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Lesky’s Notes: Less than three weeks to go

The season is limping to a close.

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MLB: Kansas City Royals at Minnesota Twins Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t know if it’s my age or if it’s just this team, but boy am I ready for the offseason. I think some of it is that there are a lot of answers we’ll get soon enough that do require the season to come to an end at this point. Will Mike Matheny be around to see the next year of the rebuild (I’ll give my thoughts below)? Will Dayton Moore? Will anyone? Okay sure, some will be, but it’s an interesting winter for the Royals coming up. I’ve written about the money they have to spend, but making the personnel decisions is likely far more important than any check John Sherman can write. People have clamored for change for a long time now, but I’ve stood by the reasoning behind Sherman largely doing very little personnel-wise. That changes soon. We will have an answer as to what kind of an owner Sherman is going to be and we’re going to have that answer soon. If you haven’t read this article in The Athletic about the Royals pitching development, I’d highly encourage you to do it on an empty stomach. To me, it shows why changes have to be made and they have to be made quickly. Will they come? Time will tell, I suppose.

I can guarantee I’ll be there on Inside the Crown most mornings during the week during the season and probably three a week during the offseason. I hope you’ll do me the honor of subscribing for free!

Zack Greinke disconnect

One thing I’ve noticed quite a bit over the last three or four weeks is there are quite a few people who are simply not a fan of what Greinke has done this season for the Royals. I get it to some extent. He doesn’t strike anyone out and he really doesn’t give many innings. Some of it comes from the fact that he was paid $13 million. Some of it comes from the lack of strikeouts and innings. And I think some of it comes with the idea that we were told he would be such a good influence on the young pitchers and they haven’t been good, so he must not be. But the reality is that he’s been fine. He has a 4.10 ERA, which is good for an ERA- of 102, meaning he’s two percent below average, which is perfectly fine. He has a 4.23 FIP, which is good for a FIP- of 109. That’s less good, but still not bad. Heading into play yesterday, he’s one of 16 pitchers in baseball with 100 or more innings to have a walk rate below five percent.

He averages about 31 outs per every two starts (he falls right between five and five and one-third innings per start). The average starter averages…about 31 outs per two starts. He gets it done differently and should honestly probably only start at home these days, but I just find it a little interesting how many people have made the comparison to far lesser players with regard to Greinke this season. It isn’t his fault that nobody has stepped up to be better than him. If he’s your fourth or fifth starter, you look at your rotation as a positive because you’re getting five solid from him every fifth day at the back end. I guess if you’re upset he hasn’t turned Daniel Lynch into an ace or Kris Bubic into a three or whatever, you might argue it is his fault, but I feel like there’s a weird standard put onto him because the rest of the team doesn’t allow him to rank on the team where he should. That’s not on him. Greinke has been fine. And given the lack of starting options next season, if they want to go out and give him $8 million or whatever next year, I’m good with that. I think you can probably expect 125-140 innings of roughly league-average pitching, which is not a bad thing to have.

Matheny’s contract

I don’t think Matheny is back as manager next season. I don’t know that to be true, but based on a few conversations I’ve had, I think he’s managing his last game on October 5. Again, this isn’t a report, this is my gut feeling from inferring what others who have more knowledge than I do have said. But there’s also a logical reason for me thinking he might be gone that goes beyond performance. Travel back in time to the start of the season and the Royals picked up his 2023 option. They did that because they haven’t historically been big fans of having a lame-duck manager. I’m not sure if they’ve had one before, but I know that’s not their favorite thing. So they pick up this option but don’t extend him. I thought that was a little fishy at the time. It seemed like one of those things where they could have easily extended him if they truly believed in him. Simply picking up the option felt like a “prove to me that you’re the right guy for this” move at the time, which is something I’ve thought about throughout the season, especially with all the clubhouse talk from earlier this season.

So now, here we are on September 16 with the season less than three weeks away from being over and Matheny hasn’t been given a new deal, nor has he earned it with his team’s play on the field. When the Royals publicly say that their models showed they should have been better this season (I’d LOVE to see those models), doesn’t someone have to take the fall for that? And when you factor in that contract, I think it becomes very difficult to bring Matheny back in combination with the underperformance. They basically have three options. They can let him manage as a lame duck, they can fire him or they can extend him. There is a world where they extend him for just one season, but that almost says more than anything that he’s on trial in 2023. And it seems like most managers don’t work under one-year deals, at least not before they’re reached the point where they’re trusted. Dusty Baker, I suppose, has been on some one-year deals with Houston, but it just isn’t the way managers are handled typically. So if they extend him, it’s likely three years. Is that something they’d really want to do with someone they aren’t fully comfortable with? I just don’t see it. And that’s a big reason for why I think that one way or another, Matheny is done after this season. As with all of this, we’ll see what actually happens soon enough, I guess.

Hitting walls

No, not in the good way. If it seems like just about every young player on this team has hit a wall, it’s because they sort of have. I feel like the end of that Dodgers series was the turning point. Maybe they put everything they had into that homestand and that series and just came out done, but the next day was the start of the brutal road trip to Minnesota and Tampa Bay. Just looking at fastballs 95 MPH+, Royals rookies are hitting .173 with a .259 SLG and an average exit velocity of 90.3 MPH. Up to that Dodgers series, their rookies were hitting .219 with a .320 SLG, but an average exit velocity of 91.9 MPH. Neither average/slugging percentage combo is good, but the latter number is right at the league average for rookies. I picked higher velocity pitches simply because those are the ones that you get a good idea on as far as bat speed. Being able to turn those around can certainly be more difficult the more tired you are. But I think there’s also a different impact on the other pitches. You may have noticed an increase in called strike threes, and some of that stems from having a little trouble catching up with velocity, so they have to cheat and when they cheat but a slider comes in or a changeup or whatever pitch, they get caught with their mouths open and staring because they’re simply guessing and they guessed wrong.

My concern is with the development of these players. The league numbers, looking at pre-8/14 and post 8/14, aren’t very different from each other while the Royals have found themselves falling off a fair amount. It’s hard to judge it entirely because a lot of rookies are coming up later in the season, a little fresher from their day off every week in the minors, but even so, I don’t think the Royals have earned the benefit of the doubt in their minor league program that they’re doing the best they can to condition the young players to play a full 162 or even 145 out of 162. I’ve said before that I think we’ve become a little too quick to forget the complete loss that was the 2020 season and the fact that the minor league season was a month shorter last year, but this is something I want to keep an eye on moving forward. Part of being a successful big leaguer is being able to perform in September. In fact, as the team theoretically becomes more competitive, they may even need to be able to thrive in September. This group is sputtering to the finish. Can they turn it around next season? This is another one we have to wait on, but I think preparing players physically for the grind of a big league season is something in development that we don’t talk about near enough.

The chase is off

I’ve been trying to figure something out for awhile now. Why do the Royals not get chases? It feels like even the least patient of all the teams do a great job of spitting on pitches the Royals throw. Looking at pitches just off the plate, the Royals staff has thrown the 12th highest percentage of their pitches there and the third-most pitches overall. They are tied for the fourth-lowest swing rate on those pitches at 13.2 percent. The best is the Braves at 17.8 percent, so there’s a pretty sizable gap there. I don’t know the real answer as to the why. That’s an off-season topic if I’ve ever seen one. But it does lead me to an interesting question of whether Royals pitching really doesn’t throw enough strikes or if they simply don’t get enough hitters to swing at pitches that other teams get hitters to swing at. Think about this. The league average of swings on pitches just off the plate is 14.9 percent. Ignoring the fact that some of these may negate future pitches because I don’t have the time or energy to dig in that deep, if the Royals were simply league-average, they’d have gotten 76 more swings.

That doesn’t change a ton, but it’s a start. I guess the way does remain super important here because if they can figure out how to start getting swings on those pitches, things could change fast. My guesses before digging in are that they don’t have much deception in deliveries, which could be part of it, the stuff they’re throwing out there just isn’t that good or that hitters know they’ll eventually come to the middle of the plate so they don’t have to swing at a pitch thinking it might be the best pitch they’ll see in an at-bat. The nice thing here is that all of this is likely fixed with a more data-driven coaching approach. The not-so-nice thing is that until they make a move with their coaching staff (and development team, though they have already started there), I don’t see any of that happening. So again, we’re back to waiting and hoping for October 6 to bring us some presents.