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Lesky’s Notes: They still can’t hit, but the pitching and defense is fun

Things looked awfully bleak a week ago. Getting three wins in a row helped some.

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MLB: Cleveland Guardians at Kansas City Royals Nick Tre. Smith (FLO)-USA TODAY Sports

Exactly one week ago, the Royals had lost four in a row and looked like the season was in shambles almost before it started. Now a week later, they took three in a row before dropping the last game of the series against the Twins yesterday. They’re a game under .500, but they look at least better with their pitching and defense leading the way. My guess is the White Sox take off eventually, but that first game of their doubleheader on Wednesday was just so ugly for them that you can see their issues. Either way, what looked like it was heading straight for people taking an interest in the USFL rather than caring about the Royals, the team did some work to at least ensure another week or two of vague relevance. Of course, they need to score some runs at some point, but it sure is fun watching this defense go to work behind a staff that’s been surprisingly generally good. Maybe one of these days, they’ll put up a crooked number and give their pitching staff a chance to breathe for a game.

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Finally a lineup change

I do a weekly spot in Wichita and I was asked this week when we might see Whit Merrifield moved from the leadoff spot and my answer was never. He hit leadoff Wednesday night and started the game with a double that was almost a homer. And then about 22 hours later, a new lineup was out and he wasn’t hitting leadoff. So maybe I’m not to be trusted. The last time he hit anywhere but leadoff outside of the last game of 2020 to get Alex Gordon in there in the top spot was June 2, 2019. That’s 336 straight games leading off for him. If you’ve read me at all or followed me on Twitter, you know that I’ve been saying for awhile it’s time to drop him in the lineup. And he fell all the way to number two. I’m not going to make a big deal out of this because there are only four guys hitting at all, so you’re going to have someone struggling in the top half, but I like that they were willing to make a move here.

And the bigger move, in my opinion, is Bobby Witt Jr. dropping down to the bottom third of the order. I love the idea of him hitting second. If he was hitting the way he did last year and the way he did in spring training, that’s just a great spot for him. But I was a bit worried about putting that on him right away and I convinced myself it didn’t matter because he’s so advanced. And maybe it didn’t matter. Maybe it was simply going to be a tough go for him to start the season regardless. But I like that they’re taking a little pressure off him. My only surprise is that they did it in the last game of a homestand rather than the first game of a road trip. Hopefully, he can get his bat going because if he can be 80 percent of the hitter he was in the minors last year, he’s a star with his defense. The move sort of worked. He was 1 for 2 with a walk and I thought he had a pretty solid couple plate appearances. My feeling is that once he gets going, he’ll just keep going, but it’s been ugly so far.

A walk on the less wild side

One of the biggest surprises for me at the start of this season is Royals pitching not walking the entire world. After walking just two batters yesterday, the Royals now have six games with two or fewer walks to start the season. Some of that is the Zack Greinke effect, but he’s not the only one doing a great job of that. To put those two walks or fewer games into perspective, last season, they had two walks or fewer in 50 out of 162. It’s obviously so early and things can go south, but they didn’t get their sixth such game until game 20 last season. They’ve made it a point to talk about strike one and they’ve greatly improved there going from 57.2 percent first-pitch strikes last year to 61.8 percent so far this year. They were especially good yesterday with 25 of 34 first pitches going for strikes.

They’re still not great, but they’re much more middle of the pack now. Daniel Lynch going from 55.6 percent to 68.9 percent is huge and Brad Keller jumping from 59.4 percent to 71.1 percent are the two biggest changes that seem to be making a huge difference for them. With the defense behind them, there just isn’t a reason to try to be perfect with their pitches. No, they can’t just leave pitches down the middle, but they are filling up the strike zone. Heading into yesterday, only one team threw more pitches in the zone than the Royals, but I’d like to see that move more toward the edges a little bit as the Royals had the second highest percentage of pitches in the heart of the plate (as defined on Baseball Savant). That could come back to hurt them a bit as the season goes on, but the general idea of throwing strikes is finally getting through to most of them.

Brady Singer is a ghost

The season started 15 days ago and the team has played 11 games. In those 11 games, Brady Singer has come out of the bullpen once and thrown three innings in a game that was long over before he took the mound. He didn’t perform well and he didn’t perform well in spring training, but this is an interesting story developing for the Royals. Singer was the lead guy for the young Royals pitching. He was the first one drafted in 2018. He was the first one in the big leagues in 2020. And he performed generally just fine during that season. He was so fine that he was the number three starter to start 2021, but that’s where things started to go sideways for him. He had his moments, as you know, but he struggled a lot and there started to be some questions about his willingness to adapt. I personally absolutely hated some of the ways he addressed his outings and his third pitch.

In a truncated and generally weird spring, Singer went out there just three times. He walked seven and struck out seven in 7.1 innings. Because the Cactus League doesn’t have much in the way of pitch tracking and I wasn’t there, I didn’t see much of what he did, but whatever it was, the Royals clearly didn’t love it. He was sent to the bullpen and I figured there would be a decent number of piggybacking opportunities given how low pitch counts would start. But as pitchers are getting into the 80s, 90s and likely 100s soon, he’s just stuffed at the bottom. You don’t hear about him. They don’t speak about him. I know this was a story about four-seam fastballs and Singer throws a two-seamer, but this great article from Alec Lewis on Wednesday didn’t mention him once. It’s just radio silence on Singer. My hope is they’re sending him a message. And in about a week and a half when the rosters go back to 26, that message might get even louder.

Royals attendance woes

Yesterday notwithstanding due to it being School Day at the K (I hope you brought your earplugs if you went), the Royals haven’t exactly been drawing great. They didn’t even crack 30,000 on Opening Day. There are some explanations that go beyond the apathy that I believe some are citing. And don’t get me wrong, there’s apathy. But I actually think it goes beyond that and we can’t judge much right now. Opening Day, for example, was on April 7. But when people bought their season tickets and all that, it was on April 4. Maybe that’s a small difference, but it’s not always easy for people to change mid-week plans during the day. Add to it that it was cold and rainy and very windy and I can see how that game would have been sparser than you would typically hope.

The next two games were actually pretty decent with an average of about 18,600. Then they drew 8,971 for a Monday afternoon game. The weather was nice, but it was also Monday afternoon. But it was also 8,971. Three nights later, they drew 9,595. It was a Thursday night, a school night. So lower attendance is expected. But that low? And they bounced back over the weekend to some reasonable attendance on Friday and Saturday before barely cracking 10,000 on Tuesday and another sub-9,000 day on Wednesday. Some of it is April attendance is always low, especially on weeknights. Some of it is that the weather has been very uncomfortable. My guess is if you play these games in June when it’s 80 out and there isn’t school the next day, you see a few thousand more. But the reality is that if they were winning, it wouldn’t matter. In 2015, the Royals played a Monday through Wednesday series against the Twins. Two of the three games were below 60 degrees. They drew about 66,000 for that series. We can talk about attendance all day long and the million things the team can do, but it comes down to one thing. Win some games. The calendar and the weather will help later on, but just win games and people will be there.