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Lesky’s Notes: A rare evening out

Things haven’t been as bad for the last few days, and that’s nice.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Kansas City Royals Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

No, I’m not talking about getting a chance to go on your first date with your significant other in months. That rare evening out is the Royals on a stretch where they have a .500 record over more than a week’s worth of time. They won three in a row from Wednesday through Friday before dropping four in a row and then winning the finale against the Giants on Wednesday. That means they’re 4-4 in their last eight games. How rare is that for them? They have just seven stretches all year where they’ve played at 4-4 over an eight-game stretch. And really it’s only three when you factor in that there’s overlap within those seven. They haven’t yet won more than four games in any eight-game stretch this season, but I suppose baby steps are necessary? I don’t know. It’s just nice to be in a stretch of games where their on-pace loss total is dropping rather than rising. Some of it probably is simply a matter of regression to the mean because I don’t think they’re this bad, but whatever it is, i’s a little easier to stomach than some of the garbage we’ve watched this year.

And I’m here to watch that garbage for you, so I hope you’ll subscribe to my newsletter, Inside the Crown in return. It’s totally free! I’m out there writing, so you don’t have to pay as much attention.

Heasley looking pretty good

We spend a lot of time talking about pitchers regressing the more time they spend in the big leagues. And it’s true that it tends to happen. Sometimes it’s a coincidence, but when you have a coaching staff on the pitching side getting as little out of their staff as this one is, you have to assume there’s more at play than just that. And that’s why when there’s a bright spot, we have to embrace it. Because until a certain pitching coach, who I’m just so tired of naming, gets fired and they move in a different direction, these success stories don’t seem like they’ll happen all that often. Enter Jonathan Heasley. I’ve been super impressed with what he’s done over his last four starts. You might recall he struggled, ahem, a bit with the strike zone upon coming up to the big leagues. He walked 13 batters and struck out seven in 13.1 innings. How his ERA was just 4.73 I’ll never fully understand, but he gutted through it to get there. Since then, though, he’s walked seven and struck out 19 in his last four starts spanning 23 innings. I’d mentioned a few times that the Heasley I’ve seen in the minors just didn’t match the guy wearing a KC hat when he’s been up.

So what’s different? For one thing, he’s simply throwing more pitches in the zone. In those first three starts, he threw 46.2 percent of pitches actually in the strike zone. That’s up to 50.5 percent in his last four starts. That’s not a massive difference, but it’s a difference. He’s also living in the zone on the edges better, throwing 24.7 percent of his pitches that are strikes but out of the heart compared to 22.3 percent in his first three starts. Again, those don’t all seem like huge differences, but they’re enough to help keep hitters more honest. He actually had more hitters chasing pitches outside the zone in his first three starts, but because they were maybe looking outside the zone, they had a .400 SLG on those pitches. But in the last four starts, hitters are hitting .158 when they chase without a single extra base hit. Every pitch leads to the next one, and Heasley is making hitters have to think a little more over these last few games. He still needs to throw way more first-pitch strikes, but he’s finally letting his stuff work for him and not against him, which is nice to see in a staff that doesn’t seem to do a lot of that.

Unlucky Emmanuel

I always find it interesting which of the Royals players the broadcast gloms onto when they’re talking about who is unlucky. All the talk about Ryan O’Hearn from a couple years ago led me to write about how he wasn’t that unlucky. This year’s hero for them is Whit Merrifield, who was unlucky but not enough to actually change his numbers and now is hitting better so the lack of luck actually would make a difference. But I digress because the player they don’t seem to talk about very much as unlucky is Emmanuel Rivera. He’s hitting just .211/.265/.390. That’s very bad, though with a solid enough ISO. His wOBA is just .286. But his expected numbers are .274/.323/.517 with a .355 xwOBA. Heading into action yesterday, he has the ninth biggest drop from expected average to actual average, the 24th biggest drop from expected slugging percentage to actual slugging percentage and the 14th biggest drop from expected wOBA to actual wOBA. So what gives? The answer is…I’m not sure, but it’s interesting. I know that expected stats aren’t necessarily predictive, but his barrel rate of 10.6 percent and hard-hit rate of 41.5 percent put him well in line with other hitters who are producing much better than he is.

He doesn’t chase an inordinate number of pitches with his chase rate sitting actually sitting well below average (in a good way). Sometimes when a guy falls well below his expected stats, he makes contact with a lot of the pitches he chases, and that can torpedo his numbers. But he doesn’t make an extraordinary amount of contact on his chases. So it’s not immediately obvious why he’s struggling the way he is compared to the batted ball numbers on that front. But I see a couple of things that he needs to do better. He hits the ball on the ground too much. He has power. He needs to get some lift on the ball, especially now that it seems to be flying a bit better. His 47.9 percent ground ball rate is too high, though it’s kind of in line with what he’s done in the minors. But he also, and I hate to agree with the Royals broadcast here, needs to go the other way more. There are so many swings that he seems to be doing what he can to pull the ball, but it’s not a pitch he can pull. Those end up as grounders to the left side. He may even hit them hard, but unless they find a hole, they’re outs because he doesn’t have enough speed to live there. So if he can lift the ball a bit more and take pitches away and hit them to right-center, he might be able to boost those numbers. I’m a little worried he won’t have that time, though, with the Royals getting some guys back from injuries.

Massey’s next step

The Royals are now firmly in their mid-year process of moving some prospects to different levels. Drew Parrish has had a couple starts in Omaha and Michael Massey got the call there a few days ago as well. I always feel like when a player gets to AA you can start dreaming a bit and when they get to AAA, it could happen any day now that they get to the big leagues. Maybe we shouldn’t think that with the Royals given their reluctance to call up prospects over the last couple of seasons, but I’ll still continue to at least believe that somewhere in my brain. So that means that Massey is now a step away. He needs to be added to the 40-man after the season or the Royals risk losing him in the Rule 5 draft, which they won’t do. I’m very interested in Massey. I’ve had a scout tell me that he’s an impact player. Now, I’ve said before that this particular scout is a little excitable, but he likes Massey quite a bit, and I can totally see why. He makes good contact and makes generally pretty solid contact. While he did homer last night in AAA, I don’t think his power is enough to be a middle-of-the-order type, but I do think he can be a guy you like at the two spot or in the seven or eight spot in a lineup. And he plays pretty good defense at second base.

The issue with him is that he’s likely just a second baseman. I suppose maybe he could be tried in left field, but I’m pretty iffy on that. I don’t think it’s that big of a deal that second base is his only home because the Royals don’t have much in the way of long-term options there regardless. It’s him, Nick Loftin if they decide to shift him back to the infield and Maikel Garcia at this very moment. At least that’s the case right now. Maybe Peyton Wilson starts to put himself on the map or someone they draft is a quick riser, but right now, it’s pretty light. And I think we’re seeing this season that Nicky Lopez isn’t likely a long-term answer. What I think will be very interesting is what the Royals target at the deadline. Is someone like Tyler Black from the Brewers someone they try to get? Without getting too deep into the woods on potential returns for any trade pieces, if they look at a young second baseman, that might give us our answer of what they think of Massey. But for now, he’s one step away and might get a shot to be the every day guy there sooner than later.

New goals

I am of the belief that no season is a waste. Teams and organizations can certainly waste their season, but the season itself is only a waste if they do it. For example, the Royals in March believed this was a stepping stone season where they could be around .500. If the breaks went their way, they could potentially even be in the conversation for that last playoff spot. I personally didn’t see their ceiling high enough for that in a very top heavy American League, but that’s not important. Obviously, things went completely off the rails and that’s no longer a possibility. At 21-41, the thought of even a .500 record is likely out of the question. But that doesn’t mean the season is over. The Royals just need to be smart. The first thing they have to do is determine a realistic timeline. I know people would be upset if they come out and say they think they can be in the playoffs in 2024 after telling us that 2022 was the year, but they need to be honest with themselves and decide if they can win next year or not. I think that if they make the smart moves with their coaching staff and continue down the path, they can win in 2024.

The dates don’t ultimately matter all that much. What they have to do over these final 100 games is get as much evaluation completed as possible. They’re playing Bobby Witt Jr. every single day. MJ Melendez is in there too. That’s great. Rivera is in there most days, which is fine because they don’t exactly have another third baseman in the pipeline. I think they just started to determine if Lopez can be a utility infielder or if he needs to start every day to be remotely effective. If he needs to start every day, then he’s probably not a part of the future. The guy has nearly 1,400 plate appearances and it looks like 2021 was the fluke. But they need to have Kyle Isbel in there and Edward Olivares when he gets back. And they need to get Vinnie Pasquantino and Nick Pratto up sooner than later to be able to actually make the most of what’s left of this season. And that means they need to get moving on moving Andrew Benintendi and Michael A. Taylor and jettisoning Carlos Santana and Ryan O’Hearn no matter how well the former has hit lately and the latter has hit as a pinch hitter. No season is a waste in the long run unless the team wastes it and the Royals need to get moving to not waste this one.