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Lesky’s Notes: Not sure how to handle a start to the season that isn’t crippling

The season isn’t over in April, and that’s different.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Kansas City Royals Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Royals are currently 7-4. It’s the first time they’re over .500 after 11 games since 2016, and if the 2021 season ended with them at that same 81-81 record, I think most people would take that. But at the same time, we have to think about what 11 games means at any point in the season. The 2019 Royals went 59-103 and had a stretch of 8-3. We saw a 7-4 out of the 2018 Royals. They finished 58-104. I don’t say that to make the start this team has had meaningless, but just to put some context onto it.

This team is pretty obviously different than either of those with way more talent up and down the lineup and way more talent on the pitching staff as well, but I still think the rest of this homestand is going to tell us so much about this team. To start, they’ve finished series against three teams with playoff aspirations and they’re 4-3 against those teams and now 1-0 against the Blue Jays. A nearly impossibly small sample yes, but the results you want to see for sure. They have three more (maybe, the weather looks iffy tonight) against the Blue Jays and three against the AL champion Rays before this homestand is out. If they can go 3-3 in those six games before heading to Detroit and Pittsburgh, that could be a fun start to the season.

Royals starters kicked off the season with some brutal appearances. Obviously it all started with Brad Keller struggling and then Mike Minor gave six innings and actually pitched fine, but he did give up four runs. It wasn’t until Danny Duffy’s start against Cleveland that the Royals got their first quality start (which I hate that stat, but it does keep teams in games, so it’s not the worst thing). And from that point forward, the rotation has actually been pretty solid. So now we’re talking about a sample of eight games, but the only real clunker in the bunch is Keller’s second start against the White Sox when he gave up four runs in 3.1 innings.

Since that first series against the Rangers, Royals starters have gone 40 innings, allowed 37 hits, struck out 40 and walked 13. They have a 2.25 ERA and even if you include the three unearned runs Brady Singer allowed, their RA is 2.93. They definitely need more innings from the rotation. Five innings per start isn’t going to be nearly enough. The bullpen, while deep and talented, isn’t going to be able to hold up over a long season if they have to throw four innings every night. But there is a lot to like about what we’ve seen. And quite frankly, if Keller is back on track and Junis can utilize that new cutter to be a different pitcher, this rotation has a chance to actually be a strength, which would change the calculus a bit on this team. There are still plenty of questions about really all five of the current starters, but it’s been nice to see them pitch effectively enough. I’ve looked at a lot of these pitching performances at Inside the Crown this week. And here’s your shameless plug of the week - it’s still FREE, so subscribe now to get the newsletter right in your inbox every time a new one posts!

One thing that has struck me about the pitching staff is they aren’t getting opponents to chase outside the zone. It’s one of those things you think you see during games, but you’re not really sure if you do. That’s the beauty of Baseball Savant, and this week they finally unleashed their team pages. And the Royals team page confirmed what I had believed that they just don’t get swings and misses. At this point, only Tyler Zuber has an above average chase rate on the Royals pitching staff and he’s thrown one inning. He looked good, but he’s thrown one inning.

It’s kind of bizarre that they aren’t getting many swings and misses, though. There’s good stuff on the pitching staff and especially in the bullpen. They have a pitcher throwing triple digits in Josh Staumont. Scott Barlow has nasty breaking stuff. Greg Holland’s slider is still excellent. It really just doesn’t add up. Maybe it has something to do with the teams they’ve faced. The Angels and White Sox don’t really strike out that much and the Indians, as much as they struggle, aren’t that far behind. The Rangers struggle with the strikeout, but the Royals got them quite a bit. And they are still striking hitters out in general, so it just doesn’t fully add up. The Blue Jays, Rays, Tigers and Pirates all have some swing and miss in their offense, so if this is still an issue after that Pirates series, it’ll be something to revisit.

Are the Royals good? This is probably a much deeper question than a spot in my Notes requires if we really want to dive into it, but it’s a fair question given that they’re currently 7-4 and sitting in first place with a mere 151 games to go. On one hand, they’ve done this with spotty offense, not enough innings from the rotation and some hiccups in the bullpen (though they’ve generally been pretty good back there with the exception of the now demoted Carlos Hernandez and the low leverage time from Jake Newberry). Hunter Dozier has been saddled with an injury and Adalberto Mondesi hasn’t even played yet. Andrew Benintendi has been on the wrong side of average and Carlos Santana has had a couple big moments, but overall hasn’t really hit.

Even with all that, they are where they are. Even Salvador Perez, with great numbers through 11 games, has mostly picked everything up with the three games against the Angels. Whit Merrifield was pretty optimistic about things on MLB Network Radio when he noted the things that haven’t gone all that well and how they still have the record they do. And I think that’s fair. But like I also mentioned at the very top, even bad teams have good stretches like this. What I feel pretty good about saying is that they aren’t bad. I can’t answer just yet if they’re good, but if Dozier and Jorge Soler can get going and they can get Mondesi back sometime soon and the starting pitching keeps up what they’ve been doing and add some innings, they definitely have the potentially to be better than I expected and maybe even, gasp, good.

It could be that I’m reading these tea leaves wrong on Kyle Isbel, but it feels like they are about to send him to the alternate site, maybe even by the time you read this! He didn’t start the last two games of the Angels series even with a right-handed starter on the mound and while he was in the lineup originally last night, he was scratched when the Blue Jays started a lefty. And now they have three more the next three games of this series and it looks like the Rays are scheduled to start two in the first two games of that series. Side note - Dave Holtzman, Royals researcher on Bally Sports, says the record for consecutive lefty starters faced is five, so there could be a record incoming. If he’s not going to play, the smart thing is probably to get him down to the alternate site where they are actually playing games. The question then becomes how they handle this barrage of lefties.

Hanser Alberto was brought in specifically to face left-handed pitching, and that’s what they did last night, shifting Dozier to right and playing Alberto at third. The original idea with Alberto was to platoon him at second with Nicky Lopez, so do they maybe give Alberto a start at shortstop. He is competent there, but he and Dozier on the left side of an infield seem like a bad idea. So maybe it’s as simple as what they did last night. Or maybe they send down Isbel and bring up Edward Olivares, who I thought they demoted too early in spring. They can’t bring back Ryan McBroom during this run on lefties, so he’s out, but the only other real option if they do demote Isbel is Kelvin Gutierrez, but if Alberto is going to play third, I’m not sure having a corner infielder on the bench who hasn’t played outfield professionally makes a ton of sense. It’s a minor decision they need to make, but one I think is at least interesting.