It’s only one game, so I’m not going to make too many conclusions from this, but I thought Santana looked like basically the same guy we saw in the second half of 2021. I hated the Hunter Dozier bunt in the seventh inning, but it felt like an eternity between when Austin Hedges jumped on the ball from behind the plate and threw it to second. And Santana made it relatively close, but he was thrown out fairly easily. I also thought his bat looked slow. He was cheating to get to Bieber’s fastball early and he cranked a breaking ball foul, but he was pretty clearly gearing up to catch up and Bieber wasn’t even throwing that hard. We’ll see how he looks in a better hitting environment than that weather, but that’s a concern.
Nick Pratto went deep a couple of times yesterday in a double header. If the Royals have early success and Santana continues down the path of looking slow like he did yesterday, the pressure is going to be on for the organization. You never want to make too much out of just the one game, but this is something that we were already monitoring closely and if they are winning and plan to do what they can to contend, I wonder if they’ll be willing to make the tough decision if and when the tough decision needs to be made.