Moments of truth
Three events defined Monday's loss to Cleveland and the Royals' front office continues to twist prospect logic.
There were three moments that defined the game on Monday. These moments could be extrapolated to define the entire season. Witness
With the game tied at one in the bottom of the fifth, the Guardians had a runner on second with two outs and Jose Ramírez at the plate.
The Cleveland offense has been in a bit of the doldrums the last couple of weeks. Sure, they can hang an eight-spot on the Tigers from time to time, but overall, it’s been a bit of a slog for them. They’ve been averaging 3.6 runs per game since May 16—and that includes said eight-run outburst against Detroit last weekend.
The one guy who’s not in the doldrums? Jose Ramírez. The dude rakes. And rakes. And rakes again. Over his last 10 games, he has a 238 wRC+ with four home runs. Slightly hotter than his 192 wRC+ he’s posted this year. Seriously. He’s hitting .292/.388/.634 on the year with 12 dingers. Even more impressive is his 13 percent walk rate against an eight percent strikeout rate. Eight percent strikeout rate! He’s in video game mode.
So with first base open and the game tied, the play is to obviously pitch with extreme caution.
Royals starter Jonathan Heasley opened with a changeup away, well off the plate. Easy take. Great pitch. Seeing that and you think the Royals got the memo that Ramíez is dangerous and not to be trifled with. Junk off the plate is just fine. If Ramírez is going to fish (spoiler alert he has just a 30 percent chase rate…he won’t fish), he won’t be able to do any kind of damage with an outside change.
The next pitch was a four-seamer over the heart of the plate. Seriously middle-middle. Mmmmmmkay. Ramírez, perhaps as surprised as those of us armchair managing, could only foul it off. It was a meaty pitch that he shouldn’t have missed.
The next offering was a curve that caught the outside edge for a called strike. Ahead 1-2, Heasley and the Royals are defying what should be conventional strategy and playing with house money. Although now, ahead in the count, the strategy should shift—with caution. Continue to work outside with the off-speed, but stay the hell out of the nitro zone. Maybe you can get Ramírez to expand with two strikes. But Heasley pushed too far off the dish with back-to-back changeups. The count went full.
Time for another strategy shift. With three balls on Ramírez along with two strikes, there’s really no reason to deliver a pitch anywhere near the zone. Let him go. Cut him loose. Take your chances against Owen Miller where you own the platoon advantage.
Salvador Perez wanted a high fastball. If it’s delivered up and above the zone, it could be a good pitch. It was not delivered up and above the zone.
To rub salt in that wound, facing a similar situation in the top of the eighth after the Royals tied the game, Guardian manager Terry Francona elected to put MJ Melendez on first after the Royals’ DH spit on a couple out of the zone. He wanted the right/righty matchup that would come with Nick Sandlin against Hunter Dozier. Wild!
That move didn’t really pay dividends, either. At least immediately. As you will see, that evolved into our next scenario.
With the game tied at three, Carlos Santana hits with the bases loaded in the eighth.
Uncanny, isn’t it? I suppose it had to be Santana. Or Ryan O’Hearn.
The Royals had just tied the game with a Nicky Lopez single followed by doubles from Whit Merrifield and Andrew Benintendi. Perez—who is enduring a miserable stretch, posting a 40 wRC+ in May, hitting .197/.219/.296 in 73 plate appearances—hit into a double play. It wasn’t just any double play, it was a one-five-three…the old pitcher to third to first twin killing.
After that intentional walk to Melendez and the unintentional walk to Hunter Dozier, that brought up Sananta with the bases juiced in the tie game. This, of course, is sort of the reverse Ramírez. After Perez, there probably wasn’t anyone in the lineup the Guardians wanted to see more than Santana. And for those watching in Kansas City, pining for either of the super prospect duo of Vinnie Pasquantino or Nick Pratto, the last person in the world they wanted to see at the plate in that situation (other than O’Hearn, natch) was Santana. However in this case, with the sacks full of Royals, the Guardians had no choice. Not that they needed any convincing.
I will remind you the Royals are paying Santana to be their first baseman.
Santana, on a 2-2 count, popped out to second, ending the rally and keeping the game tied. It remained so until our next pivotal moment…
Cal Eldred visits the mound.
Maybe it’s recency bias because this seems to happen a lot lately. Maybe it’s just ordinary bias because the evidence is extremely clear regarding Eldred’s leadership of this pitching staff. It’s just that almost every time he comes out to the mound, something suboptimal follows.
After a one-out walk and a single, Eldred came out for a visit with Collin Snider ahead of the Andres Gimenez at bat. After Snider fell behind 2-0, he crawled back with a pair of strikes on his slider. Another slider missed inside to fill the count.
Gimenez was suddenly faced with a 97 MPH center-cut sinker.
Boom. Three runs. Ballgame.
The latest loss comes after another bizarre meeting with a member of the Royals beat writers to explain the prospect inertia we’re seeing in regards to Pratto and Pasquantino.
Royals general manager J.J. Picollo has the honors.
“We just have to keep in mind, we’ve done this for a long time, young players can come up and certainly help an offense. But it’s really hard to expect a young player to come up and carry an offense. We don’t want them to feel like they have to carry an offense.”
That’s Royals front office quote bingo. The reminder that, hey, this crew knows exactly what they’re doing, gets the ball rolling here. Never mind the Royals are now in the fifth year of a not-rebuild that has seen the team post a .393 winning percentage in that time. Real used car salesman vibe here. “Trust me.”
That’s followed by a jump that, as far as I can tell, no one is counting on. The calls for Pratto and Pasquantino to Kansas City aren’t because they will be expected to salvage a below-average offense. They are coming because 1) they’re both doing really well in the Triple-A level and profile as two of the club’s top prospects and damnit, prospects are exciting, and 2) everyone can see the Royals are carrying offensive dead weight in Santana and O’Hearn.
And 3) Pratto and Pasquantino play the exact positions Santana and O’Hearn play. Crazy!
Nobody is asking for a savior. (That was Nicky Lopez, if you recall.) They’re asking for improvement. They’re asking for playing time for a couple of kids who will be in the mix should this club ever return to contention. If the Royals are looking to 2024 (or ‘25 or whenever) for contention, we know for sure that Santana won’t be on the team. I’m less certain about O’Hearn. Still…
Let’s let Picollo continue.
“The evaluations are very good. Vinnie, in particular, is swinging the bat exceptionally well. Nick continues to get better with his at-bats. Vinnie, I was looking at this the other day, he just hit the 150 at-bat mark in Triple-A. He had 200 at-bats in Double-A. So when you look at upper-level at-bats, he’s had 350 upper-level at-bats. That’s not even a season’s worth, over two levels. You’d like to get, really, a full season at the highest level. That’s not set in stone, but generally you’d like to see 500, 550 plate appearances at the highest level.”
We have plate appearance fatigue in Kansas City. After years of listening to now Royals president Dayton Moore explain that you really need 1,500 or so plate appearances at the major league level before things really click for you (see Moustakas, Mike), we’re now playing the same game in the minors. Except what Picollo said truly does make some sense. He’s speaking truth.
Pasquantino does have very limited experience above High-A. But here’s the rub…the guy is 24 years old and in Triple-A. He’s shown he can handle the pitching at this level, small sample size be damned. What I’m looking at is an advanced feel and approach at the plate along with numbers that back that up. A 13 percent walk rate to go along with a 15 percent strikeout rate. That’s a skill that, if you look at his player page at FanGraphs, carries from level to level. This is who Pasquantino is as a hitter.
Pratto is a different type of hitter in that he brings some swing and miss. He’s striking out 31 percent of the time, which is not what you want to see, really. It makes me wonder how that will translate to the majors.
There’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?
I do think there is reason to be cautious with the prospects. The Royals have to get this correct. They can’t afford to bring up one or both and have them flounder for the rest of the season. The timing is so important on this. But to feed lines about not wanting them to “carry the offense” just reads like an excuse for inertia. We’ve seen this prospect dance before. If anyone, Royals fans know there will be bumps along the road with young players. As Picollo himself notes, we’ve seen it this year with Bobby Witt Jr.
And everyone knows the only way to find out how a player will adapt to the jump to the majors is to actually call them up. Let the kids play!
The Royals fell to their 31st defeat of the season. That’s tied for the second-most in the majors along with Oakland and Cincinnati. Washington has 32 losses. The Royals have just 16 wins. That’s tied (with Cincinnati, the poster team for futility in 2022) for the lowest in the majors.
The Royals are currently on pace for 107 losses.