The Royals opened the season with a looooong, but surprisingly thrilling 14-10 win over the Texas Rangers on Thursday. Things didn’t look good after they dug themselves in a hole with a 5-0 deficit when Brad Keller struggled. But the lineup fought back in the bottom of the inning and tied it, on their way to a club-record 14 runs in an Opening Day game.
I don’t want to conclude much after just one game, after all, Chris Owings, now on the Rockies, went 3-for-3 with a triple, walk, and two steals on Opening Day. But there were a few takeaways I had from watching the Royals back in action.
Brad Keller’s lack of strikeouts could catch up to him
Keller wasn’t sharp in his first outing of the year, giving up five runs in the first and leaving in the second after giving up nine hits, two walks, and six runs in all, while recording just four outs. He definitely wasn’t hitting his spots, and just 30 of his 51 pitches were strikes. But it also didn’t seem like he was getting battered around. The average exit velocity on balls hit was 88.7 mph, less than what he has given up the last two years, and less than how hitters fared against Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke, who both had terrific Opening Day starts. Only 4 of the 12 balls hit were “hard hit”, and only one batter barrelled up.
In other words, the Rangers were getting a fair amount of “ground balls with eyes”. They hit .750 on balls in play, and you can expect many of those blips and bloops to find gloves in the future. But this does illustrate one of the issues with Brad Keller, when you live by the BABIP fairy, you die by the BABIP fairy. Keller didn’t strike anyone out, and in fact, he got the fewest swing and misses out of any starting pitcher yesterday. That doesn’t give him much room for error, so when he’s walking guys, he’s only adding fuel to the fire. I expect better things the next outing, but that was certainly a discouraging first start.
This lineup is going to be patient
Dayton Moore sought more on-base guys this off-season, adding Carlos Santana and Andrew Benintendi to provide more plate discipline. Through one game, his plan worked to perfection, with Santana drawing three free passes, and Benintendi walking once. The Royals drew eight walks in all, their highest total ever on Opening Day. In fact, since Dayton Moore’s first season in 2007, there have only been 32 games where the lineup has drawn as many as eight walks. They went 23-9 in those games, including a win yesterday.
It came against the Texas Rangers, a team that trotted out six relievers with very little MLB experience, but the Royals had the third-fewest called strikes plus swinging strikes (excluding foul balls) out of any lineup yesterday. Even when they didn’t walk, they seemed to get good at bats without getting themselves out. The Royals haven’t drawn as many as 500 walks in a season since 2002, but they have a decent shot at eclipsing that mark this year.
Michael Taylor is a tremendous defender
The Royals signed Michael Taylor hoping that he was an underrated player who could be a ball hawk in centerfield. But Taylor can also help the team a lot with his arm. Since 2016, he is 24th among all outfielders in Arm Runs, higher than Alex Gordon in about half the innings (in fairness, baserunners stopped running on Gordo a long time ago). We saw that arm on display on Opening Day when he gunned out not just one, but two runners at home plate.
What Michael A. Taylor did yesterday was unequivocally incredible. pic.twitter.com/LexncG6SgB— Alec Lewis (@alec_lewis) April 2, 2021
Taylor also collected three hits, including a home run, for one of the best Royals Opening Day performances ever. I don’t expect him to always be an offensive star, but his abilities in centerfield could end up being a huge benefit to the pitching staff.
The bullpen is a mixed bag, but with good depth
The Royals got some interesting improved performances last year from Josh Staumont, Kyle Zimmer, and Scott Barlow. Those performances, coupled with a 3.84 bullpen ERA - good for sixth in American League - gave fans a lot of confidence in the relief staff. Yesterday was a mixed bag with Royals relievers holding the Rangers to just three runs in 7 2⁄3 innings of work, with 16 (!!!) strikeouts, but also 7 walks. They also gave up the least amount of hard hit balls out of any other bullpen in baseball yesterday.
Carlos Hernández was perhaps the most intriguing arm out there, throwing 96 mph fastballs for three innings. He gave up two runs but struck out five of the 12 batters he faced. I thought he was a bit of a surprise to make the team, but it makes sense to get him some innings and see if possibly his future lies in the bullpen someday. Wade Davis was also interesting cleaning things up in the ninth, with some improved velocity, as David Lesky noted. We didn’t even get to see Josh Staumont or Jake Brentz, two of the hardest throwers in the bullpen, and two pretty good young relievers didn’t even make the team - Tyler Zuber and Richard Lovelady. The Royals could have a deep pen which will help relieve the burden for the starting pitchers as they ramp up to a full 162-game season.
It is fun to watch young players
Kyle Isbel had about as good a rookie debut as you can ask for, with three hits and two RBI on Opening Day. He battled at the plate, even after falling behind in the count, and seemed to make good adjustments for a hitter that has never faced pitchers higher than A-ball before. He played the right field wall at Kauffman perfectly and looked like a plus defender.
First major league hit for #Royals Kyle Isbel pic.twitter.com/yPzTWJ51Ka— Aaron Ladd (@aaronladd0) April 1, 2021
I think what was most exciting, was just seeing him bust his butt out there. I’m not one to get on veterans for failing to hustle - it’s a long season, they know their body better than I do. But it is refreshing to see a rookie out there running hard with enthusiasm as he beats out an infield single. That kind of energy can be infectious, and Isbel shows why fans love to see rookies. Hopefully we see many more games like this out of him.
The Royals are going to be feisty this year
What if I told you this was not the first Opening Day I have attended where the Royals got down by a lot of runs early on? But unlike in past years, these Royals battled back, heck, they STORMED back with five runs in the bottom of the inning to immediately erase a large deficit. They were patient, they hit home runs, they put the ball in play, they played solid defense. They picked each other up, and they seemed to have fun doing it. The Royals aren’t going to score 14 runs every time out, and they’re not going to face teams as bad as the Texas Rangers all the time. But these Royals are going to be a feisty team that will battle. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of 2012, a team that didn’t necessarily win a lot of games, but fought, had fun, and were a joy to watch with young players you could envision a future with. We have 161 more of these games, and there will undoubtedly be some tough stretches this year. But the first game gave me a lot of hope this franchise is on the right track.