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Lesky’s Notes: Is that the faint stench of hope?

They’ve sustained .500ish play for the last 1/6 of the season. Is this...progress?

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Los Angeles Angels Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It’s easy to look at the Royals record of 30-51 and think that everything is a total disaster. And it honestly probably is mostly a total disaster, but the last couple of weeks have reconfigured my thoughts on this team just a little bit and I’m starting to wonder if there is a quicker turnaround possible. Before you laugh too hard, I don’t think that turnaround can happen with Mike Matheny or Cal Eldred in their current positions and likely would be quite difficult if Dayton Moore continues to have a huge role in the baseball decisions. But the Royals are now 13-14 in their last 27 games. No, that isn’t good, but they’ve had a winning road trip, they’ve won multiple series in a row at one point and they’ve even hit as well against a vaunted Astros pitching staff as any team all year. And that offense is what has me excited. I don’t think they’re “good” just yet, but they’re on the right track of putting out quality plate appearances throughout the game and flashing ability to actually score a few runs. If (and here’s the biggest if of all), the Royals do the right thing and revamp their big league coaching staff around the pitchers to help them develop into legitimate big league pitchers.

This is where I ask ever so nicely for you to subscribe to my FREE newsletter, Inside the Crown, where I write about this team so often that they give me hope while being terrible.

Halfway home, the pitching is the problem

I wrote about this a little bit on Inside the Crown, but the Royals are 19-20 when they score four or more runs. They are the only team in baseball under .500 in those such games. The Reds are the second worst and they are 25-24 while the Cubs are third worst at 27-17. So it’s safe to say that winning when you score four is generally pretty easy. Even if the Royals had the third worst winning percentage in baseball when scoring four plus runs, they’d be sitting at 35-46 today. That’s not good, but it’s at least a 70-win pace. So while, as I said above, the offense hasn’t reached “good” status just yet, I think it’s fair to say it isn’t the problem. So what is the issue with the pitching that is so bad and can it be fixed relatively easily without major personnel moves? The answer isn’t exactly simple. My gut is that a lot of it can be fixed by simply throwing more strikes. I’ll get to some of the stuff in a second, but so many of the things the Royals were gung ho about doing better before the season just haven’t come to fruition.

They throw just 57 percent first-pitch strikes. That’s worst in baseball. They throw the ninth-fewest pitches in the actual zone. That’s not the worst thing in the world because sometimes that can mean very hittable pitches, but they have the fifth-lowest percentage of chases. So that just doesn’t work. But the other thing that doesn’t make sense about this staff is they throw the 11th most fastballs in baseball by percentage, but their fastballs rank as the least valuable pitch in baseball as a team this season. On the other hand, they’ve had success with sliders and curves. To their credit, they throw the third-highest percentage of sliders in baseball, but maybe they should lean into that even more than they already do. There’s a much bigger discussion to be had here, but to get back to the strike throwing, I have a thought on the matter. Maybe it’s because it fits my narrative, but I have to think that the issues with throwing strikes stem from something beyond mechanics. I believe they’re simply giving too much credit to both opposing hitters and, at times, opposing ballparks. My hypothesis is that stems from a lack of preparation, so they’re not comfortable challenging hitters because they simply don’t know the best way to attack. So as much as the players are the ones throwing the baseball, I still believe the biggest issue this team has is not what’s on the field, but what is in the dugout.

But I think the pitching talent is there

I know there are metrics that show the Royals staff doesn’t have especially good stuff. Not to keep beating that dead horse for the billionth time, but I think a lot of that comes from their coaching. I mentioned Eldred already and just about everyone but the Royals front office (and maybe just the president and manager) agree with the sentiments toward him. The one thing I keep coming back to is that I have had multiple scouts from big league teams tell me that they are drooling over the idea of the Royals giving up on any of their young arms because they know they can get them over that hump. While that is infuriating to hear knowing that other teams see what the Royals are sitting on, it’s also encouraging to understand that if they can do the right thing and make the right move, they could be staring down the barrel of some legitimate big league starting pitching. I think you can look at the current young arms and feel pretty confident that Brady Singer can be a part of a big league rotation. I wasn’t comfortable saying that two months ago, but I feel good about that now. The rest, though? It’s hard to say for sure.

Jonathan Heasley has shown that he can keep his team in games. There’s value in that, especially in his pre-arbitration years. I don’t think I feel comfortable writing his name in pen or anything, but he can pitch in a competitive rotation at the back end. What they have in Kris Bubic, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, Carlos Hernandez and others remains to be seen, but if they have three pitchers you feel comfortable with, even in the three through five spots, I think that’s something they can work with. If you can go get someone you feel can get some extra out of the pitchers the way Alec Zumwalt & Co. have been able to with the hitters, maybe you shell out for short-term help at the top. Mike Clevinger comes to mind there. I’d love for them to go get Joe Musgrove, but that seems unlikely. As is always the case, the names they target don’t truly matter as much as the fact that they make the smart choice and work to supplement their young pitching with someone who can pitch legitimately at the top of a rotation. Will they do it? I don’t know. But if they do what they should, you get the feeling things could turn around relatively fast.

Weekly trade talk

The trade deadline is now 25 days away, and something that’s interesting is that everyone I’ve spoken to has said how quiet things are. There are two ways to look at that if you’re a team like the Royals who are obvious sellers. The first is that they should be stirring things up, but the other is that maybe it isn’t the worst thing to let teams show their hand a little bit. There is a good reason why trade talks are very quiet and it’s largely because of the draft being so late. I could spend a week probably talking about why I hate the draft coming during All-Star week, but that’s another topic for another time I guess. The trade deadline being so close behind it, though, is one of those reasons and JJ Picollo talked a bit about it on 610 this week. A lot of the same people involved in trade discussions are involved in the draft. So with that said, I’d anticipate things get a little crazy after the draft concludes, which is now less than two weeks away. The Royals, and specifically Moore, have talked a lot about how they don’t shop players. I don’t think that’s true from what I’ve heard. I think what they actually don’t do is shout from the mountaintops that they’re having a fire…sale.

The Royals have pieces who can bring back some solid returns. I wrote on Monday on Inside the Crown about the idea of taking on bad contracts in return to help up what they can get back. But I think you’re going to at least hear rumors about Scott Barlow, Josh Staumont, Hunter Dozier, Whit Merrifield, Nicky Lopez, Michael A. Taylor, Zack Greinke and of course Andrew Benintendi. The market for Benintendi is actually kind of massive. He doesn’t make enough money to deter basically any team, so everybody who needs a very good bat is going to be in on him. I still have doubts about a big return because of the relatively small value he’ll provide a new team, but there should be a bidding war. Whatever the Royals do, I doubt they will but I hope they move away from some of their previous thoughts on return. They always seem to target guys who are close. I feel like they have enough guys who are “close” already in their system. They need to go after upside. I think about what the Dodgers have traded away for two relievers - Josh Fields and Tony Watson. They gave up Yordan Alvarez for Fields and O’Neil Cruz for Watson and the Astros and Pirates are benefiting because they were willing to wait on some big-time talent.

Who’s on third?

I don’t know…

Okay fine, I’ll leave the Abbott and Costello to, well, Abbott and Costello, but the answer to the question remains because the Royals do have a lot of solid players ready to be big leaguers and to hopefully make an impact, but third base is a big question. Emmanuel Rivera looked solid for awhile, but he fell off. Nicky Lopez has gotten time there, but you really want more offense from there, though I’m of the belief that I don’t care where the offense comes from. They gave Michael Massey some starts there in Omaha recently, but I’m not sure if he has the arm for it. I think Nick Loftin, who it looks like is back on the infield in Northwest Arkansas, could be that guy, but he hasn’t played much there this season. Maybe it’s Nate Eaton, but I think he’s more of a utility guy in the long run. So do they go after a third baseman as part of their trading over the next few weeks? If so, the options aren’t exactly huge. Jordan Groshans from Toronto has been brought up with them trading for Matt Chapman before the year, so maybe that’s something but he’s not hitting especially well this season. But the good news is that some of the teams they’ve been rumored to be talking with have a few options.

If the Royals trade with the Braves, they have Vaughn Grissom who could be ready fairly soon. I don’t think they have the package to snag Miguel Vargas from the Dodgers, but if they could figure something out, that would be fun. Trey Sweeney with the Yankees is a little like Vargas, but I think they have a big enough need for someone like Benintendi that maybe there’s some package that could bring him back. The Giants have Casey Schmitt if they can find a deal they like in KC, though he probably won’t be ready to go next season. So there are some options, and that might be their best bet to find a third baseman they can count on for the near future because there really isn’t much out there on the free agent market. Now, that said, I’ve mentioned how the Royals could potentially buy a little if they can find that deal. Maybe there’s a deal with the Marlins for Brian Anderson (and Pablo Lopez please) that involves someone like Nick Pratto. The Tigers are disappointed in Jeimer Candelario’s season, but he did hit .278/.356/.458. Is there a deal there? Seems unlikely but you never know, I guess. I’m just trying to think creatively because that’s a spot that will be a need for 2023 and beyond.