The life of a fan can bring you some of the highest highs in the world. Watching Lorenzo Cain hit that three-run double in the 12th inning of Game Five in 2015 will always be one of my greatest baseball memories. That was the moment I knew the Royals had won the World Series. Wade Davis pitching the bottom of the inning was merely a formality. But now, seven years later, nothing is a formality other than the way the Royals will lose today’s game. The good news is they won a game yesterday after a six-game losing streak. In four of those six game, they had a lead of at least three runs. Being bad is one thing. But having such a good chance to win so many games and blowing them is just another. It’s a gut punch. And that punch hurts even worse after the man who is supposed to be the leader of this whole organization stood up not two weeks earlier to defiantly tell the world why they were wrong about the team that was about to go on a 3-8 run to effectively end their season before Memorial Day. And maybe they’ll make a couple of moves, things will click and they’ll go on a 32-14 run and I’ll look like a goober for all of this consternation, but I’m willing to take that risk and hope I do look like a world-class idiot soon enough.
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There is a lot of negative in the world of the Royals right now, especially in that paragraph that the goober wrote above, so I want to move in a different direction and look at something good for a change. The offense! Wait what? Yes, that’s right. They’re not scoring A TON of runs, but they are hitting much better and giving much better plate appearances over the last few games. It could very well be simply that they weren’t going to be horrible forever and have gotten into something of a groove, but it’s also interesting that the improvements coincide with the new hitting coaches at the big league level. In some ways, the impact being that quick points to it having very little to do with them, but it’s not like these are entirely new philosophies being preached. They’re saying what these guys heard in spring training and what Terry Bradshaw tried to communicate (though apparently not as well as he needed to) and they’re more being reinforced than being taught.
And the results are honestly obvious. I wrote on Inside the Crown a couple weeks ago about how much trouble the offense was having with pitches they shouldn’t have trouble with. Well, they’re doing much better. Starting last Wednesday, the Royals have hit .331 with a .645 SLG on pitches in the heart of the plate. On Wednesday, they had three extra base hits there, three more on Thursday, seven more over the weekend and four more in Arizona (all home runs). Then a couple more last night. That’s a total of 19 extra base hits on pitches in the heart of the plate in eight games. They had 41 prior to that in 35 games! A big reason they’re successful is they’ve stopped swinging at pitches that make it tough to do damage on. Up to last Tuesday, they swung at 56.5 percent of pitches in the shadow zone. Since then, that dropped to 50.7 percent. Again, maybe it’s a small sample, but it also goes right with the big teachings of this group of coaches and I’m excited to see if they can keep this up for awhile now.
Kowar’s adjustments paying off
I totally understand if you want to write off Jackson Kowar’s success in AAA lately to him having dominated the minors before or whatever you want to say. But there’s a reason why I think this time is different and it’s the same reason why I believe a lot more in Brady Singer more now than I ever did before. It’s because he’s adjusting. I don’t know all of the details, but I do know that they’ve done some work with Kowar on his delivery and, specifically, his arm slot to help give his fastball a little extra carry. You might recall that when Kowar was called up, all we heard about was how great his changeup was, but we simply couldn’t see it because the fastball was so ineffective that the changeup was rendered almost useless. So with these changes, the fastball has gotten better based on some starts I’ve had a chance to see but more importantly a conversation with a scout from his start before his most recent one on Wednesday.
To me, whenever a pitcher makes an adjustment and then you see results, that’s when you can start to take notice and him throwing the same fastball differently and getting results is something to take notice of, in my opinion. And it also explains the struggles he had in the first few starts down there. Think about a guy like Kowar who has been pitching since he was, what, nine? Maybe younger. And now suddenly he’s being asked to throw the ball a different way than ever before. Of course he struggled. It’d have been weird (and quite frankly annoying) if he didn’t. But now he’s starting to get it. He has a 1.13 ERA in his three starts spanning 16 innings. In that time, he’s struck out 21 and walked four. He’s had a 16 percent swinging strike rate and a 20 percent called strike rate. This feels like it could be a game-changer. And I think it means two things. One, Jonathan Heasley is now on notice. He’s had three less than stellar starts since being called up. And two, Dane Johnson may be the best choice to replace Cal Eldred given the work he’s clearly done with both Singer and Kowar in AAA. I’m watching very closely to see if the mechanical changes in Carlos Hernandez and Kris Bubic (you remember, the two young pitchers who were the best in the big leagues last year) pay off too.
Barlow’s velocity a concern
Scott Barlow is good. That much I can confirm. But I’m a little worried because while he has a 1.71 ERA and has only given up runs in four out of his 18 outings, there are some red flags that have me wondering if something is wrong. He came up huge last night to get out of that bases loaded and nobody out jam with a one-run lead, but he threw four fastballs out of 41 pitches. He’s always leaned heavily on his slider and his curve, but it just feels different right now. Last night was just the third time all year he’s used it less than 10 percent of the time and it came one outing after he used it just 10.3 percent of the time. He only used it less than the last two games twice last year as well. And to add to it, he averaged just 90.3 MPH with it. That’s 2.6 MPH below his season average which is already 2.4 MPH below last year’s average.
So what does it mean? Maybe nothing. His breaking stuff is so good that it might be okay, but I don’t love it. For one thing, his strikeout rate is down considerably from last year by 6.5 percent. His walk rate has remained essentially the same, which is okay enough. I’ve talked about this a million times, but swings and misses are never hits. Batted balls may get converted into outs a lot, but they can always find a hole. And while the Royals aren’t exactly the most transactional team out there, Barlow could be a huge trade piece and I’m a little bit worried that this dip in velocity is a bad sign for a potential injury. It could just be a blip, but I’d very much like to see a couple 94s and 95s in his next time out to make me feel a bit better about it.
Time for Nicky to sit
I wrote in the offseason that in spite of what Nicky Lopez did last season in hitting .300 with a .365 OBP, he seemed like a pretty big risk for regression. I think many here agreed with the concern, but there were a lot out there on the interwebs who thought it was worrying over nothing. But after another 0 for 4 night at the plate, he’s making it very difficult for the Royals to keep him in the lineup, at least once they get their team back at full strength. His BABIP is .239, and that will likely rebound some, but he’s hitting just .201/.279/.237. As bad as he was with the bat in 2019 and 2020, this is worse. Okay, it’s probably on par given the overall decline in offense, but it’s still quite bad. It would be a little easier to stomach if he was having an elite defensive season like he did last year, but while he’s been good, he hasn’t been good enough to support the bat.
So when the Royals have Michael A. Taylor and Kyle Isbel back (and eventually Edward Olivares), I don’t think it makes any sense for Lopez to stay in the lineup every day. Whit Merrifield, who has hit .347/.380/.542 in his last 17 games, can handle second base and is probably where he should be regularly. Bobby Witt Jr. is at shortstop and looking very good defensively. And, for now, Emmanuel Rivera is handling third just fine but there’s a lot of talk of MJ Melendez getting some time there when Salvador Perez comes back too. It just doesn’t make sense to run with Lopez. And while he was fun to watch last year once he got going, the Royals have some options coming through the system to play second. Michael Massey is tearing up AA right now. Maikel Garcia is too. I know the Royals love Lopez, but I see a pretty big uphill battle for him unless he turns things around fast.