The season is barely two months old (though it is now officially longer than 2020) and the Royals have had a 16-9 stretch. An 0-11 stretch, a 13-6 stretch and now have lost five of their last six games. I remember a couple weeks back, I was on my weekly spot with Soren Petro and he asked me if the Royals are the team that started 16-9 or the team that was 4-13 since that start, and my answer was that they are the 20-22 team. Since that time, they’ve gone 10-9, which is fine, but boy do they get there in weird ways. Their offense was absolutely humming with the peak coming in the first and second innings in last week’s trouncing of the Twins. But since they plated their 13th run during the second inning, they scored just 11 over their next five games plus six more offensive innings on Friday. And yes, those innings were quite offensive if you ask me. Let’s get to the notes.
I don’t want to start on such a downer note after breaking that losing streak, but I want to build on something I’ve been talking about for probably three years or maybe more now. I don’t think the Royals big league coaching staff is good enough for the quality of young pitchers they have coming up. I wrote about this on Wednesday on Inside the Crown (seriously people, just give it a subscription...it’s FREE!) in response to an interesting tweet from Alec Lewis of The Athletic about how pitchers just don’t seem to make in-game adjustments like other teams’ starters do. I’ve long believed that Cal Eldred just isn’t good enough for the job. Back when he took over, I had some very credible sources telling me about disdain for technology and analytics and while I’ve also heard he’s opened up quite a bit, the results just aren’t there to make me believe it’s made much of a difference.
I would ask which pitchers have gotten better under Eldred. You might be able to argue for Brad Keller, who has had an up and down 2021, but he also had his best year with Eldred helping him find his slider in 2020. Brady Singer is still the same pitcher he was at start one. Kris Bubic has come back to the majors and his last start notwithstanding has been really good, but also it took him getting optioned to the alternate site and working with Dane Johnson. Daniel Lynch comes up and it took them three starts to really realize he was tipping pitches. In the bullpen, Kyle Zimmer has been nails, but also he had to get sent down a couple years ago to straighten out. Scott Barlow has been excellent as well, so in fairness, I’ll give that credit to the big league staff. But my point is you can’t find too many guys who have actually gotten better with this current staff. I’d love for Cal to prove me wrong here, but I’m skeptical that he will.
Sticking with the pitching staff and maybe even contradicting myself a bit from above, but it really does amaze me how much the start of a season can cloud people’s opinions. It’s not hard to remember back to the start of the season for Keller, but if you had forgotten, he was terrible. That’s really all you need to know. And Mike Minor was quietly almost as bad. Keller, of course, had a 12.00 ERA through four starts and only threw 12 innings, with almost half coming in one game. Minor had his moments to start the season, but after giving up five to the White Sox, he had a 5.75 ERA through seven starts. Since Keller’s start, he hasn’t been good necessarily, but he’s been a mid-rotation starter. He’s made nine starts and gone 49 innings with 46 strikeouts, 20 walks and a 4.22 ERA. Since Minor’s start, and including his gem last night, he’s gone 38 innings, struck out 44 and walked nine in his last six starts with a 3.32 ERA.
My point is just kind of a reminder that it’s a long season. The rotation hasn’t exactly shaped up the way the team was hoping with Singer struggling lately and some of the other young arms coming up and not taking charge right away plus Danny Duffy’s injury. But while Keller hasn’t been nearly as good as he was in 2020, he’s getting it done in a different way. He and Minor have stepped up to be the glue lately. At some point, they will likely begin to struggle again but hopefully someone else will have stepped up in that time to take over the mantle.
I mentioned this on Twitter yesterday, but I think kind of quietly Jorge Soler has been showing some signs of potentially coming out of his season-long slumber. One thing he’s done since he’s come to the Royals is work walks at a reasonably high rate. In fact, here are his walk rates in his first four seasons in Kansas City: 10.9 percent, 10.9 percent, 10.8 percent, 10.9 percent. First of all, that kind of consistency is almost as interesting as the fact that he hit .265 with a .354 OBP in both 2018 and 2019. Second of all, after walking four times to start the season in the first two games, he walked just 12 times in his next 48 games, spanning 185 plate appearances. Then he strained his groin and missed a few games.
Since he’s come back, though, he’s played seven games and worked five walks in 29 plate appearances. With his home run last night, he’s hit two home runs in those games. He only has two other hits, which is a bit of an issue, but he does have an average exit velocity of 94.6 MPH in that time including a hard-hit rate of 58.8 percent. But the number that might be the most interesting of all of them is that in those 29 plate appearances, he’s struck out just four times. Look, I get it. He’s been so bad this season that it’s pretty much impossible to expect anything to change with Soler, but if he’s going to play, I’m going to keep looking for signs that he might be starting to work his way out of this and the walks, strikeouts and rockets he’s hitting are as good a start to turning it around as you can hope for here.
Let’s go back to the original point about this team. They are probably pretty close to exactly average. Their record is 30-31. Their run differential of -18 is maybe not quite as close to average, but they did get that almost back to even at the end of their five-game winning streak last week. What’s somewhere between interesting and weird is that the Royals just don’t do average. I mentioned the records above, but they have lost two in a row three different times and then they have an 11-game losing streak and now a five-game losing streak. Maybe that’s not as weird as it seems, but it seems like they’re either consistently finding ways to win and keep the losses from piling up or they simply can’t win.
Some of that is the pitching staff. I’ve talked about how good the good version of the bullpen is, but the bad version is really bad. On the starters, they’ve had their moments, but they still don’t even average a full five innings per start. Some of that is the offense that is so hit or miss. They averaged eight runs per game for a full week before they just completely shut down for almost the entire next week. Now, a lot of that is due to the fact that the hitters just aren’t that good. It would help to get Adalberto Mondesi back (maybe Monday), but they really need Soler to get going. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The ceiling of this offense isn’t possible without Soler figuring things out. If he can even get close and they can find some s ort of consistency from some starters, maybe the valleys lessen a bit and they don’t alternate between being the best average team ever and the worst average team ever.