Royals finish an up and down homestand

It was a mixed bag of a weekend series against the Mariners. Saturday's game was an example of how the Royals could look when firing on all cylinders. Friday and Sunday? Not so much.

The Royals wrapped their penultimte homestand of 2021 by hosting a pair of AL West teams in the Wild Card hunt. With the final opportunity to impact the postseason races, they didn’t put up much of a fight, losing both series to Oakland and Seattle by two games to one.

With the Mariners, it was a series that served as a microcosm of the team’s issues in 2021. They went just 6-28 with runners in scoring position, with the bulk of those hits and opportunities coming on Saturday. The starting pitching was a mixed bag of a debut, a little quality and some big-time struggles. And the bullpen was generally solid, bending at times but never breaking.

So it’s a 2-4 homestand against teams with dim October aspirations. It wasn’t a great stretch of baseball by any means, but just another week in the Royals’ 2021 season.

Another pitching debut

When Brady Singer was unable to go for his scheduled start on Friday, the Royals turned to Double-A to purchase the contract of Jon Heasley. Heasley, was the Royals’ 17th ranked prospect according to Baseball America’s midseason report. He arrived in Kansas City with a 3.33 ERA in 105 Double-A innings for Northwest Arkansas with a 2.9 BB/9 and 10.3 SO/9. He was due to be placed on the 40-man roster this winter to be protected from the Rule 5 draft.

The scouting report on Heasley says he has a mid-90s fastball with a curve that features some nifty 12-to-6 break. Like this…

That’s what the curve can be, but I don’t think we saw it enough. Heasley was a bit elevated with the pitch at times, but if we’ve learned anything from watching pitchers make their major league debuts in 2021, it’s difficult to get a read on one highly-adrenalized outing.

The changeup holds some promise and Heasley will throw it to hitters standing on both sides of the plate and in any count. Like this…

You can really see the string get pulled on that pitch. For real…it just kind of hits the breaks about midway on approach. Very nice.

The downside…it was the change and the curve Jarred Kelenic dispatched over the fence for his home runs against Heasley. So the pitches were a bit inconsistent. Still, Heasley flashed enough promise that we’re going to get to see some more. Hopefully, we’ll see that in the last couple of weeks of the season.

Heasley’s debut means the Royals have had five pitchers from the 2018 draft class start a game for them this season. According to Elias, they’re the first team in history to have five different pitchers from the same draft class start a game for that team in the same season. That’s kind of amazing. Sure, the results haven’t always been what you would want and the consistency certainly hasn’t been there, but that’s to be somewhat expected. Regardless of the outcome, it’s damn impressive to see the collegiate pitching draft class of ’18 starting to ply their trade in the big leagues. The Royals front office has taken player development knocks in the past (deservedly so) but you can’t deny that they are on an exciting path. The organization is flush with young pitching.

Did Salvy homer this weekend?

No, Salvy did not homer this weekend. He is in a bit of a mini-slump, going just 1-13 in the three-game series against Seattle with a walk. He struck out six times.

Perez is locked on 45 home runs, three behind Jorge Soler for the Royals’ single-season record.

Nicky Lopez, Professional Hitter

Lopez put the Royals on the board with a two-out single in the sixth on Sunday. He’s now reached base in 28 consecutive games.

He is, and remains, a Professional Hitter.

A total team effort

Saturday was one of those complete baseball games.

  • Jackson Kowar picked up a certified Quality Start, throwing into the seventh inning on two hits and just one run allowed. The run came across actually after he left the game.

  • Every starter picked up at least one hit.

  • Seven different Royals scored a run.

  • The game was closer than the final score would indicate. The Royals broke the game open with a four-spot in the eighth via three singles, a walk, an error and a pair of productive outs. It was a Very Royals Inning.

Bubic didn’t record a ton of strikeouts—he punched out just two Seattle batters all night and had just seven whiffs on 40 swings, an 18 percent whiff rate—but he missed barrels all night. As noted before about the Royals’ eighth being the archetypal Kansas City inning, this start from Bubic felt rather vintage. He mixed the four-seam well with his change and spotted his curve at the appropriate times. Mariner batters just couldn’t get the sweet spot of the barrel on the ball. Of the 10 balls put in play against his fastball, the average exit velocity was 77.8 mph. Of the four change-ups in play against Bubic, the average exit velocity was 76.9 mph. He surrendered just four hard-hit balls all night.

The change was Bubic’s best pitch on Saturday. It would leak up and out of the zone from time to time, but if you’re going to miss high, miss high and in a location where the hitters won’t offer. Mostly, though, he was working down with the pitch.

Overall, it was one of Bubic’s stronger starts of the season. He finished at 97 pitches, his third-highest total of 2021. His Game Score of 63 was tied for his third-highest mark. And the 6.1 innings pitched was tied for his longest outing of the season.

This may be my soft-tossing, left-handed bias showing, but I have to say, when the fastball/change combo is working for him, he’s a ton of fun to watch.

The Kowar conundrum

Another rough start from Jackson Kowar to wrap up the series on Sunday. The fastball control just hasn’t been there for him.

That’s on a 3-0 pitch with the target set low and on the edge.

In the second inning, he started grooving them. He delivered two straight down the chute. Both were clobbered. The first on a 3-2 pitch to Kelenic (who, after his offensive display at The K this weekend, should really have his agent explore a way to make him a Royal full-time). The second on a first pitch to Jake Bauers.

Instead of setting those up with gifs, how about a pitch chart with location?

A pair of straight as string, get-me-over, 95 mph fastballs. Those aren’t coming back.

Since his return to the rotation at the start of the month, Kowar has been only moderately better. And my assessment is probably on the side of being too kind. Here are his six major league starts, ranked according to Game Score.

As I wrote after his start against the Orioles, it was rough but there were moments that provided some hope. There wasn’t really anything like that on Sunday. Lacking any semblance of control on the four-seamer, Kowar wasn’t able to get the slider going, which had been a key pitch for him in that start on September 7. And that frustration was extended to his change.

We’re late in the season and as you’ll see in the next section, the Royals are desperate for innings from their pitching staff. In an ideal situation, you’d push Kowar to the bullpen or sit him down for the next two weeks and have him work on fixing the control issues. Instead, he will probably get the another turn or two in the rotation before wrapping up what has been an extremely difficult debut season in the bigs.

Ouch

According to the Injury Ledger at Baseball Prospectus, the Royals have had more pitchers hit the shelf with shoulder issues than any other team in the majors in 2021.

Obviously, that has accelerated over the last month of the season. It’s difficult to spot any kind of trend, other than there have been a lot of shoulder injuries in the last 30 or so days, mostly of the impingement syndrome variety. It’s a mix of pitchers…veterans and young, starters and relievers. Although looking at the list, only Brady Singer and Jake Brentz are two you would pinpoint as having any kind of future with the club where you would count on some kind of results. It does skew a bit more to the veteran reliever side with Jesse Hahn, Greg Holland and Wade Davis on the shoulder injury list.

Expand the table to include all injuries to pitchers and it’s likewise grim.

It’s become a season of pitching attrition. The Royals aren’t alone in feeling this. Last year’s limited schedule combined with the grind of the full 2021 season, an uptick in injuries to pitchers was not unexpected. They currently have 11 players on the IL. That seems like a lot, but the average club has nine players currently on the sidelines.

Keller on the shelf

Brad Keller left a start back on August 26 with shoulder discomfort. The Royals announced on Friday that he would be shut down for the rest of the year with a Grade 2 lat strain.

It’s the second time in the last two full seasons Keller has failed to go the distance. He was similarly shut down in late August of 2019 due to arm fatigue.

Keller, the Royals’ Opening Day starter, was shellacked through his first 17 starts in 2021, posting a 6.67 ERA with a 4.67 BB/9 and 7.44 SO/9. He rebounded once the calendar flipped to July. In what would turn out to be his final nine starts of the season, Keller owned a 3.42 ERA with 3.76 BB/9 and 9.05 SO/9.

Do we start to ask questions about Keller’s durability? He finishes the 2021 season with 133.2 innings in 26 starts. His high-water IP mark came in his abbreviated 2019 season with 165.1 innings and 28 starts. Throw out the shortened 2020 season and Keller has averaged 146 innings in his three full seasons in the majors. To be fair, a chunk of his first season was spent coming out of the bullpen. Still, his innings pitched column on Baseball Reference is looking positively Duffyesque.

With Brady Singer due to return from the Covid-related IL on Monday to make a start, the Royals will need to make a move to open a space on the 40-man roster. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see them shift Keller to the 60-day IL to create that spot.

Central issues

I haven’t done this segment for a few days because…what’s the point? The White Sox are going to clinch the division in the next few days and every other club is under .500 with a negative run differential. The AL Central is not known for quality baseball in 2021.

  • Cleveland 11, Yankees 1

We can take some comfort in this score, right? Cleveland took two of three from the Yankees as the New Yorkers slid from a Wild Card spot to 1.5 games behind.

Cleveland rocked Gerritt Cole for seven runs on 10 hits through 5.2 innings. José Ramírez went 4-4 with a home run and four runs scored.

  • Twins 3, Blue Jays 5

I don’t know about you, but I find this Toronto team incredibly entertaining. The acquisition of José Berríos has solidified the rotation. He lobbed 6.2 innings on Sunday, allowing three runs while striking out six.

And mercy, can this lineup score some runs. Their current run differential of +177 is second-best in the AL, behind only Houston (+200) who has used the Western Division as their own personal punching bag. Here’s hoping the Jays can make a run in October.

  • Tigers 2, Rays 0

With wins on Saturday and Sunday, Detroit salvaged a four-game split against the AL East-leading Rays.

To confound everyone, Wily Peralta shoved for 7 innings, allowing just three hits, walking three and striking out three in picking up the win. I don’t know, man. Baseball is just strange.

The Royals’ loss on Sunday means the team has clinched another losing season, their fifth in a row. With a .450 winning percentage and 13 games remaining, it works out to a 73 win season. That’s below where I figured they’d end up way back in March (I predicted 77 wins), but I’m going to call it within the margin of error. There is something to be said about performing close to expectations.

Up next

The Royals head to the hornet’s nest known as Cleveland for a four-game set. As I’m certain you’re aware, the Royals are 1-11 against the future Guardians. It’s probably a good thing they’re not in a pennant race, otherwise the blood pressure would be absolutely off the charts.

A doubleheader on Monday with Manfred Rules and a couple of late afternoon/early evening start times for the rest of the series.

  • Monday (Game 1) — Brady Singer vs Triston McKenzie @ 3:10 CDT

  • Monday (Game 2) — TBA vs TBA

  • Tuesday — Daniel Lynch vs Cal Quantrill @ 5:10 CDT

  • Wednesday — Carlos Hernández vs Logan Allen @ 5:10 CDT