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Weekend in Review: The Big Picture, Narrowly Avoiding Disaster and the Week Ahead
A good win on Sunday doesn't erase a terrible Friday and Saturday, but it could have been worse.
The Royals entered the weekend at 8-24 with 29 of their first 32 games against teams currently above .500. I have maintained and still do maintain, for whatever that’s worth, that they are a bad team that got crushed by a brutal schedule. When they took the field on Friday night at around 7:10pm CDT, it was their fourth game against a sub-.500 team and their first against the team with not only the worst record in baseball but many metrics indicating they were among the worst teams ever. I will obviously get to the games and what happened individually, but you know what happened. They lost two of three, and maybe worse, they lost the first two. They were competitive games, but they were still losses to a team that remains statistically one of the worst to ever play the game.
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All the caveats apply in baseball to every single game and every single series. Good teams beat bad teams. Bad teams beat good teams. Good teams beat good teams. Bad teams beat bad teams. Individual games and series don’t tell us too much about a team, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t look at a series where the Royals lost two in a row to a team that hadn’t yet won two in a row and think it says anything but disaster. So, yes, it was a bad weekend that could have been considerably worse but was about 75 levels away from good.
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But here’s where I’m struggling. The team clearly has about a billion issues, but I also don’t know what the answer is because the biggest issue is the pitching staff and the reinforcements just aren’t there. Daniel Lynch threw 3.1 shutout innings in Omaha yesterday, but needed 72 pitches to do it. He’s the closest. Kris Bubic is out for the year and probably half of next year. I’ll get to the rest here in a minute, but they are at least a few weeks from having legitimate depth pieces within proximity of the big leagues. So now we sit and watch the staff they have in place while they try to continue the good going on in the minors. But until they start to elevate guys from one level to the next, they’re not doing anything more than what they can do. It’s a bad situation that was set in motion years ago and now they’re trying to dig out of it. And so, I want to look at…
The Big Picture
The Major League club is what it is. There are some good things happening, but there are a couple of things at play. A lot of the good is with the offense and they dug themselves in such a big hole that even though they’ve been very good over the last 14 games, they’re still in the bottom third (and usually bottom fifth) of the league. Following their game against Shohei Ohtani and the Angels, they were doing some pretty bad things in the batter’s box:
Their 26.7 percent strikeout rate was second-worst in the whole game.
Their 6.5 percent walk rate was also second-worst.
Their 56 wRC+ was worst.
They had a swinging strike rate of 13.4 percent, which was worst in baseball.
They were swinging at 37.1 percent of pitches outside the zone. Yep, second-worst.
They made contact the third-least in baseball, on 73.5 percent of swings.
But they swung at more pitches than anyone, by a lot.
And now since?
They’ve struck out just 19.7 percent of the time. That’s seventh-best in baseball.
Their 8.5 percent walk rate is 14th-best.
Their 119 wRC+ is eighth-best.
They are making a ton more contact with a swinging strike rate of 11.2 percent, which is still in the bottom half, but now in the middle-third at 13th-highest.
They also have still swung at too many pitches outside the zone, but their 32.1 percent rate is just 12th-highest.
They’re making contact 76.4 percent of the time. That’s still low, but much better at 18th.
And finally, they’re swinging at the 14th-most pitches by percentage.
It’s been an impressive turnaround for a team that looked absolutely hopeless at the plate. They’re doing it how I figured they’d have to do it but questioned if they could. You’ll obviously recall that they were hitting the ball hard. And they still are, but now they’re hitting it more. I worried that if they did make more contact that it would be fully replaced with weak contact, but it really hasn’t. And the results are pretty obvious. They’ve hit .272/.343/.464 with 77 runs scored.
I find myself not quite knowing how much of this I should buy. It is what I expected, but they were so bad early that I sort of just don’t know. The first 20 games they played looked awfully bleak, but there were positive signs with the batted ball data. The last 15 have looked a lot like what I expected from this team. What is there to believe?
The answer is probably somewhere in the middle, but while it’s difficult to find anything worth celebrating with a 9-26 team, I think the turnaround is at least worth sitting up to take notice. I wrote a few weeks ago that the offense needs at least two more pieces before they can be taken seriously. Is Maikel Garcia one of those pieces? Nick Pratto? Edward Olivares? Michael Massey (I’m serious)? I don’t know yet and neither do you but there’s at least something to be excited about.
The problem, of course, is that they’ve put up those numbers and won just five of 15 games. And that’s on the pitching. We know what’s at the big league level (and I’ll get to a couple of the starters we thought should make them better in the recaps), but I will continue to say there are positive signs happening in the minors from AA on down. I’m pretty convinced that AAA is a lost cause at this point, but I’ve worked my contacts to talk to as many people as I can who have had a chance to see these pitchers up close.
Anthony Veneziano and Alec Marsh have righted the ship in AA as starters and Christian Chamberlain is looking like the guy I thought he might be when he was drafted in 2020. He could be a bullpen piece soon. Noah Murdock, Steven Cruz and Will Klein are still there but they’ve shown at least flashes. I did forget that Walter Pennington and Jonah Dipoto are up in AAA and they look good too, so add them to the list. In high-A, I had a scout rave about Chandler Champlain, the third piece in the Andrew Benintendi deal. Mason Barnett has been great. Noah Cameron too. Luinder Avila might be the best of all of them. And down in low-A, we know about Frank Mozzicato and Ben Kudrna finally had a good start. But even with David Sandlin’s just okay start yesterday, he’s been amazing and needs to move up ASAP. Steven Zobac might be the best relief prospect in the system right now. He could move fast.
What they need to do is get some of the guys up a level or maybe even two. While there is next to no depth near the big leagues now, Marsh and Veneziano could easily be knocking on the door within a few weeks. I wouldn’t mind seeing Sandlin and Barnett both in AA. Champlain might be about ready for AA as well. So is Cameron.
I know it’s so easy to be down on the entire organization right now, and I don’t blame you. I’m not sitting here to tell you that you should look at what’s happening and be popping champagne because the offense has been better for three weeks and there are some guys pitching well in the low levels. For some, it helps to know that. For others, it helps to be frustrated/angry/annoyed. Whatever works for you is what works for you. But I write about this team nearly every day and I’m encouraged by the big picture even if the small picture could hardly be more discouraging.
Friday - A’s 12, Royals 8
And from the big picture, we break down an individual game which was absolutely horrible to watch outside of the offense continuing to claw back when the starting pitching put them in trouble. In this one, it was Brad Keller providing the angst. He was as bad as I think we’ve ever seen him, and that’s saying something. He gave up seven runs on 11 hits with four walks and just one strikeout in 4.1 innings.
What was different in this start and why he couldn’t work around the free runners is that he was hit hard for basically the first time. In his first six starts, he allowed five extra base hits. In this one, he allowed six. You could maybe argue that it was a blip on the radar, but it felt an awful lot like he was reverting back to last season’s version where he was getting hit hard but with the brutal control we’ve seen from him all year.
Everything he worked toward in the winter was to add a curve and to introduce a different shape to his slider. The curve and the sweeper were why I was bullish on him heading into the season and why I had multiple scouts tell me he looked like he could be a big league difference-maker again. On Friday night, he threw seven curves and one sweeper. He reverted back to what he was in the past and what he was in the past was bad enough that he went to Driveline to completely reconfigure his repertoire. I need to dig in a lot more to what is going on with Keller to give you a better idea, and I’m going to, but it seems like a bad sign for him that it only took until his seventh start to completely give up on what he worked toward.
He wasn’t the only problem on the pitching staff. Jonathan Heasley was called back up and performed about like he did in AAA. He gave up two runs on four hits in 2.2 innings. He didn’t walk anyone, so I don’t know if that’s anything but he was pretty much everything he has been at the big league level, which isn’t good enough. And then Josh Taylor lost the zone as well, walking three and giving up two runs.
A bad pitching performance is somehow even more disappointing when the offense comes through. They scored eight runs and even wasted a perfect day at the plate by Hunter Dozier. To continue the trend from the previous series, they got a 4 for 12 night from their six through nine hitters. But the big hit came from Nick Pratto in the bottom of the fourth inning. Down 5-0, you sort of felt like they had a chance to get back in the game if they could get a couple back. A two-out single by Salvador Perez was followed by just a gorgeous swing.
The A’s answered with four more to go up 9-2 and the Royals were down by seven for the second-straight day. But the offense didn’t quit for the second-straight day, which I’ll continue to say means there’s some excellent leadership on this team. They got one back in the fifth, two more in the sixth and three more in the seventh, but they left runs on the table and the bullpen let the A’s add on to take the first game of the series.
Saturday - A’s 5, Royals 4
Friday was annoying and frustrating. Saturday was depressing. It didn’t start that way with an incredible ceremony to honor Lorenzo Cain (congrats to Eric S. for winning the tickets!). And even in the first, it looked okay. Brady Singer threw a scoreless inning and the Royals got a run on a Garcia double that scored Vinnie Pasquantino. But then, as has happened too often this year, the wheels fell off on Singer.
He gave up a double, a walk, a flyout to advance the runners and another walk before he struck out Kevin Smith looking. Then he gave up a single to Esteury Ruiz to score two. It wasn’t hit hard, but it got through, and was set up by two more walks by a Royals starter. In the third, he gave up a home run to JJ Bleday. And then in the fourth, he gave up a single, then a one-out triple and a double immediately to give up two more. It was 5-1 A’s at that point and you know the final score.
Everyone wants to know what is wrong with Singer. I do too. I’m planning to try to figure out some things at some point, but there are a few things that I think are pretty easy to point out right away. The first is that it appears he’s just a mess mechanically and it’s causing his command and deception to falter, which isn’t good for a pitcher who doesn’t have great stuff. Look at his extensions on all of his pitches. He’s releasing his sinker with an extension of 7.1 feet. Last year, it was 6.7. The slider is at 6.9 feet compared to 6.6 last year. His changeup is released at seven feet compared to 6.6 feet last year and he’s added the new slider, which he hasn’t thrown a ton but has been outstanding.
Like I said, I’ll look into it more, but it appears he isn’t appropriately repeating things and when he’s releasing pitches at all sorts of different places, he can’t tunnel as well. Add in a pretty sizable velocity drop and it’s kind of easy to see why he’s struggling to throw strikes and why there’s a lot of inconsistency. My question that I don’t know the answer to yet is how the WBC impacted him with his lack of work. I tend to believe that excuse has sailed since he threw a decent number of spring innings (and looked great) after he got back and we’re now nearly six weeks into the season, but maybe I’m wrong.
Offensively, the Royals charged back again in the bottom of the fourth inning with two absolute bombs. The first, from Freddy Fermin, got the Royals to down by three.
Then after a rare Jackie Bradley Jr. extra base hit, Bobby Witt Jr. hit a bomb of his own.
The A’s bullpen and the Royals bullpen bizarrely traded zeroes after that, but the Royals, as usual, had their chances. They had the bases loaded with two outs in the seventh and didn’t score. They had two on with two out in the eighth and didn’t score. And then they had two on with two out in the ninth and obviously also didn’t score. That’s seven runners and no runs. It felt like the first three weeks of the season.
Sunday - Royals 5, A’s 1
Thankfully it wasn’t a sweep at the hands of the worst team in baseball (the worst non-Royals team?). The Royals got an outstanding start from an unlikely source, Ryan Yarbrough, only to see him get hit in the face with a line drive and have to leave the game before he completed the sixth inning. He was basically keeping the A’s offense off-balance all game long.
They put 18 balls in play and just four of them were hard-hit. The average exit velocity he allowed was 82.3 MPH. He got four true popouts and a bunch of lazy fly balls. He had the A’s chasing with a 41 percent chase rate and the fact that they made a bunch of contact on those is why they had such a low exit velocity. He threw the sort of game that he threw so often in Tampa when hitters would walk away wondering how in the hell they didn’t get more off him.
The good news on his exit, which I won’t show a video of here because it was jarring, is that he walked off the field and he was alert after the game. We’ll see what’s next for him. From a personal standpoint, all that matters is his recovery. From a baseball standpoint, I don’t know where the Royals turn next if he has to go on the IL, which seems highly likely. Actually that’s not true. I think the easy move is to bring up Austin Cox and let him get his first big league start. I hope the move isn’t to rush Lynch back from his rehab assignment. But time will tell there.
And in this one, the Royals got a run in the first inning once again. This time it was on a MASSIVE home run from Salvador Perez.
That was 462 feet, which was the farthest hit ball of his career. The Royals got their second run on a clutch two-out single from Garcia, who also made a couple of very nice defensive plays that looked like he’d been playing third base for a long longer than he has.
And then they broke things open in the eighth. Who else but Salvy started the inning with a single, his third hit of the game. Then MJ Melendez singled, Pratto laced a double to right center and the combination of Garcia and Massey combined for two productive outs to give the Royals a 5-1 lead. Scott Barlow had gotten hot so he pitched anyway and threw another scoreless ninth with two more strikeouts. That’s now six straight scoreless outings for him with a 46.2 percent strikeout rate and 7.7 percent walk rate. That’ll work.
The Royals finish their homestand with four against the White Sox. It’s their first games against an AL Central opponent other than the Twins and the White Sox are really, really bad. They’re sitting at 12-23 and up until they won 17-4 yesterday actually had a run differential that was basically in line with what the Royals have done. The difference is that the White Sox should be better, though they are fighting a lot of injuries. Yoan Moncada is on his way back, but his replacement, Jake Burger, had been outstanding and he’s now hurt. Eloy Jimenez is on the IL for 4-6 weeks after an appendectomy.
Their pitching is still pretty scary on paper. The Royals will get Dylan Cease, Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn and Mike Clevenger. Cease starts the series and he has been kind of whatever to start the year after his amazing 2022 season. Giolito has been very good in his walk year, which is good for him, but Clevenger has been mediocre at best and Lynn has had a disastrous start. There is a very real fear that they all get right against the Royals, but for now, they haven’t pitched well enough or hit well enough and that’s why they’re near the cellar with the Royals.
Then the Royals leave town to take on the Brewers, who are battling the Pirates, losers of seven in a row, for first place. They really need Brandon Woodruff back, but I’m not going to lament the Royals missing him. They will see Corbin Burnes, at least as the schedule lines up right now. But their underperforming offense will be an interesting test for the Royals pitching staff because they feel like the type of team that can get right against Royals pitching with their power and ability to take a walk.