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The Royals are raiding that zone
It's only one turn through the rotation, but the Royals' starting pitchers are working ahead in the count and finding success.
I’m always amazed that, while the baseball season is six months and 162 games, the margin between success and failure is razor-thin.
Case in point: At this moment, the Royals stand 1-4 on the season, in last place in the AL Central and the only team in the American League without at least a pair of victories. However, if we had drawn up a road map for how we thought the 2023 season would go, if the Royals could pull out the final two games of the homestand (and admittedly tall task), wouldn’t you feel a lot better about the team if they had a 3-4 record after their first set of games with postseason favorites Minnesota and Toronto.
That puts a little bit of pressure on the team, I guess. Not that they’re reading this newsletter, but they know that hitting the road with a 3-4 record is a lot different than 2-5. Or, god forbid, 1-6.
This is a developmental year, but damnit, wins are always appreciated.
We know the importance of a pitcher starting a batter off with strike one. In 2022, when a first pitch was a strike, batters managed to hit just .216/.262/.332. If the first pitch was a ball, the advantage severely tilted in their favor. They hit a collective .268/.388/.473 when the first pitch in a PA was a ball.
It’s easy to understand why the Royals are so intent on delivering that first pitch for a strike. Of course, that was a stated objective last year and they failed miserably, posting a 59.1 percent first-strike rate, the lowest in the majors.
With the new coaching staff and the talk in spring training of the Royals pitchers “raiding the zone” and with five games—and one turn through the rotation–completed, I thought it would be a good time to visit those first strike percentages. Small sample be damned.
There are a few takeaways from the above table. First, Zack Greinke is just amazing. His first strike rate is so consistent…when I was compiling this table, I was wondering if that rate normalizes faster than just about any other rate for pitchers. It doesn’t. He’s just a beautiful freak of a pitcher.
Jordan Lyles was the only starter not to improve on his 2022 rate in his first start of 2023. I’m not certain what the normalization point is for first-strike rate, but I would assume it’s in line with walk and strikeout rates—170 batters faced and 70 batters faced, respectively. If we say it’s 100 batters faced (just to simplify things), Lyles has three more starts for that rate to normalize.
Given his struggles in 2022, it’s not a surprise to see that Brad Keller was below his career average in offering a first-pitch strike. What’s encouraging was, despite running out of gas at the end of his first outing, he was showing a good first-pitch command.
Conversely, Brady Singer had a breakout season in 2022 and part of that success was due to his first-pitch strike rate. He built on that in his 2023 debut.
Then there was Kris Bubic. I was lukewarm on his performance in my recap from last night. I probably need to reconsider. Yeah, the overall command wasn’t so great and he gave up far too many hits, but he held the advantage for most of the evening. There’s potential there.
Plus, at Royals Review yesterday, Kevin Ruprecht had an outstanding breakdown of the Royals staff and their first-pitch strike rates. He found that of all the pitchers on the staff, Bubic is the only one who has improved in his rate in each season of his career. (I highly recommend clicking that link. Kevin does great work.)
There’s still work to be done. The Royals starter’s walk rate of 10 percent is the 10th highest in the majors at 10 percent. Their 17 percent strikeout rate is fifth-lowest. The good news is, the starter’s ERA- is an eye-watering 65, the fifth-best in the league. Their overall ERA stands at 2.84, again, fifth-best in the majors. It’s important to remember that these are the early days and the sample sizes are far from normalized. This is just a point at one turn through the rotation.
So while it’s far too early to jump to conclusions, the first round of data is in and it’s looking positive for the starters.
The Royals made an early morning transaction as Kyle Isbel went on the paternity list. The corresponding move was the recall of Nick Pratto from the Triple-A Storm Chasers.
Pratto has collected four hits in 16 at bats, but what’s been most impressive is he’s drawn five walks against just three strikeouts. Like our starting pitchers and their first-pitch strike rates above, it’s far too small a sample, but the early decline in strikeout rate is promising. This is a guy who has a strikeout rate that hovers close to 30 percent in his stops in Double and Triple-A. Last summer, in 182 PAs for the Royals, his strikeout rate was a whopping 36 percent.
With the right-hander Alek Manoah on the mound tonight for the Blue Jays, and given manager Matt Quatraro’s desire to get all his guys playing time, I wouldn’t be surprised to see an alignment that has Pratto at first and Vinnie Pasquantino as the designated hitter.
I didn’t mention it in last night’s recap, but Aroldis Chapman is looking…electric.
These were the last six pitches he threw against the Blue Jays last night.
Bo Bichette was fortunate to foul off those two sinkers before succumbing to the third. And 103.5 MPH? What???
The Royals took a chance on Chapman that he would be motivated and focused. He would be either a trade chip or waiver wire fodder. There wasn’t going to be any kind of in-between. And now we’ve seen him twice, there is absolutely no reason JJ Picollo isn’t burning up the phones trying to gauge the market on his left-handed reliever. If Chapman is going to throw this kind of gas, there’s no reason to wait until the trade deadline if the market is there. Believe me, a reliever with his track record of success, that market is definitely taking shape.
Find a desperate team that needs a closer (hello, Mets!) and that trade can be made within weeks, not months.
Two games left in the homestand before the Royals go to San Francisco for a 2014 World Series rematch for three and then on to Texas. Here are the matchups for the next two games at The K
Wed, April 5 vs. TOR - RHP Alek Manoah (0-0, 13.50) vs. RHP Zack Greinke (0-1, 3.38) @ 6:40 p.m.
Thu, April 6 vs. TOR - RHP Kevin Gausman (0-1, 0.00) vs. RHP Jordan Lyles (0-1, 1.69) @ 1:10 p.m.