Keller, defense roughed up again

It snowed on Tuesday morning. And it felt like Groundhog Day at The K.

A brutally cold night at The K yielded some brutal baseball. The Royals fell into an early hole, battled back to draw close and then slipped away.

Let’s just get right to the gory details.

The struggle continues for Keller

With three very poor outings out of four starts, is it officially time to hit the panic button on Brad Keller? Yes, it was a miserable night to pitch. Yes, his defense betrayed him.

Keller was able to jump ahead in the count frequently, but he lacked the ability to take advantage of the situation and put Rays batters away. The second inning opened with Keller walking Kevin Kiermaier on five pitches. Here’s what followed:

  • A 1-2 count on Adames - fielder’s choice

  • A 1-2 count on Zunino - walk

  • A 1-2 count on Meadows - sac fly

  • A 0-2 count on Arozarena - strikeout

  • A 0-1 count on Wendle - single

The last batter of Keller’s night was a four pitch walk to Brandon Lowe. That was three walks and a total of 37 pitches in the second inning.

Keller said after the game that it was a mechanical breakdown that led to the walks. He’s said after his third start of the year (his lone successful outing) that he had made some mechanical tweaks going into that one. “Still trying to work on mechanical things from my starts before,” Keller said. “But you can’t really focus on mechanics when you’re trying to get outs.”

It felt from watching that he really couldn’t locate any of his pitches, particularly his slider.

On Monday he featured the pitch just 20 percent of the time, continuing a trend away from the pitch we’ve seen in his previous outings in 2021.

Is it a lack of confidence in the pitch? Or is something wrong with it?

He’s throwing the slider a little harder than he has in year’s past, but the spin rate is identical to what we saw in 2020. The result from the tick in velocity (86.3 mph this year versus 84.6 mph in 2020) has been less active spin and a little less movement, both on the horizontal and vertical planes.

When Keller is successful with the slider, he’s tunneling off his fastball and throwing the pitch just off the zone. It’s an enticing pitch to hitters so if they make contact, it’s often weak and on the ground. Now, hitters can avoid swinging at the slider altogether or, if the pitch hangs in the zone, they can do damage. The pitch just isn’t happening right now for him. Here are results Keller has gotten on his slider over the years.

Obviously, he’s thrown just a fraction of the pitch in 2021 compared to previous seasons. And as mentioned, he’s throwing it a lot less. But even with the small sample this is out of the ordinary for Keller.

It’s a troubling development for both Keller and the Royals. So let’s revisit the question posed at the start of this section: Is it time to hit the panic button? I’m not there yet. But my hand is hovering, ready to strike.

Burning up the bullpen

Another short start from Keller means another long night for the bullpen. Mike Matheny ultimately used six relievers before sending Hanser Alberto to the bump to mercifully end the evening. That happened because Greg Holland was roughed up in the ninth and threw 24 pitches.

It’s hard to believe given that the club is carrying nine relievers, but the bullpen is perilously thin at the moment.

Four relievers threw more than 20 pitches on Tuesday and Wade Davis tossed 35 on Monday. You can read from the table that Matheny has done a good job minimizing the use of relievers on back to back days, but after Tuesday’s game and with elevated pitch counts, his options have to be thin for Wednesday.

Obviously Staumont and Brentz are available. Davis probably is, too. Barlow had the easiest time of all Royals pitchers on Tuesday so he’s certainly good to go. After that the options are kind of dicey.

The good news is there is an off day on Thursday. The additional good news is that Jakob Junis is on the mound Wednesday. He’s gone five innings in both of his starts and went to 81 pitches his last time out. He should be fully stretched out and can hopefully give the team some innings.

Position player pitching alert

As noted above, Alberto moved from third base to the mound to close out the game. He delivered two curves to Lowe that clocked 64 mph. The second of which was skied into left.

It’s a nice, easy delivery with low effort on the follow through. Not a lot of bite on the curve. Let’s be generous and say it’s not a plus pitch.

He was able to cut his career ERA from 18 to 13.50. A successful outing all around!

Defense slumps, too

I’ve always felt that Whit Merrifield’s defense was a tad…overrated. That’s not to say he’s a poor defender. He’s not. He’s just not as exceptional with the glove as some in the organization would like for you to believe. I’ve also long felt that his best defensive position was second base.

The data from The Fielding Bible seems to confirm the eye test. In over 3,000 innings played at the keystone since 2016, he’s been worth three Defensive Runs Saved.

What’s happening right now with Merrifield at second is a defensive slump of epic proportions. He misplayed three grounders on Tuesday. All were costly as they led to Tampa runs.

This play could’ve ended the first inning with only one run of damage against Keller.

With a runner on first and the infield set at traditional double play depth, that’s a room service double play if there ever was one. If the Royals turn that they escape the inning with no damage against them. A 1-0 hole in the early going isn’t catastrophic. But is was simply foreshadowing.

The miscue in the second won’t show up in the error column, but it was simply confounding. With a runner on first, the Royals had the shift on which kind of hampers the turning of a double play. In this case, Willy Adames hit a grounder to the left side of second that was fielded cleanly by Merrifield. But he was so far from the bag, he couldn’t beat the runner. So instead of going to first for the sure out he inexplicably flipped the ball to Nicky Lopez who, while dashing to the bag, was even further away. It’s scored a fielder’s choice, but it’s a definite mental error.

And…there was another play in the sixth that Merrifield failed to handle: A ground ball to his right off the bat of Brandon Lowe that went for a hit. Another potential double play ball.

This trio of plays comes after a game Monday where Merrifield fumbled another potential double play…that turned into a run. Obviously, the Royals lost some quality infield defense when Adalberto Mondesi strained his oblique and hit the IL before the season started. The optimal alignment up the middle would be Mondesi at short and Nicky Lopez at second. That wasn’t going to happen anyway as Lopez played himself out of a starting role with a miserable exhibition season. But now that Lopez is here and providing adequate offense…It’s easy to imagine that he slides back over to the other side of second when Mondesi returns.

Speaking of which…

Injury update

Josh Vernier passed this update along from an interview with Royals’ head trainer Nick Kenney.

It sounds as if the oblique strain has the potential to sideline the shortstop for a third of the season. If…if he’s cleared to start a light hitting program after a visit with the doctor on Wednesday, you figure he’s still about four weeks away from returning to game action.

The question I have from reading the Tweet is, does the timetable include a rehab stint? Or is the six to eight weeks the full recovery and then the rehab? Mondesi is obviously going to have to go to the minors (or the alternate site if he’s somehow ready before their season opens) to get some reps before he’s back in Kansas City.

It’s starting to look like we won’t be seeing Mondesi in the lineup until June.

Central issues

  • Chicago 8, Cleveland 5

José Abreu clubs two dingers and Luis Robert collects three hits as the Sox get to Zach Plesac.

  • Minnesota 0, Oakland 7 — 7 innings

  • Minnesota 0, Oakland 1 — 7 innings

The Twins emerge from their Covid exile and can’t find their offense. Sean Manaea went the full seven in the first game and Jesus Luzardo blanked them for 5.1 before yielding to the bullpen in the nightcap.

  • Pittsburg at Detroit — Postponed

Up next

Jakob Junis takes the mound as the Royals try to close out the homestand with a win. It’s crazy to say, but given how the Royals opened this stretch with five wins out of seven, to leave Kansas City 5-5 would be a bit of a downer. The Rays will counter with Michael Wacha. Finally, a right-handed starter!

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