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Lesky’s Notes: The Royals are passing every test so far

It’s a long season, but starting 15-8 and taking care of business has the Royals in a really good position about 14 percent in.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

I was skeptical of the Royals being contenders this season before things got started and even during spring training when they were playing so well. I thought they’d be competitive. I thought they’d at least not be completely out of it by the start of May, which would be a nice change after the last couple full seasons. And I thought they had a chance to outlast some teams because of their upper level pitching depth. But what I didn’t see coming was starting 15-8 and basically doing everything they needed to do along the way. The formula for a team like the Royals to stay in contention is to handle your business against the bad teams and hold your own against the good. We talked about that last week. After going 5-1 against the Tigers and Pirates to start this road trip, they’re now 7-2 against the bad (Rangers, Pirates and Tigers) and remain 8-6 against the good. That’s the path to contending and they’re nailing it so far.

One of the big reasons they’re nailing it is the bullpen. I wrote about this yesterday on Inside the Crown and seriously, just subscribe so I can stop shamelessly promoting it here. It’s still free! As a whole, the bullpen numbers are...fine. They rank 11th in ERA and strand rate. They surprisingly only rank 16th in innings, which I wouldn’t have expected. They’re striking out a batter per inning and, yes, walking too many, but overall they’re doing a solid job. But I think the Royals bullpen separates itself with its top relievers compared to its other guys. Every team has this. Their numbers are all better when you take out the guys who are basically never used in a close game. But I’d argue that most teams don’t only leave two guys out of their top relievers. The Royals depth is where I think their bullpen has a chance to make a huge difference this year.

As I wrote yesterday, I think you can make a pretty good argument that Josh Staumont, Scott Barlow, Kyle Zimmer, Greg Holland, Jake Brentz and Tyler Zuber are now part of their “A” squad with just Wade Davis and Ervin Santana lagging behind. It’s kind of weird to think of those two as lagging behind, but based on usage, it’s pretty clear who pitches in big spots and who doesn’t. Of those top six, only Holland isn’t putting up excellent numbers right now and even he’s plagued a bit by one particular outing that I have it on good authority was not one he was expecting. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have pitched well, but in the small sample of one month, it can really skew numbers. That group overall has thrown 66.2 innings with 44 hits allowed, 67 strikeouts and a 2.43 ERA. And I think they can do better. Staumont and Zimmer both haven’t struck guys out like we know they can. Brentz is still learning but looking really good. And Zuber looks like what I thought he would last year. It’s a strong unit with a strong group of key guys who I think can help carry this team.

Yes, Mike Minor was bad against the Pirates on Wednesday night. I did tweet my theory that long top halves of the first can make for some weird games and while I have literally no research behind that, I was proven right. But what I saw was a lot of people really bashing the Minor signing. I personally didn’t love it and I really didn’t like the second year at all, but I think what’s gotten lost in just getting into a rhythm of the baseball season is the Royals still didn’t have anyone throw more than 64.1 innings last season. Sure internally, they may have a better number on a lot of guys, but nobody threw more recorded in-season innings than that. And there’s still 139 games to go. The team needs arms, no matter how many young ones they have at the upper levels of the system. A veteran arm like Minor who will go out there and make the start every fifth day is, I think, more important in 2021 than in most seasons.

And it’s not like he’s been horrible. I mentioned this yesterday on ItC as well, but I think you can argue his first and second starts were fine. His third start was below average, but not horrible either. Then he was good against Detroit and bad against Pittsburgh. He’s probably not making a playoff spot for you, but a guy who can strike out a batter per inning, not walk the park and give you five or six every fifth day is worthwhile. I still believe there’s not a single young pitcher in this organization who was going to get 30 starts this year. That’s just not the way any teams handle young pitching. Someone has to make those starts. So while Minor has been pretty meh in general, he’s serving a purpose and his job is to keep the Royals in games. Forget that he started the second game of the year. He is a back-end guy who is keeping the team in games. I’d rather see a guy like Bubic out there right now, but I understand the need to keep those arms healthy.

Minor league rosters were announced yesterday by the Royals without many surprises. I thought Seuly Matias would start at AA instead of high-A. I kind of expected to see Erick Pena at low-A, but maybe that’s a domino move that comes when Matias moves up. The biggest surprise of who I don’t see is Austin Cox, which means they’re leaving him back in Arizona for some reason. I haven’t heard about injury or anything else, but that’s at least something to keep an eye on. The Omaha rotation looks bonkers fun and I like to see Alec Marsh in AA. Of course, everyone scrolled through the lists looking for Bobby Witt, Jr. because he’s the main attraction and he will be in AA, as expected.

The timeline for him remains what I’ve thought all along. Give him a few weeks in AA, a few weeks in AAA and then he’s probably in the big leagues around early July or the break as long as everything goes according to plan. There’s still a question of where he will play, but the big league club has made it a little easier than people thought it might be after that first week or so. Michael A. Taylor has been outstanding defensively but he hasn’t had an extra base hit since the second game of the year. If the Royals think Witt can handle center, a guy hitting .213 with a .302 since April 12 isn’t going to stop him. I still think Hunter Dozier is going to be fine, but he hasn’t hit well enough to hold Witt off either. Plus, he can always shift to right field, which allows Jorge Soler to get back to DH where he’s at much less risk of hurting himself. The point is that everything is still on track to work out just fine for the Royals and Witt.

It’s easy to see a path for this Royals offense to be really good, especially once Adalberto Mondesi returns. But it’s also easy to see why they struggle for stretches. Their contact within the strike zone, for example, leaves a lot to be desired. Big league average is 82.2 percent and only three regulars - Hunter Dozier (83.5 percent), Whit Merrifield (93.7 percent) and Nicky Lopez (95.5 percent) are above that number. Other guys are really concerning like Michael A. Taylor at the bottom of the list at 70.6 percent with Salvador Perez, Jorge Soler, Carlos Santana and Andrew Benintendi all under 80 percent as well. Obviously you can be successful struggling inside the zone, but it makes it harder.

It has been nice to see Soler hitting the ball hard for awhile now. Since the day after his long strikeout streak ended, he’s had 21 hard-hit balls, that is 95+ MPH. And you just feel like there’s more in the tank for him because he’s hit .450 on them, but has an xBA of .587. His .900 SLG on those balls looks really good until you see the xSLG of 1.285. We’ve talked so much about the Royals luck this week, but Soler really has hit into some bad luck. That 114.7 MPH bullet that got caught on Tuesday night was the one that just had me throwing my hands up. What are you supposed to do with that? Since the start of the Blue Jays series, he’s hit .273 with a .500 SLG, which is very nice, but the xBA in that time is .326 and his xSLG is .651. With a big stretch of games in the division, hopefully what we saw Wednesday was a sign of things to come.