Scratching out a victory in St. Louis

Kris Bubic wasn't at his best, but he kept his team in the game. The offense did enough to secure the victory. And the Royals finished their extended road trip with three wins in nine games.

Maybe the Royals should petition for every game they play in St. Louis to include a rain delay. Those games usually end well. And this time they didn’t need Alex Gordon lugging bags of Quik-Dry around the infield dirt.

After a delay of just over two hours, the Royals plated a single run, courtesy of Professional Hitter Nicky Lopez, that proved to be the difference. Richard Lovelady handled the ninth for his first career save and the Royals salvaged a win in the three-game series, taking the trip west on I-70 with a 6-5 victory.

These weren’t great games. For an alleged rivalry series, it had the vibes of a couple of teams playing out the string, just trying to get the season to the finish line. Still…the Royals gave us plenty to discuss from Sunday’s game alone. Thankfully, they always find a way to keep it interesting.

Easy as 1-2-3

I have to be truthful with everyone…I came away from that Kris Bubic start disappointed he didn’t rare back and let loose as he did in his previous outing. One start after averaging 92 mph on his four-seamer and topping 94 mph on six pitches, Bubic found that much giddyup on his heater just once on Sunday. Overall, he averaged 90.7 mph with the fastball, right in line with his 90.5 mph average on the season.

It was just kind of a “meh” performance from Bubic on Sunday. He allowed just a single run—a leadoff dinger to Dylan Carlson—but danced around baserunners all afternoon, including four via the walk.

The fourth inning in particular was quite the journey. It started out like this against Tommy Edman.

You never want to issue a four-pitch free pass to open an inning. Especially after your club just handed you the lead. Edman struck out on three pitches in his previous at bat, with the third pitch a fastball up and out of the zone. This time, Bubic didn’t get calls on close pitches (Ángel Hernández was behind home plate, so who knows where the strike zone was located from inning to inning) and, working behind in the count, could not get Edman to offer.

The next plate appearance from Harrison Bader was downright frightening.

Bubic was way off the plate. At this point, Bubic was rubbing the palm of his hand against his outer thigh in what looked like an attempt to dry his pitching hand. He was also going to the rosin bag quite a bit. It was a humid, sticky day in St. Louis, so that was probably a factor in how Bubic was able to spin the ball.

He was able to throw strikes to the next batter, Paul DeJong, but spiked a curve that hit his back foot to load the bases.

This is a situation. Bases loaded, no outs, a one-run lead in the middle innings.

What transpired next was the battle of the afternoon.

Bubic went 2-0 to eighth-place hitter Andrew Knizner. Uh-oh. But then he found his command and got Knizner to foul off six consecutive pitches. He was really interested in that change-up away. Maybe that’s why he was swinging over an elevated change that resulted in the 1-2-3 double play.

And thank goodness for National League baseball. Sure, Jon Lester hit a ground-rule double to lead off the third inning, but he couldn’t do similar damage again, right? The Royals and Bubic dodged one when Lester popped out to Alberto to end the frame.

Bubic was playing with fire all afternoon, allowing the leadoff hitter to reach in each of his five innings of work. (Aside from the Carlson home run, the Lester double and walk to Edman, Bubic walked Bader to open the second and surrendered a single to Carlson in the fifth.) Somehow, he was able to tap dance around any damage. Two double plays and a pitcher running the bases certainly helped. Overall, Bubic had just a 23 percent CSW but he was generally able to avoid hard contact.

This was probably my favorite moment of the afternoon:

I’m fairly certain you don’t generally want to leave a 2-2 change-up to Paul Goldschmidt in that location. Judging from his reaction, I have to think Bubic knows this.

It was just one of those starts where Bubic had to grind to survive. That he lasted 4.2 innings was somewhat impressive. Even more impressive was the fact he allowed just one run to score.

Don’t walk

As noted in Friday’s newsletter ahead of the series in St. Louis, the Cardinal pitching staff has had problems with walks all season. Entering Friday, they were walking batters at a rate of 11 percent, highest in the majors.

Naturally, the Royals walked just six times in the three game series. They spread them evenly, though: two free passes in each game.

This isn’t exactly surprising. Royals batters are walking at a 7.2 percent clip, worse rate among offenses. When you have to opposing teams squaring off in a particular category where each is the literal worst at what they do, something has to give. In this case, it was the Kansas City offense that allowed St. Louis pitching off the hook. That’s probably how this scenario plays out—free swinging trumps erratic pitching.

Carlos Santana collected two of the six walks. Again, exactly as you would think.

According to Baseball Savant, Royals batters saw 415 pitches over the three games in St. Louis. They swung at 206 of those, of which 66 were out of the strike zone.

That’s a chase rate of 32 percent, which actually represents an improvement on their seasonal chase rate of 34.2 percent. That overall chase rate is second-highest in the majors.

More chasing

While looking up chase rates for the Royals’ offense, I also checked out how each Kansas City pitcher did over the series in inducing the opposing hitters to go out of the zone for their pitch. I didn’t include this in Bubic’s section above, but he was able to get 11 swings on pitches outside of the strike zone on Sunday, including this whiff of Bader:

Just thought I would point that out; excellent location for an 0-2 pitch. Especially to a hitter like Edman, who will miss on 20 percent of his swings on pitches in that location. And on the off chance he puts the ball in play, that location guarantees a softly-hit fly ball.

For the record, Brad Keller recorded the most swings on pitches outside of the zone in the series. He had 18 on Saturday.

A reversal on defense

It was interesting to hear the comments earlier this week from Whit Merrifield about his early-season defensive struggles at second base after spending all winter preparing for the majority of those innings to be spent in right field. From Anne Rodgers at mlb.com:

“It was almost a matter of retaining myself to get back to that infield short-arm motion I’ve had for awhile. It’s much easier to go from the infield to the outfield than it is from the outfield to the infield.”

Indeed, I felt that Merrifield’s throws were highly suspect in the early months of the season. I wrote this back in May:

“The Royals infield defense hasn’t been great this year. Whit Merrifield in particular has looked uncomfortable at times at second. Not only has his glovework been erratic, his throws have sometimes felt tentative.”

This was from a rough defensive series for Merrifield back in April, but these were the types of throws I was talking about.

Merrifield didn’t look comfortable at second base in the first couple of months of the season. It just felt to me as if he didn’t have confidence in throwing to first.

Now, as the season has progressed, the defense has improved. Especially of late where he was able to turn negative defensive metrics that dogged him through the first half of the season and actually turned those into positives.

Merrifield is now worth +9 Defensive Runs Saved at second base, second-best among AL keystoners. Baseball Savant has Merrifield at eight Outs Above Average, tied for second-best in the AL. On both metrics, he grades exceptionally well at going to his right. We saw that on display on Sunday.

I’ve always felt Merrifield plays a solid defense at second. Not great. Not below average. Just solid. However, I have to admit his defensive play has been truly impressive over the last couple of months. He’s worked himself into becoming one of the best defensive second basemen in the league.

Your Bobby Witt Jr. update

What kind of a newsletter would this be without an update on the progress of minor league phenom Bobby Witt Jr.?

In Omaha’s just-completed series against Columbus, Witt Jr. went 8-27 with eight runs scored. Bwahahahaha…I’m burying the lede! He hit four home runs in the series, including a grand slam on Saturday night.

He also walked three times and had six strikeouts. Overall, he’s hitting .293/.348/.622 since his promotion to Triple-A. His strikeout rate, which was around 25 percent in Double-A, is currently hovering around 20 percent. The kid is just impressive.

And he’s impressing the right people.

I’m split on whether or not the Royals will promote Witt Jr. this year. I can see the pros and the cons. Ultimately, I think I’d lean to the side of caution and let him continue to rake in the minors and see if he can get his team to the Triple-A postseason. Besides, what’s the point on bringing him up for the final month or so of a lost season? Why not just go ahead and let him finish the year in Triple-A and plan on him in the Opening Day lineup in 2022.

Central issues

  • Tigers 5, Cleveland 7

Bradley Zimmer hit the tie-breaking bomb to propel Cleveland to victory. Cleveland took two of three from Detroit.

  • Twins 7, Houston 5

Jorge Polanco went deep twice and drove in four as the Twins won a road series for the first time in almost two months, taking three of four from the AL West leading Astros.

  • White Sox 9, Cubs 3

The Sox are rolling, taking advantage of a sad Cubs team, sweeping their north town rivals out of Wrigleyville. Dylan Cease struck out 10 in five innings and Eloy Jiménez doubled and homered twice while driving in five. The Sox outscored the Cubs 21-9 over the three games.

The Royals are two ahead of the Twins in the loss column. That’s it. That’s the only thing keeping the Royals out of the cellar of the AL Central. Their current -93 run differential is the worst in the division.

Up next

The Royals open a 10 game homestand, starting with three against the surging Yankees.

  • Monday — Jameson Taillon vs Carlos Hernández at 7:10 CDT

  • Tuesday — Nestor Cortes vs Daniel Lynch at 7:10 CDT

  • Wednesday — TBA vs Brady Singer at 1:10 CDT

New York has won eight out of their last 10 and find themselves on the cusp of entering the Wild Card conversation. And yes, that is a Brady Singer sighting above. He’s made two rehab starts for Omaha, throwing a total of 4.2 innings while allowing seven runs on eight hits. It will be interesting to see how his return goes.