Weekend in Review: Slumping Salvy, Seattle Swoon and Succeeding Series

The weekend could have been worse, but it wasn't exactly good.

Baseball is an incredibly difficult game for a number of reasons, but one of them is that it’s just a grind. Even with additional off days in the schedule from previous seasons, you’re out there pretty much every single day. That requires physical stamina, but also mental stamina. It has to be extremely difficult for a team out of the race in September and officially eliminated from the playoffs to get up for games. I don’t say that because I think that’s what’s going on for the Royals, who had a tough homestand, but because it’s just the reality of the situation. Nobody feels sorry for these teams that don’t have anything to play for because winning avoids that, but it’s what makes the last few weeks of the season especially grinding for some guys.

Salvador Perez is Pressing

On Thursday afternoon, Perez hit a ball into the stands to give the Royals a 2-0 lead and give him his 45th home run of the season. We all know what that meant as far as catchers go, and we also know what it means as far as the Royals organization goes. From his first at bat on Friday evening, things looked a little different for the Royals catcher. I say this as someone (like most of you probably) who has watched the vast majority of Salvy’s plate appearances throughout his career. His swing when he’s trying to hit five-run, 900 foot home runs looks different. On Friday night, he went 0 for 4 with a walk. On Saturday night, he went 1 for 5 with four strikeouts in his first four at bats. On Sunday, he went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts. If you’re scoring at home, that’s 1 for 13 with six strikeouts. Not great.

This is the human part of the game. It is so clear what he wants to do. The fans are cheering more than they have for a player in a long time before he’s even announced to come to the plate. He wants so badly to give everyone what they want and put numbers 46, 47, 48 and eventually 49 into the stands to give him the catcher record, the Royals record and to become the second Royals player to ever get to 200. It seems like he might be trying to hit all four with every swing. But man, it’s not working for him. I’m really interested to see how he bounces back on the road trip without the home fans behind him. To be clear, nobody is doing anything wrong, but it sort of feels like there’ll be less pressure on him in Cleveland and Detroit. He hasn’t hit great in Cleveland in his career, but Comerica has been one of his big home run parks, so maybe he’ll come back home with a record.

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The Games

The Mariners had a lot to play for. The Royals had spoiling the Mariners to play for. And the results were pretty consistent with that.

Friday - Mariners 6, Royals 2

With Brady Singer being placed on the Covid-IL (remember, it doesn’t mean he had it; could be a close contact or just symptoms or even vaccine side effects), the Royals turned to Jon Heasley, the fifth member of the vaunted 2018 draft class to make a start for the team. That’s the most ever in baseball history. He was also the seventh Royals player to make his big league debut in 2021, which was the same number they had in 2020, but six fewer than they had in 2019. So there was some additional intrigue to see how he would look.

And my general thought was…fine. The line was underwhelming. He went four innings, gave up four runs on six hits and struck out two. He didn’t walk anyone, which was nice. He threw 62.7 percent of his pitches for strikes, though just 37 of 75 were actually inside the zone. Where I was disappointed was in his velocity. The reports out of Northwest Arkansas were more mid-to-upper-90s, even touching 99 at times, but he averaged 93.5 MPH on his fastball and maxed out at 96.1 (Edited to add: He did get to 97.6 MPH on his sinker). Maybe that was nerves. I don’t know.

He wasn’t fooling anyone either. He got 12 swings on his fastball and one whiff. He had nine on his curve and two whiffs. He had 13 swings on his changeup and just one whiff. He threw six sinkers but didn’t get a whiff on either swing on that either. So it would be nearly impossible to say that this was an exciting or inspiring big league debut. But he also competed, and that’s the word that’s been used around Heasley for a long time. He limited the free passes and made the Mariners beat him. They did, well, more accurately, Jarred Kelenic beat him with two, two-run homers.

All the negative said, I really liked his location in his 75 pitches.

There isn’t much in the middle and when he missed, he didn’t miss by very much. Ultimately, he looked like a guy who hadn’t made a start above AA and got beat when he missed with a changeup that caught too much of the plate against Kelenic the first time and against a curve that probably either needed to be three more inches outside or three inches lower.

The curve is the pitch that will be his bread and butter if he makes it and he did have two whiffs on it, but neither were especially great pitches. One was down the middle and he had messed with timing enough and the other was a check swing on a decent one. He didn’t get an out with it. I think one thing you see with guys coming to the big leagues is that the pitches that got so many swinging strikes in the minors simply don’t in the big leagues. This is an example. It probably should have been called a strike, but that’s one of my issues with a curve without an automated zone.

That’s a really good curve. And Kelenic just spit on it. I don’t know if we’ll get another chance to see Heasley this season. We might know the answer of who goes down for Singer to go on the IL before you’ve even read this, but since it was the Covid-IL, Heasley can be sent down without any issues. I imagine he’ll stay up, but you never know for sure. I’m very curious to see how he does with that little bit of big league experience under his belt.

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Offensively, it was a night of missed opportunities, which I write about so much. They had runners on in every inning, but only cashed in twice. In the sixth, Whit Merrifield led off with a single, moved to second on a walk and then Perez walked. Then Andrew Benintendi drove in yet another run with a single. Then in the seventh, the Mariners went to the bullpen and Hunter Dozier greeted Drew Steckenrider with a home run.

Steckenrider then gave up a single to Kyle Isbel and hit Hanser Alberto with a pitch before getting a lineout and a flyout, but he wasn’t going to be allowed to face Perez as the tying run, and as you know, Perez did not convert and that was really that.

Saturday - Royals 8, Mariners 1

It sure felt like this would be another game of missed opportunities in the first inning when Merrifield singled and then neither Lopez or Perez could move him. Thankfully for the Royals, Yusei Kikuchi simply didn’t have it. Merrifield moved to second on a wild pitch. Then to third on a wild pitch. Then he scored on a wild pitch. But after that, the Royals tacked on a bit more with a Benintendi single followed by a Santana single and then an Adalberto Mondesi single to bring Benintendi home. It was 2-0, Kikuchi had thrown 30 pitches and Kris Bubic had a lead.

I’ll get to Bubic in a minute. This one was about the offense doing just enough before they broke it open. In the second, they had a golden opportunity to put the game away early. Dozier and Alberto singled to start the inning. That’s the eight and nine hitters setting up the top of the order against a reeling pitcher, but Merrifield struck out, Lopez hit it right to the second baseman who threw out Dozier at home on the contact play that the Royals always run and then Perez struck out.

It looked a bit like Kikuchi might have settled in to start the third, though he did give up a rocket to Santana. But then Mondesi hit a long double to the gap and Michael A. Taylor followed that with a double to right-center of his own. By the end of the third, Kikuchi had thrown 86 pitches and the Mariners, who are in a must-win situation almost every day now just couldn’t go with him any more, so the Mariners went to the bullpen.

Taylor showed his easy power in the fifth.

Look, I know Taylor hasn’t been very good offensively, but when you see swings like that, it’s so easy to see why teams just think there’s more in there. The reality is that he’s 30 and this is likely who he is, but he’s a good enough defender that if the lineup doesn’t have as many holes as this Royals one, you can do far worse than an elite center fielder who can hit you 15 homers a year in the eight or nine spots.

The eighth inning ended up putting the game away and Perez had his only hit of the series to drive one of them in, but in spite of eight runs, you really do have to wonder how many more they could have scored.

Now as for Bubic, the numbers that ultimately matter were fantastic. He went 6.1 innings and gave up just a run on two hits. He probably shouldn’t have gone out for the seventh, when he gave up a leadoff double that came around to score, but I get why he did after the Royals starting pitching threw so few innings during the homestand leading up to the game.

The issue is that he walked four and he struck out two. I don’t think his control was awful, but the Mariners were not biting on some pitches that weren’t far from the zone. Where he struggled was that he didn’t finish a few changeups, but the ones he did were outstanding for him. Take a look at the pitches that were called balls.

There are some ugly ones for sure and one that was absolutely a strike that was called poorly, but that’s a nice job by the Mariners to lay off some of those fastballs and a couple of the curves. I want to see him living on the edges a lot more than we’ve seen from him, but overall, I though the pitched well and the end results showed it. It was a weird line, but I liked the way he pitched and not just because of the results.

Sunday - Mariners 7, Royals 1

Honestly, there’s not much to say about this game. Logan Gilbert, who was picked in the same draft as Singer, Bubic, Heasley, Daniel Lynch and the starter in this one, Jackson Kowar, was outstanding. Kowar was simply not. And you can see how far ahead of Kowar that Gilbert really is. I don’t think the stuff is demonstrably better, but the control and command both are. Does Kowar belong in the majors? I think he does based on his AAA numbers, but he also hasn’t exactly been a control artist this season in the minors.

It all starts with the fastball for Kowar, and it’s just not good enough. The velocity is there, but there’s very little deception to it. The Mariners swung at 24 of the 54 he threw and missed one of them. They averaged an exit velocity of 95.6 MPH on it, so it’s not like he was getting weak contact. He did get 12 foul balls on it, but really it’s just not good enough.

While he walked three in four innings, I thought the command was a bigger issue. Look at where his fastballs were:

That’s a lot of the plate for a ball that doesn’t move much. The Mariners went 6 for 13 with three walks and two strikeouts on plate appearances that ended on the fastball. It’s just not good enough right now. I don’t know if moving on the rubber would help or if playing with release point would help (though that’s a lot to put on a guy), but his job this winter is to figure out how to make his fastball a competitive pitch so he can get to his changeup and the new slider that look very good.

Look within the division and you don’t have to go very far to find a guy who throws a fastball, very good changeup and slider who struggled mightily before figuring it out. Kowar isn’t built as sturdily as Lucas Giolito, but they’re both tall pitchers who got hit around and struggled with their fastball. It’s not a one-to-one comparison because Giolito had a sinker that he went away from, but he’s upped his whiff rate on his fastball adding a fair amount of spin and extension and that made his already good secondary pitches even better.

Can Kowar become Giolito? Obviously there’s no way to know, but that would be a pitcher I’d look to if I was Kowar this offseason as he tries to find a way to be a viable big league arm. And from there, I don’t think there’s much of anything else worth discussing from this one.

What’s Next

There are only two more weeks of the season left, but this one starts with a double header, which is fun because more baseball is fun. What’s not so fun is that it’s against the Indians, who the Royals haven’t beaten since April 5. That’s 11 straight losses to their division rival since their only win of the year to start their season series. The big issue for the Royals this year has been that they’ve let the non-stars beat them. Jose Ramirez does have four home runs against them, but he’s only 8 for 44 against KC this year. Franmil Reyes has two homers against them, but is just 9 for 45. Yes, the hits have counted, but to lose 11 of 12 with those two going a combined 17 for 89 is pretty terrible. And then it’s on to Detroit for their sixth series of the year against the Tigers. Of the first five, four have been sweeps, two by each team. Right now, it’s three young Royals starters against two of the young Tigers starters, so the series is pretty meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but still fun in that regard.