There’s nothing quite like the energy in Spring Training. It still features top-notch professionals at their athletic peaks, but it also features a lot less tension than even the regular season will see. Some guys are fighting for jobs, to be sure. But guys like Zack Greinke are goofing around, calling his own pitches, and throwing his slowest eephus yet because he knows the batter isn’t allowed to swing.
Zack Greinke vs Miguel Vargas AB (pitches ranging from 59mph to 92mph). Greinke f'ing with Vargas who hasn't been cleared to swing. pic.twitter.com/PwPPPMC5lz— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) March 5, 2023
It’s a relief, of course, just to have baseball back. But the Royals aren’t just playing, they’re winning. I know I was suckered so many times in the aughts into thinking that Kansas City was actually going to be competitive in a given season. It got to the point that when it actually happened in 2013 it felt like a mirage. I also spent most of 2014 on the edge of my seat in fear that the next loss would send them spiraling back to the cellar.
I even thought they might be sneaky competitive, last season! I thought if Hunter Dozier and Brad Keller could get their grooves back and the young pitchers all took a step forward they might have something. Obviously, they did not.
There’s something about the team this year, though, that makes me hopeful again. Part of that is simply because they keep shellacking other teams in meaningless contests. But there might be something to it, too. RoyalTreatment pointed out that the Royals are throwing more strikes and fewer balls than usual in Spring Training. But not only are their strikes and strikeouts up but leaguewide, strikeouts are trending in the other direction. To rephrase: at a time when strikeouts are becoming less common in general, Royals pitchers are striking out more than ever. That’s not nothing!
I wrote a few years back about Spring Training stats that can actually tell you something about a team. Guess what two stats are at the top of the list? Strikeout rates and walk rates. It’s really easy to look at this team’s pitchers right now and think, “Man, if they could just keep this up, they could be pretty good!” And the good news is...they might actually be able to! Even if they don’t continue striking out three batters for every one they walk, it’s completely reasonable to think they can stay pretty close to those numbers. And those are the kinds of numbers that lead to wins if the team has any kind of offense.
This all makes sense, of course, because strike-throwing and allowing your pitch movement to do the work for you has been a point of emphasis for the pitching staff this Spring Training. Their hitters are also walking almost 9% of the time while striking out 23% of the time, per Baseball-Reference. That’s almost 2% more walking than they did last year (20 points of OBP, for those of you who prefer older stats.) While the strikeouts are up by a bit more than a percent from last season, that still is a net improvement. The strikeout rate still would have seen them in the middle of the pack while the walk rate would have been elite.
Of course, we don’t know how those numbers will shake out this year and the Passan tweet linked above suggests strikeouts in general should be down, so the Royals striking out more is hardly promising. But man of man, we watched these guys hit last year and I don’t think any of us believe that there’s no talent in the lineup. The biggest concern has been the pitching, which promises to be drastically improved.
So, yeah, I’m buying in. I’m not gonna run out to put down an unreasonable sum of money for them to win the World Series or anything. But I’m starting to get excited about where this season could go. Maybe it doesn’t have to be the disaster it looked like during the majority of the offseason.