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Starters stumble; series split
The Royals take the first two in a four-game set against the Orioles, but the starting pitching betrays them in the next two. Hey, a split is .500, right?
Whoops! The Royals were this close to having a positive homestand. All it was going to take was a victory on Sunday for the hometown nine to finish this stretch of 10 games at The K with a 5-5 record. Hey, at any point this year where the Royals play .500 over a 10-game stretch is going to be considered a positive.
The offense is on fire of late. After being shut out in back-to-back games to open the week, they scored 34 runs over their next five contests. In each of those five games, they’ve collected 10 or more hits (55 total), which marks the first time since 2019 the offense has gone on a five game hit parade like that.
So if you want to break it down into a five-game chunk, the Royals have three wins against two losses. Let’s spin that baby into a positive.
Alas, they dropped Sunday’s game by a final of 10-7. So despite the bats doing more than their share of the heavy lifting, once again it’s the pitching that let them down. More of the same, really. Twelve times this year the Royals have plated seven or more runs. Their record in those games is 8-4. Decent, but not good enough. Not for that number of runs scored. Only the Rockies (probably because they play in Colorado) and the White Sox (probably because of Tony LaRussa) have more losses—five each—when scoring seven or more runs.
Brad Keller was lucky
Wait…Brad Keller was lucky? In a start where he didn’t make it out of the second inning and was charged with five runs? Hell, yeah he was. Because it could’ve been even worse.
According to Fangraphs ahead of Sunday’s game, Keller threw fewer first-pitch strikes than any qualified starter. Yep…he’s 62nd out of 62 starters. The bottom five:
The average for all starters this year (not just qualified starters) is 62 percent. Keller is way below average in this category and, looking at the bottom five alone, is securely the worst in the majors when it comes to throwing a first-pitch strike. Let’s check in to see how he did in his brief Sunday outing.
Mercy. The lone pitch that was solidly in the strike zone was deposited over 440 feet away in the fountains in right-center by Anthony Santander. Keller got two other first-pitch strikes—one on an elevated sinker on the arm-side edge of the plate and the other was on a slider down.
And when he was missing, he wasn’t just off by a little on the edges. He was missing by a lot. It was like that all afternoon for Keller. Once the ball left his hand, it was anyone’s guess where it was going. The Orioles, guessing along with everyone else, were crazy aggressive at the plate. Keller recorded an astonishing 10 swings and misses on 58 pitches. The 10 whiffs were the second-most he’s recorded in an outing in 2022. (He finished with 17 swings and misses in his start against Texas on May 10.
Yet when the Orioles were making contact, they damn near broke the baseball. The average exit velocity against Keller on Sunday was 100 MPH. The average! Of the eight balls put in play, five were classified as hard-hit and three were barreled. Naturally, those three were the home runs Keller surrendered.
Keller couldn’t hit his target and when he was around the plate, the Orioles were crushing. Yeah…he was fortunate they didn’t score more against him on Sunday. Even in less than two innings.
The offense visits Dongtown
The Royals were down 7-0 before they were able to break into the Baltimore bullpen. That’s when the bats started feeling it. It was the usual story in that Orioles starter Dean Kremer, who was making just his second major league start of 2022 and had thrown just 13.1 innings all season up to that point, was able to lock down the Royals through five. They got to him with their first two batters of the sixth (probably an unwise gamble to send him back out in that frame), knocking him out of the game.
Three dingers—Hunter Dozier, Michael A. Taylor and Bobby Witt Jr.—helped to drag the Royals back into the game, but the hole Keller dug (along with a less than strong outing from Amir Garrett) doomed the Royals.
It was the sixth time this year the Royals have hit three dingers in a game. Their record is 3-3 in such contests.
The curse of Cal
Overall, I thought Daniel Lynch had a decent start on Sunday. He retired 12 of the first 15 batters he faced through the first four innings, working around a lone baserunner in three of those frames. The sinker had some nice run away from right-handed batters, but the four-seam and slider combo was working well for the most part as Lynch was getting swings and misses on the lively high head and enticing hitters with a low, biting slider.
Lynch finished his start with a 33 percent CSW% (called strikes plus swings percent), but he started wobbling in the fifth when a walk and consecutive singles plated a run. It could’ve been worse, but the Orioles were intent on TOOTBLANing and Richie Martin made a boneheaded play wandering too far off third.
If I may divert from Lynch for a moment…This was just an outstanding defensive play from Nicky Lopez. The shortstop ran the trail runner, Cedric Mullins back toward first, but always kept his eye on Martin at third. Martin helped Lopez out by never committing to go home, instead wandering down the line like a tourist at Crown Center. The moment Lopez decided Martin was stuck, he pivoted, set his feet and threw a laser to third. Emmanual Rivera finished the play by tagging Martin for the second out of the inning. Just one of those intangible defensive moments.
Anyway, back to Lynch…He escaped that inning but couldn’t navigate the sixth. Back-to-back singles with one out brought the dreaded Cal Eldred mound visit.
What do you think was discussed? Strategy on how to pitch Tyler Nevin? Idle chatter to buy time for Jose Cuas warming in the bullpen? Suggestions on where to find a live rooster? Whatever was discussed, it didn’t work. Four pitches later Lynch delivered a hanging slider to Nevin that was deposited over the wall in center, 425 feet from home.
Obviously, Cal Eldred didn’t suggest Lynch hang that slider. MJ Melendez set up looking for the pitch to break down and in. Still, the optics…oh, the optics.
After Lynch was charged with four runs in 5.1 innings, the Royals’ starter’s ERA- for the season stood at 136, or 36 percent worse than the league average rotation. Going back to the Royals’ first year of existence in 1969, their current ERA- ranks as the fourth-worst rotation in that span. Fourth worst!
A portion of this is due to the ineffectiveness of Carlos Hernández and Kris Bubic. The rest of it is due to the staff collectively not pitching that great. The only Royals starter who has been better than league average according to ERA- is Jonathan Heasley (92 ERA-), who was brilliant on Friday against Baltimore. Still, Eldred…is he delivering a message that’s unable to reach the starters or is the message being received, it’s just that it’s the wrong one? The Royals have stocked this rotation with young arms and it seems like I’ve written then in just about every edition of late, but Eldred clearly isn’t the guy to lead a young, inexperienced staff. Whatever it is he’s trying, it’s not working.
Back to Lynch…It was the second start in a row where he was seemingly in control in the early innings, only for things to go off the rails later in the game. Still, given his past first inning struggles, I’ll take this version of Lynch, even with a 140 ERA-. It feels like he’s extremely close to putting everything together to go on a roll. Here’s hoping his talent can overcome the coaching.
Hats off for Heasley
Jonathan Heasley uncorked the best start of his brief major league career on Friday. In fact, it was the Royals best start since Brady Singer carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning against Cleveland at the end of 2020.
For a little fun, here are the five best starts as ranked by Game Score, since 2020:
Heasley had everything working on Friday. The changeup was exquisite—the Orioles swung at 10 of them and put just one in play, missing on four. For the night, he finished with a 27 percent CSW%, which isn’t all that stellar, but it was enough in just keeping Baltimore off balance.
This is a fun pitch chart:
Heasley attacked with his four-seamer, but was generally able to keep it out of the middle-middle danger zone. There’s a nice little backwards “L” in there on the red dots. Along with plenty of action on his glove side of the plate.
He hung a couple of curves, but no damage done. The rest of his secondaries were dotted well off the middle of the dish. The swings and misses were perfectly located.
Heasley hasn’t featured swing and miss stuff—his swinging strike rate is now just nine percent, two percentage points off the league aveage—but this was a very nice performance on Friday. The Orioles managed just two baserunners in the seven innings—one on a single the other reached on an error.
It was just a dominant, fun start to watch.
Athletics 3, Guardians 6
Yes, it was that man again. José Ramírez doubled in the first to drive home two and give the Guardians the lead. He added another RBI on a ground out in the seventh. Ramírez is driving home over 25 percent of all runners on base when he’s at the plate, an insane rate. The dude is a run-producing machine.
Blue Jays 6, Tigers 0
A rough weekend in Motown as the Tigers announced starter Casey Mize would need Tommy John surgery and then proceeded to drop two of three to the visitors from Canada. Tarik Skubal was knocked around for seven hits and four runs through four innings. Detroit bats were held to two hits on the afternoon.
Rays 6, Twins 0
Because it’s the Rays, five pitchers combined to shutout the Twins. Starter Jeffrey Springs went 5.1 innings for the Rays, allowing just two hits and two walks.
Rangers 8, White Sox 6 - 12 innings
This game was tied at three going into extras…Lordy, Manfred’s free runner at second scheme is awful. Anyway, Ezequiel Duran hit a three-run homer for the Rangers in the 11th, but the Sox got back into it with a Seby Zavala sac fly, a Danny Mendick triple an AJ Pollock single for their three. In the 12th, Jonah Heim drove in two with a single and Kolby Allard held Chicago in check to pick up his first save of his major league career.
The Royals head to San Francisco for interleague action with the Giants. Here’s how the probables line up.
Monday - RHP Brady Singer (3-1, 4.33) vs. LHP Alex Wood (3-5, 4.23) @ 8:45
Tuesday - LHP Kris Bubic (0-3, 9.13) vs. RHP Logan Webb (5-2, 3.77) @ 8:45
Wednesday - RHP Jonathan Heasley (1-3, 3.62) vs. TBA @ 2:45
The Wednesday start was supposed to belong to Jakob Junis, which would’ve been a blast. He left his last start with a grade 2 hamstring injury and landed on the 15-day IL. Junis had been pitching brilliantly for the Giants with a 2.63 ERA and 66 ERA- over nine appearances (seven starts) in 48 innings.
You might be thinking, “Gee, the Royals sure could use a pitcher like Junis.” If you are, you’re not wrong, but you’ve probably overlooked who his pitching coach would be.