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Mike Mayers did his thing in a start that may just be a blip for the Royals, but it was nice to see an approach like he took.
The old cliche goes that you can’t predict baseball, which in 2023 generally can be said about any Royals win. But when you take the first two games of this series, it maybe applies a little more even. If you look at two games against a team with an offense that has scored the fewest runs in baseball and the second-fewest runs per game, you’d expect someone like Brady Singer to handle his business just fine and (another) spot starter in Mike Mayers to maybe not be as good. So the Royals being 1-1 in these two games probably makes sense.
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But it didn’t go the way you’d expect. Singer’s command was terrible again and he kept getting himself in trouble and couldn’t make it through four innings while Mayers put himself on a short list of Royals pitchers. What did he do, you ask? He has one of 46 outings of five innings or shorter with eight strikeouts or more. He now has one of eight innings of shorter than five innings with eight strikeouts or more. That’s pretty fun. I really appreciate the game plan put out there for Mayers to succeed.
He threw 84 pitches and just 24 were either a four-seamer or a sinker. His slider, in particular, was nasty last night. He threw 29 of them, got 16 swings and nine whiffs on it. Add in four called strikes and three foul balls plus four balls in play with only one hit hard and you can see that it dominated a bad offense. But what I appreciated about this outing is that he threw just three sliders in the first inning. He was successful in the first, striking out the side, but whether it was Mayers or Salvador Perez or Brian Sweeney or anyone else, they saw something in that slider.
He started throwing it heavily against righties. The Tigers didn’t really stack lefties, but they did have a pretty good balance with four of them. Against the righties, he threw 22 sliders out of 38 pitches throughout the game. Of those 22 sliders, he got eight whiffs on 15 swings. That, friends, will play. Take a look at a couple of these. They’re nasty.
I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that Mayers is anything more than a stopgap, but a difference in the way he pitches is something that intrigues me with the coaching staff. We point to the Rays a lot because they seem to churn out pitchers and I think it can get a little tired, but turning guys like Mayers into someone who can help, even if it’s for a month, is how they get through a long season. Jeffrey Springs was a 28-year old journeyman two years removed from an ERA over 7.00 as a reliever last year. He turned in a 2.46 ERA in 33 games last year for them. They signed him to a long-term deal and were rewarded with him needing Tommy John, but that’s the second part. Shawn Armstrong had a 4.57 ERA in 228.2 career innings heading into last season. He gave 55 innings with a 3.60 ERA for the Rays last year.
There are examples of this on good teams everywhere. One good start against a bad offense doesn’t mean anything in the long run, but you have to start somewhere. Mayers has had moments of big league success as a reliever (and moments of something the opposite of success), so he kind of fits the mold as a guy who has shown he can be a quality arm on a team. We’ll see if the Royals can do something with him to make more useful, but I just find myself optimistic about game planning with the way he attacked the Tigers yesterday.
And the bullpen continued to show out well. After throwing 5.1 scoreless on Monday night before the Royals were hurt by Singer’s inability to go beyond the fourth and needing Scott Barlow for a second inning (with the worst rule in sports), they put in 4.1 scoreless innings with four strikeouts and two hits allowed. That unit was so bad for the first three weeks of the season that they’re still paying for their sins. They had a 6.89 ERA through April 20, which was worse than even the A’s.
Since then, though, things have been downright good. In that time, they have the eighth-best bullpen ERA in baseball and the seventh-best FIP. And those numbers don’t include openers for the team, which have combined for seven innings with no earned runs on three hits with nine strikeouts and one walk. They’re doing it with pure stuff, showing the third-best velocity among bullpens but also the fourth-best strikeout rate in baseball since April 21.
They still walk too many batters, but in the 31 games since then, they’ve had nine relievers throw at least 10 innings and six of them have a better-than-average ERA. Eight of those nine have a better-than-average strikeout rate. Five actually have a better-than-average walk rate (again, that’s the big issue). But the point is that the bullpen that we thought would be a strength has actually become one. If only they had some more leads to protect.
The offense continued to have its issues, but unlike earlier in the year, they still found a way to come through. In their second game with a reconfigured lineup, things didn’t start off quite as well as they did on Monday when they erased a three-run deficit in the span of just a few pitches. They did their damage in a different way. Their top three hitters were a combined 1 for 11 with a walk. The top five were a combined 3 for 19. The damage was done at the bottom of the order, with the six through nine hitters going a combined 8 for 16 with three runs scored and three RBIs.
I really appreciated the way the offense worked counts against Eduardo Rodriguez. He’s had a great season so far and they worked him for 20 pitches in the first, 21 in the second and 25 in the fourth. He was at 78 pitches through four innings. Rodriguez is a bit prone to that, but he also came into the game averaging a little more than 15 pitches per inning, so getting him to 78 through four was worth mentioning and it was a nice display for a unit that’s struggled some lately but still seems to have often shown a solid approach even through those struggles.
Arms on the Farm
I noted this on Twitter yesterday, but it was a heck of a day for Royals starting pitching throughout the whole organization. Including Mayers, they combined for:
This was a particularly good day, partly because all four starters yesterday could be pieces of the future. It was Daniel Lynch looking outstanding in what was probably his final rehab start. Jonathan Bowlan seems to be getting on track in AA. Luinder Avila is an incredibly underrated pitching prospect and he pitched well in high-A. Steven Zobac looks like he’s being stretched out some in low-A and he was very good for four innings.
Yesterday was Bowlan’s third start since coming back from an ankle (I think) injury. His first was a disaster, but he’s struck out 10 and walked two in 8.2 innings in his last two with two runs on six hits allowed. He was on track to be up in 2021 before he had his Tommy John surgery and then took some time to get it going when he got back last year. I’m not ready to say he’s back, but Bowlan has long been one of my favorites. I have no problem with him sticking in AA for a few more starts as he works back, but he could easily be in AAA within six weeks along with Alec Marsh. They could join Anthony Veneziano who makes his AAA debut tonight to give the Royals some much-needed depth at the top level.
Avila and Zobac both have a long way to go, of course, but they’re very encouraging with what they’re doing. I’m going to continue to talk up the pitching in the system because all I hear is great things from people who see them. They’re attacking hitters differently, they’re working on pitch development and just generally going about their business in a different way than we’ve seen in the minors for this organization in a long time. We’ll see if the results end up there, but these are encouraging numbers.
I really did intend to write yesterday and talk about Singer’s struggles, the lineup reconstruction and the DFA of Hunter Dozier, but life got in the way. I just wanted to write something real quick about Dozier and the DFA. There are two main points I want to make here. The first is that I really do believe this shows something about the way the team is doing business now. They made a mistake with the extension (I didn’t mind it and I still maintain it wasn’t hampering), but they also cut bait earlier than a lot of teams would have. There are only a handful of examples of players being DFAed with more than a year and a half left on their contract.
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That, to me, says that they’re both willing to move on from underperforming players and eat a little money. It’s not the first example either with guys like Franmil Reyes sent down and ultimately DFAed and Dylan Coleman sent down as well. I think they gave Dozier an adequate shot to prove he could get back to his 2019 form. He played 11 of the team’s first 15 games and hit .167/.189/.250 in 37 plate appearances. From there, he started 15 of their next 33 and was replaced at some point in seven of those games. He ended up with 91 plate appearances and when they needed a spot, that was it for him. So good on them for making the decision.
The thing that I hope his deal doesn’t change is them working to lock up players. They need to do a better job of evaluating exactly who to give the money to moving forward, but a low-level extension for a player that didn’t work out should, in no way, stop them from trying it again. I was thinking about the way this team has functioned in the last year or so and I’m pretty encouraged by the 30,000 foot view.
They’ve traded veterans like Carlos Santana, Andrew Benintendi, Whit Merrifield and Michael A. Taylor. They fired Dayton Moore, Mike Matheny and Cal Eldred. They hired from successful organizations to replace the coaches. They obviously haven’t been perfect. You don’t get to 15-35 by doing everything right and this trade deadline with guys like Aroldis Chapman, Scott Barlow, Amir Garrett and any of their candidates to trade out of their position players is super important, but I do appreciate their willingness to do things they haven’t seemed to be willing to do before.