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Crown Jewels: May Improvements, Witt's Issues and a Weekend Preview
After two days off, the Royals are itching to get back to up their pace to 50 wins this weekend.
I don’t ever remember two scheduled off days in a row, but the Royals just dealt with that. According to the great Kurtis Seabolt, the Royals and Cardinals were originally scheduled to play Tuesday and Wednesday (before the public schedule), but the Cardinals wanted to play on Memorial Day. I don’t know how they had a schedule without them playing on a holiday, but the Royals originally weren’t scheduled to play on Labor Day either. That’s a big ol’ fail on the part of the schedule-makers. Either way, they were supposed to be off Monday and Thursday, but instead were off Wednesday and Thursday. I don’t like it, but I also didn’t mind not watching the Royals lose for a couple of days. Okay, fine, that’s not fair. They’ve played better baseball, but it didn’t really translate to wins.
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I guess it did translate to more wins. They went 10-17, which is a 60-win pace. It’s better than their 49-win pace they’re on for the year. In May, their run differential was just -6. I mentioned this the other day, but the Royals haven’t played a game in which they lost by more than four since April 27 and they’ve only lost by more than four in that one time since April 19. They’re in games. That’s a start, I suppose. I actually do think there are some positive signs to look at, which I’ll get to in a minute, but boy do they need to turn these close games into more wins in June.
They don’t have the crazy difficult schedule they faced in April, but it’s harder than May. I’ve written in the past about the 54-54-54 theory where every team wins 54 and loses 54, but the middle 54 is what separates teams. I think they had 10 such games in May and went 4-6. Turn that around to 6-4 and they’re 12-15, which isn’t good but much better. I don’t know, I just get the feeling that they’re not that far off from being merely below average but their record continues to say they’re world-class bad.
Some Positive May Turnarounds
Things started to turn around a bit for the team in general during the long road trip at the end of April. The offense wasn’t good, but it was better. The pitching had moments, though far too many moments of struggle. I wrote about this the other day and there’s only one additional day of data, but in May, the staff posted a 4.60 ERA compared to 5.49 in April. That’s significant.
The starters fell from 5.64 to 5.00, so that turnaround wasn’t much, but relievers fell from 5.26 to 4.19. But, and this is where it gets totally arbitrary. From May 6 to the end of the month, the Royals ranked 16th in ERA at 3.95. Starters were 15th at 4.38 and relievers were ninth at 3.49. They still walked too many, but they ranked 11th in strikeout rate and relievers ranked ninth. That works.
The standouts for the month were Taylor Clarke, Mike Mayers, Scott Barlow, Carlos Hernandez and Zack Greinke. Hernandez is the one who should be generating the most attention of anyone. He put together a month with a 38.2 percent strikeout rate and a 5.5 percent walk rate. After what we saw from him in the past, to see those numbers is really quite shocking. Of course, Jordan Lyles exists, and removing him drops the May ERA as a whole to 4.06 and the May 6 on ERA to 3.41! Sadly, he’s still there.
On the offensive side, the turnaround from Michael Massey is the number one story anyone should be talking about. He went from swinging at everything in April to being much more selective. Everything is an overstatement, but not by as much as it should have been. He swung at 41.8 percent of pitches outside the zone in April to 32.2 percent in May. That explains essentially everything. His BABIP is a bit elevated, so he’s a bit over his head, but the changes he’s made have been real and reflected his success.
In addition to Massey, Salvador Perez (.302/.337/.635) and Nick Pratto (.279/.398/.442) had great months and MJ Melendez has shown some signs of life. He hit .237/.327/.409 for the month, but he’s been seeing the ball well and has cut the strikeouts quite a bit, so maybe he has a big June ahead of him.
But it’s not all positive, of course. It can’t be when a team is 17-39 and coming off a 10-17 month.
Bobby Witt Jr. Continues to Struggle
When the Royals were hitting Witt at the top of the lineup, it didn’t feel right, but you could almost see that maybe they wanted him getting more plate appearances because that’s what they thought was best for his big league development. At some point, it became untenable and the Royals moved him down in the order. He moved to the six-spot and then has hit third or fourth in the next seven games. In the fourth game, he went 4 for 5 with a double, two homers and five runs batted in. It felt fixed, but he’s now 1 for 16 with eight strikeouts since then. Okay, so maybe not fixed just yet.
It’s so easy to just say he swings too much and move on. And he does, but I have a stat that may blow your mind. At least according to the Statcast “chase percentage,” Witt has a lower chase rate than Vinnie Pasquantino who is chasing way too much, especially for him. He actually doesn’t swing and miss nearly as much as you might think either. On the surface, there’s something that just doesn’t add up with what he’s doing. Yes, he chases too much and yes he swings too much, but there is more to it.
The batted ball data is almost all positive.
So there is something here that might be worth mentioning. He’s hitting .228/.266/.430 with a wOBA of .297, but his expected numbers are much better at .257/.294/.488 with an xwOBA of .334. That means that there is some underperformance, though the .294 OBP is still not good enough and he shouldn’t go back-to-back with Salvy in a lineup for sure. That’s a lot of power but also a lot of outs. But one number in his profile sticks out to me. According to the Statcast numbers, he’s popped up 11.8 percent of the time. And thinking back, especially recently, it feels like more often than not an infielder is camping under a high popup from Witt.
What’s somehow both concerning and encouraging is that this is the heat map of pitches he’s popping up.
It’s concerning because those are pitches that should be crushed, not popped up. Of his 20 popups this season, 11 are in the fastballs category, two are changeups and seven are breaking balls. So there’s a pretty even distribution. I looked at the video for all 19 of the 20 because the final one was literally just broadcasters talking (good work, MLB videos). Some of them I think were just good pitches. That happens. The movement just led to it. I’m not worried about those. But of the
20 19, 14 of them looked like he was off balance, likely from guessing on a pitch. You would hope he cleans that up and learns pitchers a little better or at least takes an approach that he’s always sitting on a certain pitch rather than changing pitch to pitch.
I’ve also spoken with people a lot smarter than me and I keep hearing about him needing to keep his hands higher. Logically, the extra popups do make sense with hands being lower. That’s an easy fix, but not necessarily something that can happen quickly if he’s developed a habit. The swing and miss is still undoubtedly there and worse than last year. I think it’s an issue, but I think a lot of what’s wrong can be fixed by not dropping his hands.
Still, he should be able to look across second base, see the changes we’ve seen from Massey and know something has to change for him. I say that knowing full well that it’s not always as easy as just knowing a change needs to be made. My advice to Witt. Just swing less. He’s tried to swing his way out of it and it hasn’t worked. Take a page out of Massey’s book and leave the bat on your shoulder, Bobby. It may take some time, but the team will be better for it. And maybe there’ll be fewer popups.
A Weekend Preview
The Colorado Rockies are a fascinating organization. They constantly think they’re closer than they are and make moves to that end. If that sounds familiar, well, you’re not alone. The difference between the Rockies and Royals is that the Rockies aren’t afraid to give out a massive contract. Of course, they generally blow up on them. Kris Bryant is the latest. He has a .111 ISO this year and is back on the IL. His numbers last year were actually good, but he only played 42 games. That’s after signing a seven year, $182 million deal, and generally players don’t get healthier as they age.
On the whole, the Rockies can’t hit. For a team playing half their games in Colorado, to be seventh in the NL in slugging percentage is actually sort of shocking. They have the fifth-fewest home runs in baseball and eight fewer than the Royals. How is that even possible? The humidor helps, but it’s not that good. They have an identical wRC+ to the Royals. But, at least they pair a bad offense with a terrible pitching staff.
They’re missing German Marquez, who is on the 60-day IL. They’re missing Ryan Feltner, who wasn’t pitching well, but he’s also on the 60-day IL. They DFAed Jose Ureña. Austin Gomber has numbers like a Royals starter with a 7.00 ERA in 11 starts. Kyle Freeland has been good, so there’s that. Pierce Johnson has been their closer and has 11 saves, but has a 6.85 ERA. The bullpen actually hasn’t been terrible, but they don’t strike out enough hitters. It is nice to Daniel Bard back. He has a shiny ERA, but also has 11 strikeouts and 11 walks in 15.2 innings, so that feels like it won’t last.
The matchups for the weekend are:
Chase Anderson vs. Jordan Lyles
Gomber vs. Daniel Lynch
Freeland vs. Brady Singer
That’s two soft-tossing lefties and a righty with a shiny ERA who doesn’t strike hitters out. Soft-tossing lefties might be just the answer for Witt’s struggles. He’s hitting .462 with a slugging percentage of 1.154 against fastballs 92 MPH and below from lefties. The Royals, as a team, are hitting .363 with a .667 SLG against those fastballs from lefties. I wouldn’t be too surprised to see Jackie Bradley Jr. against Anderson either. I know hitter/pitcher stats are essentially meaningless, but he has two homers against Anderson in 10 career at bats. With two lefties going, Bradley playing tonight wouldn’t be too surprising.
It’s unfortunate that the Royals are not legally allowed to win a game Lyles pitches, so they’ll be in a hole to start, but I’m pretty intrigued by this series for the offense. I think they have a chance to score some runs and maybe actually get a series win, which means they’ll score seven runs in three games. Like clockwork.