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Lesky’s Notes: Small sample size alert

The start to the season hasn’t been pretty, but it’s six games. Six you wish went better, but it’s also six games.

MLB: Cleveland Guardians at Kansas City Royals Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

One week and one day into the season and the Royals have played all of six games. That’s the typical pace of the first week of the year, but it was aided a bit by the rainout on Wednesday in St. Louis. And what we’ve learned about this team is…not much because there’s not much you can learn in six games. It’s probably a bit of a tired trope at this point, but it’s also still true that if you took a six-game sample from the middle of the season, you wouldn’t think too hard about a slump or a couple poorly pitched games in a row. It’s when it’s the only sample we have that it becomes something to dwell on and worry about. The reality is that if you thought this Royals team would be good before the season, your opinion should remain the same. If you thought they’d be bad, your opinion should remain the same. Nothing in the first week of a season outside of a catastrophic injury to one of a team’s best players should change an opinion. That’s easier said than done, of course, but it doesn’t make it less true.

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A lot has been made about the struggles of the young pitchers over a somewhat brutal three game stretch from Sunday through Tuesday. The fact that five of them struggled in three games is just an extra kick to the groin, I sort of feel like, especially after Zack Greinke and Brad Keller set the tone so well in those first two games. I’m not here to tell you it’s going to be okay or, hey, it’s just first outing jitters. Honestly, it might be. There’s also an argument to be made that it’s hard to judge starting pitchers when they’re off a schedule. Kris Bubic pitched in a game on March 31 and then waited nine days to pitch again. Brady Singer pitched in that same game. Daniel Lynch pitched April 3 and then not again until April 12. Carlos Hernandez and Jackson Kowar weren’t working on irregular rest. I think it’s fair to say let’s wait and see what they look like once their workload becomes much more regular.

But my point isn’t to say that there’s still time. We all know there’s still time. What I find so interesting is that the Royals have largely hitched their wagon to the young pitching stepping up. They’ve all succeeded in the minors, some even more than others. But so far, none has found consistent success at the big league level. Outside of Kowar, they’ve all had their moments and the Royals staff was much better in the second half last year, but I would hope that jobs would be on the line this season. You simply can’t put as much faith into these young arms entering their second full seasons as the Royals have and provide a pass for anyone who is responsible for them finding success at the big league level. The question I have and truly don’t know the answer to is how much of the transition from the minors to the majors rest at the big league level and how much rests at the minor league level. But if there isn’t real progress shown, they’re going to have to do something different, which is something they’ve been hesitant to do in the past. I’m not saying we’re staring down the barrel at failure, but they have to be prepared if that’s the barrel they’re looking in.

Stop the presses, but the Royals are managing their roster in a weird way. Okay, maybe not so much weird because it’s so predictable, but I just don’t get it. Whether or not you believe Kyle Isbel and/or Edward Olivares are capable big leaguers, I think anyone would agree that neither of them should simply be sitting on the bench, which is exactly what both have done. Neither have started a game, which is actually a bit surprising given the comments about Adalberto Mondesi getting regular time off. I guess we’ll never know what would have happened Wednesday, but last night was back to the Opening Day lineup for the fifth time in six games. I feel a bit for them in the sense that I think they probably envisioned Isbel and Olivares in the Omaha outfield but their springs were so good that they simply couldn’t send them down. But when you get to that point, don’t you have to get them some playing time?

It still could. Of course they’ve only played six games and, like I said, who knows what the lineup would have been on Wednesday. And at some point, the process will begin for Carlos Santana to be off this team. It’ll start with him moving to the bench, which will lead to a lot of Hunter Dozier at first base (for now) and guys rotation to the DH spot. That should give one or both of the backup outfielders a lot of opportunities between that and Mondesi days off. I was wrong on something a few weeks ago talking about not wanting to waste one of their times to option a player as that doesn’t go into effect until the rosters are reduced to 26 players on May 2, so if you’re not going to play them even semi-regularly at the big league level, they need to be in Omaha. The options are limited, but a guy like Dairon Blanco would be a much better fit as a fourth outfielder. Or heck, bring up JaCoby Jones. If whoever it is isn’t going to play, it doesn’t especially matter. But, to me, this is just a gross mishandling of players who could potentially be a part of the solution.

Jake Brentz was such a nice story to start the 2021 season. It’s easy to see why they were all about him and he absolutely delivered. A lefty with that kind of velocity and the ability to get swings and misses on his slider like he can is something every team has to explore. The knock on him was always control, but through June 20 last year, Brentz had a 1.93 ERA and he was walking a bunch of guys, but he was doing to work around those walks. The 14.1 percent walk rate wasn’t yet a problem. He had a 28.2 percent strikeout rate to balance it well enough. But then they issued that edict against the sticky stuff and, coincidence or not, things went downhil. He gave up runs in five straight outings and ended the year with a 5.46 ERA. His walk rate was actually a bit lower and so was his strikeout rate, but regardless, he struggled for more than three months.

So he comes to camp this year and he’s added a two-seamer. Everyone talks about how good it looked in camp. And he’s thrown three in three outings. Of course it’s a small sample, but you wonder a bit why he’s not using it. But either way, he was good on Opening Day and has been brought into two games with the score tied and when he left, the score was no longer tied. He has two losses, which is a pretty bad spot for a reliever. One of the knocks on Mike Matheny when he was hired was that he falls in love with relievers and it looks like he might need to move away from Brentz. The stuff is so good that you want to figure out how to get him back to what he was early in the year last year, but they acquired Amir Garrett for a reason. I know he had a tough year last year, but they’re going to have to flip those two in their roles and put Brentz into some lower leverage spots. If he can work his way back, great. If not, they have plenty of depth both in the big leagues and the minors. This team can’t afford to lose games because of their bullpen. That’s supposed to be a big strength and I still think it is, but they’ve now lost two games and whether they’re all Brentz’s fault or not, he started the damage in both of them.

I would caution you from looking at defensive stats right now as they are not shining very brightly on the Royals. The general consensus is that defensive stats take much longer to normalize than offensive or pitching, so obviously a handful of games isn’t even close to enough, but I was just curious so I went looking. So I went to the fielding stats on Fangraphs and sorted by DRS. I didn’t see the Royals, so I kept scrolling and scrolling and scrolling and then all the way at 28th there they are. Somehow through six games they had -6 defensive runs saved. For what it’s worth, they were -10 before last night, so there’s that. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m going to go ahead and say there’s something off with that from having watched this team. Yes, Michael A. Taylor had a fly ball go off his glove on Tuesday night and I think Bobby Witt Jr. may have had one go off his glove as well on a play he likely wouldn’t have made anyway, but this defense passes every eye test you might have.

I’m not bashing DRS or anything like that because it’s all about the sample being too small, but I just thought that was too crazy to pass up writing about given how much we’ve been talking about how great this Royals defense is and can be. I’ll keep an eye on this over the next few weeks and keep everyone updated so you don’t have to look at a stat that takes a lot longer than this to normalize.