Crown Jewels: Starting Pitching, Roster Moves and Coaching Non-Moves
A few quick hit items for you as we wait for the offseason to get started.
When Adam Duvall touched the plate to score the fourth run for the Braves in the bottom of the first inning on Sunday night, I was pretty confident the offseason was mere hours away. I was wrong. The Astros really did a great job of getting back into the game and obviously winning it. now they have a tough task to face the two remaining Braves starters, though they are at home. I’m a little torn personally because I definitely want as much baseball as possible, but life for a fan of a team not in the World Series, and actually the postseason at all, is pretty dull until the end of the series. So here I sit, just collecting some thoughts and figured I could take a feature from the end of many of my daily articles during the season and make it a whole big thing.
Pitchers Pulled Early
What this postseason has highlighted dramatically is the fact that starting pitchers are getting pulled as quickly as ever. The bullpen game has been seen often in this postseason and the Astros look like they might need some form of one in Game Seven if it gets there. Of course, that’s not new for the game. Look at Game Seven of the 2014 World Series. We all remember it around these parts. The Royals started Jeremy Guthrie and short of him dominating, I’d be very surprised if Ned Yost was expecting more than four innings from him in that game. Guthrie pitched into the fourth and then Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland finished it out, giving the offense a chance to come back. Is that hugely different than what we saw the Dodgers do with Corey Knebel in an elimination game? It’s different, but not drastically so.
My first point is that teams will do whatever they need to do win in the postseason. It’s not like a mid-May game where you tell your starter he has to eat it to save the bullpen. You figure out tomorrow tomorrow in the playoffs, especially with your back to the wall. To assign long-term meaning to things done in the playoffs, to me, is a bit foolish.
But that said, there are all sorts of conversations now about how to fix the “problem” of fewer innings from starters. The general idea is that starters getting pulled early leads to a parade of relievers, which leads to longer games. I do buy that, and I would love for there to be more of an emphasis on starters getting deeper into games. One of the things that has turned baseball into the three true outcomes monster it is now is because of how good pitchers are. And part of why they’re so good is you have guys just letting it fly from pitch one to whenever they’re pulled because they know they aren’t going to be counted on to get to the eighth and sometimes not even the seventh.
My second point is that I am just not a fan of double pull idea that’s been floating around. The idea here is that when a team pulls its starting pitcher, they also lose their designated hitter. This is all under the assumption that both leagues will have the DH moving forward. On the surface, it seems like a pretty great idea for a team to want to wait as long as possible to remove their starter so they have their DH in the lineup, but I think there are too many unintended consequences with that.
Picture a scenario, as hard as it might be, where Jackson Kowar goes out and gets shelled in the top of the first inning (sorry, Jackson, easy target I guess). It’s 7-0 and he’s only gotten two outs. Mike Matheny simply can’t let it go anymore, so he goes out and gets him and brings in a reliever. Salvador Perez is the DH that day and hitting third. He’s now out of the lineup and the game. Let’s say it’s Domingo Tapia who comes in and gets the third out, but then the Royals have to pinch hit for him because it’s 7-0, but also the bottom of the first inning so they’re not going to let him hit. So they pinch hit and they’re on their third pitcher of the game when the second rolls around, have lost their best power hitter and now are going to need a parade of relievers. Is that any better? Or on the flip side, you find yourself in a position where a pitcher who no longer trains to hit because the DH is in both leagues is up to bat and injures himself swinging or running or whatever. In theory, the idea is fine, but in practice, you can see a lot of situations for it to go very bad.
I agree it would be great to see an incentive for starters to go deeper, but this one just isn’t it to me. I also think the Royals crop of young pitchers is pretty well equipped to be excellent in a world where starters are only expected to go three or four innings. They have big stuff but all of them seem to wear down a little bit, so maybe I’m slightly biased about these ideas because imagine a world where the Royals start Asa Lacy, so the opponent loads the lineup with righties, but then after he gets through one time and maybe a bit on the second, they turn to Brady Singer who can dominate righties. Pretty fun, right? Either way, I don’t like the double pull, but I’m kind of interested to see how this group of Royals could do if there aren’t any rule changes.
Last week, the Royals announced that Hanser Alberto and Scott Blewett have cleared waivers and elected free agency. Blewett was no surprise. If 2020 wasn’t the way it was, the Royals probably would have never needed him to throw any innings in 2021 and he wouldn’t have even been added back to the roster. So whatever on him, but Alberto was a bit of a surprise to me, although he shouldn’t have been. Which I guess, shame on me for not seeing that. They also released Ryan McBroom yesterday to allow him to go to an Asian team, which is honestly probably going to be great for him.
As it stands right now with those three removed from the 40-man, they have 37 players listed, but four more are on the 60-day IL. Two of them are pending free agents, so they’re sort of irrelevant for a roster discussion, but the other two are Richard Lovelady and Brad Keller. I believe it’s five days after the World Series ends, those two will need to be activated from that 60-day IL and will take up a roster spot again. So the Royals needed at least two spots within the next week or so, and they found their way to do that. As a side note, I hate that the 60-day doesn’t exist in the offseason for guys like Lovelady who likely won’t pitch at all in 2022 anyway. I get it for someone like Keller. Teams can totally game the 40-man, but players who underwent surgery who have no chance of coming back wouldn’t be gaming that system. But I digress.
There is always risk in reading too much into small moves and what they mean for the bigger picture, but I think Alberto’s release speaks to the fact that the Royals are probably not especially eager to move any of their infield options. I think the plan right now is for Whit Merrifield to play second with Nicky Lopez at shortstop and Bobby Witt Jr. at third, but there’s also Adalberto Mondesi hanging around and Emmanuel Rivera, who they added and he had terrible timing on his injury to lose some opportunity to show what he can do. Of course, he’s also a candidate to lose his spot if space is needed.
The versatility of Witt to play both positions on the left side, Lopez to play short and second, Mondesi to play second, third and short (and probably outfield by the time camp starts) and Merrifield to play second and outfield lends itself to an Alberto-less roster, but I do think it says that the plan at this very second is for those four to be on the roster with at least one of them moving around. Having three shortstops on the roster makes a lot of things much easier for them.
They, of course, have other spots to clear as they’ll still be at 39 once the 60-day IL guys are added back. They’ll knock off Greg Holland and Ervin Santana through free agency, but they’ll need more room. The main candidates are Lucius Fox, Cam Gallagher, Jakob Junis , Ryan O’Hearn, Joel Payamps, Rivera, Gabe Speier, Kyle Zimmer and Tyler Zuber. Fox is especially expendable for the same reason Alberto was, but any of those nine remaining could go and give the Royals a lot of open space to make some moves.
Coaching Staff Non-Carousel
I wrote about this a little on Royals Review a few weeks ago, but the young Royals pitchers may have saved Cal Eldred’s job. I thought it was pretty close to a foregone conclusion that he’d be let go after the season when we talked about him around the break. And with good reason. In his fourth year on the job, the young pitching seemed to be stalled and maybe even getting worse.
But as the season progressed, the young pitching had some very nice moments, particularly in the first five or six weeks past the break. I said before the season that September for the young pitchers might be very difficult to evaluate due to their shortened season last year with some not even throwing a single competitive inning, so it wouldn’t be exactly fair for me to rail on them for having tough finishes to the year. And so, here we are, almost exactly a month since the end of the season and it doesn’t appear there are any changes.
I still don’t think Eldred is the right guy for the job. I find it tough to believe that a few weeks of better pitching wipes away the three and a half years of way too many walks and just consistently unprepared performances. But I also don’t get to make the decisions here, and I’ve said before that I hope I’m wrong and I’ll say it again. I have heard some more encouraging things about Eldred’s work with analytics, though I’m assuming (and this truly is an assumption) that he’s still falling behind other coaches throughout the league.
The Royals rebuild (yeah, I said, it come at me, Dayton) is less dependent on the arms than it was a year ago, at least as far as we can see, since the offensive development has started producing some much better results, but it still rides with what these guys can do at the big league level. The minor league development is probably still more important for another few months than what happens at the big league level, but the Royals need to hit on a few of these guys. If they end up with back of the rotation starters and never made a move at the coaching level, that’s a massive mistake that could have literally a decade of ramifications for the organizations. Personally, I wouldn’t put my eggs in the basket of Eldred, but they are and now we need to hope that it works out.
And it’s not just Eldred. Terry Bradshaw appears to have his job saved after a pretty terrible season for the Royals offense with nobody truly excelling other than Lopez, Perez and occasionally Andrew Benintendi (and I guess Kyle Isbel in September). I’m a lot less vocal about Bradshaw because I just don’t think hitting coaches have the impact that pitching coaches do, at least not at the big league level. As long as he’s on the same page with Drew Saylor, Mike Tosar and Alec Zumwalt, I think that should work itself out.
A lot of people lament the loss of Kevin Seitzer, but the hitting coach more than the pitching coach, I believe, is dependent on the players at his or her disposal. Seitzer’s teams have had a below average wRC+ in nine of 13 seasons. The exceptions are 2011 with the Royals when they had Alex Gordon (he gets credit for Gordon), Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur hitting like crazy, 2014 with the loaded Blue Jays lineup that was loaded before and after him and then 2019 and 2020 with the Braves and they had a pretty bad offense until Ronald Acuña Jr. got there. And this season with Acuña out for half the year, they were back down to a wRC+ of 98. I don’t say that to bash Seitzer, but just to point that talent makes a big difference for a hitting coach while I believe a pitching coach has more impact.
Coincidence that you mention the coaching staff, as I've been thinking about that lately. I would love to see the Royals change both pitching and hitting coaches just to hopefully infuse the young players with some new energy and ideas. That is probably a pipe dream with Eldred, considering he and Matheny go back aways. I saw that Tim Hyers decided to part ways with the Red Sox, and my first thought was what a good hire he'd be to replace Bradshaw. Hyers has been with the Dodgers in addition to the Bosox, which would seem to be good credentials. The way the Royals typically operate, though, probably no changes.
Not that it matters what I think, but I totally agree with you on Eldred. I would love to see the Royals just promote the pitching coach from Omaha. It seems like the young guys excelled there even while pitching in homer friendly parks in AAA. I love your posts each time you are able to write.