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The Kings of the Cactus League reign again
Winning in the desert never gets old. Plus, how to measure the improvement of the Royals' pitching staff and breaking barriers in the dugout.
If the Royals are breaking camp and heading for two exhibition games in Arlington at the start of the week, does that mean the curtain has dropped on the Cactus League? Don’t bother answering that question. It’s rhetorical. And it doesn’t matter.
What does matter is the Kings of the Cactus League rolled into the desert and, once again, took no prisoners. According to the Royals PR department, this would be the fifth time they “won” the spring in Arizona.
I wonder if the players know this. Or maybe they do and this is how they choose to celebrate.
Flags fly forever. Enjoy the splash.
Sunday’s finale in the desert featured a lineup that will most likely take the field in Omaha once the season truly begins—except for a couple of pitchers. Ryan Yarbrough continued his quest to get some innings under his belt and threw three of them on Sunday. He didn’t walk a batter and whiffed three. Yarbrough was followed by the electric Carlos Hernández who punched out three in his two frames of work. It was the first time in Arizona that Hernández seemed to scuffle with his control. He walked two batters after issuing just one free pass previously.
While spring stats are meaningless, I’ve definitely been tracking the walks and strikeouts. When crunched into rate stats, those are two of the earliest to normalize for pitchers. According to FanGraphs, it’s 70 batters faced for the strikeout rate and 170 batters for the walk rate.
This is going to be our best way to evaluate the work done by the Royals pitchers and the new coaching staff. Last year, the Royals’ pitchers struck out 19.1 percent of all batters faced. That ranked 29th out of the 30 teams. They walked 9.4 percent of batters faced. Again, that was the 29th-worst rate in baseball.
Both of those rates have to improve.
I think the question at this point is, how much improvement has to happen for it to matter? League average strikeout rate last summer was 22.4 percent, so if you’re looking for the Royals to be even average, that’s going to have to be a massive improvement. It’s not impossible, but with a staff that remains largely intact from last season, the addition of Jordan Lyles to the rotation isn’t going to get that done. Nor is the continued presence of Zack Greinke, who, although I continue to love unconditionally, is no longer a strikeout pitcher.
On the other hand, the walk rate is something that feels like they can pull back toward that average. Last year, the average walk rate landed at 8.2 percent. This is the area where the small tweaks such as having pitchers trust their movement so they aim for the plate and let it ride or the catcher receiving the ball a little closer to the hitter, could make a big difference.
Lyles has cut his walk rate in each of the last three seasons. It may be a bit of an ask for him to improve on his 6.7 percent walk rate from last year, his best since his rookie campaign back in 2011, but his presence should still help. Yarbrough is another newcomer who has always been able to fill the zone. He’s never been above the league average when it comes to walk rate. For his career, he owns a sterling 5.4 percent walk rate.
I think this story is going to get a ton of traction today. Because it should. Anne Rogers profiles a new member of the Royals’ field staff.
Peek into the Royals dugout this season, and you’ll see several new faces on the coaching staff. But the manager, bench coach and new pitching coaches are not the only changes you’ll see.
You’ll also be witnessing history.
Melissa Lambert, the Royals’ director of behavioral science, will be the first person in her role to have a seat in the dugout in Kansas City’s effort to increase mental health resources for their players and staff. She will also be the first woman to be on the Major League on-field staff in Royals’ history.
Lambert has been with the club since 2020 and has focused on players the minors. Connecting the dots and with the Royals’ youth movement well underfoot, she’s obviously worked with a ton of the guys who will be in Kansas City on Opening Day.
I’m always going to be for teams that decide they can break barriers. It’s a big deal having a woman in the dugout during the games—no matter the role. Representation matters. The fact that she’s there to help with the mental health of the players shows how the game—and the organization—has evolved.
We’re conditioned to think of a player’s health primarily as their physical condition, but now the team and the players understand the role mental health can play in successes and failures. Having someone the players trust who they can approach to talk about some issues that may or may not be baseball related is hugely important. Almost 20 years after Zack Greinke left spring training to deal with his mental health, it’s good to see we’ve reached the point where the club is employing people to help those who decide that it’s needed or helpful.
We may not think that athletes are role models, but for those who follow sports, they do fill an outsized role in our day-to-day thoughts. Having a player like Daniel Lynch endorse Lambert and her presence and her purpose in the dugout is massive. The team having her in the dugout is massive. In this instance, the Royals are shattering a couple of barriers in one fell swoop. And it feels good.
The Minnesota Twins have set their rotation for the opening series of 2023. Finally…we’re going to get real, meaningful baseball this week. Let’s go.
3/30 - Pablo López vs. Zack Greinke
4/1 - Sonny Gray vs. Jordan Lyles
4/2 - Joe Ryan vs. Brad Keller