Here we are, a week into the season and fans all over the league are trying to cram 162 games worth of outrage and hyperbole into a 60-game schedule and some of us are really doing their best on that front.
And I’m no different. I’m living and dying by each at-bat just like the rest of you and I’ve got some bold predictions to make based on the very limited baseball we’ve seen in 2020.
Prediction 1: For the most part, Royals fans will be happy with Mike Matheny at the end of the year.
Hand up, I did not like the Matheny hire. I thought it was yet another “old school” hard head type that was going to continuously trot out Alcides Escobar in the leadoff spot seemingly out of spite.
In the offseason, it was pretty public that Matheny had graduated from Analytics U and it had impacted the way he thought about baseball. When I heard that, I told myself that a tiger can’t change his stripes and this is just to get us baseball nerds to shaddup and give him a chance.
Fast forward to now and it certainly seems like it really did impact the way he thinks about baseball. Max wrote a great article about the analytical moves that Matheny has made already and I would highly suggest checking it out, but it’s safe to say that Matheny’s present managerial style is much different than Ned Yost’s and I am here for it.
He’s shown his willingness to put on some galaxy brained shifts, use his bullpen non traditionally, tinker with the batting order, and sit guys that are looking consistently outmatched. Those are all areas that Ned was fundamentally against and I think we are seeing the page turn to the next chapter of the Kansas City Royals. They’re showing that they want to go out there everyday and win it. We’ve been told that for the last few seasons but it wasn’t fooling anyone. Now they say it and seem to be following through with it. Regardless of this season’s outcome, I think Royals fans will end the season with a more hopeful view of the Royals and Matheny’s approval rating will be very high.
Prediction 2: The bullpen will pitch as many innings this season as the rotation.
The rotation is decimated. Jakob Junis and Brad Keller are both waiting out their COVID quarantines, Jesse Hahn is away on bereavement, Mike Montgomery and Foster Griffin are both on the Injured List. I mean great googly-moogly, it seems like every day there’s a new reason why a starting pitcher candidate for the Royals can’t do it.
And that’s primarily why the Royals bullpen is close to the top of the league in innings pitched with 38.2 IP. The (true) starters have only logged 21.1 IP this season. Obviously when/if the Royals’ luck gets back to normal, that balance will also return back to normal.
But Mike Matheny has said that he’ll be using the bullpen a bit unconventionally this year and has backed up that talk already. On Opening Day, he pulled Danny Duffy in the 5th inning of a scoreless game after just 65 pitches. At the time, Duffy had allowed two runners on with one out and Oscar Mercado at the plate. Matheny opted to instead go to Scott Barlow to try for the double play ball. Matheny seems very open to making the decisions that he thinks are best without giving too much care to what it might do to a player’s psyche. So I don’t believe that the bullpen usage is going anywhere even when the rotation gets closer to normal. And, for the record, with this group of starters I don’t think it should change.
Prediction 3: Maikel Franco will lead the team in home runs.
Most seasons, this is a pretty low bar to clear and thus the boldness of this prediction would be in question. But if you’re reading this, you know that the current AL home run king also plays in Kansas City. Jorge Soler put up 48 dingers in 2019 and was expected to reproduce at that rate again in 2020.
And there’s also the return of Salvador Perez coming off of a lost 2019 season. Prior to that, he had back to back seasons of 27 home runs. In a small sample size 2019 season, he had two in 20 plate appearances, a 54-home run pace.
The case for Franco starts with his having worked with Mike Tosar in the offseason after the Royals thought they saw something for Franco to tweak. So far, his Statcast data sure suggests that something was indeed fixed (small sample size alert). His average exit velocity is 92.5 mph where he’s never had more than 89.5 mph. His sweet spot % in 2020 is sitting at 40.9% where his career high was 33.6%. Yes, that’s only across 29 plate appearances, but that’s at least encouraging to see.
Franco has never had a shortage of power in his bat. His issues were more about not being able to pick up pitches quick enough to generate consistent hard contact, especially when it came to breaking balls. He might still be struggling with that last part as he’s currently carrying a 54.2% whiff rate on breaking balls. Also he has a 13.6% line drive rate and a 45.5% ground ball rate. He’s clearly swinging with a heavy uppercut but I’m still confident that what he’s doing up there will still translate to strong power numbers that could lead the team.
Prediction 4: The incoming prospect wave will reach shore with the debut of 13 players.
The boldness in this one is found in two things. First, the fact that the Royals also debuted 13 players in a full 162 game 2019 season and I’m saying they’ll do that again in only 60 games. Second, the part where I’m planting my flag right at the number 13. I think we see the following 13 players; no more, no less.
We’re only two series into the season and we’ve already seen three debuts in Brady Singer, Tyler Zuber, and Foster Griffin and we’ll eventually get to see Nick Heath on the base paths and Kris Bubic was announced as the starter for the home opener on Friday. But that’s not going to be where the fun stops! (especially if the team won’t be competing at the end of the season).
Lack of healthy options in the rotation have certainly opened the door for the pitching prospects to debut. Singer performed really well both in Spring Training and Summer Camp, so he was probably going to make it regardless of the vacancies. Now all bets are off with Matheny announcing that Bubic will be making his debut in the team’s seventh game of the season. Bubic hasn’t pitched above High-A ball albeit pitching very well there. I think the most optimistic timeline from scouts was a 2021 debut for Bubic. Whether it’s need or performance makes no difference. It’s happening and if that door is open there will be many more.
Even at full strength the expected rotation (Duffy, Keller, Junis, Montgomery, Singer), is still plenty shaky. And what’s even shakier is that whole rotation staying healthy and not spending more time out with COVID positives. As I mentioned before, Matheny is in win-now mode, so if these guys aren’t cutting it, they could be demoted or DFA’d with the quickness. At that point, we could see debuts from Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, Austin Cox, Jonathan Bowlan, and Scott Blewett. And that’s all before we cover how many glaring holes there are in the front end of the bullpen. There’s so many different ways that the Royals could need even more pitching help than they’ve already needed. So I actually think there’s a decent chance that all of the guys mentioned above make their debuts in 2020, which is exciting.
Lastly, the lineup still has quite a bit of uncertainty too. The middle of the infield looks like a train wreck at the moment and the Royals added 21 year old Jeison Guzman to the 40 man in the off-season, so they obviously like the kid. He’ll need a few things to fall into place before it happens, but I think it’s pretty likely we see him some time this year too.
Then there’s the outfield. The Royals certainly have a collection of fringy guys don’t they. I wouldn’t say that any of Brett Phillips, Bubba Starling, or Franchy Cordero have taken ahold of their opportunities yet with the absence of Hunter Dozier. If you purely looked at his numbers, Alex Gordon can be thrown into that group too. And they’ve got two exciting prospects in Khalil Lee and Kyle Isbel that could be in the mix by the end of the year if those guys continue to struggle.
Prediction 5: The Royals will win at least 30 games but will still miss the playoffs.
This one is more from the gut than from the head. I think the Royals legitimately could get to 30 wins and you don’t really have to squint that hard to see it. Yes, they’ve gotten off to a rough start. Going into the season, Vegas had their over/under win total at 24.5 wins. That win % pace is the same as a 67.5 regular MLB season. Last season they won 59 games. I think the 2020 offense is better than the .710 OPS that the 2019 offense put up. I think 2020 bullpen is better than the 4.85 xFIP that the 2019 bullpen produced. Both of those might still be missing in action for 2020 but once they settle in, I think both get going. If that were to come true, I think they can win more of the 1 run games that they lost last year (going 14-25) and that they get to the 30 win mark.
But in the end, a 30-30 season is not going to be good enough to get into the postseason; not even in the expanded platform. The NBA currently has 30 teams with a 16-team playoff structure, both similar to the MLB’s new endeavor. In the past four seasons, only four teams with .500 records or worse have gotten into the playoffs.
I just have this feeling that the Royals will find their way to 30 wins while having brought up a lot of the prospect wave and by October, we will once again be pleased with the hope we’re clinging to that the winning will commence shortly as we watch the rest of the league play postseason baseball.
Which prediction are you buying stock in?
This poll is closed
Matheny’s approval rating
The bullpen balancing the rotation in IP
HR leader Maikel Franco
13 prospects make their debut
Royals reach 30 wins but no postseason