Battling from behind, a comeback falls short
Starters were pulled late, but one starter was left in for too long. Colby Wilson offers a suggestion of where the next ballpark should be located. And some more love for Nicky Lopez & Salvy Perez.
Mercy, these games against Oakland have been something else. The two teams have combined to put up 57 hits and 39 runs in just two games. The series evened up at a game apiece after the Royals late rally wasn’t enough in a 12-10 loss.
It’s the first time the Royals have scored 1- runs in a game and lost since dropping a 11-10 defeat to the Washington Nationals in August of 2013. In the Dayton Moore Era, counting that game against the Nats, it happened four times where the Royals scored 10 or more and lost. Welcome to your new job, JJ Picollo.
While we’ve watched eight hours of baseball over the last two nights, you can’t say we haven’t been entertained. There’s plenty to discuss and Colby Wilson stops by for his weekly visit.
Give it a rest
After the zaniness of Tuesday’s game where the Royals came back from a 6-0 deficit to hang 10 to win, it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility they could mount another comeback after falling behind 5-1 after three and a half. Although Oakland starter Sean Manaea looked sharp early and Carlos Hernández most decidedly did not. (More on his outing in a moment.) Indeed, the two teams traded blows in the middle frames with the score 5-4 after four and 8-5 after five.
Oakland hung a four-spot on the board in the seventh against a crispy-looking Kyle Zimmer so in the top of the eighth, with the score 12-6 in favor of the A’s, Mike Matheny pulled a few veterans, including Salvador Perez, Whit Merrifield and Carlos Santana. Naturally, the baseball gods frowned. The lineup wouldn’t (or against the A’s bullpen, couldn’t) quit and the game got close. Close enough that Kyle Isbel and Ryan O’Hearn were up in the ninth inning in place of Merrifield and Perez, respectively, as the potential game-winning run. Ouch.
Here’s Matheny’s explanation for making the moves after the game.
“Long season. A lot of games. They’ve played a lot. When we get a chance and a game gets to that point where we’re six or so runs down, I believe they’ve earned the right to come off the field, especially with a day game tomorrow.“
I think one thing Matheny left out was the fact that they played a game that clocked just a minute under four hours on Tuesday and Wednesday’s game was likewise a long one. So while you never want to see O’Hearn up in a situation taylor made for the 2021 version of Perez, you can understand the reasoning behind pulling those players at that point.
The A’s had a 99 percent chance of winning the game entering the eighth inning. I understand that doesn’t mean the game was over, but if there’s ever a chance to get some guys off the field, it was at that moment. Of course, we’re talking about Merrifield who is currently riding a 451 consecutive-game streak and Perez who has missed only one game all year. The argument can be made that there has been plenty of opportunities to give either player a rest at random times this year, especially in the season’s second half when they’ve been well out of any kind of contention. But the Royals don’t operate that way.
If they’re going to insist on running their key players out there for 160 games a year, they’re going to need to pick and choose the spots to get them off the field for a bit of rest when a game gets out of hand. That’s how Matheny has operated all season. It rarely comes back to bite as it did on Wednesday, so you can’t fault the strategy.
Pushing the starting pitching too far
I wish Matheny had extended a similar line of thinking to Wednesday’s starter, Carlos Hernández.
The Royals are facing a multi-pronged dilemma when it comes to their rotation. With Mike Minor on the shelf, the latest victim to fall to shoulder impingement syndrome this year, and already thin staff is only getting thinner. Compounded into the equation is the fact that the shortened 2020 means everyone’s workload took a step back a year prior. Then, you add the young arms into the mix that have never pitched this deep into a year in their professional careers and are all at or above their career high in professional innings. With less than three weeks remaining in the season, you have a young pitching staff that is probably running on fumes.
Jackson Kowar’s inability to record a fourth out in his start on Tuesday seemingly forced Mike Matheny to ride with a clearly struggling Hernández. I’m not sure that served any kind of purpose. The broadcast decided this start would be a learning experience for Hernández, an opportunity for him to figure out a way to pitch on a night when his control completely abandoned him. I saw it as close to managerial malpractice as a young arm was in danger of doing something catastrophic on every pitch.
Consider the circumstance. Hernández, of course, had never pitched above A-ball before making his major league debut last summer. From 2017 to 2019, he averaged 66.3 innings per season with a high of 79.1 for Lexington in 2018. Last year, he threw 14.2 innings at the major league level.
This year, between Omaha and Kansas City, Hernández has thrown 107 innings.
This is Hernandez’s pitch chart through his first three innings of work on Wednesday. It is the chart of a tired pitcher.
There is just one slider thrown for a strike. Most of the others are way up. The fastballs are riding too high. There are some good curves in the mix, but a few hangers. Hernández was failing to finish his pitches and couldn’t find the strike zone. It was high alert time from the game’s first pitch.
Through Hernández’s first three innings, he fell behind 2-0 to eight Oakland batters. He allowed five hits and four walks. It took a not-very-nice 69 pitches to record nine outs. Yet there he was, back out there for the fourth where he needed only 13 pitches to get out of the frame, but gave up another pair of runs
Scott Blewett took Minor’s spot on the roster. It’s his third go-round with the big league club. He has yet to appear in a major league game this year. The Royals aren’t in a pennant race. There was absolutely no reason to run Hernández out beyond the third inning.
By the time the fifth inning rolled around, what was the point? Hernández was at 84 pitches and there was little to no chance he would be economical enough to get through the fifth. I’ve praised how Matheny has handled his bullpen since becoming manager, but if there’s one fault that’s been exposed, it’s been the desire to squeeze just a little too much out of his starters. It’s one thing to ride a veteran like Minor or even a guy like Brad Keller. But with a stable of young arms, that’s absolutely a dangerous way to manage a pitching staff.
Three Take Thursday: The new front office alignment, some Nicky Lopez appreciation and an idea for where to locate a new stadium
Take One: JJ Picollo will be different from Dayton Moore in many ways, but one in particular
Picollo was hired two months after Moore showed up, and he’s seen everything that’s gone into building this franchise from a laughing stock to a pennant winner to world champs to frisky and back again. Now he’s taking the reins—and while Moore retains the ultimate authority, I can’t imagine Picollo would’ve agreed to being micromanaged, as many times as he’s had his tires kicked for GM jobs elsewhere.
I get my info from Craig Brown at Into the Fountains, if you were curious.
A decade-and-a-half observing everything that’s happened with, to and around this franchise means Picollo has seen a lot and learned a lot. He’s played a huge role in player development since he joined the Royals front office, knows and trusts what they’re doing in the lower levels to get players ready for the big stage. Like all of us, he’s got to be excited about the young talent on the horizon—unlike us, he’s had a way more intimate knowledge of the inner-workings of how that talent has been handled and what it’s ready for, including when it will be ready to join the parent club.
So here’s the shot I’m calling: Picollo is going to be much more willing to move on much more quickly from players whose long-term future in Kansas City is up for debate. I think he would have found a way to deal guys like Michael A. Taylor, Mike Minor and Carlos Santana this year, and he would have maximized the return not because they were willing to eat more salary but just because he’d be more aggressive in the shopping. I don’t know any of this for certain; it’s no better than an educated guess. But given how highly-regarded he is, how highly-regarded the system he’s been able to build and supplement is and how this particular moment was chosen for his ascent to the big chair, it leads me to believe he’ll be much more eager to pull a trigger that sets off the youth movement at Kauffman.
Take Two: It’s possible Nicky IS this special
Since 2000, there are nine examples of a player leading their league in hitting and winning a Gold Glove in the same season. He’ll need to catch a real heater over the last couple of weeks, but Nicky Lopez could be No. 10.
At this point, for 2021, it would be difficult-to-impossible to argue against Lopez as a top-five shortstop in the American League, which is not what he’s supposed to be and unlikely to be what he winds up as—there is Adalberto Mondesi and Bobby Witt Jr. to consider when making longer-term plans around that position and as much as I like what Lopez does there, he’s not the dynamic presence those two could be when healthy/in the bigs.
Over his first 600 major league plate appearances, Nicky did not look like he could be this guy, necessarily. Good glove, absolutely; if/when he takes home his first Gold Glove (which should be this year) he may as well go ahead and clear off the mantle for another handful, because as long as he’s in the lineup the defense is good enough to make him a contender each year, particularly as defensive metrics become more nuanced.
But the bat? After a nice first couple of weeks in 2019, he cratered over a .150 stretch from late May through mid-June before righting (?) the ship to finish with a robust (???) .240/.276/.325 slash line and a 56 wRC+. 2020 was worse, but who among us can’t say that?
2021 seemed more of the same, including a .207 average from late April to mid-June. As he ground along collecting four hits a week, it seemed like his destiny was that of a stellar defender who couldn’t hit—that he’d make a living playing baseball for a while, but not because of anything he could do at the plate.
I hope it didn’t take this long into both this piece and our time together for you to figure out I’m dumb.
From a guy who wasn’t supposed to make the Opening Day roster to a guy in the hunt for a batting title, Lopez hasn’t reinvented himself. He’s just doing what works. He’s using all fields better than he has in the past.
This is Lopez’s spray chart from the 2020 season.
Contrast that with what we’ve seen this year.
Note the work down both lines and much less at the alleys this year. He’s making solid contact 4.5 percent of the time, nothing to write home about but far above his 3.1 percent mark a year ago and his ghastly 0.9 percent in 2019. He’s also in the 94th percentile in whiff percentage, and if he absolutely has to he can come through with hits on junk-nothing pitches like these.
How about a double off the wall?
Or an opposite field double down the line?
Flares dropping for singles can work.
Jose Altuve is just sick and folks, we love it.
Lopez has hits on 23 pitches out of the zone this season, a number putting him among the MLB’s top-60 among nearly 300 players to see 1000 or more pitches this year. He is, as Anne Rogers reported back in July, being the best Nicky Lopez he can be. And that Nicky Lopez is pretty dang good.
Take Three: Downtown’s cool. Know what might be cooler?
18th and Vine.
Look, I’m not a Kansas City native. I’ve been twice. Fell in love with the place, plan to return, plan to take my kids and introduce them to a lot of the things I found appealing about the place and hopefully find some more. I’m not here to poop on your dreams of having a downtown ballpark to rival any of the shiny new toys that have replaced the drab monoliths of yore over the last decade-and-a-half. If the plan is a Midwestern answer to Petco Park or Comerica, please—go with God. Nor am I remotely qualified to talk about the quandaries of zoning and land acquisition and everything else a new ballpark in any district might entail, including places where I actually live. I’m a yutz with an internet connection and a dream.
And my dream is baseball in the jazz district, where Bob Kendrick can stroll across (or down, or whatever direction) from the Negro League Baseball Museum to watch the next generation of fans pouring into a ballpark within walking distance of his office. Situate it in the neighborhood with the NLBM and Arthur Bryant’s and you’ve basically grown yourself a money tree.
I’m convinced not only that this would work but it would become the envy of baseball. Everyone wants to create their own little utopian consumer society adjacent the ballyard, to keep fans around and engaged and, most importantly, spending money and driving that economic development billionaires speak so hopefully about when asking to raid the municipalities coffers in order to build their version of Baseball Babylon. How many franchises around baseball would kill to have two of their city’s most beloved cultural institutions bookending the ballpark? How many have spent untold billions trying to build the environment the Royals could plop down with a stadium, some Bob Kendrick Magic and some of the best* barbecue in America? All of them, that’s who.
*-The asterisk is because I don’t want to incite a barbecue war in the mentions or comments. Your favorite is the best and should move in right down the street from my little idea!
This is now a Nicky Lopez Fan Club newsletter
Watch this defensive hocus-pocus…
I really hate to embed my own tweet. But what the hell…
Alec Lewis @alec_lewisNicky Lopez's fWAR is 4.1, which ranks 27th-best among big-league hitters and third-best among AL shortstops (behind Carlos Correa and Xander Bogaerts).
Lopez just continues to amaze in 2021.
On the leaderboard pages at Fangraphs, Offensive Runs Above Average and Defensive Runs Above Average are listed to the immediate left of fWAR. Lopez currently ranks seventh among all qualified shortstops with a 4.1 fWAR. That previous sentence alone is one that in no way did I expect to write at any point in 2021. For his Offensive and Defensive numbers, my Tweet above is true. And impressive. Lopez is the only one who has posted double-digit numbers on both sides of the ball. Throw in his base running numbers and he’s damn close to double-digits in all three. He may not be the best shortstop in the game, but it’s possible he’s the most well-rounded. When beating out an infield single in the seventh, he extended his hitting streak to 11 games. His current streak of reaching base stands at 24 games.
Just for grins, here are the top 10 shortstops in the majors by fWAR.
Because after last night’s loss, you need a happy gif
Just another night for Salvador Perez. He made his 1,000 career start behind home plate. He banged his 44th dinger of the season.
And he caught another would-be base stealer, his 15th nab of the season. He’s now throwing out 41 percent of those who would dare attempt to swipe a bag against him. And this wasn’t just any run-of-the-mill base stealer. This was Starling Marte, who had stolen 23 bags without being caught since joining the A’s. Overall, he was 45 for 48 in stolen base attempts.
Make that 45 for 49. Yeah, that can put a smile on your face.
The Royals close out the series this afternoon behind Daniel Lynch. The A’s will counter with Paul Blackburn. First pitch is set for 1:10 CDT.