Starting pitching wonderland
On this latest West Coast string the starting pitching has looked strong. On the other hand, the bats look to be headed in the opposite direction.
The Royals were so close to four wins in a row. So close.
Well, they were only as close as three wins in a row since they fell behind in the first inning and reverted to their early-season offensive ineptitude by failing to score a single run. So they really weren’t close at all to that elusive fourth victory in a row.
Still, in Kansas City, with Dayton Moore’s (and JJ Picollo’s) Royals in 2022, a three-game winning streak is worthy of celebration. By reeling off a win in the series finale against San Francisco and then crossing the Bay to take the first two of three against her Oakland A’s, the Royals strung together three consecutive victories for only the third time this season.
Alas, that early hole and the lack of offense doomed the Royals to a 4-0 defeat in the finale against those A’s. The last time Kansas City won four in a row was way back in August of last year. It’s been a while.
Starter Brady Singer had an unremarkable outing. He didn’t walk anyone and only allowed a home run, but put runners on base in every inning but the fourth. With Oakland’s lineup featuring four left-handed batters there was opportunity to unleash the change, but Singer mostly kept that pitch in his holster, unleashing only five all afternoon. Most were not close to the zone and were easy takes.
According to Baseball Savant, the lone change that finished in the zone was to right-handed hitting Ramon Laureano on a 2-2 count. That’s a totally unique situation for Singer to throw that pitch. Of the 71 changeups he’s thrown in 2022, he’s only thrown five to right-handed batters. And of those 71 changeups, he’s only thrown five when he’s had a count of two balls against the batter.
So while the cambio he offered to Laureano was something of a unicorn given the situation, it was largely disappointing to see it shelved for most of the game. But hey, credit to him for tiptoeing around potential danger for part of the afternoon. His defense bailed him out by gunning down a run at the plate in the third on a relay from Whit Merrifield to Salvador Perez. Those two hooked up again in the fifth to hang Sean Murphy out to dry retreating back to third.
Mike Matheny decided he had seen enough in the sixth when a spot of wildness ended Singer’s day. A leadoff single, a hit by pitch and a wild pitch put runners on second and third. The normally reliable Jose Cuas was summoned for either a ground ball or a strikeout. Instead, he gave up a dinger.
Not great, it could’ve been better, but with the offense only able to come up with three hits (although they did walk six times) there just wasn’t much to do. They were 0-9 with runners in scoring position and left 11 runners stranded.
Daniel Lynch’s Punch-Out!!
The headline from Daniel Lynch’s start on Friday was a career-high ten strikeouts. He made the A’s batters look like a bunch of Glass Joe’s. The subhead should’ve been about the slider because that was the pitch that made everything happen. It was the knock-out button.
We know it’s his best offering. Opponents hit just .202 against the slider with a .382 slugging percentage. A full 50 percent of his strikeouts are polished off by the pitch. It’s a weapon.
And what a weapon it was on Friday. Overall, Lynch threw 33 sliders to Oakland hitters. They swung on 19 of those offerings. Not a one was put into play. Not a one.
There’s a lot of purple/pink on this chart. That’s 12 swings and misses. Twelve out of 19 swings. Lynch had Oakland hitters whiffing all night.
I’ve watched all of Lynch’s swings and misses on the sliders multiple times. (The things I do in the name of research!) This one was probably my favorite. A 1-2 pitch that is in just an exquisite location. At 88 MPH it followed a 96 MPH four-seamer that was up out of the zone on 0-2. It probably didn’t help poor Matt Davidson that it was the first Lynch slider he saw that evening. Three straight heaters followed by that? Unfair. But fun as hell.
The pitch was working against lefties as well…
Anytime you hear someone say hitting a baseball has to be easy, you should probably direct them to this newsletter and the above gif. Yeah, Lynch yanked on the slider a bit too hard, but against a lefty, it’s coming at you on release as a “normal” slider and then it just detours down. By the time the hitter has committed to a swing, his situation is hopeless. He’s doomed. Doomed!
I really like Lynch’s pitch count breakdown from Baseball Savant. It’s a diagram that emphasizes just how often he was pitching with the count in his favor.
He delivered just two pitches on a 2-0 count and one at 3-1. He just refused to give Oakland hitters any quarter. The 10 strikeouts for Lynch were a career-high by three. You know I’m a fan of Game Score as a way to put individual starts into perspective, and Lynch’s Game Score of 63 was the fourth-highest of his career. The reason it wasn’t higher? Those strikeouts extracted a little more effort than usual. It took Lynch 99 pitches to get those 15 outs. Oakland batters fouled off a whopping 25 pitches. Yes, I can hear Uncle Hud extolling the debunked theory of pitching to contact. There’s a reason it’s debunked. And there’s a reason the Royals broadcast continues to force-feed it to their viewers.
Lynch is just a guy who, if he’s around the plate with that slider, is going to rack up plenty of fouls. If 25 sounds like a lot, he’s also had outings this year where he’s had over 30. (Twice!) Pitching to contact isn’t really going to work for Lynch. So maybe he won’t pitch deep into games on occasion. I’ll take a 10-strikeout performance any day of the week if he’s going to limit the baserunners.
Keller was the best we’ve seen
As good as Lynch was on Friday, Brad Keller surpassed him on Saturday.
Hell, Keller almost surpassed himself. Check where it ranks among his best starts according to Game Score.
Yep. It was an effort that tied the best Game Score of his career, tying with the lone shutout of his career (which is also only his second complete game).
As we’ve come to expect from a Keller outing, it wasn’t dominant as far as the swing and miss goes—he had just nine out of his 97 pitches—but it was more about…yes…pitching to contact.
When Keller is on, he’s a ground ball machine. On Saturday, he finished with a 53 percent ground ball rate. That was his highest since April. And you recall how he finished April, right? Just a tidy 2.14 ERA with 14 hits allowed in 24.2 innings. His average ground ball rate that month was 57 percent. So if he’s working in that neighborhood, you know the results will follow.
Keller struck out the side in the second, but perhaps his finest stretch came in the fourth and fifth innings where he retired all six batters he faced, five on ground balls.
The average exit velocity on those groundouts was 78 MPH. As you can see above, the hardest hit in that sequence measured at just under 91 MPH. According to Baseball Savant, grounders hit with an exit velocity of under 91 MPH this year have a collective batting average of .161 with an expected batting average of .166. So that’s the Keller secret sauce: Weak-contact ground balls. Hell, that’s anyone’s secret sauce. It’s just that when Keller is on, he’s just about better than anyone at getting that particular result.
Returning to that second inning where he struck out the side, this is how he finished it.
The offense returns to cold storage
It was a good thing that Keller shoved on Saturday, because the Royals could only muster two runs against five Oakland pitchers. Alas, this entire road trip has seen the bats go cold once again. After averaging almost seven runs per game over the last five games of their most recent homestand, the Kansas City offense has produced just 2.3 runs per game in the Bay Area. That includes Sunday’s shutout loss.
Despite the downturn in productivity, you have to like most of what you’ve seen over the last 30 days from the bats. The table below does not include Sunday.
Let’s run through a couple of these…
Starting with Bobby Witt Jr.. The kid is really starting to settle in. Personally, I feel as if he’s still getting the rookie treatment from some of these umpires where the borderline (and in some cases the less than borderline) calls are going against him, so I’m hopeful the walk rate will increase at some point. Still, that’s just nitpicking on what is developing into a fine offensive profile.
Although he’s played about half the games, Michael A. Taylor is unsustainably hot at the moment. Taylor, with a .325 BABIP over his career, is one of those guys who will always be above that .300 marker, but a .452 BABIP is just ridiculous.
He’s cooled off of late, but Andrew Benintendi is still performing better than the league average hitter. This sustained offensive success should have suitors lining up over the next month or so, which should be very good news for the Royals, should they truly decide to get transactional.
Carlos Santana has heard your calls for Pratto and Vinnie Pasquantino and decided to take another walk to further boost his offensive production. What we’re seeing now is a veteran hitter who knows his power limitations and is leveraging his best remaining skill—plate discipline. Mike Matheny loves his veterans and if Santana continues to provide this kind of production for the lower half of the lineup, there won’t be any more talk about designating him for assignment to make room for a prospect. Although they could convince a team to part with something (most likely cash) at the deadline. Here’s hoping.
Speaking of plate discipline, I just love watching MJ Melendez hit. The dude goes up there with a plan. Oftentimes, he’s successful. And peep that ISO. Ignoring Taylor at the moment, how great is it that the top three power hitters in this lineup over the last 30 days are Witt Jr., Melendez and Salvador Perez? I knew you’d like that.
The average Iron Man
Whit Merrifield collected three hits in Friday’s win—including a single to open the game where he came around with the Royals’ first run. He added another knock on Saturday to add a ninth inning insurance run. On Sunday, his 534th consecutive game played, he was 0-3, but walked twice. The overall numbers still aren’t there for Merrifield, but as you can see from the table above, he has put together a fine run of games in the last month, posting a 100 wRC+. If he can finish out the season providing that kind of production, I think I’d take it.
And you know what…maybe some contender at the trade deadline would take it, too.
Ahead of the lid-lifter on Friday, the Royals made a pair of moves in activating Game Speier and Matt Peacock from the Covid IL. To make room they sent Arodys Vizcaíno to Omaha and designated Albert Abreu for assignment. Those moves are just a precursor to what is on tap.
Zack Greinke made his second start in Omaha where he’s rehabbing from a right forearm flexor strain. Greinke went seven innings with six hits allowed on 70 pitches. Given that he went that deep and that there were even a few rumblings that Greinke would return before he made that start, you’d have to think that he would be activated for a start, most likely on Friday when the Royals return from their road trip.
Before that, however, the club needs to lose a pitcher. Literally. The league mandate for only 13 pitchers on the roster goes into effect on Monday. It had been delayed at least twice (I’ve lost track) due to the shortened spring because of the lockout. The Royals have 14 pitchers on their active roster.
Along with Greinke in Omaha is backup catcher Cam Gallagher who is rehabbing a left hamstring strain. Coincidentally, his assignment is due to end on Monday. (Position players may spend up to 20 days on a rehab assignment.) So it’s looking like the Royals will carry three catchers on their 26-man roster.
Right behind Gallagher is Edward Olivares who is currently rehabbing a quad strain. He started his assignment around 10 days ago, so the Royals have some time there but will have to make a move shortly.
The Royals’ 40-man roster is pitching heavy at the moment. While I’m not a fan of carrying three catchers (especially when two of them are Salvador Perez and MJ Melendez), but at this moment, Gallagher is the only position player who could come up in exchange for that pitcher who needs to be removed from the active roster. (I mean, they could call up Nick Pratto but we all know that ain’t happening.) So Gallagher is up for now but sometime in the next 10 days the Royals need to find a spot for Olivares. Gallagher has an option, so maybe he will return to Omaha? We’ll see.
The next week will be interesting. The Royals are going to need to get transactional.
Time to check in on the divisional rivals.
Twins 1, Diamondbacks 7
Minnesota dropped the finale of their six-game West Coast road trip and finished at 3-3 for the week. Chris Archer, seemingly prohibited from going five innings, gave up two runs in four frames. The Diamondbacks broke the game open in the sixth, thanks to a Buddy Kennedy grand slam off reliever Caleb Thielbar. The Twins are playing like a true .500 team, trading wins and losses for the better part of the month.
Guardians 5, Dodgers 3
A see-saw affair that saw the Guardians tie the game in the sixth and eighth innings. An Oscar Gonzalez dinger did the deed in the sixth; Richie Palacios doubled to bring home the tying run in the eighth. With the game knotted at three in the ninth, the Dodgers pressed their luck with Craig Kimbrel on the mound. It didn’t work out as he allowed two hits and two walks. The deciding runs scored on an Andrés Giménez bases loaded single and an Ernie Clement sac fly.
White Sox 3, Astros 4
Shortstop Mauricio Dubón had two hits, including a two-run home run, from the ninth spot in the lineup as White Sox starter Michael Kopech allowed four runs over five innings in Houston. After laying waste to Detroit earlier in the week, the Sox dropped two of three to the Astros.
Rangers 3, Tigers 7
Robbie Grossman banged a three-run dinger in the first to put the Tigers on the board. This, being the Tigers, meant they had plenty of time to fritter away the lead, which they did by the fifth—all runs charged to starter Drew Hutchison. However, Spencer Torkelson clubbed a two-run double in the bottom of the fifth and Detroit never looked back. The Tiger bullpen allowed a single baserunner over the final four innings.
The Royals head south to Anaheim for a three-game set against the Angels. They’re suddenly resurgent after taking four of five from the Seattle Mariners. That Mike Trout guy is good…he hit five homers in the series, four of which gave his club the lead. According to MLB.com, that’s the first time anyone has hit four game-winning homers in a series.
Monday - LHP Kris Bubic (0-4, 8.36) vs. RHP Noah Syndergaard (4-5, 3.53 ERA) @ 8:38
Tuesday - RHP Jonathan Heasley (1-3, 3.72) vs. LHP Reid Detmers (2-3, 4.25 ERA) @ 8:38
Wednesday - LHP Daniel Lynch (3-6, 5.19) vs. RHP Shohei Ohtani (5-4, 3.28 ERA) @ 8:49
Yes, it’s the coveted Ohtani matchup coming on Wednesday. Plan to grab a nap and hydrate in preparation.