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Crown Jewels: Greinke's Struggles, The Role of the Schedule and Changes That Need to Happen
Dayton Moore always used the 40-game mark, but things need to change ASAP.
The Royals lost another game last night. Normally I try to break down the game from the day before, but this was another in a very similar set of games all season long. It was the sixth game they’ve lost by five or more runs, but what makes it maybe worse is it feels like that’s becoming more of the norm because all six have come in the last 16 games. The fear that you get into with a young team (at least a young offense) is that the record and the numbers on the scoreboard will impact their entire season. For example, I don’t think Michael Massey is this bad. He posted a 94 OPS+ and 93 wRC+ last season in his first taste of the big leagues and the 194 PA sample takes precedence over the 73 PA sample, but you wonder at what point does it not matter mentally.
Because while I still don’t think they’re this bad, I wonder at what point they believe they are. So the Royals face a critical juncture in their season coming up. It’s not because they can save the season. Heck to get to the 86 wins that the sixth seed had last year, they’d need to go 80-56, which is a cool 95-win pace. But they find themselves in danger of putting together one of their all-time worst seasons. I am reminded periodically that the 2013 team went 8-20 in May and still won 86 games, but that’s not the norm. There is a saving grace and that’s the schedule, which I’ll get to in a bit, but there are worries for me now that I know many had before and I still think they were too soon to have though they might be turning into correct premonitions.
But it’s not all bad! Because don’t forget that I’m giving away two tickets and parking for Lorenzo Cain’s retirement on May 6, and you’re eligible if you become a paid Inside the Crown subscriber. I’ll likely give those away on Tuesday or Wednesday next week, so you better hurry! Paid subscribers can comment on all articles, are eligible for all giveaways (I’ve got some really cool stuff coming up that isn’t tickets) and I think I’m going to start using the chat function for paid subscribers as well. So make sure you upgrade today!
The Royals re-signed Zack Greinke late in the offseason for $8.5 million with incentives that if he repeated his 2022 season would reach the exact salary he earned last year. A one-year deal is always a reasonable investment, so I was never upset with the contract and he was coming off a 3.68 ERA in 137 innings. I obviously had my concerns as I wrote before the season that I thought this was the year Father Time caught up with him. He did have the lowest strikeout rate in baseball among pitchers with 40 or more innings last year.
But if there’s one pitcher who can overcome being different than the rest of the league, it’s Greinke. He worked on some things this winter to get more swings and misses and the results in the first two starts were actually quite good. He gave up three runs in 11.1 innings and struck out eight while walking two with no home runs allowed. I thought maybe he was going to prove everyone wrong again. Then he gave up four runs in five innings with three strikeouts and two homers allowed. Then it was four runs in six innings with one homer allowed but six strikeouts (which is more than he had at any point last year). Now in his last two starts, he’s given up 11 runs on 15 hits in 8.2 innings. The strikeouts are gone again, but the home runs have remained and in his last four starts, he’s allowed 25 hits, including seven home runs in 19.2 innings.
He remains considerably more usable at home with a 3.63 ERA and just one home run allowed in three starts compared to a 9.22 ERA and six home runs allowed in three starts on the road. So I suppose we can wait and see what happens as I believe he’ll get two starts on the next homestand, but I do find myself worried that it’s more harmful than helpful to have him out there. The Baseball Savant charts aren’t the be all, end all, but there’s a lot of blue here.
He doesn’t walk hitters and he is still getting chases, so that part is good, but I’m not entirely sure he’s giving the team enough of a chance to win. Last night, for example, he allowed an average exit velocity of 93.9 MPH. I’m seeing struggles with command (not control, obviously) with some hanging curves like the one he left over the plate to Byron Buxton for the three-run homer and just worry that year-20 is finally the year that it just doesn’t work anymore.
Again, Greinke is the one guy who I can look at and think he can figure something out. He threw his cutter a lot last night and it was actually a good pitch for him. I wonder if he starts to lean on that more than he has this season. He threw 20 of the 63 he’s thrown this year last night and he moved away from his slider. That’s actually very similar to what happened last season. It took a little longer for his struggles to start last year, but he had a 5.05 ERA after a bad start in Minnesota and he started to change some pitch mix things and had a 2.85 ERA the rest of the year. Maybe that’ll happen again. I hope it does. I’m not optimistic, but we can hope.
Schedule of Doom
Nobody wants to hear it right now, but the Royals are at least somewhat victims of their schedule. I saw a stat that showed the Pittsburgh Pirates, owners of baseball’s second-best record, have the best winning percentage against .500+ teams in baseball. They’re 6-3. They’ve played 26 games. That means they’ve played 17 games against sub-.500 teams and they haven’t even drawn the Royals yet. The Royals, on the other hand, have played 26 games and 23 are against teams over .500. Yes, they’ve helped contribute to those records, but I think it’s at least worth noting that the only team under .500 outside of playing the Royals is the Rangers and that’s only because they’re currently on a four-game losing streak.
But it’s not just that they’ve had a very difficult schedule. They’ve also had some of the more brutal pitching matchups I can remember. I tweeted this yesterday and it’s no longer entirely accurate, but the Royals went into yesterday’s game having faced a pitcher who received Cy Young Votes in 2021 or 2022 in 10 of their first 25 games. It’s not a perfect method because someone like Jose Berrios, who has really struggled since 2021 got votes that year, but the reason I looked it up is it seemed like the Royals were facing a very high caliber of pitcher seemingly every other day. And, as it turns out, in addition to those 10 games, they’ve also faced a pitcher currently in the top-30 in fWAR in four more games.
This isn’t me making an excuse for this team. They’re not good and are worse than I expected. But I also think they’re doing what most bad teams would do against this schedule. Okay, probably a little worse, but still, there is some hope and I’m going to continue to push that here because it’s too long of a season to be totally checked out before May even starts. The Orioles are more legitimate than I expected, but (and I know I’ve gone through this before), they get three with the A’s, seven with the White Sox, three with the Tigers and three with the Nationals in May.
The only series they’ve won this year was against the only team they’ve faced who is below .500. That’s 16 games against verifiably bad teams. They see the Royals on their schedule and are thinking the same thing, of course, so it’s no guarantee, but at least we’ll know just how bad this team is by the end of May. I would wager that a team likely to finish 15+ games below .500 doesn’t generally fare well against elite competition, but what they do against the bad teams is what separates the bad from the horrible.
What Can They Do?
I’ve seen multiple cite May 1 as a date on the calendar to watch. Maybe it’s because they’re off that day. Maybe it’s because the calendar is flipping. Maybe it’s just because people are hopeful and want to believe something. I can tell you that I haven’t explicitly heard that they’re going to evaluate and make changes after this series in Minnesota, but I can also tell you that they should. There are a few moves I’d make pretty easily, and some of this is pending the rest of this series this weekend.
Send Massey down, and call up either Samad Taylor or Maikel Garcia. I’m not terribly worried about Massey long-term yet. I think he swings too much to be an impact player but I also think he can be someone who you look at in the bottom of an order and really like what he brings. But I do worry that he’s going to get lost mentally with the struggles. He had three-straight multi-hit games and I still think he’s at least made some better swing decisions lately, but better is relative. If he flops for three more games in Minnesota, I’d make this move. If he looks better for the final three, I’d hold off. I’d probably bring Taylor up because he helps with some other moves I’d make and he’s playing better, but Garcia should be up soon enough anyway, so I wouldn’t hate if he was the move.
Move on from Franmil Reyes and give Logan Porter a shot. I think signing Reyes was worth a try. The Royals needed righty power in the middle of the lineup and Reyes has been a power bat throughout his career. It’s just not working. He’s not lifting the ball nearly enough. It’s okay when these don’t work! But Porter is absolutely mauling the ball in AAA, hitting .306/.375/.694. I think he’ll ultimately get beat by better pitching a little more often than you’d like, but I also think he deserves a shot after what he’s done to start this year and what he did last year.
Move on from Jackie Bradley Jr. and get Nick Pratto back up for at least a few weeks to give him consistent at bats at least until Drew Waters returns. The issue with this plan is that Pratto would need to play a fair amount of outfield, which isn’t ideal, but he’s actually solid out there. I’d have Porter playing most days, but definitely against lefties. I’d have Edward Olivares playing against all lefties. And Pratto would play against all righties and some lefties. The Royals will likely face a fair amount of right-handed pitching over the next few weeks so that should give Pratto some time to show if his new approach is working (21 percent strikeout rate). The numbers aren’t there, but I’d rather see Pratto get some time with the big league staff than Bradley getting run out there. This is also why I’d prefer Taylor to Garcia in the Massey swap. You can get him in the outfield in late-game situations.
Bring up Nick Wittgren. I think this one is just coming anyway because as a veteran who signed a minor-league deal, he has an opt-out on May 1 that I would guess he’d exercise. He’s struck out 11, walked three and allowed three hits in 11 innings in AAA. I don’t know who the move is, but there are certainly options in the bullpen to demote and there’s an easy 40-man move with Kris Bubic able to be shifted to the 60-day IL.
And you know I’d cut bait on Hunter Dozier. I wish it could work, but it just isn’t and it’s hard to see that changing. Maybe this is the way to get Garcia and Taylor up. I originally had mentioned Nick Loftin and I’m fine with that too, but he’s struggled recently. Though I guess if I’m calling up Pratto, Loftin could be there too. Either way, I think this is the move.
Some of these also allow for some promotions that I think need to happen. I think John Rave needs to get to AAA. I wouldn’t mind seeing Anthony Veneziano moved up fairly quickly given that he pitched in AA last year as well. I just think it’s time to make some moves that are maybe panic-adjacent, but they’re 6-20, so how much can you fault a little panic?
As a site note for today, I’m likely going to be pretty busy with real-world things. So please comment away, but just know I may not be around to respond like I normally do!