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Weekend in Review: Incremental Improvements, Swept in Seattle and The Week Ahead
The Royals aren't that close, but I also wonder if they're closer than it seems sometimes. That, plus a sweep in Seattle and what's coming up this week is all inside.
Nobody can deny the Royals have played a more competitive brand of baseball for awhile now, but if you were ever wondering the gap between them and a team that is both good and playing at their top level, this weekend showed it. The Royals held the lead for parts of three innings this weekend, all on Friday night. The Mariners, a playoff team in 2022, have caught fire over the last month or so and they’re running over everyone. So a team now 50 games below .500 wasn’t about to stop them. We can talk about this good sign or that good sign, but the Royals playing decent enough baseball aren’t especially close to the level of a good team playing great.
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And that’s okay. For now. I’m not sure what else you can expect from this team at this point. I think there are things to be encouraged by with this team, but I don’t think anyone looks at them and thinks they’re one piece away or anything. They need to rebuild their bullpen in a big way. They probably need to add three starting pitchers and maybe more. They could probably use another bat, though that seems a bit less imperative. It’s just the reality of the situation at this point in a completely demoralizing season.
They’ve played 41 games since the break and 29 of them have been decided by three runs or less. They’re 6-6 in the 12 decided by four or more. But you can really see the differences when they face a team like the Mariners. If this Seattle team was playing like this at the end of September, they might be my World Series pick. I don’t think they will be when that time comes, but they’re not a bad option with that starting pitching and the offense able to beat you in a few different ways. Simply put, this weekend (and the last series against the Mariners) showed me quite a bit in the gap between the Royals and a team that actually has a shot to win it all.
I’ll get into this quite a bit more when I start writing more about the offseason, but I expect quite a bit of activity from the Royals this winter. I think they’ll be somewhat active on the free agent market and will spend a little money. I think they’ll work to get some players signed long-term because I do think there have been a handful of players who have shown they’re good enough to build around. And I think they’ll be making trades. This thought stems from a conversation in the comments the other day, but it also goes back to the idea of turning the bottom of the roster into a non-negative.
When they go to make these trades, I hope they’re always asking for that one additional piece. For example, if the White Sox make a push for Salvador Perez, that’s great. Go get Nick Nastrini and Cristian Mena or whoever, but also figure out a way to get Gregory Santos in the deal. If it means paying $5 million more on Salvy’s deal, do it. If they move a guy like Brady Singer to the Reds, as was discussed at the deadline, target Chase Petty or Rece Hinds, but get Ian Gibault back. It’s not easy, but that’s a quick way to add some additional talent to the 2024 roster.
A lot of this can be to get relievers back, but if the Royals don’t feel like Samad Taylor can fill the utility role, find a utility infielder. I think the Royals have done a really nice job to patch up the bottom of the roster this season in ways they haven’t before. They moved on quickly from underperformers like Franmil Reyes, Hunter Dozier and Jackie Bradley Jr. In fact, by fWAR, they have just two players on the roster who are currently below 0.0. They are Perez and Melendez. One is a franchise great and the other has hit .286/.327/.503 since the break.
It’s not quite so rosy on the pitching side with five negatives still on the big league roster. A couple of them don’t matter too much to me. I don’t care that Taylor Hearn is struggling because we know he isn’t good. I don’t care that Jordan Lyles has a negative fWAR because we already knew that was a silly signing. But if they can figure out a way to turn a couple of those bullpen negatives into even small positives, you start to see those incremental gains that can help make a difference in the long run.
I also believe that it’s all about context. The Royals are 15-26 since the break and 9-20 in those games decided by three or fewer runs. The 4.6 runs per game scored by the offense is enough to be doing better. The 4.25 non-Lyles starter ERA is enough to be doing better. The 5.54 bullpen ERA, which is buoyed by some decent enough bulk efforts is not good enough. I can go game by game to see what the difference could be with a good bullpen, but I’d wager 9-20 in those games would easily become 14-15 at worst and a 20-21 second half that could get some people a whole lot more on board.
Three Thoughts from the Weekend
There is a slight hiccup in the idea of trading Singer and it’s that his velocity has somewhat suddenly dropped over his last two starts. He averaged just 91.1 MPH on his sinker compared to 92.2 MPH for the year. That 92.2 MPH is already down from 93.8 MPH last season. Is he hurt? I think it’s a bit reckless to speculate on that without any information from the team, but I also think it’s a situation worth monitoring relatively closely.
Pitchers generally don’t throw harder as they get older, so a bit of a decline in velocity is understandable. Add in that he’s been working to get right mechanically all season basically and it’s even more understandable, but his last two starts have featured his two lowest average velocities on his sinker of his career. Now, there are some explanations that aren’t the worst-case scenarios. One is that his new changeup grip has given the Trackman system a lot of trouble in identifying which pitch is a sinker and which is a changeup.
I’m kind of leaning toward thinking at least three or four of his slowest sinkers were actually changeups. Based on movement profiles, it could be as many as 10. I’m not going to go back and look at every pitch he’s thrown over the last couple of starts, but I looked at a few and there is some changeup-like movement on a few of them that maybe just don’t drop the way I think you’d expect the changeup to drop. But it’s also a pitch that he’s still working to refine, so potentially he’s just struggling to get the movement on it that he wants to.
This is something I want to keep an eye on for his next start on Friday against Boston. I do think it’s interesting that they’re pushing him back a couple of days. If these are changeups, I’m not worried in the least and I appreciate the effort to throw them. I’m confident at least some of them are. If it’s fewer than possible, it could be an issue moving forward. I still think there’s something to the idea that his whole season was thrown off with the weird spring he had and no real chance to get right like he did last year with his trip to AAA, but the stuff already isn’t plus, so to lose that much velocity would be tough for a guy.
I Hated Pinch Hitting for Massey
On Friday night, the Royals were fighting, as they generally do. It was 6-5 after a Kyle Isbel homer. With two outs, Bobby Witt Jr. hit his eighth triple of the year* to put the tying run on third with two outs. With Michael Massey coming to the plate, the Mariners replaced Matt Brash with Tayler Saucedo, a lefty who destroys lefties. So the Royals made a tactical decision and brought in Matt Duffy to hit for Massey.
*The 8th triple of the season for Witt put him in pretty elite company. He now has 24 doubles, eight triples and 26 home runs to go along with 38 steals. I’ve done this exercise for a few weeks now, but IN THE HISTORY OF MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL, only seven players have put up each of those four stat totals in a single season. One more homer and the number drops to six. One more triple along with one more homer and it drops to four. If he reaches his pace of 29 doubles, 10 triples, 32 homers and 47 steals, he’ll be the only player to ever get to all four of those stats in one season. He’s slowed down the last few games, but the guy is unreal.
Look, I get it. Saucedo has allowed a .212/.255/.212 line to lefties. Duffy has hit .282/.358/.377 against lefties while Massey has hit .269/.320/.343. It’s probably also worth noting that Massey came into the game 6 for his last 32, so he’s in a bit of a slump. All the numbers point to this being the correct decision. So I feel like I can’t get myself too worked up over the call because if the Royals were playing for something, it would have been the unequivocally right move. But the Royals weren’t playing for anything. Duffy has zero impact on the future while Massey could be the starting second baseman on the next good Royals team (stop laughing).
I think there is a potential explanation that I think I’m fine with and it’s that when you’re playing a team in a race, you want to manage the game tactically correctly. That means pinch hitting with the better hitter against lefties. I wouldn’t worry about it personally, but I understand caring about the integrity of a pennant race. For me, Matt Quatraro and the Royals need to worry about themselves and not think about the sport as a whole, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand the idea of caring about that. The problem with the move is that when it came to a big moment in the ninth with a base open, Witt got himself walked because Duffy was hitting behind him.
That part doesn’t concern me too much because I think the lineup next year is going to feature Vinnie Pasquantino behind Witt, but we saw the real world consequences of that choice and they took the bat out of the hands of the team’s best player with a shot to win and actually influence a pennant race. I do appreciate that after that happened, the Royals made a bit of a flip and put Perez behind Witt for the next two games, but I don’t think that’s a long-term answer.
Marsh Maybe is Figuring Things Out
I tweeted (or X’d or whatever that hellsite is now) this the other day that Alec Marsh had quietly been pretty good in August. He started the month pitching an inning of relief while the Royals were resetting their rotation order. Then he made one start against the Phillies and then pitched in bulk relief for three games. In those three games, he went 15.2 innings with a 3.45 ERA, 25 percent strikeout rate and 11.1 percent walk rate. The walks are still too high, but he just looked a bit better.
He got the start yesterday and struck out nine for the second consecutive game while going 5.2 innings for the second consecutive game. The walks were manageable with just two, though one scored on the second homer he allowed. He had 16 swings and misses, which was a career-high for him, and he did it with a fastball that I thought was as good as I’ve seen from him. He threw 36 fastballs, got swings on 18 of them and whiffs on eight. The Mariners put just two in play and got a single out of those two. That was it.
He was getting swings out of the zone at the top and even when the velocity wasn’t overwhelming, Mariners hitters just looked silly on it. If Marsh can figure out that fastball, that changes things quite a bit for him. He did hang a couple of breaking balls that ended up going for home runs, but giving up three runs in 5.2 innings isn’t bad enough to deserve a loss like he got. It’s not great. I’m not saying they’ve found someone to pair with Cole Ragans at the top of the rotation or anything, but that fastball popping like it was seemed like a great sign to me.
As with everything on a bad team, it’s just something interesting to watch over the last few weeks of a brutal season.
The Week To Come
It feels like the Royals have been on the road forever, but they finally return home and they’ll get a series against the Pirates to start things off. Pittsburgh was the surprise of baseball. They had swept a double-header against the Nationals to improve to 20-8 after play on April 29 and it looked like they were finally emerging from their rebuild. But they lost the next game and then the next six after that. Then they lost four more after a win to fall to 21-19 just two weeks later.
Before they knew it, they were 41-54, in last place and looking at selling. They did trade off Austin Hedges, Carlos Santana, Rodolfo Castro and Rich Hill at the deadline. They’ve got some offensive pieces. They were able to finally get Brian Reynolds locked up earlier this year. Jack Suwinski has power. Andrew McCutchen is having a nice year. Connor Joe has been a bit of a surprise for them. And they have Ke’Bryan Hayes, who hasn’t come especially close to his 2020 rookie cup of coffee, but is hitting .292/.333/.539 in August with great defense.
The pitching side is where there are struggles. Mitch Keller is having a nice season and threw eight shutout innings in his last start, but even with that has a 5.22 ERA since the start of July. Johan Oviedo has shown some flashes and he’s just 25. But otherwise, they’ve struggled quite a bit and are now waiting (maybe impatiently) on Paul Skenes to arrive. They do have a top-notch closer in David Bednar and Colin Holderman has lived up to his name this season, but they’re trying to figure out the bullpen as well.
This series will be Zack Greinke vs. Oviedo on Monday, Cole Ragans vs. probably Luis Ortiz on Tuesday and then it’s anyone’s guess. With Singer being pushed back to Friday, this could be Angel Zerpa, but maybe it’s an opportunity to get a look at Jonathan Bowlan or Anthony Veneziano. You never know. I’d bet on something with the idea of Zerpa getting bulk innings, but I wouldn’t be surprised by any of those options.
Then Boston comes in for what will be a really fun weekend regardless of the results. Ned Yost is getting inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame on Saturday (and I’m giving away tickets but only paid subscribers are eligible!). On Friday, there will be a blue blazer ceremony to honor current Royals Hall of Famers and then on Saturday, the induction. Plus, there’s a drone show after the game Friday and those are always cool. On the field, it’s looking like it’ll be Brady Singer vs. James Paxton, Jordan Lyles vs. Tanner Houck and Alec Marsh vs. Chris Sale. I hope the Royals decide to honor Ned by not pitching Lyles, but we’ll see how that goes.