Keller and Benintendi and Isbel Makes Three
Brad Keller deserved a better fate, but Andrew Benintendi and Kyle Isbel carried the offense to a series win in Chicago.
Baseball is a team sport that relies on individual matchups. Sometimes you get a team win (or loss), but some days, it’s about a small number of key performers getting the job done and that’s what happened yesterday afternoon in Chicago. Brad Keller was fantastic for the third time in four starts this year and Andrew Benintendi’s fantastic start to the season continued. On a team with a lot fewer individual bright spots than you’d like over the first three weeks of the season, these two have been consistently high performers and are very responsible for the Royals taking the series from the White Sox in Chicago with a big assist from the guy who just got the callup before the game, Kyle Isbel.
Let’s start with Keller, who had it working once again, but sort of in a different way than he had in the past. He had never thrown first pitch strikes at a rate higher than 60 percent in his career. Last season was surprisingly his career-high rate at 59.4 percent. This season, he came into the game at 64.7 percent, which was tied with his teammate Daniel Lynch for 22nd among qualified pitchers coming into the game.
He started the game with ball one to Tim Anderson. He threw just three first-pitch strikes in the first time through the order. That was a change. But it didn’t mean he was struggling. He had a 1-2-3 first. In the second, he gave up his first leadoff base runner of the year (I know the broadcast was beating that stat over its head, but it is a pretty good one), but got a double play to end the inning. He then had a 1-2-3 third inning to get through the first time through with fewer first-pitch strikes but while facing the minimum.
The second time through the order was a little different, but not much. He threw five first-pitch strikes, but was almost as effective. The White Sox got a runner on with one out in the fourth who was erased on a double play, but he had a 1-2-3 fifth and then was so close to a 1-2-3 sixth before Leury Garcia went up the ladder and got on top of a 92 MPH two-seamer for a home run. It was Garcia’s fourth career homer against the Royals, which is the second most he’s hit against any team (he has five against the Twins). But Keller came back to get Tim Anderson (after throwing a first pitch ball) to end the inning.
He got one more inning after that, throwing three first pitch strikes to all three hitters he faced and he got three ground ball outs. And that was that for another fantastic start from Keller. Now for the year, this is his line:
He’s his own error away from having an ERA under 1.00 and probably at least two more innings pitched through his first four starts. After the season he had last year, this is a welcome change. He’s keeping the ball on the ground with a 55.9 percent ground ball rate after getting a ton of them yesterday. And he’s just pitching a lot like the guy we saw in 2020 when he was outstanding in the short season.
What caught my attention was the location of his pitches yesterday.
That huge white spot in the middle of the zone, to me, means he was on. He has so much natural movement that if he’s aiming for that spot in the zone, he’s never going to hit it. Nothing he throws his straight. And so what you get when he’s going good is that big white spot in the middle. Sure he gave up some hard hit outs with nine balls hit 95 MPH or more but only three of the nine were hits.
I had a bit of a complaint in his last start that he fell in love with his fastball. In his first two starts, he threw a ton of sliders and then when he got in trouble in Seattle, he was all about the fastball and it compounded his issues with a couple doubles. I appreciate greatly what he did in this one because he was loving his fastball early. He threw eight fastballs out of 12 pitches in the first. He then shifted to the sinker in the second inning to give a different look. In the third he mixed in a bunch of changeups.
So he got to a point where he was no longer predictable. And in the end, he had one of his most balanced pitch charts in awhile.
You can see he wasn’t getting whiffs like he had, but that’s a very nice balance and contributed quite a bit to the White Sox getting some ugly swings against him. In the end, he got 21 outs. Eight of them were from the slider, seven from the four-seamer and six from the sinker. To be able to mix pitches like that is very impressive and even though he made that one mistake to Garcia, it’s hard to look at the early part of the season for Keller and think of it as anything other than an absolutely massive success.
I love this Royals bullpen, even with a couple recent hiccups, so it’s probably surprising for me to say that I thought they should have left Keller in the game after he got through Jose Abreu in the seventh. He was only at 86 pitches and I have a theory that in some of these games where the weather is cold and just generally dreary that it’s hard to get hot for a reliever and can lead to some problems. And immediately Josh Staumont gave up a single to Yasmani Grandal, spiked a wild pitch and then gave up a soft single to set up AJ Pollock’s sacrifice fly to tie the game.
He did a nice job (with an assist from the wind) to keep the game tied even without his curve really available to him, but it’s a shame that the offense and bullpen couldn’t support Keller more to get him his first win of the year.
Keller did get some offensive support, but only from his left fielder, Andrew Benintendi. In the first inning, Nicky Lopez started the game with a walk and then scored on a Benintendi double. Then in the fifth, Cam Gallagher started the inning with a single and then Lopez walked again. After a Whit Merrifield fielder’s choice, Benintendi hit a sacrifice fly to left to give the Royals a 2-0 lead. In between, Benintendi had another hit as well for his eighth multi-hit game of the year already.
You’d like to see more power from him, but he’s hitting .393 and barely striking out and let’s just say he’s putting together a heck of a platform season. I still can’t believe that when they reconfigured the lineup originally, he was down to hitting fifth at one point. Benintendi needs to be up at the plate as much as possible.
Now, the issue with him is that he is a free agent following the season. So he’s having these great games and driving in both Royals runs and the price tag goes up every single game. I’m on record as saying that I don’t want to give him five years, but if he’d settle for a three-year deal at something like $40 million, I’d certainly be interested in that. At this point, it’s probably wise to wait a bit to see if he cools down some, but they have a tough decision to make with the free agents out there not exactly being inspiring.
Of course, there is one more hero to discuss and he could be the difference between letting Benintendi walk and giving him a boatload of money. That is Isbel, who was buried on the bench early in the year before getting sent to Omaha to get some at bats. As soon as the news of Adalberto Mondesi’s injury hit, he was brought to the team’s taxi squad and then when they placed Mondesi on the IL, he was called up and put in the lineup immediately.
His first at bat, he gave a curve ball a nice ride to right field. He hit the ball 100.6 MPH and I think just missed it. It was a nice swing. He hit a soft grounder in his second time up, but that was the last time the White Sox would retire him in three more plate appearances. He had a hard-hit single up the middle against Tanner Banks, a lefty. Then he walked in the eighth before the big at bat in the tenth.
Against a tough lefty in Aaron Bummer, Isbel was up with the bases loaded and two outs in the tenth. We all know how the extra inning rule works and if the road team doesn’t score, you almost feel like the game is just over. So this was a huge at bat. Bummer threw a first pitch outside that was easy to lay off before throwing one just at the top of the zone that Isbel didn’t offer at. It must have crossed up Reese McGuire because he couldn’t catch it and the Royals picked up a very lucky run.
But on the next pitch, Isbel was looking for one pitch in one spot and got it.
No, it wasn’t a rocket, but it was a good piece of hitting for a guy who probably feels like he has to be perfect at all times just to stay on the big league roster. It drove in two and gave the Royals a 5-2 lead that made life much easier for Taylor Clarke in the bottom of the 10th.
For those who missed it because Bally Sports is a dumpster fire of a network, Clarke got a groundout for the third out after striking out the first two hitters in the White Sox half of the tenth inning.
Hard Hit Witt
We’ve all waited awfully patiently for Bobby Witt Jr.’s first big league home run and when he came to the plate in the fourth, he hit a ball that looked like it was the one.
I said it on Twitter that I’m tired of saying that a ball would be out in better weather, but this is another example where the wind blowing in cost the Royals a home run. it might be the ball too, but that’s another controversy for another day. The point is that Witt hit this ball 104.8 MPH and it was his first career barrel. He seems to be starting to see the ball batter. It appears he’s been making an effort for the ball to get deeper. You’re seeing a lot of balls hit the other way and to center because he’s letting the ball get much deeper into the hitting zone. That’s a good way to start things.
Yesterday, the rockets were flying off his bat. He hit a flyout in the first at 94.5 MPH. That was the appetizer. His next at bat was the almost homer. Then in his next at bat, he hit a rocket to second at 106.9 MPH. That was the moment that I was thinking he had it figured out. Then in his next at bat, I just loved the swing he put on the ball.
It was a 1-2 pitch on a changeup that I thought was in a good spot and Witt just took a short swing and hit a 101.5 MPH single to center. I’ve been wrong before, but it sure feels like he’s about ready to pop, in spite of that strikeout in the tenth.
Walk This Way Again
The Royals have put on their walking shoes over the last few games, after walking eight more times yesterday. Sure some of that is on the White Sox and the Royals did walk 23 times in the three game series, but they also walked nine times in the last two games of the Seattle series, giving them 32 walks in their last five games. This is the 20th stretch of five games with at least 32 walks in Royals history. The last time they walked 32 times in a five-game stretch was back in August of 1995.
Their record for six games is 41, so if they can work nine walks tonight against the Yankees, they’ll at least tie that record that was set most recently in May of 1989. It’s probably a safe bet to say they won’t work those walks as the Yankees pitching staff doesn’t walk that many hitters, but it’s fun to be thinking about it. The crazy thing is that the team walk rate for the season entering the series with the White Sox was an embarrassing 6.4 percent. It’s all the way up to 8.8 percent now, which is actually roughly in the middle of the pack in the league. Thanks, White Sox pitching!