The easy story of Royals spring training so far has been Bobby Witt, Jr., who continues to just look like he belongs at the highest level, but that’s kind of taken attention away from a really positive spring so far. The wins and losses are great, and also meaningless of course, but the team has generally had lots of very good moments, especially from the offense. On Tuesday, one thing I noted on Twitter is that they went down 1-2-3 in the first inning but forced 17 pitches. I don’t know how many times we’ve seen them go 1-2-3 on like six pitches. It’s not that they’ve never worked counts before or had good plate appearances, but with their additions, that seems like a good shot to be much more common, and I have to say that I’m here for it.
Kris Bubic pitched pretty well yesterday in relief of Mike Minor, and it’s only three appearances, but he hasn’t really had a strong showing so far in camp. I’m starting to wonder if he might be losing his grip on that fifth starter spot that I think he was in command for coming into the spring. It’s not entirely his fault. Jakob Junis, who we all thought was ticketed for the bullpen, has shown off that new cutter and has looked really good in his two starts with seven strikeouts and no walks in five innings. Again, the sample is impossibly small, but as I wrote on Inside the Crown yesterday (I am once again asking you to subscribe), the Royals and every other team has to figure out a way to piece their staff together to throw the 1400-1500 innings that will be required to get through the year.
Bubic’s struggles in spring could be an opportunity to keep him at the alternate site for the first month and monitor his workload and then send him to AAA for a handful of starts, ready to step in when needed to give someone like Brady Singer a bit of a breather. And with Junis, if they want to get a handful of starts from him and the rest in the bullpen, it’s probably better to start him in the rotation and transition to the bullpen than the other way around. I’ll have a roster prediction up next week on ItC, but I could see this whole sequence of rotation moves opening up a bullpen spot for a certain hard-throwing lefty who isn’t Daniel Lynch.
Oh right, I promised some Bobby Witt, Jr. talk, so here we go. He’s hitting .333/.360/.583 with two homers, including one that is one of the more impressive shots you’ll see all year (though Jorge Soler’s on Tuesday gives it a run for its money). He’s shown good instincts on defense and the bases and, like I said before, just generally looks like he’s where he belongs. There’s been so much talk about him starting the year in the big leagues, and while I don’t think it’s fair to make a blanket statement that because he hasn’t played competitively above rookie ball, he doesn’t belong, I wouldn’t start the year with him in the big leagues.
There’ll be plenty of time for him to debut, so I just would like to get him some plate appearances against some upper-level guys in a non-MLB situation. One thing about AAA pitching that gets overlooked is that you can find some serious junk there. Witt can hit a fastball, no question, but can he hit off-speed and breaking stuff just as well? Maybe, but he probably hasn’t seen many legitimately good pitches that he’ll see in the majors. AAA won’t offer him a full array of great pitching or anything like that, but it’s better than what he’s seen, even considering his time at the alternate site and in Summer Camp last season.
The first round of roster moves came yesterday and Witt wasn’t among them. I think a lot of people might be reading into that a little bit, and maybe they’re right, but why in the world would they reassign him? They’re getting tons of buzz and it’s not like there’s a timeline to send him to minor league camp, which is even more procedural this year than most. I am pretty happy we get to see more of him for at least a little while longer, though.
It came out yesterday that there will be some of the changes we saw in the Atlantic League in 2019 coming to the minor leagues in 2021. I generally like a lot of them, though I don’t love how different each level seems like it’ll be a different rule being tried out. The larger bases in AAA should help reduce some of those at the bag injuries, specifically at first, but will also lessen the distance between the bases by a touch, which might encourage running more. I don’t know about that, but I’ve seen that mentioned. The rules in High-A and Low-A regarding pitchers and pickoff moves should actually help the running game go a little better, which I think makes the game a little more fun, so I like that. And I love the automated strike zone being tested out in Low-A Southeast. That puts us one step closer to not having to see Angel Hernandez be a disaster behind the plate.
What I don’t like, and will never get behind, is the defensive positioning rule we’re going to see in AA. The rule says that there must be four players on the infield and can limit shifts as well. I get that more batted balls are being converted into outs and shifts are playing a big role in the launch angle revolution we’ve seen, but eliminating them isn’t going to stop hitters from trying to hit home runs like I think the powers that be believe. As long as a home run is a guaranteed run, it’s the most efficient way to score, so players and teams will prioritize power if they’re able to do that. To take away a defense’s ability to position in a way that won’t help them record outs, I think you’re going to see baseball go even slower than it does now and cause even more problems.
I have been really impressed with Michael A. Taylor so far in what little I’ve seen of him this spring. The numbers have been great, which helps, as he’s hitting .429/.467/1.000 with a couple home runs in 15 plate appearances. Maybe I’m skewed by the results, but I’ve really liked how much cleaner his swing has looked in what little I’ve had a chance to see of him. I felt like when watching him with Washington the last couple years that his whole swing seemed to take way too long to uncoil and get to the ball. I just haven’t seen that so far. It has me at least a bit more optimistic that he can be more than I expected at the signing.
And from the eye test, his defense has looked really good. I’m enjoying his arm and decision-making in center and his ability to go get it. He rated outstandingly in 2017 and 2018 as a center fielder, but then hasn’t been anything special according to Outs Above Average on Baseball Savant. But what’s interesting is that his sprint speed last year ranked in the 82nd percentile so he can still scoot and his jumps ranked in the 96th percentile. With those tools and Rusty Kuntz doing his thing, you have to feel good about that defense. I’m still skeptical, but I’ve at least liked what I’ve seen so far.