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It took five days and four games, but the Royals are in the win column.
You can wake up. The nightmare of the Royals starting 0-7 or 0-12 or 0-17 or 0-100 or whatever it is the first three games had you dreading is over. Sure, they can still go 1-whatever, but a one is better than a zero. Does it mean the Royals are back? Oh gosh no. But it does mean that they’ve got one under their belt and it’s always a lot easier to get number two than it is number one. But it isn’t just the team as a whole. A few players got on the board in this one and it was nice to see.
MJ Melendez, Bobby Witt Jr., Hunter Dozier, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Nicky Lopez all collected their first hits of the season. And it felt like a weight was lifted. Remember, the second is easier than the first and now they’re just waiting on Franmil Reyes and Nate Eaton to get going. That takes some pressure off. There’s just something about getting that first, just like the win, that makes things seem a little less dire, no matter how much any player will say every day is a new day.
I also think it’s interesting that the Royals have now scored 6.5 runs per game in their last two. I know what you might be thinking and it’s that you can’t just take two games and talk about it as a definitive sample. And you know what? You’re absolutely right, but I think it illustrates why getting worked up over the first two games was always a little silly too. Let’s get into the game because I think there were some interesting stories to dig into.
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First, we’ll look at the offense because they had a fun game for once. I wrote about why I wasn’t worried about the offense in yesterday’s Weekend in Review. Look, I’m not right often and when I am, I’m not typically proven right that quickly. But the Royals scored three runs on four hits in the first inning alone. And you’d think that maybe some of the hard-hit balls were finally falling in. But you’d be wrong. At least in the first. Melendez’s leadoff double had an exit velocity of 84.9 MPH. Witt’s single was hit 89.9 MPH. Michael Massey did hit a ball hard for a single, but then Kyle Isbel hit one at 84.2 MPH. The hardest hit ball of the inning ended it and it was a ground ball from Bradley.
It wasn’t that the Royals didn’t hit the ball hard in the end. They had a hard-hit rate of 63.6 percent, which was higher than any game in 2022. They went 7 for 14 on the hard-hit balls, which is much more in line with the league average. They hit eight balls 100 MPH or harder and went five for 8 on those. So a lot of that did even out, but there was also some evening out on what the Blue Jays did.
They were just 4 for 10 on balls 100 MPH or harder and just 4 for 13 on hard hit balls. Does that mean they’re due for a correction in the next few games? Maybe! Hopefully that correction comes after they leave town, but this is a team that can really hit. We saw how relentless they were in the late innings even when the game was really out of reach. But you’re bored of hard-hit data. So I’m done with that. Maybe we’ll get back to the offense after I *ahem* sing Singer’s praises.
The tone was set early with a very efficient first inning from the Royals actual ace, Brady Singer. He didn’t start on Opening Day and you all know why. It was the World Baseball Classic and the fact that he just wasn’t ready to start on Opening Day. But h came out in the first and got George Springer on three pitches, Bo Bichette on two and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. on a great play from Lopez at shortstop.
After a long (in today’s game) bottom of the first inning, Singer came out and needed a few more pitches in the second inning to work around a walk and a double, but then threw nine pitches in the third and 10 in the fourth. If not for a 25-pitch second inning, he’d have entered the fifth in excellent shape. Instead, I sort of have a feeling that he hit a little bit of a wall even though he’d only thrown 53 pitches. It’s easy to say that he shouldn’t have hit that wall so early, but he only threw more than that once in spring and there is different intensity in a regular season game than a spring game.
In that fifth, we saw some decreased velocity with his sinker clocking in at 92.5 on the four-pitch walk to start the inning, a four-seamer at 91.9 to start the next at bat that he gave up a double and then consistently 92-93 before he ramped up to end the inning with a grounder off the bat off George Springer. All in all, I can’t imagine being anything but pleased with that outing even though the final line showed too many walks and not enough strikeouts. He looked like he had no-hit stuff early and only gave up the two hits in his five innings.
I thought his slider in particular looked very good in the early-going. He got a bunch of swings on sliders out of the zone and not much contact, which led to a 40 percent whiff rate. If we’re going to nitpick, I wonder a bit why he threw just one changeup, especially with the Blue Jays running out four lefties, but he also seemed to feel really good about his primary pitches (and that four-seamer could have been a changeup, so maybe it was two?). It looks like his next start will be in San Francisco against a Giants team that has been shut out twice in its first four games, just like the Royals. So we’ll see how he builds on this one in terms of endurance.
Now let’s get back to the offense because it seemed like the Royals had a plan in place against Jose Berrios, especially the lefties. These are the pitches that they swung at against him.
It sure seems like they were targeting four-seamers on the outer third. You have to assume some of those slurves were just good ones that Berrios used to throw them off the scent. The righties in the lineup (not a ton) were a little less concerned, but the strategy against Berrios is a pretty good one. Lefties hit .381 with a .752 slugging percentage on his four-seamer last season. This explains a bit why Vinnie Pasquantino saw four pitches in four at bats, and all of them were in the zone that the Royals were targeting. I appreciate an approach like that. Having that good approach sometimes will mean swinging early. If the pitch is in the zone you want it, who cares what the count is? Obviously there are some exceptions like if you’re the third batter and the first two saw one pitch each, but the majority of what the Royals staff teaches is to hunt a pitch you can do damage on and if it comes first pitch, so be it.
Now, it didn’t work out great for Pasquantino in three of his four at bats, but he did double in the other and I’m convinced he’s just getting his timing right still. Remember, he hit .235 with one extra base hit in his first 11 games in the minors last year. He was hitting .157 through his first 14 games in 2021. He still has two walks and has only struck out twice in four games this season, so I’m not too worried about that.
I do think it’s fun that the lineup was already a point of consternation in the fourth game of the season. I don’t know how many times I’ve written this. It might be none, but lineup complaints drive me nuts. So when the Royals put out their lineup yesterday without Salvador Perez, the one guy who was hitting, and with a guy like Dozier over Matt Duffy after Duffy homered, people were big mad.
I get it. I absolutely do. But on the Perez front, if you’ve ever complained he’s overworked in previous years, you can’t be upset about him sitting, no matter the situation. I actually really liked the fact that Matt Quatraro didn’t give in to him. I’m sure Perez wanted to at least DH, but he’d decided that he was going to keep Witt fresh and get him a half-day off yesterday. And I know you’re thinking “why does a 22-year old need to be kept fresh after playing three games in four days?” It’s called being proactive and I appreciate that. We watched Whit Merrifield, who will likely start tonight, get run into the ground and there’s simply no reason for that to happen. Look for more rotating than we’ve seen before with Quatraro making the lineup card.
And, for whatever it’s worth, it worked. The coup de grace came in the bottom of the sixth when Melendez absolutely unloaded on a Zach Pop sinker that just went right into the hitting zone for Melendez.
What an absolute tank. He’s hit some bombs in his short career, but that 113.2 MPH exit velocity was 2.4 MPH harder than any other batted ball in his career. And the 443 feet was six feet longer than any other home run. It was a nice exclamation point on the offense breaking out after three very frustrating games.
If we’re looking to complain, I think it’s fair to continue to be concerned about Dylan Coleman. His velocity is down. His command is a mess. He’s just not the same guy we saw at the end of the last season. This isn’t the first time he’s gone through a velocity dip. It happened in the minors a few years ago and he overcame it, so you have to hope he can do it again, but him averaging 94.2 MPH just isn’t enough. I will say that he’s another pitcher who has incorporated a sweeper and it looks really good at times, but even so he needs to get that velocity back and if it takes a trip to AAA for a few weeks, so be it. They’ve got the depth.
Previewing Today’s Game
The Royals will face off against Yusei Kikuchi, who has been, I’d say, pretty disappointing in his big league career. A lot of people believed the Blue Jays could do with him what they did with Robbie Ray, but it just didn’t work out last season. But he’s signed for two more years, so here they go again. The stuff is there. He runs his fastball up to 95, he has a slider that gets whiffs and his changeup is a fantastic weapon. But he struggles to throw strikes and sometimes struggles to throw quality strikes even when he’s in the zone. Just like yesterday was a lefty-heavy lineup, I imagine today will lean right-handed. It wouldn’t surprise me if the only lefties in there are Kyle Isbel, Vinnie Pasquantino and MJ Melendez. And honestly even one of them might sit.
Kikuchi has allowed a .276/.354/.508 line to righties compared to .210/.274/.374 to lefties. And last year featured an even more prominent split. What’s interesting about his slider is that he does get a lot of whiffs, but he throws it in the strike zone a lot more than I feel like most pitchers. Looking for hitters who have done well against lefty sliders and look toward Melendez, Dozier and Witt. If you’re betting and like to take home run props, those three seem like the best bets to me.
I’m excited to see what Kris Bubic can do in his first start of the year with his new slider available to him. I still believe he’s one of the guys who will benefit the most from Brian Sweeney and crew and I’m excited to see how he handles a Blue Jays lineup that can really hit and has handled lefties just fine in the past. If his changeup is working, it may not matter, but if it’s not, he has a new weapon and I’m interested to see it.