We have our first series in the books and it already feels like someone let out all the air out of the balloon. The Royals were shutout for the first two games, then dropped the series finale against the Twins to make them one of three teams in baseball that is winless on the year. Just under 2 percent of the season has been played - if this was a Chiefs season, we’d be just starting the second quarter of the first game. But the Chiefs have earned the benefit of the doubt - these young Royals still have yet to prove themselves.
There are still 159 games remaining, so keeping that in mind, we’re not panicking. But we can look at the weekend that was.
Kyle Isbel’s defense
The Royals were willing to trade away Gold Glove centerfielder Michael A. Taylor because they felt Kyle Isbel was capable of covering Kauffman Stadium’s spacious outfield. They praised his ability to get reads - he led the league in the jump metric last year. And while it’s early, he seems to be passing the test so far. Defensive metrics are worth a grain of salt this early in the year, but he is one of eight players in baseball with 2 Defensive Runs Saved already. And by the eye test, he has been making some terrific catches out there, like this catch on Sunday.
The hitters’ walk rate
For decades, the Royals have dismissed the walk, preferring a hitting approach that put the ball in play to “make something happen.” That approach has changed under new hitting coach Alec Zumwalt, with hitters now patiently waiting for a good pitch they can do damage to. It is very early, but through three games have the third best walk rate among all hitters in baseball. Also encouraging is that they really aren’t striking out a ton - their whiff rate is in the middle of the league. When they do swing, they’re hitting it pretty hard - they have the sixth-best hard-hit rate. Yes, it hasn’t resulted in runs yet, but the approach seems sound.
The pitchers’ walk rate
One major theme through last year’s team was the inability of the pitching staff to throw strikes. This year’s coaching staff has put a major emphasis on simply throwing the ball down the middle - to the extent of even considering offering cash incentives for giving up home runs if they’re on pitches down the middle. So far, the result has been encouraging - Royals pitchers are 13th in the league in lowest walk rate. There is still work to be done - they are just 18th in pitches thrown in the strike zone. But you can see less nibbling and more attacking of hitters. Overall the pitching staff did a pretty good job over the weekend, with Zack Greinke and Jordan Lyles setting the tone in the first two games.
The velocity is back! There was some concern the 35-year-old might be washed up after a 4.46 ERA and a velo decline last year. But the Royals were confident they could tweak his delivery to get his old heater back, and so far, they look right in that assertion. Chapman was regularly hitting triple digits on Sunday, blowing away all three hitters he faced with a 101 mph fastball. The bullpen could be a sneaky deep strength on this team - Carlos Hernández, Taylor Clarke, and Jose Cuas all looked pretty good. The Royals may not need Chapman to protect many leads, but maybe they could have a valuable trade asset this summer?
Mental errors on defense
The Royals were once the envy of the league defensively, but the current lineup does not seem likely to make anyone forget the 2015 bunch. Confoundingly, many of the miscues seemed to be mental errors. On Saturday, Bobby Witt Jr. hesitated on a groundball as Byron Buxton tried to advance to third right in front of him. Witt uncorked a throw a bit off target, and everyone was safe, eventually leading to a run to score. Hunter Dozier nearly took out the star shortstop on Opening Day on a pop up. MJ Melendez misplayed an easy grounder in right field that day. Even Kyle Isbel - who I praised for his defense - failed to make a good throw home on a shallow fly out.
Some mental miscues are going to happen with a young team with a new coach, but the Royals absolutely need to tighten it up, because they really cannot afford to give away outs with this pitching staff.
The Royals haven’t been whiffing that much, but two hitters in particular are - Franmil Reyes and MJ Melendez. Reyes you would expect - he’s gonna strike out a ton and you just hope he runs into a fat pitch now and again and blasts it into the fountains. But the Royals really need Melendez to turn into a solid top-of-the-order hitter for them. He was their most patient hitter last year after they traded Carlos Santana. But so far this year he has been a bit too patient, swinging just 30 percent of the time. His outfield defense also continues to be a work in progress. I’m still quite high on 24-year-old, and it would be nice to see him turn things around this week.
Bobby Witt Jr.
One year after delivering the game-winning hit on Opening Day and making an amazing throw home, Bobby produced far fewer thrills in his opening series this year. The young phenom is still looking for his first hit, and if he continues to struggle there have to be some doubts as to whether sitting on the bench for Team USA was worth the experience, or whether it cost him valuable prep time for this season.
Dylan Coleman’s velocity and command
Coleman walks a very fine line. When he throws strikes he has a chance to be one of the best relievers in baseball. When he’s not throwing strikes he has a chance to be pitching in Triple-A. The 26-year-old was on the roster bubble this spring, but made the team based on his solid rookie season. But he has been shaky in his first two outings with two walks already. Perhaps more concerning is his velocity is down from 98 mph the last two seasons to 94 mph in his first outings this year. Perhaps it is just an aberration, but it bears scrutiny, and with the Royals looking for a fluid bullpen situation, he could get demoted to figure things out.
The hitters are drawing walks and not striking out, but they’re not getting hits at all. They hit just .133 in the series, currently the worst mark in baseball. MJ Melendez, Bobby Witt Jr., Hunter Dozier, and Franmil Reyes are all still looking for their first hit of the year. Yes, they faced a good trio of pitchers over the weekend, as Matt Quatraro asserted after Sunday’s game. But they’re going to be facing good pitchers all year - this ain’t spring training! There are some underlying metrics that should offer hope like the hard-hit rate, and of course there is regression to the mean - I guarantee they don’t hit .133 all year!
Team batted ball profiles so far. obviously not a large sample size pic.twitter.com/b06I82UuH0— Jay Cuda (@JayCuda) April 3, 2023
But when the organization was banking on a crop of young hitters to pan out, it’s not encouraging that they got off to such a horrid start.