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Lesky’s Notes: The last week has been much more fun

Winning is more fun than losing. Usually.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Boy, a week makes all the difference, doesn’t it? After routing the Cubs on Thursday night, the Royals swept the Twins and split two on the road with the Reds to give them wins in five of six games and start their 14-game Twins/Reds stretch with a 4-1 record. Now if they can somehow split in Minneapolis and take three of five at home, they’ll end what looked like a daunting stretch that was likely to totally sink them at 9-5 and be 13-15 with the easier part of the schedule still to come. Is this team a playoff team? I still would say absolutely not, but at least they haven’t completely flailed their way to the bottom, even if there’s still plenty of time for that. For now, the offense is clicking much better (though still leaving way too many on base) and the non-Ian Kennedy bullpen is doing their thing (though Wednesday night was a little bit too scary). And hey, the rotation isn’t too terrible either.

  • Actually, let’s start there and with Brad Keller in particular. I think I may have mentioned it last week in talking about his first start, but there’s something going on with his slider that definitely deserves to be followed. Prior to the start of this year, he’d only pitched one game as a starter where his slider spin rate was above 2600 rpm and that was actually his very first career start. He did it periodically as a reliever in his first couple months with the team, and that first start was basically a long relief appearance. He’s now done it in two straight starts to begin his 2020 campaign. While it wasn’t quite as good on Wednesday as it was in his first start against the Cubs, it might actually be a swing and miss weapon that he hadn’t had before. On Wednesday, the Reds ended nine at bats on the slider with three strikeouts and zero hits. On the Thursday before against the Cubs, they had two singles in 11 at bats with five strikeouts against the slider. He even threw it 41 percent of the time against the Reds. I’m of the opinion that Keller is an uncomfortable at bat for opponents. He throws hard enough, but not exceptionally hard or anything, but it just seems like opponents have a tough time squaring him up. He hasn’t allowed a single barreled ball in 2020 and didn’t allow many in 2018 or 2019 either. That’s a quality you like in a pitcher. If he’s been able to add a slider to his repertoire that can be dangerous, we might see a bit higher upside than we’d previously expected. It’s easy to both fall in love with prospects and be worried about a guy with a lower strikeout rate, but Keller now has 316.2 innings with a 3.55 ERA, fewer hits than innings and an important skill of keeping the ball in the yard. And the guy just turned 25. I don’t think he’s an ace or anything, but I think he’s a valuable part of a rotation and sometimes gets forgotten.
  • I’m sure I’ve said this before, but can we get Mike Tosar some love around these parts? Prior to Jorge Soler breaking out in 2019, he spent the winter working with Tosar. This year, both Salvador Perez and Maikel Franco have worked with him and I think it’s fair to say the results are obvious. While Salvy is never going to be mistaken for a patient hitter, he seems to be hunting his pitch much better this season and is now hitting .329/.341/.557. A lot of that can probably be attributed to him being actually fresh for the first time in a long time, but a lot of it seems like he’s really found a groove with fastballs, hitting .385 with a .692 SLG against them. He hit .291 with a .537 SLG on them in 2018, which is good, but not this good. Franco isn’t having the season Salvy is, but he still has a slugging percentage north of .500 and that comes from hitting .300 with a .625 slugging percentage on those fastballs. Compare that to .258 and .422 last year and there’s a world of difference. I hate to credit the coach only, of course, because the players are doing the work here, but working with Tosar does seem to be making a difference for them. I wonder how many other players will spend their offseason with a coach who has made a difference with multiple players on the team. It sure would be nice if the Royals could churn out some offense because they have a philosophy that lends itself to that like some other teams do. Combine that with the pitching depth and then we might really be talking.
  • I’m not completely sure the Royals made a mistake last year with Ian Kennedy because I don’t know how many teams actually were itching to trade for a guy who had been a reliever for four months and was going to be paid $16.5 million this year plus the rest of his salary in 2019. But I do have a pretty good notion that they didn’t even really float him out there too terribly much. But again, the guy was good, not great as Royals closer last season, so I’m really not sure how valuable he actually was on the trade market. Maybe they missed out on moving him this winter, but I think their best bet to get any value back on Kennedy was always to trade him in July this year. Of course, then the world went haywire and that was thrown off and now Kennedy is untradeable. He’s allowed six home runs in eight innings and while he’s been getting strikeouts and limiting walks, the Royals simply can’t use him in a tight game for at least the next few appearances and maybe not for the remainder of his contract. I think they took a calculated risk that the guy they saw last year would show up again this season. And they were certainly not rewarded for that risk. I want to blame them for not moving him, but I also don’t know that I would have done anything differently (again, assuming teams weren’t knocking down the door to get him; if they were, then Dayton done messed up big time). Now, though, I think they’re going to need to see if what Kyle Zimmer has shown in his eight innings this year is for real. It sure seems like it is, but he hasn’t pitched since Thursday in a 10-man bullpen. Maybe Wednesday was Kennedy’s last shot to keep his higher leverage role. If so, he blew it. Time to see Zimmer in there or Jake Newberry at the very least.
  • I take zero pleasure in bringing this up at all, but it’s also probably time for Alex Gordon to take a back seat to some other players. Sure, this might be just a cold stretch, and he does get streaky, but his bat looks slow and it looks like there are multiple other players who deserve the playing time over him that he’s getting. The downside is that other than Brett Phillips, Tuesday night notwithstanding, nobody holds a candle to him defensively and with Whit Merrifield in center and Hunter Dozier in right, they need a good defender. But, as good as Gordon is, he’s slooooooooooooooow, so he doesn’t help to plug that gap. With Ryan O’Hearn hitting well, I’d really like to see more of what we saw Wednesday with Ryan McBroom getting some starts in left field. In the long-term, the talk of the alternate site is that Kyle Isbel is destroying all who dare challenge him, and I don’t know if you saw the Clint Scoles tweet, but he’s adding some serious muscle. Khalil Lee is the guy who needs to be added to the 40-man at the end of the year, so maybe he gets the first shot, but I wouldn’t mind seeing what Isbel can do at some point as well. As a side note with Gordon, I absolutely did not understand the strategy on Wednesday night of putting Phillips in for defense and then pinch hitting with Gordon late. It might have been a way to show they still had confidence in him, but I thought Matheny managed Wednesday like it was a 162-game season when he’d spent the first three weeks managing like it was the 60-game season it was. I thought Wednesday was his worst managed game of the year. But hey, they got the win, so if that’s the worst, I’ll take it.