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Taking stock of the Royals at the season’s quarter point

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That went by fast.

Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Friday’s game against the Minnesota Twins represented the quarter point mark for the Royals in 2020. Twenty-five percent of the season gone is a fine place to take stock of what we’ve seen thus far. In a normal year, we would be discussing what we witnessed over the previous 40 games—that’s the number Dayton Moore likes to see before he makes any kind of judgement of that season’s team. In the year of Covid, the number of games played at the quarter point is 15.

But! Given the beating the Royals administered to the Twins over the weekend and their first extended winning streak of 2020, let’s expand the sample size to 17 games. A four-game winning streak is big news in Kansas City. It only happened twice for the Royals in 2019. (They were never able to get that elusive fifth consecutive win.) Let’s face it, if this was being written last Thursday morning, the tenor would be entirely different. A four-game stretch where the Royals outscored their opponents 29-12 changes everything in a short season.

Hearing no objection to our definition of a “quarter”, we shall proceed. Here is what has stood out over the first 25 percent of 2020.

The new manager is making a difference

I have found myself fascinated by Mike Matheny’s presence in the dugout. Sure he said all the right things last winter. His team seemed to enjoy playing for him in the early part of Spring Training. But the acid test would come once the lid lifted on the season. Well, we’re here and it’s my turn to be impressed.

After confounding Cardinal fans with his handling of his relievers, his bullpen moves have generally been strong. His explanations of various in-game decisions at key moments he’s providing postgame are thoughtful and introspective, which makes them interesting and enlightening. And while he has yet to settle on any kind of lineup, the ones he has used have made sense.

In the Royals’ first 17 games, Matheny has penciled together 16 different batting orders. The only time he’s used the same lineup was in the season’s first and second game. There are two constants to this lineup. First, Whit Merrifield shall hit leadoff. And second, Jorge Soler will bat behind him.

However, despite the calls to break the Boone-O-Meter out of mothballs, this isn’t really a commentary on Matheny. Managing in 2020 is difficult. So many players on the roster and so many transactions to stock said roster, give what can feel like too many options. The latest move came Sunday as Hunter Dozier returned to the team and was immediately slotted into the cleanup spot. He singled in his first at bat of 2020 because a quality offense, like Covid, is contagious.

The offense is awakening

Speaking of the offense, after a dreadful start to the season, it’s finally clicking. On Thursday, when I wrote that the offense was once again a drag on this club, the Royals had two players with a wRC+ above 100. After a single, offensive explosion against the Cubs and the three games against the Twins, the Royals now have four regulars (meaning would be qualified for the batting title) with a wRC+ north of 100. (Jorge Soler, Whit Merrifield, Salvador Perez and Maikel Franco) There are four more who have under 40 plate appearances but also have a wRC+ over 100. (Bret Phillips, Ryan McBroom, Ryan O’Hearn and Nicky Lopez) Praise be to the small sample sizes.

With the data at Baseball Savant still somewhat suspect, I’m not going to go through exit velocities and hard-hit rate, but I will say that if you think those numbers are strong for the Royals, that sentiment passes the eye test. Soler went into video game mode on Saturday and was crushing the ball into the seats at will. He was joined by Perez who launched a moon shot and Nicky Lopez, who like so many of his teammates opened the season slow and is starting to warm up.

Overall the Royals’ offense has a wRC+ of 107, which is fourth-best in the AL and second-best in the division, behind the White Sox at 113. Their team OBP has finally surged above .300 and their .436 slugging percentage trails only the Yankees and Orioles in the AL. The small sample encourages the wild swings, but at the quarter point this is a good place to be.

When Matheny fills out his next lineup card in Cincinnati on Tuesday, there’s a good probability that at least two-thirds will possess an above-average wRC+. Potent.

The bullpen is attempting to turn back the clock

The Royals’ bullpen is, dare I say, once again a lethal weapon. Through Saturday’s games, the relief corps lead the league in innings pitched with 73 and have thrown 52.5 percent of all innings this season. In a normal season, it would be cause for concern that the bullpen was on its way to overuse and a flameout. But with a short season and an expanded roster (and a rotation that has at time been cobbled together with a left arm and a prayer) this usage gets a pass. Besides, they’ve collectively been really, really good.

In the weekend series against the Twins, the bullpen combined for 13.1 innings, allowing six hits, three walks and 17 strikeouts... and one run. One! In particular on Friday, the Royals’ pen threw 4.1 frames without allowing a hit, the first time they’ve had a stretch that long in a game since 2014. The relievers in that one are familiar to you: Michael Mariot (1.1 IP), Kelvin Herrera (1.2 IP), Wade Davis (1.0 IP) and Greg Holland (1.0 IP). Is your nostalgia kicking in yet?

Trevor Rosenthal is throwing gas and, no surprise given his history with Matheny, has emerged as the closer. After throwing Rosenthal in back to back games early in the weekend, Scott Barlow, who is firmly in the Matheny Circle of Trust and leads the league with 10 appearances through Sunday, came out to close. Greg Holland is now the crafty veteran. And Tyler Zuber is moving up the trust depth chart.

But the true revelations have been Josh Staumont, who I chronicled here and has continued to throw absolute murderous filth at opponents, and Kyle Zimmer, who has been quietly dominant in his three relief outings. Zimmer gives the Royals length out of the pen, which means we see him less frequently (he did not appear against the Twins), but he’s whiffed three batters in each of his three relief outings, while walking just one.

The young arms will lead

Four Royals have thrown at least 10 innings this year. Three are starters. Brady Singer, who was the only Royal starter to complete five innings over the weekend series, leads the staff with 20 innings pitched. Kris Bubic has thrown 10 over his two starts. Danny Duffy, the veteran of the staff, has been o the bump for 19.1 innings.

It would be unrealistic to expect either Singer or Bubic to dominate straight out of the gate. Neither profiles as a traditional ace. So there will be bumps along the way, but damn if they haven’t impressed in their handful of starts. Plus, this is where the benefit of the short season comes into play where they should be able to go out and compete over the next 45 or so games without any true worry of fatigue. This could be a solid building block for their major league foundations.

E - Royals

Errors aren’t really a stat, and generally aren’t worth mentioning. Apparently, the Royals have a bunch of them. Again, this passes the eye test. Once a strength of this club, the defense has emerged as a notable weakness. Over at The Fielding Bible, the Royals’ team defense has been worth -11 defensive runs saved, worst in baseball. By a lot. (The Astros are at -7 in the AL and Mets have -8 in the NL.)

The Royals have been hurt at shortstop and the outfield, specifically left and center field. The penalty in left is due to five innings of Merrifield who managed to tally a -2 DRS in the ultimate of small sample sizes. Although it should be noted Alex Gordon currently sits at -1. In center, Bubba Starling has been worth -2 DRS. That’s frankly a little surprising given the raves his glove earned as he worked in the minors. On the flip side, it’s not that surprising given that his defense we’ve seen in Kansas City just hasn’t been all that impressive.

Now we’ll finally see the optimal lineup

With the return of Dozier, along with Brad Keller and Jakob Junis, the Royals are capable, for the first time this season, of fielding their first-choice lineup and rotation.

It will be interesting to see how Matheny approaches the next 15 games (really, it’s 13) which will take us to the halfway mark of 2020. Once the 60 game schedule was set, it was clear that teams with serious postseason aspirations couldn’t experience an extended period of bad baseball. The Royals were 5-10 through the first quarter of the season and 7-10 as of this writing. Despite winning four in a row, they’re still firmly entrenched in last place in the AL Central. Such is the depth of the hole they dug themselves.

Yet, the Royals find their Fangraphs playoff chances at 18.8 percent. That’s still the lowest in the division, but it’s gone up 14 percent over the last four games. That’s what they call a positive trend.

The next 11 contests for the Royals are exclusively against the Reds (four games) and Twins (seven games). They will close out the first half of the season against the Cardinals, if they don’t shut that franchise down due to Covid. Focusing on Minnesota, it’s a key stretch as they will be going toe to toe with the early class of the division. The Royals passed the first test with flying colors. How they perform in the next two series against their foes to the north will likely determine their fortunes for the rest of 2020.