The old adage in baseball is that every team is going to win 54 games and every team is going to lose 54 games and it’s what they do with the games in the middle 54 that determine how good they are. You may have heard some slightly different numbers, but the general point remains the same. Baseball is a game of failure. The best teams still lose literally dozens of times a season. Regardless of the number you’ve heard, the games in the middle are the truly important ones. Yesterday’s game for the Royals was one of those in the middle 54. If they’re going to make a run at the postseason, they’re going to need to win probably 36 of them, which means they have 35 to go. Look, I have my doubts that they’ll be able to, but if they can win games like that over the next few weeks, I’m going to believe a lot more and more every time. Plus, if those wins keep coming from Bobby Witt Jr. getting the game-winning hit, it’ll be awfully fun along the way.
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The Royals, as usual, waited until the very last second to announce their Opening Day roster. As I’ve mentioned quite a bit over the last few weeks the first roster is simply a snapshot in time that ultimately is as important as the roster on a random day in June or August or wherever, but we do put some emphasis on it. The hot springs of both Kyle Isbel and Edward Olivares essentially forced them to cut one pitcher as I’m convinced they were planning on carrying 16 pitchers on their 28-man roster while they still could. But either way, they had to make a decision and I thought it was a bit of a surprise to see Gabe Speier start the year on the roster which led to some difficult choices. Brady Singer is in the bullpen for now. Daniel Lynch was likely available to pitch yesterday if Zack Greinke needed backup early, but now I’d assume is going to be in line to start the second game in St. Louis next week (if the weather allows that game to happen). But what I found most interesting was what Anne Rogers said on Twitter when it was announced that Joel Payamps was on the Family Medical Emergency List.
She said that move allowed Dylan Coleman to make the Opening Day roster. I don’t know if she’s speculating or if that’s information she was provided. I hope it was incorrect speculation because, in my opinion, the way this bullpen goes from anywhere between solid and good to great is if Coleman is in it. I think that’s quite a bit to put on a rookie with 6.1 career innings, but with his high octane fastball and nasty slider, I think he has a chance to be the absolute best of the bunch and the bullpen needs more guys like him. His control wasn’t great in Omaha, but it was in Northwest Arkansas and I honestly do believe that he’ll get the first save the next time the Royals play in the postseason if it’s in the next three or four seasons. I don’t know what’s going to happen when Payamps is available to come back to the team, but I hope it doesn’t cost Coleman his spot on the big league roster.
What we saw yesterday defensively was especially fun to me. There weren’t a lot of especially difficult plays, but Nicky Lopez’s diving stop that Greinke called one of the best he’s ever seen obviously stood out. Another one that I thought was probably not talked about enough is a ball Witt got to in the hole between short and third when he was shifted over. He fielded it on the backhand quickly and easily and made a perfect throw to first. He was perfect on his throw in his only other ground ball attempt as well, which was just so nice to see. I’m maybe a bit worried about Adalberto Mondesi as he had a couple rough throws and then Josh Vernier on the 610 Sports postgame show mentioned that was a problem in spring training that I honestly didn’t know too much about. So that makes me worry some, but we know that he’s a very good defender at shortstop as well, so even if he’s in a bit of a slump, I would assume he’ll come out of it.
And at some point, that defense is going to get even better. As I’ve said in the past, the importance of first base defense is somewhere between what most fans think and what the organization thinks, but Nick Pratto is elite defensively. Getting him on that infield whenever it does happen will make everyone even better. Add in that outfield defense and I would be surprised if the team isn’t among the top five in the game in pretty much all the defensive metrics. That’ll play up a lot more in places like Kauffman Stadium, Comerica Park and other big parks, which is convenient because the team plays more than half their games in those parks with lots of ground to cover. I think we maybe don’t focus enough on the pitching improvements in the second half last year being from the defense improving and that’s at least something that we have a pretty good idea will continue all season long this year.
With the pushed back start, the early season schedule isn’t filled with off days like we’re used to. In a lot of ways, that’s so nice because it just feels like there is never any rhythm in those first two or three weeks. But in some ways, it would be nice if there was a bit more opportunity to get some rest after only playing those 17 spring games. It looks like the weather might even hold up, though that’s always tricky to assume in April, which means the Royals don’t have a scheduled off day until April 18. That’s not a hugely difficult nine games in nine days, but they have 21 in 23 days before the roster reverts back to 26 on May 2. That could change and they could extend that, but that’s the information we know at this time. I wrote on Inside the Crown today about how much I enjoyed Mike Matheny’s bullpen usage yesterday, but I do have some concern about overuse without the typical million days off to start the season.
For the Royals to have success early in the season, they’re going to need to get some contributions from bullpen arms they weren’t expecting. It’s certainly possible. Taylor Clarke was very good in spring training. Brady Singer could take to a bullpen role in long relief better than I expect. I feel like Jackson Kowar could actually be pretty good in the role they’re going to be using him in. So I have some confidence in them to be able to get it done, but I don’t think anyone should expect too many starts to get into the sixth inning like Greinke did yesterday for at least the next couple of weeks, so that means there’s a lot riding on that bullpen and on Matheny pushing the right buttons.
I mentioned this on Almost Entirely Sports last night on 810 and then again on Inside the Crown this morning, but one of the things that stands out to me about what Witt was able to do was that he was able to adjust within the game in a way that some veterans can struggle with at times. In his first at bat, Shane Bieber threw him one of his sliders and it went way off the plate, but Witt swung at it. It was the first regular season pitch he’d seen in the big leagues and he looked bad on it. That’s nothing against Witt. Bieber is a heck of a pitcher and hitters with far more accolades than Witt have been made to look foolish against him. So that at bat ends and then he made an out against Bieber the next time, but when Triston McKenzie came in, he had learned. McKenzie isn’t Bieber, but his slider is quite good. He allowed a .132 average on it last year with a 44.2 percent whiff rate. And he threw an 0-2 slider to Witt in roughly the spot that Bieber made him look bad. And he spit on it.
Look, bad hitters take that pitch all the time. Good hitters too. And maybe I’m seeing what I want to see, but I see that as a very good sign for what he can do in the middle of a game. As I said last night, bad hitters don’t adjust, good hitters adjust from game to game, but great hitters adjust at bat to at bat and that’s something Witt did yesterday. I know that the praise for him has been so over the top that you almost worry it’s too much, but sometimes you see things like that and you start to think about what he’s capable of and you realize that the sky truly is the limit for him because of the way he can figure things out so quickly. He will struggle in the big leagues, but as long as he keeps making those quick adjustments, the struggles won’t last long and eventually, any slump he gets into will be shorter and shorter with every passing game. I was just incredibly impressed by that.