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Weekend in Review: Pitching Turnaround, A Good Weekend (Could Have Been Better) and What's Next
The Royals were in position for a sweep, and that's pretty amazing considering where they started before the weekend.
The weekend in San Francisco didn’t end the way the Royals had hoped and moral victories only go so far, but I don’t think you can walk away from that series too terribly upset. Yes, 4-6 is much better than 3-7, but in the grand scheme of a season that sadly isn’t measured by wins and losses, it’s how they get to the record that matters more. And right now, I feel pretty good about things I didn’t expect to feel pretty good about coming into the season. I’m also not terribly surprised they had a good series. I mean, I did just write about another young team going on the road after a terrible homestand and how that helped get the season back on some sort of track.
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I’ll get to it in the week ahead down at the bottom, but the Royals aren’t exactly going through an easy schedule to start their season, so to stay on track will take some extra work, but I like what we’ve seen from the pitching staff and still believe the offense will figure things out and get going soon enough. I just hope that what we’ve seen from the pitchers will continue when those bats do come around. It’s been nice to see Vinnie Pasquantino and Salvador Perez do some damage, but the Royals absolutely need more from guys like MJ Melendez and Bobby Witt Jr. in addition to someone else stepping up, whether that’s Michael Massey, Edward Olivares or even someone like Franmil Reyes.
Raid the Zone
You may recognize this heading as the phrase the Royals used in spring training. They want to see more strikes. They so badly want to see more strikes that they’re willing to give out bonuses for first pitch home runs allowed because they want the ball in the zone. Well, friends, the ball is in the zone. Let’s take a look at some comparisons between the 2022 and 2023 Royals pitching staff and what the league as a whole has done.
So the league strikeout rate has gone up a touch, though not much, and the walk rate has gone up a fair amount. A whole percentage point is somewhat significant. And yet, there are the Royals, improving their strikeout rate by a bunch and decreasing their walk rate by a bunch. So we see it relative to the league stats, but also, take a look at where they rank. They’re 10th in strikeout percentage and tied for the fifth-lowest walk rate in baseball. I can’t even wrap my head around that. And just to compare it to the first 10 games of 2022, they were 27th in strikeout rate, but they did have the 11th-lowest walk rate, so we’ll see if that changes.
But it’s clear the changes that have been put in place by this coaching staff have worked. I hesitate to even think about mentioning defensive metrics after 10 games, specifically for a catcher, but as long as we can understand how tiny of a sample it is, I will say that both Perez and Melendez have strong marks. Again, they don’t mean anything, but they’re the only numbers we have, so I’ll mention them understanding they could change quickly. Still, I think it’s very clear that they’ve made a difference for this pitching staff.
We see it beyond just the walks. They’re in the zone a lot more. They’ve thrown 44.3 percent of pitches in the zone, second in baseball only to Cleveland. Last year, they were 19th with 41.2 percent. My theory is that’s actually helping to get them to get more chases. I remember writing about that last year. Part of the issue for Royals pitching was that they just couldn’t get a chase. Hitters were able to take a lot against them. Now they have to be ready to swing and that’s led to some (not a lot) more swings outside the zone. But while they’ve only only increased from 31 percent of pitches outside the zone getting swung at to 31.4 percent, relative to the league, it’s risen a lot from them ranking to 27th to ranking 19th this year.
Understanding the early nature of the year, this is something to keep watching rather than to throw a parade about, but the Royals only have three pitchers with a below-average walk rate and Brad Keller is the only one of the three to throw more than 4.1 innings. I’m watching Keller because it’s interesting, but I have a hunch that Scott Barlow is going to get that walk rate under control and if Dylan Coleman doesn’t, he’ll likely be spending time at Omaha again this season. The numbers show, though, that they’re throwing strikes as a whole and that’s such a welcome sight after the last few years. If this turnaround proves to be able to stick, I think it’s hard to say any timeline is too aggressive to turn things around on the whole.
Friday - Royals 3, Giants 1
The Royals had their home opener spoiled by a very nice pitching performance from the Twins and the Royals turned around and did the same to the Giants. Even though Alex Cobb was good for them, the Giants just couldn’t solve the Brad Keller riddle, which is another feather in the cap of the coaching staff (so far, even with the walks). I thought Keller didn’t have a lot in this one and he still ended up giving the Royals 5.2 innings with just three hits allowed.
It felt like he was just struggling to get much going with either his new curve or either of his sliders that are both redefined. The results were good with both all three pitches, but it’s pretty clear that he just didn’t have much of a feel for any of them, at least early in the game. So he kind of went to old favorites, his sinker and his four-seamer. And the velocity wasn’t great on either of them, but the results were generally excellent. He got nine groundouts to two flyouts so the sinker was working and the Giants didn’t have anything that was working for them against him.
He did seem to find his curve toward the end of his outing, getting a couple of strikeouts on it and I think I’m really encouraged by the fact that he went back to it after he wasn’t feeling it early. That tells me there’s a fair amount of confidence in the pitch. I think you can kind of look at what Keller did in this game and see whichever side you want. On one hand, he didn’t have great stuff and held down an offense that had hit 13 homers in their previous three-game series. On the other hand, you saw a guy who maybe found himself a little lucky and it could have been uglier.
I think this is sort of like with anything. Whatever you believed coming in, this start strengthened that belief. I’m encouraged by Keller, so I see a positive. But if you’re skeptical, I don’t see how you wouldn’t be skeptical still given the fact that he didn’t look like anything special. But still, one run allowed is one run allowed and it allowed the offense to be sort of bland and still pull it out.
The encouraging player in this one was Pasquantino, who went two for three with three more hard-hit ball, including this bomb:
And we got to Salvy get on the board with his first homer of the year.
A dominant outing from Aroldis Chapman followed by a shaky outing by Scott Barlow closed it out and the Royals had their first road win of the year.
Saturday - Royals 6, Giants 5
Okay, this was fun. Well, it was fun early, less fun in the middle and then a lot of fun again in the late innings. Early it was fun because Brady Singer had it going on the first time through the order, retiring all nine batters he faced, though I had a weird feeling he would struggle the second time through the order. And he did. He ended up having an inning that was very much a 2021 Brady Singer inning giving up four runs when it easily could have been just two.
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He ended up giving another in the sixth, but he did make it through six innings with no walks and four strikeouts. He’ll need to improve moving forward, but I appreciate that he’s at least a source of innings even when he’s struggling some. I do want to touch on one thing that I thought was really interesting. He didn’t throw many changeups in his first start, but he did throw 14 in this one and there was a pretty drastic difference in the shape of it.
First, it has way less spin, which seems like a bad thing, but can actually be good. A pitch with less spin can be just as effective as one with more spin and it went from 2229 rpm last year to 1888 this season so far. He’s also releasing it a full six inches closer to home plate, which can really change the look for a hitter. It has three full inches more of drop and two full inches more of horizontal break. He has said that it feels different and way better and I would be very interested to see how he uses it in his next start against what I assume will be the Braves. He’ll likely face at least four lefties and maybe a fifth, so he’ll have plenty of opportunities.
In spite of Singer’s troubles, the offense showed some life and started clawing back. First, it was a home run from Witt on a hanging slider.
Then it was an absolute laser off the bat of Reyes after the Giants had gotten the run back from the Witt home run.
Then in the eighth, with the score still 5-2 and it looking like the joy of Friday was short-lived, the Royals started a two-out rally with hits from Melendez and Olivares that led to Perez coming to the plate in a big situation.
Of course he did that. He is just a freak of nature and a treasure.
Who hits that ball for a home run. The captain, that’s who. His heroics were almost entirely undermined the very next half inning when Taylor Clarke loaded the bases with three straight hits. It was at that point that he completely abandoned his fastball. He threw a slider and two curves to Thairo Estrada.
Then he had a longer at bat against Brandon Crawford where he threw two changeups, a slider, another changeup, a curve and a slider.
And he finished things up by just eating up rookie Blake Sabol with two sliders, a curve and another slider.
It was impressive. You can see all three here and then a chest pound at the end.
But what you don’t see is the emotion of Clarke as he got into the dugout. They showed it on the broadcast and I have to say that I think there’s a fire in this team that I didn’t see at any point last season. I don’t know if that’s leadership or an infusion of talent or what, but this team seems like they’re actually enjoying playing baseball this year and I didn’t always get that last season.
And the Royals started the ninth with a double by Pasquantino, who was pinch run for by Nate Eaton. Eaton got to third on a one-out Hunter Dozier groundout and then used his fantastic speed and instincts to score on a ball to the backstop. That gave the Royals their first lead of the game and Chapman made it hold up with another dominant inning for his first Royals save. He only topped out at 100.2 MPH, so it wasn’t quite the 103.5 we saw the other day, but it’ll have to do.
Sunday - Giants 3, Royals 1
This could have been a sweep pretty easily, but the Royals let it get away from him and, yet, I’m most excited about what I saw in this game because Kris Bubic looked as good as I’ve ever seen him. The final line was fantastic:
6 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 9 K
But I don’t even know if that line did it justice. The Giants were just struggling to pick up anything from him all day long. They put 11 balls in play against him. One was a 106.2 MPH groundout. One was a 99.4 MPH groundout. The rest were not hard-hit. Of course, the nine strikeouts kind of speak for themselves, but how about nine strikeouts with no walks? Or about 76 pitches in six innings with all those strikeouts? It was just an amazing effort.
Bubic threw a first-pitch strike to 13 of the 21 batters he faced. He threw 56 strikes total in his 76 pitches. He had two three-ball counts and three two-ball counts all game long. I think a lot of people thought the hook on him was pretty quick and I agreed at first until I remembered how little action he had this spring and how a Daniel Lynch injury sort of forced him into the rotation even though he could have used another seven to 10 days to stretch out. It’s not just the pitch count, but the ups and downs, so I’m fine with having taken him out. I’ll get to my managerial issues with this one in a minute.
How did he get it done? He threw his four-seam fastball harder again, just like he did in his last start against the Blue Jays, but the spin on it was way down. It got seven whiffs in 16 swings. He threw his changeup a lot and it was fantastic. The spin on that pitch is way up and it got five whiffs on 14 swings. Then he was able to use his curve effectively. The spin on that was way down. It got five whiffs on eight swings. And he used his slider just enough and got two whiffs on four swings. All in all, he ended up with 19 swings and misses, more than any other pitcher in baseball yesterday. It was a career-high as well.
And yet, I find myself mad about his success. This is a pitcher who I have written about so many times as believing in because he is an intellectual pitcher and always trying to get better. So he comes to spring training with a slider in 2022 and it looks like it can help him. But the previous pitching coach, who I still think should be hired back just so they can fire him again, told him not to use it because he needed to work on the pitches he already had. That is so, and pardon my French, ass backwards in today’s game. We could have been seeing games like this from Bubic much earlier.
And I know it’s only two starts, but Bubic now has thrown 11 innings with nine hits allowed, one walk allowed and has 13 strikeouts. This is the guy who dominated the minors in 2019. Don’t forget he struck out 185 in 149.1 innings with just 42 walks between high-A and low-A that year. Yes, it’s high-A and low-A, but you knew this was in there somewhere. He’s going to face a pretty big offensive test in his next start against the Braves, but he’s making it so the Royals are going to have to figure something very real out when Lynch returns and I love to see it.
The offense struggled, though I do think Anthony DeSclafani pitches very well. My issue came in the eighth inning. Ryan Yarbrough came in to replace Carlos Hernandez when Hernandez left with an injury (that I think turned out to just be cramps). I’m fine with that. Paul Hoover said after the game that they loved the idea of getting Bubic out and replacing him with Hernandez to get the Giants to use their bench to bring out lefties and then replacing Hernandez with Yarbrough. He also said they didn’t want to stretch Barlow out at this point in the season.
Okay, I think that’s odd but that’s what they want. That’s fine. But when Wilmer Flores came to the plate with two outs and a runner on first, why couldn’t they use Dylan Coleman? Or Jose Cuas? Either of them would work. I know the answer and I at least appreciate that it’s there. After Flores was a series of lefties that Gabe Kapler brought in to face Carlos Hernandez. So the thought was that if Yarbrough couldn’t get through Flores, but the run didn’t score, he’d still have lefties to face. That blew up when Michael Conforto hit a MASSIVE home run, but even ahead of time, it just seemed odd.
And it ultimately cost the team a sweep. They were on their way to a fun and sort of thrilling 1-0 win and it got taken away. I doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good weekend with a lot to be positive about, but it could have been better.
The Week Ahead
The Royals head back to where they finished spring and they’ll take on the Rangers for three that mean something. We all know that Texas has spent a lot of money the last two winters and they’re sitting at 5-4 now through the first full week of the season. The Royals will see Andrew Heaney, Jacob deGrom and Nathan Eovaldi in the three-game set, so they don’t exactly have a lot of easy ones coming up, though Heaney’s first start was a disaster, going just 2.2 innings and giving up seven runs on seven hits. Eovaldi has been solid enough and deGrom has 18 strikeouts in 9.2 innings, but he has given up seven runs as well. He did do quite well against Baltimore his last time out, though.
To preview tonight, Heaney throws basically two pitches, a four-seam fastball and a slider. Last year, he threw the four-seamer 62.5 percent of the time. In his first start, he actually threw the slider more, but both pitches got walloped. In a very good year last year, he didn’t show much of a platoon split, though he did give up 13 of his 14 homers to righties. And in spite of getting a ton of strikeouts, he wasn’t otherworldly when ahead in the count. The good news is that even if he’s on, he likely won’t go long. Last year, he gave up a .571 OPS the first time through and an .864 OPS the second-time through the order. With deGrom and Eovaldi to follow, I’ll bet the Rangers are not shy to go to the bullpen. The samples are tiny, but Reyes has hit him well and has a homer against him. He’ll go up against Zack Greinke, who has been fun so far this year, but will get his first start away from home, which was trouble for him last year.
Then they come home and get the Braves, who have lost three in a row, but started 6-1. On the bright side, they’ll miss Spencer Strider, but the Braves can always pitch and their offense is legitimately very good and very deep, so it’ll be a big test for Singer, Bubic and Greinke in that order in the series. Test are good, though, because they give you a base for evaluation.