Weekend in Review: In With a Bang, Out With a Whimper

The last weekend of the season didn't go the Royals way, but the young pitching had their positives...and negatives.

When the 2021 season began, the Royals believed they were playoff contenders. And for a month, they walked the walk. But once the dust settled on their 11-game losing streak and subsequent struggles after fighting back to three games over .500 in early June, the attention on the season turned toward next year (and beyond). That attention beyond the current season has been going on for a few years now, but the difference between this year and the last few is that there is reason for optimism. That’s what youth does.

After the break, the Royals had 11 starts out of 73 games from pitchers who were older than 25 when the season began, and one of those was Joel Payamps in a bullpen game. Whatever you think of the young pitching, just seeing that many young arms gives you a sense of a future no matter how they throw. But when they throw well, it adds a little extra. And no matter what, all those young pitchers have given some intrigue to the second half of the season. It doesn’t hurt that they went 38-35 over those final 73, but it would held at least some interest even if they were 10 games worse.

Thank You!

On a personal note, starting this newsletter back in February was something I’d thought about for awhile and just finally went for it. I didn’t know how many people would subscribe or stay subscribed or read or comment or anything and I think what this has become is a growing community where I can write about the Royals (and baseball in general) and you can come and read and comment and interact with both me and other readers and it’s just been amazing. So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for all of that. I’m overwhelmed with how many of you have seen it fit to allow me into your inboxes every morning.

I may not write quite as often in the offseason. I’ll still be in your inbox (outside of vacations and such and I’m moving in about three weeks, so might be light then) at least three times a week this winter. I hope that you’ll continue to stick with me and enjoy the offseason articles I have planned and can’t wait to start a new season with you all next season. So thank you again. It means everything to me that you’ve been there through this first Inside the Crown season. I couldn’t do it without all of you, so here’s to many more!

Milestones and Leaderboards

The story we were chasing all weekend was hoping for Salvador Perez to hit that 49th home run to move into the top spot on the Royals leaderboard all by himself. The fact that he was even playing is a bit of a minor miracle after the scare he gave everyone when he slipped down the dugout steps. In hindsight, we all probably should have known that it wasn’t going to happen. And how could it playing on a bad wheel? He did hit a couple balls hard, but he spent the weekend doing everything he could to hit a ball 450 feet and recapture that standing ovation energy that he got on Tuesday and Wednesday before the injury. Even so, it was an amazing season for him. Just to tie Jorge Soler was an accomplishment. And his 121 RBIs were the third most in team history. We all know what a great year it was, but now that it’s over, we can really reflect on that.

Another milestone we didn’t really talk about much was Nicky Lopez hitting .300. No Royals shortstop had ever hit .300 over the course of a full season. Only three others - Jay Bell (.291), Alcides Escobar (.293) and Rey Sanchez (.294) - were above .290, so Lopez was already in rarified air. But when he legged out an infield single in the third inning, he upped his average to .300. Technically, he hit .29979879, but if you’re unfamiliar with rounding, that is a .300 batting average. That’s what you’ll see on his Baseball Reference page, his Fangraphs page and everywhere else. I’ll definitely be talking about Lopez as the offseason progresses, so I won’t get into it here, but to get to where he did from where he came from is one of the more improbable and interesting stories in awhile for the Royals.

The Games

The offense went pretty quiet after the first game, but they did enough in that first game to both win the season series over the Twins and officially hit the over on every over/under listed before the season, so all in all, not bad.

Friday - Royals 11, Twins 6

It looked like the weekend was going to be a fun one with how it started. Jon Heasley got the ball for the first game for his third start of his career. And for the third time, he had a 1-2-3 first inning. We all know that may seem like nothing, but with the Royals first inning issues, it’s definitely something. I’m going to get to Heasley, but the story of the first game (in a good way) was the offense.

They put up two in the first, third, fourth and fifth and then three in the sixth. They constantly had Twins starter John Gant on the ropes. The first started with two singles from Whit Merrifield and Lopez and then Perez was hit by a pitch before Andrew Benintendi walked to score him. Carlos Santana grounded into a force out to score the second run.

The rest of the scoring was a bit more fun. Benintendi and Santana started a two-out rally with singles and then Hunter Dozier, who had a big game, brought Benintendi home. Then Adalberto Mondesi, who really struggled after coming back, laced a double to center.

That was the second hardest hit ball of the night and his first extra base hit since September 24. In the bottom of the fourth, Merrifield singled and Lopez walked, which brought up Perez, who hit what was his closest ball to a home run. It traveled 350 feet to left-center at 101 MPH. It wasn’t truly close, but it was a high fly ball that traveled pretty deep. And then some fortune smiled on the Royals with a Benintendi bloop double that Nick Gordon just couldn’t catch in short left. By this point, it was 6-1 and it sure felt like the game was over.

The fifth started with a home run from Dozier, who was a madman in the season’s final month plus.

Mike Matheny said after the game that you really don’t see a ball carry like that to where it carried, especially in Kauffman Stadium. It was so nice to see Dozier do his thing. He ended up going hitless in the final two games, but in September/October, he hit .272/.346/.576 with 14 extra base hits, including six home runs. I know that things don’t carry over, but boy oh boy, if this can, that’ll really help the offense in 2022.

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After Heasley ran out of gas in the sixth and he and Gabe Speier teamed up to give up three, the Royals offense responded in the sixth to put the game away. It was four singles and a walk, but they scored three and the score was 11-4.

Heasley was okay. He only gave up one run in his first five innings and that was on doubles to Byron Buxton and Josh Donaldson, which any pitcher can, will and has allowed. And, just like every other young starter, it’s tough to evaluate him because you know he’s absolutely worn down from a full season that included an extra month that young guys likely haven’t thrown. So maybe it’s not fair to criticize, but the swing and miss just isn’t there for the guy.

He got 38 swings on 88 pitches and the Twins swung and missed three times. And none on his curve. His velocity was down across the board and the horizontal break on his curve was down as well, so I’ll definitely chalk this up to tired. But I still think the curve needs something to complement it in order to get hitters to swing at balls below the zone.

Right now, hitters are absolutely seeing it out of his hand and reacting based on where it starts. The Twins took almost everything from the bottom of the zone down. That’s where Heasley was getting swings and misses in AA and he needs to find a way for hitters to be unable to identify it so early if he wants success. But that said, I was very impressed by his changeup, both on Friday and in previous starts. And I love the fact that he has command, which we haven’t seen much of otherwise from young starters. He’s going to get a chance to compete for a job in spring training, but he’s likely going to start the year in a very good Omaha rotation.

Saturday - Twins 4, Royals 0

There is literally nothing to write about with the offense from Saturday. They had three hits and two belonged to Cam Gallagher. But Kris Bubic had his fifth straight strong start to end the season and that was something worth celebrating in a year when every single young starter has found themselves looking like they were on the struggle bus throughout the last month or so.

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He pitched into the seventh for the third straight start. For the first time in his career as a starter, he didn’t walk anyone. He ended up taking the loss, but three runs (two earned) on seven hits over 6.2 innings with five strikeouts and no walks is a nice performance at the end of the first long season for him. He got hit hard in Seattle at the end of August and it looked like things might torpedo a bit for him as he was sent to the bullpen. But, including the one relief appearance he made, this was his September/October:

32.2 IP
22 H
10 R
8 ER
26 K (20.5%)
9 BB (7.1%)
2.20 ERA

Yes, that will work. In this one, he simply had it working. My fastball theory on him that continues to evolve is that he does better with velocity and if he can located it perfectly, he does even better (duh, but still). And in this one, he had both. He hit 95.2 with the fastball and averaged 92.2, which was 1.3 MPH over his season average. His changeup got hit a bit, but it was good and his curve continued to evolved into something that’s very usable, though it did get hit a little bit. But again, when the fastball is going where he wants it…

He can do what he wants with the changeup…

Sure, hitting your spots is extremely important, but Garver struck out on the hard fastball inside earlier and then got that soft changeup that looked so inviting and he was just done. I singled out Garver because he really hits lefties well and Bubic carved him up. Yeah, there are a couple mistakes below, but he stayed on the edges and in the lower third when he needed to and elevated when he needed to.

I think that Bubic has put himself in a position to be a part of a young rotation again next year. I worry a bit that Arizona might be a bit of a slog for him given his stuff and he’ll have an uphill battle like he did this past season, so maybe he loses his spot since there is so much competition, but I could absolutely see him in the Opening Day rotation and maybe even getting that start in the home opener on the season’s fourth day.

Sunday - Twins 7, Royals 3

When the season began, Brad Keller gave up five runs in the top of the first and it looked like he might not get out of the inning. Jackson Kowar started the season’s final game and give up five runs in the top of the first inning and it seemed like he might not make it out. Joel Payamps was warming up before there was even an out. That isn’t a good sign.

Ultimately, after giving up a single, double, home run, walk, single and single to the first six batters, he struck out Brent Rooker. That last single in the series above was the last runner Kowar allowed. He retired three in a row to end the first. Then he got the next nine over the next three innings to end his outing and his season on a high note. But the damage was done already. He gave up five in four innings. Oof. That means that he had the highest ERA in big league history in a season of at least eight starts.

An optimistic would see Roy Halladay on the list. A pessimist would see the list. Someone in the middle would say that there’s something to work with here. That’s me.

This isn’t the first game that Kowar has struggled early and then settled down late. He allowed a .422/.495/.759 in the first three innings with 10 doubles and six home runs. Beyond that, he gave up one double and one home run. His last two starts stank, but he only gave up one walk in each of them. My point is that the stuff is absolutely there. We see it. Command and figuring out how to come out of the bullpen in the early innings and actually succeed is what needs to be fixed. Just take a look at his locations by inning.

1st

2nd

3rd

4th

The fastball found the middle of the plate a bit too much, but he was obviously just locating so much better in his final three innings.

That means that Kowar has some work to do this winter. He needs to find a way to add a wrinkle to his fastball. A mid-90s fastball that can touch the upper 90s is great, but when it doesn’t move, opponents will hit it. The Twins whiffed on six of them, but had an average exit velocity on five balls in play on it of 101.8 MPH. I’m going to look deeper into his fastballs at some point this offseason, so stay tuned.

And what’s happening is that the fastball, which was good enough to keep minor leaguers off balance and struggling, makes his changeup better. His changeup is outstanding. The movement on it is filthy, the command is generally pretty good. But when the fastball does nothing, the changeup can’t do its thing. So he absolutely has to find a way to get his fastball to be good enough for big league hitters. I don’t know if that involves a move on the mound, a slight grip change or what, but it needs to move more.

And the last important thing is to keep working on the slider, which is a good pitch, but I also don’t want him to scrap the curve entirely. I liked his curve when it was working. I think it’s important for him for the same reason that Heasley needs something like a slider or a tighter curve for Kowar to keep it in his repertoire. It isn’t the worst thing to have something that looks a bit different than the rest of his pitches.

So yeah, Kowar made a pretty terrible first impression. In the end, he only had one start that was worth anything. But there were moments in many of his outings after his return from Omaha that made me see there was more in there from him. He may never find it. Highly regarded prospects miss all the time. But some take longer than others and the mystery right now in the game is what 2020 is doing to these young guys who didn’t have a chance to pitch competitively. Some have overcome, some haven’t. But we haven’t ever seen a season like that, so it’s hard to know if maybe there’ll be a bounce back for some in year two.

I know that Kowar is probably the pitcher I’m most interested in seeing in spring training with Brady Singer a close second to see what that third pitch looks like. But if Kowar’s fastball has a little movement or he’s working with two breaking balls or just something different, I’ll be very intrigued. But hey, the Royals threw numbers at this pitching for a reason, so if it doesn’t work, they’ll just move on to the next guy.

Oh yeah, the offense. Well they scored three in the third. Then they had two more hits and one walk the rest of the game. It wasn’t quite the comeback of Opening Day. But that’s alright. It’s time to think about 2022.

Looking Ahead to the Wild Card Games

It would be great if we were still talking Royals baseball and games coming up, but for another year, we aren’t. Yesterday was looking good for a game 163 today, but then the Nationals bullpen and the Rays offense couldn’t do enough to keep the Red Sox and Yankees both out of the win column. So now we’re stuck with a Yankees/Red Sox Wild Card game, which is probably great for baseball, but of zero interest to me outside of the fact that it’s playoff baseball. I truly don’t care who wins, but the Red Sox have played the Rays a lot closer, at least as far as run differential this year, so that seems like it has a good shot to be the better series. And then in the NL Wild Card game, I can’t believe a 106-win team has to play a one-game playoff against a team that was one game over .500 just a month ago, but here we are. Give me the Dodgers all day long. A Dodgers/Giants series sounds like an incredible clash and I’ll always hope the Cardinals lose.

What’s Next

Nothing. They’re done. The season is over. The year-end press conference should be coming this week, so we might get an answer on Cal Eldred’s future, but other than coaching staff news, there won’t be much Royals news, if any, for about a month at a minimum.