Weekend in Review: Bobby Witt, Jr. Emerging, a Series Win and the Week Ahead
Finally a winning weekend in June, but is Mondesi hurt again?
When the Royals lost 11 in a row in May, they wrapped up their losing with a sweep at the hands of the supposedly lowly Detroit Tigers. They went on the road to face a division leader and won the first game of the series before the offense was shut down and then they won the third game of the series. I don’t want to pretend like this team only follows patterns, but they also follow patterns. So after losing 11 of 12, the Red Sox came to town and while I’ll get to the games shortly, it’s hard not to see the parallels of the last streak with this one.
While the ship to contention has almost assuredly sailed, the ship to respectability hasn’t yet. They sit at 32-38. That’s a pace of 74 wins, which is essentially about what I predicted at the start of the season when I said they’d go 76-86. So if this is who they are, I can’t say I’m surprised. But if they can find a way to go on even a run of respectability over the next few weeks (and it’ll be tough, we’ll go over it at the end), they have a chance to head into the break feeling good about themselves. It’s amazing that they’re not buried a la the Diamondbacks or Orioles after their two brutal stretches. When they’re losing, it’s hard to see how they’ll win again, but it’s much more fun when they’re winning.
Bobby Witt, Jr. Figuring It Out
When Witt made his professional debut in 2019, he hit .262/.317/.354. The talk was that he was hitting the ball hard, but the results just weren’t there. Now, after going 2 for 4 yesterday, in just four fewer plate appearances than he had in 2019, he’s hitting .280/.352/.561. He’s striking out a bit more than in 2019, but he’s also walking more and hitting for obviously big power with his 11 home runs. But it’s not just the overall numbers that are impressive. I’m cherry-picking in a big way, but since his three-home run game, he’s hitting .375/.438/.819 with a strikeout rate of 18.8 percent.
That’s 15 extra base hits in 80 plate appearances. He’s crushing the ball. Given the issues with Adalberto Mondesi staying healthy, it’s fair to wonder how much longer we’re going to have to wait to see Witt. If the latest Mondesi issue requires an IL stint, I don’t think Witt will be the guy to come up, but I think he’s a lot closer to being the guy today than he was even three weeks ago the last time Mondesi was pulled from a game early. And if a need arises three weeks from now, I think the odds get even better. In the interim, I can’t imagine it’ll be long before Witt finds his way to Omaha, probably along with his teammate, Nick Pratto. It’s a really encouraging last few weeks for the Royals top prospect. And as my good friend Clint Scoles noted yesterday, Witt is now the best shortstop prospect in the minors with Wander Franco’s promotion.
They finally did it. They finally used an opener. I honestly wasn’t sure if it was the best idea, but given the Royals limitations both in their rotation in general and with their starters getting through a lineup more than a couple times, an opener is a great idea for this staff. They went with Kyle Zimmer, who did it quite a bit (along with Josh Staumont) in Omaha a few years ago, and it was really fun to see Zimmer take the mound in a starting role at Kauffman Stadium, just like we dreamed when he was drafted fifth overall in 2012.
It took 21 pitches, but he got through the first with two strikeouts. He had four swings and misses and kind of seemed invigorated by the idea of being the first guy on the mound. He did give up two hits in the second after getting his third strikeout to start the inning, but a ground ball from Marwin Gonzalez on a fantastic play by Nicky Lopez ended the inning and his outing, and it was a huge success. Here’s that double play:
Zimmer turned it over to Kris Bubic, which is actually a pairing I really love in an opener/bulk inning guy combination. I like it mostly because they’re just so different, but I also love the idea of Bubic working with just about any opener. He started his outing allowing three straight singles and it was about to get out of hand when he got his changeup working and got a weak grounder from J.D. Martinez that led to Lopez making another outstanding play.
I think the throw home caught Christian Arroyo off guard. It was one of those heads up plays that seems so obvious after the fact, but really isn’t. It was very impressive. That got Bubic right and he got Xander Bogaerts, which got the game to the bottom of the third. A Whit Merrifield groundout was followed by a Carlos Santana walk and Salvador Perez single. With runners on first and second, the Royals had the dreaded runner in scoring position. Jorge Soler struck out swinging and Mondesi stepped to the plate.
Two sliders up and away started the at bat. And then Nick Pivetta tried to sneak a fastball past Mondesi.
It, uh, didn’t work. Mondesi interrupted someone’s meal in what used to be Rivals with his 464 foot blast and gave the Royals a lead they would never give up again. Bubic gave up a run in his third inning of work to make it 3-2, but a Merrifield double scored Lopez in the sixth and Salvador Perez hit his 18th home run in the seventh to give the Royals their fifth run.
The bullpen held down the fort, though Scott Barlow did give up a home run, but a perfect ninth from Greg Holland nailed down the win to break their latest six-game losing streak.
In the first game for Brad Keller after his comments that Cal Eldred didn’t know what to do, I was curious if anything had been figured out since that conversation. He started the game working up in the zone, and that actually felt a little different to me, so I thought maybe, just maybe there was a change. and he got a very weak grounder to start things off, but the next batter was three straight four-seam fastballs in essentially the same thought and Ryan Verdugo doubled to center. Then I thought Keller pitched well to Martinez and Bogaerts, but the latter found a way to get bat on ball and hit a soft single to score the run.
Keller gave up a couple hits in the second, but no runs. He had a 1-2-3 third and a 1-2-3 fourth. And for a few minutes, it sort of felt like this was the old Keller. So maybe he had actually found something. But in the fifth, the bottom of the Red Sox order struck again. He walked Enrique Hernandez and then gave up a run-scoring triple to Bobby Dalbec. A groundout scored Dalbec before he walked Verdugo and was set to face Martinez for a third time.
On the second pitch of the at bat, Keller came in with a good two-seamer up in the zone and in off the plate. Martinez checked his swing, but it resulted in a foul ball. So Perez thought it was a good idea to go back there. Except, Keller didn’t quite get in as far as Perez wanted it and 417 feet later, it was 5-1 Red Sox.
I think it was a combination of the third time through the order and Keller wearing down in some pretty hot conditions, but he just wasn’t good again. It was his third straight start allowing five or more runs. And I’ll say again that if the Royals keep touting how well Eldred works with Keller and Keller continues to show subpar results, the decision becomes easy.
The offense was generally shut down by Martin Perez, so there isn’t much to talk about there, but Jackson Kowar did pitch out of the bullpen for the first time and the results were encouraging. He entered in the seventh and everything looked the same as his two starts. It was all up and he had no idea where it was going, hitting Dalbec.
But then, it seemed like he started to settle down a little. He was still missing up too much, but was actually getting the ball down and seeming like he had a little command. But after buzzing Martinez’s tower with a 96 MPH fastball, it was fair to wonder if he was going to lose it again with two outs and a man on third. Then he threw an absolutely perfect pitch that Martinez looked like he may have spoiled until Merrifield came on to make an outstanding catch.
It was his first scoreless inning in the big leagues (which is a terrible thing to have to say after he’s made two starts, but whatever), but the eighth was his best inning in the big leagues. He got Bogaerts swinging on a brilliant changeup.
Then he got groundouts from both Rafael Devers and Hunter Renfroe to end a 1-2-3 eighth. It looked like he might have figured things out. He did give up a two-run homer in the ninth to Dalbec, so hindsight says maybe he should have come out after the eighth, but I don’t have any issue with Mike Matheny trying to get an extra inning to boost confidence even more. He got three whiffs on his changeup. He didn’t walk a batter. He really located so much better. The line still wasn’t pretty with two runs in three innings, but it was a big step for him, I thought.
Another hot day greeted the Royals and Red Sox for the series finale, but it was maybe a little less steamy. The Royals were greeted by the Red Sox ace, Nathan Eovaldi while the Red Sox were probably greeted by the Royals ace in Mike Minor, but there’s a bit of a difference in the two.
While both pitchers put up zeroes in the first, the Royals offense started things about as poorly as you can. Eovaldi threw two pitches to each batter and each batter made an out on the second pitch. That’s six total pitches. On a warm day with the sun beating down on everyone, even if you make three outs, working a starting pitcher can really help to get them out of the game and get into a bullpen and the Royals offense did not do that in the first.
Minor’s second started with two quick outs before he walked Renfroe and the bottom of the order came up, which spelled trouble all series. He gave up a home run to Hernandez and then Dalbec singled before he was able to get out of the inning on a lineout by Kevin Plawecki.
But the bottom half of the inning started with a double by Mondesi and then an actual hit with him in scoring position. Of course, he still isn’t running at full speed and it was a really solid hit by Hunter Dozier (yes, that’s right, a hit with RISP and it was by Dozier), so Mondesi was on third. After a Jarrod Dyson groundout to the pitcher, it looked like another opportunity would be wasted, but Michael A. Taylor hit a squibber to first that was kicked around like Dalbec was trying to get on the USMNT and the Royals had a run the very hard way.
Minor really settled down from there. He was pitching with men on quite a bit. His only 1-2-3 inning was the sixth, but he pitched great ended up going 6.2 innings with just the two runs allowed and he walked just one batter with six more strikeouts. Now in his last eight starts, he’s averaged more than six innings per with a 27.2 percent strikeout rate, 4.9 percent walk rate and a 3.58 ERA. If you had to draw up the best case scenario for this contract, those numbers would probably be about it. He’s been even better than his 2019 season that saw him get Cy Young votes.
But the bigger story in this one was the offense. Since their 14-run outburst against Minnesota now more than two weeks ago, they’d scored 41 runs in 14 games. They’d scored more than three runs four times in that span and had topped out at six. But in this game, after that brutal first and the near miss of a big opportunity in the second, the offense started to work.
The third inning was the one we could look back on if the Royals get going and say this is what started it. Merrifield started with a single and got to second on a Santana groundout. Perez singled to center that scored him, so that was their second hit of the day with a runner in scoring position. Then Mondesi hit another double (that probably should have been an error) and Kelvin Gutierre worked the first of his three walks for the game. After Dozier struck out, Dyson came to the plate.
All he did was have the literal best at bat of the season for the Royals. Think about all the issues they’d had with runners in scoring position. And here with two outs and the bases loaded, Dyson was not going to be denied. Baseball Savant shows him fouling off seven pitches, but I believe they’re missing a pitch. Either way, look at this pitch chart.
Whether it’s 10 or 11, that’s a double digit pitch at bat that ended with a line drive over the shortstop’s head that scored two and Dyson turned into a double.
What a lift. It didn’t magically just get better for the Royals with RISP with Taylor getting called out on strikes to end that inning. Then in the fourth, Nicky Lopez had the first of his three more hits and stole second, but both Santana and Perez got out. Then in the fifth, Dozier doubled on a bloop to center and Gutierrez walked again, but Dyson couldn’t recreate the magic, so he left another runner out in scoring position.
But it wasn’t all bad. Another Lopez single was followed by Merrifield’s first home run since the first inning against Minnesota when they scored nine. That gave the Royals a 6-2 lead. Then after back-to-back singles by Santana and Perez, Mondesi struck out looking, but there was Dozier again. He came through with a single that went off new second baseman Marwin Gonzalez’s glove to score the seventh run.
Carlos Hernandez came out in the eighth after Scott Barlow cleaned up a bit of a mess left by Minor and he faced three hitters without retiring any of them, so that’s something that’s a bit concerning after how good he looked the other day, but Zimmer bailed him out and then it was another perfect ninth for Holland for the series win.
The Royals went 5 for 34 with runners in scoring position in this series, meaning they had a ton of guys there but continued to struggle…the bottom of the Red Sox lineup went 13 for 30 with three walks, two doubles, a triple and a home run this series…the Royals bullpen gave up five runs in 13.1 innings this series which is a fine 3.38 ERA, but if you knock out Bubic’s 2.2 innings and add Zimmer’s 2, they were even better, which is a nice trend.
The Royals hit the road for a 10-game road trip after their final off day of the first half today. They start the trip in New York, where they’ve gone 19-57 since the turn of the century. They haven’t exactly beaten the Yankees at home either, but it’s been especially bad on the road. They will also have to deal with Gerrit Cole to start the series, so even though the Yankees haven’t been exceptional in 2021, they are going to be tough for the Royals trying to get back going.
After leaving New York, the Royals get to see the Home Depot the Rangers now play in for three games in Texas. You might recall the start to the season featured the Royals offense beating up on the Rangers pitching staff. Amazingly, Kyle Gibson is having a monster season even with that Opening Day issue, but the rest of the Rangers team is just not very good. If the Royals can sneak a win against the Yankees and then handle the Rangers, they can head to Boston for the last four games on the road trip in a good position. I’d be more than happy with 3-3 this week.