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Lesky’s Notes: The kids are alright

It’s not just the minors succeeding, though, there are actual good results in the big leagues!

Bobby Witt Jr. rounds the bases on an inside the park home run Sam Greene via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Here we are, exactly one-third of the way through the 2021 season. Just think, last year, there were only six games left when we reached the 54-game mark and this year, there are 108 games left. That’s a lot of time to either build on a solid enough start or totally knock it down. This is just the third time in Dayton Moore’s tenure and fifth since 2000 that the team has been at or above .500 at this point in the season, so no matter how they’ve gotten there, that’s a good step. Also very sad for the organization, but we all know the history. Again, there’s a long way to go, but I’m definitely impressed by the fact that this team was bad enough to lose 11 in a row, but resilient enough to respond to that with 12 wins in 18 games.

I’m going to start with a point I made yesterday on Inside the Crown. You can subscribe here for FREE. And if you do, I’ll stop asking every single week. Until then, I’ll keep up the shameless self promotion. Anyway, the point is about the bats in the minors. I’ve mentioned this so many times that it’s probably becoming hard to read so much, but the biggest loss of the 2020 season for the Royals from a baseball perspective was the fact that they overhauled their offensive development in the minors and then we didn’t get to see anything. Sure there were reports from the alternate site, but a) they were controlled by the team so it’s hard to say how truly accurate they were and b) any success in an intrasquad game is also subsequent failure for their teammates, so you never know what that might mean.

But the results through a month of minor league action are encouraging. Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez had absolutely brutal 2019 seasons. They’ve rebounded in a huge way. My new mission is to tell everyone how little Melendez is swinging and missing. In 2019, his swinging strike rate was 24.2 percent, which is very, very bad. In 2021, heading into last night’s action, it was at 10.2 percent. That’s a bonkers change. Pratto going from an afterthought to a legitimate prospect is big. Melendez might end up being more trade bait than big league help with Salvador Perez signed for a few more years, but even if that’s the case, his value continues to rise. But it’s not just them. We’ve seen Edward Olivares make changes to improve his game, Brady McConnell has looked good and so many others throughout the organization. If they can figure out how to develop bats with the sheer number of pitchers they have, the future of the organization can change fast.

With Adalberto Mondesi leaving the game on Monday after a dazzling display of what he can do before the hamstring injury got him out of the game, there’s been a lot of talk about Mondesi on the interwebs. I would argue that a lot of us here and on Twitter live in a bit of an echo chamber, so I don’t know that what we see is the reality of the thoughts of the fan base (but maybe it is), but there’s a lot of frustration about him. One of the things I’ve heard so much is that we’ve been dealing with this from him for six or seven years. And that’s sort of true. He did make his debut in 2015 in the World Series. And then he did come up in 2016 and 2017 at different parts before proving so obviously he wasn’t ready that the team had to send him down.

But that’s the issue with losing patience with him because of 2015-2017. He had no business in the big leagues. The organization absolutely did him wrong in calling him up in all three of those seasons. He hit .243/.279/.372 in AA in 2015. I know that the Ben Zobrist situation is why he was on the roster, but still. He shouldn’t have been up for the World freaking Series. In 2016, he hit better in the minors, but probably still wasn’t ready for a callup. And in 2017, he broke camp with the team because of a great spring but I still don’t think he was ready. He finally had real success in AAA that year for the first time. And then when he came up in 2018, he played 72 of the final 88 games of the season and hit .279/.309/.506. I know it hasn’t been steady with him and he missed time both in 2019 and this year, but I feel like there’s a lot of fatigue with him that really isn’t on him as much as on the organization for forcing him on us and him on the big leagues way too soon.

I feel like this is a good time to caution against stat scouting in the minors. I know I mentioned some stats above, and sometimes that’s all we have to go by, but it can be tough to get a read on minor leaguers just from the numbers they put up. Nick Pratto is a very good example of this, to me. That terrible year he had in 2019 featured a 34.7 percent strikeout rate. So on the surface, you might look at that and think he couldn’t make contact. And in some ways you’d be right, but also he was so passive at the plate that he would get himself into deeper counts than were necessary because he was playing umpire on a lot of pitches (and he was probably right on some that were called against him). If you look at his swinging strike rate, while it was elevated to 16 percent, a lot of the strikeouts were a result of getting deep into a count without ever picking the bat up off his shoulder. But that discipline was a good starting point for him to start his breakout this year as he started to add a little more aggression in hunting pitches in the strike zone.

Another great example is Jackson Kowar’s start against Indianapolis on May 28. The numbers were great. He gave up just two hits over five innings and struck out four, but as Clint Scoles had mentioned somewhere (sorry Clint, I can’t remember where you said it), he was having trouble with his curve and had two separate 10-pitch at bats that ran up his pitch count. That’s a problem. Against a AAA lineup, sure, he can get through it, but he wasn’t as good as the stats indicated. And our good friend Hunter Samuels was actually ahead of this curve last week, so good on him. It’s very easy to get bogged down by the stats only, but there’s always context around them. And especially this year with most of these guys having a full year of development taken away.

The Royals bullpen is kind of hard to figure out. On one hand, when Josh Staumont is healthy, they have four relievers with an ERA of 2.78 or lower. I know that ERA isn’t a great indicator for a reliever, but that’s still an impressive number. They have six relievers striking out at least a batter per inning, which doesn’t mean what it once did, but also impressive. The problem is that I’m not sure who you can trust in the bullpen when you get beyond the top four of Staumont, Scott Barlow, Jake Brentz and Kyle Zimmer. Sure, Greg Holland has been good lately, so maybe he’s in that group, but after those five, there’s a lot of iffy relievers. While that is absolutely a first world baseball problem to “only” have five relievers you can trust, the Royals starters continue to often not give enough innings and there are so many days when there are only two or three of those five available.

What a lot of people don’t remember is that the 2014 bullpen sort of had the same hierarchy issues. Outside of HDH, the rest of the bullpen had a 4.86 ERA, which is one of those stats that continues to blow my mind whenever I think about it. For this iteration of the Royals bullpen to get better, they either need to start getting consistent six plus inning starts or they might need to find another reliever. Maybe it’s Ronald Bolaños, who they just called up yesterday. Or maybe it’s Carlos Hernandez, who I thought looked fine in Minnesota last weekend, but I would really like to see them make a couple moves for a reliever or two. If you remember in 2014, they went out and got Jason Frasor and Scott Downs. I haven’t really looked too deep into who might be available, but even though the Royals hit him around, I do like David Bednar from the Pirates. Whoever it is, they could use some help to keep the main guys fresh and give Matheny an additional option or two.