Weekend in Review: Major Power in the Minors, Low-Scoring Series Win, Finishing Strong and What's Left
The Royals young starting pitchers stole the show just enough this weekend to not realize how many opportunities they wasted.
This is a tough time of the season for teams that are out of the race. Now that football season has started, the games just don’t seem to have even what little meaning they had before there were other things to focus on. I don’t know for a fact that it impacts the players, but we talk so often about remembering that they’re human beings and not just robots put on the field to entertain people and it leads me to assume they do. But there is plenty of pride worth playing for, and the Royals deserve a lot of credit for another strong road trip, going 4-2 so far in Cleveland and Detroit with one more game back in Cleveland before they head home to face the Indians for the final time. With just seven games to go, there isn’t much that can change any of my opinions, but I am enjoying them finishing on a high note as they look for their first winning second half since 2015.
Big Time Minor Power
The Storm Chasers played a pretty crazy game yesterday as they’re getting closer to wrapping up the AAA season with the Final 10. I have to admit that I don’t fully understand what that actually is, but it’s 10 more games to watch Bobby Witt Jr., Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez, so I’m not going to complain. Anyway, back to the crazy game. They lost 17-12 to Indianapolis. In a game they had 13 hits, you’d expect Witt to be involved, but he went 0 for 5. But it’s hard to imagine that kind of game without Pratto and/or Melendez being involved, especially with Witt quiet. And boy were they. Pratto went 2 for 5 with a home run while Melendez went 2 for 4 with two home runs and a walk.
Pratto’s home run gave him 34 for the season. Melendez’s two gave him 41. Witt has 33. This tweet was sent before Melendez’s second home run, but that just means that it got even better.
That’s seriously crazy. For an organization that has been bereft of power for the vast majority of its existence, the Royals now have three players who are having phenomenal power seasons. It’s not just home runs either. Witt has 72 total extra base hits. Pratto has 68. Melendez has 63. And with his two home runs to get him past 40, this became true:
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t have guessed this before the season started. What’s amazing is that this isn’t like a Calvin Pickering breakout season or something. These are two guys who will be 23 next season and one who will be 22. I don’t know how much of the power will translate to the big leagues. Omaha plays a lot smaller than Kansas City, but this is legitimate power from all three, so the days of no power might be coming to an end soon.
If you’re watching the Royals simply for the young pitching, then this was a very good weekend as all three young starters had shutout outings, going a total of 17.1 innings without giving up a single run. There were some negatives still, which I’ll get to, but that’s a good weekend to see against a division foe on the rise.
Friday - Royals 3, Tigers 1
A matchup of Carlos Hernandez vs. Casey Mize isn’t the 2018 draftee matchup that we’ve been hoping for a few times this year, but it’s young talent vs. young talent and that’s pretty fun. After the Royals went down 1-2-3, I was very interested to see what Hernandez looked like because I wrote after his last start that he looked like he was worn down. The rainout and off day gave the Royals a chance to get him a couple extra days, so I was very interested in his velocity to start.
He topped out at 96.8 MPH to Akil Baddoo, who lined out, but then hit 99 to Jonathan Schoop in the next at bat, so that test was passed as far as I was concerned, but he couldn’t put him away with two strikes and then hit him on the ninth pitch. Then he walked Robbie Grossman. Miguel Cabrera grounded out before a four-pitch walk to Jeimer Candelario. So with the bases loaded and two outs, he was finally getting the ball back down and got a line out to end the inning and keep the Tigers off the board. Still, it was a 30-pitch inning with two walks and a hit batter.
From there, he threw four more shutout innings with two hits allowed and just one walk. But for the second straight start, he struck out just one batter. His velocity was back. He averaged 97 and that was basically his season average. But he only got one swing and miss in 24 swings. His season whiff percentage on the fastball is 21.6 percent, so he was clearly not fooling hitters the way he has in the past. I still think there’s a fair amount of fatigue going on here. Overall, though, I liked his fastball location a lot more than his last start.
He was getting the pitch out of the fatigue zone and into the tough to hit zone. And the Tigers were still just 1 for 9 on that fastball, so it was working for him well enough. I was interested in the changeup because he threw it more than he had in any start since August 4, and that was a good start for him. To be honest, I just don’t know how much we’re going to learn about Hernandez in his one remaining start other than how well he can perform without his best. If he can have another good start, likely against the Indians, that’s a good indicator that he doesn’t need to have the best stuff to get the job done.
Offensively, the Royals didn’t have many chances and contrary to a lot of recent performances, they took advantage when they could. A leadoff single in the third by Ryan O’Hearn is something the Royals absolutely have to cash in on and they did with a double from Kyle Isbel and then the first productive out of the weekend - a sacrifice fly from Whit Merrifield.
In the seventh, a triple from Adalberto Mondesi brought O’Hearn to the plate, so I think it’s fair to have assumed they wouldn’t get Mondesi home, but O’Hearn came through with a single to left. It was his first multi-hit game since August 27, and nice to see him respond to a start when he hasn’t been getting very many. He did get thrown out on the bases to end the inning, but that’s a productive day for a hitter who hasn’t been very productive.
The second productive out came in the eighth when Isbel started the inning with a triple and then Merrifield hit another sacrifice fly. You have to get when the gettin’ is good.
But that was an insurance run because of a combination of terrible baserunning from Niko Goodrum and a really nice play from Hunter Dozier, Merrifield and Mondesi.
Victor Reyes doubled next, which always makes an out on the bases seem worse and while the Tigers had a chance in the eighth when Josh Staumont walked two batters, they never posed a real threat.
Saturday - Tigers 5, Royals 1
Jon Heasley’s first big league start was a bit of a mixed bag and one thing I wanted to see more of was his curve. That’s the pitch that appears to be the best out pitch he has with some high spin rates and a lot of opportunity for some swing and miss. He didn’t throw it significantly more in his 5.1 shutout innings, but he did throw it a bit more and I thought it was a little better than in his first game. His spin was up a touch and his whiff rate was as well. I liked his locations because you have to throw some strikes in order to get some whiffs below the zone.
But I do wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea for him to either go to his slider or maybe shrink up his curve a touch. What ends up happening with a big curve is that hitters know that if it starts in a certain spot, it’s likely going to end up below the zone. The Tigers swung their fair amount at pitches below the zone, so he did a nice job of it in this one, but I would like to see a slight wrinkle. All that said, look at this pitch.
That’s unfair. That is a big league curve and one that could help him to become more than just another 2018 draft pick who has gotten a couple of starts. What really grabbed me from his start was his changeup. I hadn’t seen Heasley pitch really before he came up last week against the Mariners, but I was very curious what the changeup would look like. As it turns out, it looks like this:
That’s just trouble. If he can spot his changeup there regularly, hitters are going to adjust with going the other way against it, but even so, that’s a pitch that he can use to get just about any lefty out. And I loved that he threw it to righties too, not as much, but he still threw it.
The Tigers did score three runs in the sixth. Heasley started the inning with his third strikeout of the game before walking Baddoo and getting pulled. Domingo Tapia came in and just didn’t have it, but he did give up the hit that ended up getting Baddoo thrown out at third to close the book on Heasley to give him 5.1 shutout innings with just three hits allowed and two walks. Tapia had that rare tough performance and gave up three runs. When Ervin Santana gave up two more in the eighth to make the score 5-1, it put the game totally out of reach with the offense sputtering.
They weren’t without their opportunities, going 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position and leaving seven on base. They had runners on second and third in both the seventh and eighth innings and came away with nothing. Good or bad relief work, you’re not winning leaving those runs on the table.
Sunday - Royals 2, Tigers 1
Kris Bubic is finishing strong for the second year in a row. He has followed up that rough start in Seattle at the end of August now with 26 innings over five games (four starts) with 15 hits allowed, 21 strikeouts and nine walks with a 2.08 ERA. Last year, he finished with a 2.96 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 27.1 innings over his final five starts. So if he’s going to be a strong finisher in his career, that’s definitely a good thing for the Royals.
His start was really interesting to me. He threw his fastball 65 times out of 95 pitches, which is the highest percentage of his career, and it’s simply because it was working. He got nine whiffs on 32 swings. He also had 13 called strikes for a CSW% of 34 percent, which is really excellent. He also got 14 foul balls and didn’t have one hit harder than 100.7 MPH. It was such a good pitch for him. He wasn’t doing anything fancy with it, filling up the zone.
I think some of this is a Tigers team that’s struggling some offensively, but to only walk one for Bubic seems like a massive win. He was elevating when he needed to, like here:
But he was also absolutely painting with it too, like here:
And even though he didn’t throw a ton of changeups, I loved how he located it to the righties.
There is just so little anyone can do with that, especially when his fastball is working as well as it was in this one. I love that he’s now pitched into the seventh in two straight starts and tied his career high in this one. And the Royals offense needed just about every inch of what he had to give because the offense was struggling once again.
They did score early against Wily Peralta, but left the bases loaded in the first inning. Then they left Merrifield on second in the second. Then they left the bases loaded again in the third. That’s seven left on and just one run scored. Not great! They did score in the fourth with a Cam Gallagher ground rule double followed by a Merrifield single and another productive out - a Nicky Lopez sacrifice fly. But Merrifield was left on second again. Dozier was caught stealing to end the top of the fifth. Two were left on in the seventh and one more was left on in the eight. As a whole, they were 3 for 12 with runners in scoring position, which isn’t bad, but they did leave 11 on.
Good thing they had Bubic.
I’ve mentioned this before, but I think the Dozier hate has jumped the shark a bit. I’m sort of a Dozier apologist, partly because I really like him as a player and partly because I spent like all of spring training talking about him breaking out this year, but I think it’s easy to not realize how well he’s played for awhile. Since the start of the road trip in Baltimore, he’s hitting .302/.391/.736 with six doubles, a triple and five home runs. His walk rate is 12.5 percent and his strikeout rate is 26.6 percent, which is high but not crazy high. He’s really finishing well, and whether you agree with his contract or not (and I’m not sure how you can), he’s part of this team next year and beyond, so getting him on track is important.
But it’s not just Dozier who has been playing well. Even though he went 0 for 4 yesterday, Isbel is hitting .290/.353/.581 with a walk rate of 8.8 percent and, maybe more importantly, a strikeout rate of 14.7 percent. He’s played really solid defense in center field, so it looks like his minor league adjustments have really paid off. I like that he hasn’t been trying to pull everything and that’s been a big benefit for him. He’s taking advantage of an opportunity that’s been presented to him and I do wonder if what he’s done in an admittedly small sample will make the Royals feel more comfortable with him as part of at least a rotation in center field next year.
The end is what’s next. The Royals will play their final four games ever against the Indians before they become the Guardians and will get all of the top Indians starters. Of course, they have to start the series back in Cleveland before continuing it in Kansas City. Can Salvador Perez finally get back on the home run board? If he can’t against Cleveland, he should have some opportunities against the Twins pitching. That’s really what’s left to watch other than the young pitching. So hopefully he can hit at least three more and I’d really prefer four.