What We've Learned Two Months In
Two months in and the Royals are above .500 and sort of hanging around. What more have we learned?
When the season began, most people’s idea of a successful year would have been hanging around the .500 mark, being relevant through at least mid-season and getting some young guys time at the big league level to acclimate for what should be a push to a playoff spot in 2022 and beyond. Before the season, I had mentioned that I think this is the last year where the record is less important than how certain players did.
And here we are on June 3. The Royals are 27-26 and five games out of the division lead. They’ll hit the one-third point of the season with their game against the Twins tonight guaranteed to be at least .500 at that point for the first time since 2016 and just the third time in Dayton Moore’s tenure as general manager. That’s maybe another topic for another time, but for now, it’s fair to say that the start of the season as a whole has been a success even if the journey to get there has been a bit up and down.
You can read about what we learned one month in here.
They Are Resilient
I’m a little surprised that the Royals have gone 11-6 with a +21 run differential since their 11-game losing streak. It’s not because I don’t think they’re capable of that kind of run, but that kind of losing streak can and probably should torpedo a season. But maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by that. This is the team that was down 5-0 before they even came to bat on Opening Day and still won the game fairly easily. They were down 4-0 the next game and won by seven. They showed their resiliency on a game-to-game basis, but have really shown something over the last three weeks since breaking that streak.
This is where a couple of the veteran additions have really paid off for the team in the month. It’s been an absolute pleasure to watch Carlos Santana take his plate appearances with a professionalism at the plate we probably haven’t seen in Kansas City since maybe Ben Zobrist. He and Andrew Benintendi come from winning and have really stabilized the middle of the lineup whether they’ve hit second, third or fourth, which have been their primary spots. I think that’s been a big help for this organization to have those two in the lineup just about every day giving their great plate appearances.
Since Benintendi sort of hit rock bottom in April, he’s hit .347/.396/.488 with five home runs and just a 15.7 percent strikeout rate. Obviously that spans the losing streak as well, but to see him get it going has just been so important for this team to get back on track when it felt like they may never win again. And while Santana didn’t display a ton of power in May (four homers and no doubles), he did walk 22 times while striking out just 20 times, which I think is a big part of how this team was able to rise from the doldrums of that losing streak and become relevant again.
The Walks Are a HUGE Problem
Going back to the first game of the series with the Twins at the end of April and through Tuesday’s win against the Pirates (so yes, I’m cheating a bit on a May review, sue me), the Royals pitching staff has walked 131 batters in 258.2 innings. The fact that they’ve only allowed 4.8 runs per game in that time and carried just a 4.63 ERA is a minor miracle. While the starters have been bad, the bullpen has been absolutely brutal with the free pass.
From April 30 through June 1, the Royals bullpen walk rate of 14.5 percent is second worst in baseball, only trailing the Cardinals. Maybe there’s something in the air in Missouri, but either way, it’s a big, big problem. The bullpen carrying a 4.03 ERA is probably more than a minor miracle when they’re walking nearly 15 percent of all hitters they face. The biggest culprit is Tyler Zuber who has literally walked one in every four batters he faces in that timeframe. But he’s not a leverage reliever, though he has been asked to be at times due to the lack of depth the bullpen is experiencing.
No, the leverage relievers are Josh Staumont, Scott Barlow, Kyle Zimmer and Jake Brentz. Brentz, Zimmer and Staumont had the second, third and fourth worst walk rates in the Royals bullpen in that time. And yet, they continue to get away with it, which is either a testament to their stuff or a warning that something bad might be coming for this pitching staff and bullpen in particular if they don’t clean things up and fast. Not to harp too much here, but relievers walked 10.4 percent of batters across baseball during that 4/30-6/1 timeframe and only four Royals relievers were below that. They were Jakob Junis, Wade Davis, Ervin Santana and Jake Newberry, so not exactly leverage guys.
The Royals pitching staff does things well like really limiting home runs and striking out enough batters to be dangerous, but if they don’t start to limit these walks, they’re going to find themselves in serious trouble when they get to some more dangerous offenses that they’ll be facing over the final two-thirds of the season. To this point, they’ve really only faced the White Sox and Rays at their best offensively, so the pitching staff will be in for a rude awakening if the walks don’t slow down.
The Farm System Looks the Part
I’ve said this before, but one of the biggest disappointments for me from a lost 2020 minor league season is the fact that we didn’t get to see any of the strides the hitters who struggled so much in 2019 had made with some new offensive development behind them. We heard all summer about how great guys looked at the alternate site and then we got to experience some of that in spring training, but we wouldn’t really get to see until the lights went on for a real season.
It’s not all peaches and roses, as Whit Merrifield said earlier this year, but there are some extremely encouraging signs, particularly in Northwest Arkansas where we’ve seen both Nick Pratto and M.J. Melendez decidedly put their 2019 struggles behind them. Pratto is hitting .310/.450/.714 with nine homers, 21 walks and 25 strikeouts in 24 games. The improvements that we heard all about look real. Melendez is hitting .303/.396/.618 with 13 walks and 17 strikeouts in 21 games. His improvements might be even more noticeable because of all the swings and misses from 2019.
And it’s not just them. Edward Olivares showed marked improvement in his time in the minors this season. Rudy Martin has been a revelation for Northwest Arkansas. Jeison Guzman looks like the guy they thought they were adding to the 40-man last season (and then removed him before this season) with some monster numbers. Sebastian Rivero has really upped his offensive game. Brady McConnell has been very impressive too. And then there’s Bobby Witt, Jr., who hit his eighth home run last night and while he’s still struggling with contact, he’s hitting .245/.318/.500. The power is real. He needs to make a couple adjustments, but it’s real.
The point is that the farm might be starting to produce some offensive talent as well to match up with the pitching, which is huge.
The Rest of the First Half Will Tell a Tale
They had an easy start with the Pirates, but I don’t care what the Twins record is. That’s a team with talent, even if they’re not accessing it the way they’d like to. They can hit. They have good pitchers. They can catch the ball. Four against them to finish out this homestand will be a good test. Then a west coast trip is something that is always difficult, even if the Angels are without Mike Trout. And after that, things really get tough.
They face the A’s, Red Sox, Yankees and Indians for 18 out of their final 30 games before the break. Throw in three more against the Twins and three against a Reds team that is so up and down that you never know what they are and you can see that it’s a tough go of it for the Royals before they reach the break. Their biggest test is in August when literally every game but the four against Seattle are against a team currently above .500. And they’re just a game under!
If the Royals can get through this next tough stretch, what we’ll have learned through three months will be quite a bit.