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Weekend in Review: Rookies Finishing Strong, A Losing Weekend and the Last Three to Come
It's a weird series, both in length and importance, but there's still something to take away from these games.
This has probably been one of the most trying Royals seasons I can remember since I’ve been writing about them. And I started doing this back in 2010. I don’t know what it is about this particular year that’s made it so exhausting. Maybe it’s the rhetoric around the team. Maybe it’s just being tired of watching Cal Eldred mound visits. Maybe it’s that I’ve thought for awhile that once we get to the end, we’ll see the changes the team needs to make in order to take a step forward. We’ve obviously started to see those, but I’ve written so many times that I’m very confident there will be big moves with the coaching staff and now the national writers are starting to get on board with that happening.
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So at this point, it’s just a waiting game. I’ve got quite a bit of fun stuff planned for the offseason that does include two articles with managerial candidates and pitching coach candidates, so I’m sure everyone will be interested in those. I’m looking forward to breaking down the fun part of the 2022 season and looking forward to seeing how there can be the necessary improvements from those aspects to maybe catapult to contention in 2023. I know it seems like a longshot with how far down the Royals are right now, but I still believe there is plenty of actual talent on the pitching staff and if they make the right moves on the coaching staff, we could see big steps. If you need proof, just look in Arizona. They haven’t had a great staff this season, but they hired Brent Strom before 2022 and they’ve seen their team ERA drop from 5.11 last year to 4.29 this year, coming into play yesterday. The right voice can make a big difference.
The Major League Baseball season is a long one. It’s typically 162 games over 187 days, sometimes without an off day for three weeks. Compare that to the minor league season where they play 150 games in AAA, 138 games in AA and 132 games in the levels below that. And while you’re comparing that, keep in mind that they play six-game series every week with a day off every Monday. The grind is very real. I think we saw that grind getting to some of those hitters when they hit .221/.286/.338 as a team from August 31 through September 8. They scored just 58 runs, which is an average of 3.4 runs per game. Over their last 12, they’ve hit .287/.346/.463 as a team with just a 16.4 percent strikeout rate and have averaged 4.9 runs per game.
They’re doing it with a lot of the young players finishing strong. Let’s take a look at what some of these guys have done in that 12-game stretch:
Nate Eaton - .296/.355/.444, 121 wRC+, 2 2B, 1 3B, 9.4% BB, 9.4% K
Kyle Isbel - .375/.412/.500, 160 wRC+, 2 2B, 5.9% BB 23.5% K
MJ Melendez - .255/.352/.532, 148 wRC+ 4 2B, 3 HR, 13% BB, 18.5% K
Vinnie Pasquantino - .409/.509/.523, 200 wRC+, 2 2B, 1 HR, 17% BB, 3.8% K
Drew Waters - .360/.448/.840, 254 wRC+ 1 2B, 1 3B, 3 HR, 13.8% BB, 27.6% K
Bobby Witt Jr. - .326/.367/.413, 122 wRC+, 4 2B, 6.1% BB, 18.4% K
The only one who has really struggled in this time is Michael Massey, and even he’s had three extra base hits in that time. Of course, it’s just 12 games, so the sample is remarkably small, but it’s nice to see them recover and, to this point, end their season on a strong note. It’s easy to look at that list above and see the future of the Royals offense, along with Salvador Perez, who has hit .296/.354/.477 in that time with five doubles, a homer and actually an almost decent walk rate of 6.3 percent. I’ll do my best to break down all of these guys throughout the winter, but just a preview - I’m pumped to see them in 2023.
Friday - Guardians 6, Royals 3
It wasn’t supposed to end this way for Brady Singer. Not this year. He started the game and looked as good as, well, him. He struck out two batters in the first, two in the second and two in the third without allowing a hit. He did hit a batter, but he continued the very early no-hit bid in the fourth inning with a 1-2-3 frame. But there was something about that inning that sort of had me worried for what was about to happen. Granted it was only three batted balls in the first three innings, but none were hit hard.
Then Gabriel Arias hit a bullet grounder at 108.9 MPH and Josh Naylor lined out at 101.4 MPH. Watching some exit velocities can be an indicator of if things might start to fall apart for a pitcher soon and I feel like I missed an obvious sign. Still, he gave up just the one run in the fifth. But the sixth started like way too many innings the Royals have had against the Guardians this year, a Steven Kwan single. Then it was a bunt back to him that he probably had more time on, but didn’t set his feet and, thus, ended up making a poor throw that allowed Arias to reach on what was ruled a single.
And things fully unraveled like way too many innings the Royals have had against the Guardians in the last few years have, a Jose Ramirez home run. Singer threw three sliders to start the at bat to Ramirez. I guess he didn’t want to throw the sinker because Ramirez had hit .500 on it with a double and a homer in his career coming into the game. Of course, he’d also hit .400, albeit with all singles, on the slider. Still, it was 2-1 and he threw a fourth slider.
But that’s a bad spot and the ball traveled 404 feet and the Royals, who once had a 3-0 lead, were now down 4-3. But it didn’t end there. Josh Naylor ripped a double. Andres Gimenez lined out for the first out. Oscar Gonzalez lined out for the second out and then Singer walked Will Brennan and gave up a 3-2 single off the wall to Austin Hedges that was hit at 107.1 MPH. It was the first hit in more than 30 at bats for Hedges. And that was it for Singer’s season.
I thought he had a great slider early. It was obvious from the strikeouts. He had eight whiffs on it in 21 swings. He was getting his usual called strikes on the sinker. That Ramirez home run simply sunk him. But we should celebrate what we saw from Singer this season. Yes, it would have been great if he had ended his year with an ERA below 3.00 like he entered this game, but the numbers were damn good:
150 K (24.2%)
35 BB (5.6%)
Everything about what he did seems sustainable. I think he could stand to develop that changeup a little bit more. It would be nice to have it as more than a show pitch if either his slider or his sinker aren’t there. But what he did for the Royals was truly historic. He was just the fourth pitcher in team history to throw 150+ innings with a strikeout rate higher than 24 percent, joining 2009 Zack Greinke, 2016 Danny Duffy and 1991 Tom Gordon. Only the former two also had a walk rate below six percent. The Royals have found their number one starter, and that’s a good thing.
The Royals offense did take advantage of a Guardians mistake, which was nice to see. In the third inning, Michael Massey was able to reach on an error by Arias, and that set up Drew Waters with one out.
Leaving a pitch in that spot is not a good idea, but Waters did with it what he’s supposed to do. I also love that he knows when he gets one.
And in the top of the fifth, before the mayhem started, Massey got into one himself.
Baseball Savant has a tool that shows the number of home runs a player would have hit if they played every game in certain parks. Massey would have a ridiculous 15 if he played in Cincinnati! There is no park in which he’d have fewer home runs than if he played every game at Kauffman Stadium. I’m a big Massey fan, but if he doesn’t add a little more muscle or retool his swing, he might actually be someone worth more to another team than he is to the Royals.
The offense, after this, went into a shell. They only sent 14 hitters to the plate for the final 4.2 innings for the Guardians pitching staff. They did have two singles, but both were erased from double plays, so it was a pretty quiet end to a game that looked so good early.
Saturday - Royals 7, Guardians 1
It wasn’t likely to end this way for Kris Bubic. Not this year. Boy has it been a year for the lefty. I will stand by what I’ve said that the quickness many of written him off seems like it’s just a bit to early. This is a guy who put up a 4.32 ERA in 50 innings in 2020 and then a 4.43 ERA in 130 innings last year. I know ERA isn’t the best way to evaluate a pitcher, but a 4.40 ERA in 180 innings to start a career is a 104 ERA+. That’s four percent better than average. And he had a two-to-one strikeout to walk ratio to boot. No, I’m not saying he’s a star or even someone you pay in the last year or two of arbitration. But the idea that he’s just worth dismissing has seemed odd to me all season.
But I also get it. He gave up five runs in two-thirds of an inning in his first start of the year. He walked six in 4.1 innings in his second. He gave up five runs in two innings in his third. He was strangely moved to the bullpen for one game before he was sent to Omaha for almost a month. At the time, he had a 12.83 ERA. But he came back and he was okay. I think he hit a bit of a wall, but in his first 18 starts back, he had a 4.39 ERA (and 4.36 FIP) in 98.1 innings. That seems…familiar. Of course, his next three starts tanked his numbers, but in his final start of 2022, he showed why it may be premature to say he can’t be a part of the 2023 rotation.
The Guardians don’t strike out. I know they weren’t playing their normal lineup as they’re prepping for Friday, but Bubic struck out eight and walked just one in five shutout innings. Yes, he absolutely threw too many pitches, which is why he could only go five, but that’s a heck of a start for the guy. Here’s what had me most excited:
That many whiffs on his fastball is kind of ridiculous. It’s tied for the most he’s had in a game with a start in September of 2020 against the Pirates and it was just the third time he’s ever had double-digit whiffs on the fastball. The other time was earlier this year as well against Houston of all teams. And look where the fastballs were that he got the whiffs on.
You all know the numbers by now probably, but when he keeps that fastball up in the zone, good things happen. When his fastballs are up, he allows a .225 average and .324 SLG, but the expected numbers of .160 and .237 are even better. When his fastballs are down, it’s another story. He allows a .445 average and .809 SLG. To be fair, the expected numbers are also not as bad - .374 and .667. But still, those are pretty darn bad.
That’s such an odd split to me, but it’s just the reality for the guy. I still maintain that the slider we heard so much about would help him to make that fastball play even better at the top of the zone. The reality is that when a big league pitcher is on, he doesn’t need extra pitches, and Bubic was on.
Even at middling velocity, you can see what kind of swings hitters take on that pitch. But he can dial it up too.
I know it’s way easier said than done to just throw harder, but when you see pitches like this, you just wonder why he can’t do it more. Maybe that’s an offseason focus for him to be able to keep his velocity up throughout a game. We’ve seen him touch 97 even, so if the bullpen is the spot for him, I actually think that could work, even though many have their doubts.
If the Royals offense could have been as relentless on Friday as they were in this one, we may be talking about a different set of games, but at least they were relentless in this one. Things started a little iffy with two runners stranded in the first and another in the second, but a wind-aided double from Melendez followed by a Perez single got the Royals on the board. Then in the fourth, they took advantage of an error by Arias again.
Hunter Dozier reached before Waters, Isbel and Melendez hit back-to-back-to-back doubles. That scored three runs, all of them unearned. The Royals still left the bases loaded, but nobody cared because they had scored three runs. Then in the sixth, there was that Waters guy again.
The wind in this game was insane. For Waters to get that through it and into the stands is honestly really crazy. It was his first right-handed home run in the big leagues. The guy looks like he belongs. Then Perez came to the plate after having three hits already with his thumb hurting (which I don’t think we knew at the time), and he powered up.
That’s his first home run since September 18. And it’s sort of gone undiscussed, but he’s hit .297/.329/.505 since coming back from his thumb surgery. He’s only struck out in 18.6 percent of his plate appearances. No, it’s not quite the .273/.316/.544 from last season, but it’s honestly not that far off. I wonder a little bit if the thumb injury might be a little helpful in cutting down on his swing. Normally I’d push for the home runs, obviously, but if the numbers are going to be that close, I might take the extra contact. That’s kind of hard to say.
Sunday - Guardians 7, Royals 5
Woo boy, they kept chipping away trying to have two straight ridiculously crazy Sundays. Max Castillo had his second-straight brutal start after having a brutal relief outing during the week between stars. I’d say it’s concerning how awful he’s been since joining the Royals, but I’ll go back to what I’ve said for a couple of weeks now. I know they haven’t been let go yet, but it just seems silly to critique the coaching staff when they seem likely to be gone by the end of this week. So that leaves not much to say about Castillo.
What I will say is that I see enough to think he’s a big league pitcher, but I’ve yet to see anything that makes me believe he’s a big league starter. I should say he’s not a big league starter who I would count on every fifth day. Depth is valuable. A guy who can pitch two or three innings here and there and make a start when needed is very valuable. I would like to see him work on that changeup this winter and use it a little bit more next season. You can see what it looks like when it’s good.
That’s just some nasty drop. I think he can be successful if used correctly. And, look, he’s 23 years old. There is nothing that says he can’t get better. I very much appreciated his effort after the brutal six-run second inning. The Royals needed innings (though I’m not entirely sure why it was so important to get innings with three games to go but whatever) and he stayed out there to retire 10 in a row after the second home run he allowed and gave the Royals a small chance.
And the offense really did chip away. They picked up a couple of runs in the fourth inning against Shane Bieber. Then they got one more in the seventh and two more in the eighth to get the score within two. They couldn’t close the gap, partially because of a continued struggle to get runners home. Even though they went 4 for 13 with runners in scoring position, they left one on in the first, two in the third, two more in the fourth, two more in the fifth, one in the sixth, two in the seventh and two in the eighth before Emmanuel Clase got them 1-2-3 in the ninth.
It’s so easy to say this, but knock two of those guys in or even three and we’re talking about another amazing comeback. But they didn’t, so we’re not and we head into the final three games of 2022.
The (Half-)Week Ahead
The season was supposed to be over yesterday, but you might recall that the owners chose to lock out the players, shorten spring training and force the first week of the season to be played out throughout the year. Well, the opening series is being played this week. Some teams get to travel to a new opponent, but the Royals were set to open in Cleveland, so they’re going to close there instead. What’s kind of crazy about that is they found themselves playing their first four and their last six against the Guardians. That means they played nine of their middle 152 against everyone else. The schedule is weird. Personally, I’m thrilled they won’t be playing as many games against the Central next season.
Now the season ends with kind of an odd three games. The Guardians are locked in to the three seed in the American League playoffs, which means they’ll welcome in the sixth seed. That’s probably going to be the Rays, but could still be the Mariners. Either way, they’re going to be setting up to start their postseason on Friday and will show the Royals Triston McKenzie, Cal Quantrill and Aaron Civale. The former two will likely be the game two and three starters. The latter will maybe be needed as a starter if the Guardians can move on. So they’ve got an interesting set of games here. I would guess the starts for McKenzie and Quantrill look a little like the Bieber start yesterday and he’ll be out of there after 70-80 pitches. But Civale might get pushed a little just to keep him stretched out for if they need him in the ALDS.
And so ends the final Weekend in Review for 2022. It’ll be back next season!