He looked up at the sky, then down at his glove, tugging at the blue leather cords. He seemed to be looking for something: an answer, an explanation, a little optimism.
Carlos Hernández, the 25-year-old Venezuelan right-hander who showed promise last season, had just allowed six runs in one inning in the Royals’ 6-1 loss to the Baltimore Orioles. The loss capped another disgraceful streak in 2022. The Royals have won just two of nine this season.
It’s May 10 and the Royals are 9-17. If it weren’t for the struggling Detroit Tigers, the Royals would have the worst record in the American League.
The numbers explain the putrid start. At home plate, the club ranks 28th in OPS (.601), 28th in walks (69), 29th in home runs (13) and 22nd in hard-hit rate (37.1%). The pitch seems to be taking these rankings personally – and growing. The Royals rank 27th in ERA (4.62), 27th in WHIP (1.39) and 29th in strikeout ratio (1.90).
It would be easy to dismiss if it was a unique case. But it’s not. Not at all.
Since 2018, the year the Royals began their rebuild, they rank 28th in OPS (0.700) and 27th in ERA (4.85). This perhaps explains why the Royals rank 25th (16,435 fans per game at Kauffman Stadium). This is perhaps what feeds a feeling well summed up by BD, a commentator of Athleticism“The only thing worse than inducing frustration and anger in your fans is inducing what comes next: apathy. Once again this year, the Royals are dangerously close to doing just that.
In case you need a reminder, the Royals lost 10 straight in the first two weeks of the 2019 season. They lost six in a row in the second week of the 2020 season. And they have lost 11 straight games last May. Even though the Royals have only played 16% of their season in 2022, the angst is not limited to the fan base. Several players expressed their frustration with the state of affairs, which propels the following questions: what will it take to maintain interest? What will give people optimism that the club is destined to race in the near future?
The questions, in general, evoke a scene from July 2 of last year. Royals president of baseball operations Dayton Moore sat in the home dugout before a game. A reporter asked how surprised he was by the lackluster performance of the Royals.
“You’ve heard me say this before, but you have to do a lot of things right to win a Major League Baseball game,” he said. “When you have breakdowns in multiple areas, I mean, it makes it almost impossible to win. But you can’t make excuses with injuries. At the end of the day, you have to look at yourself in the mirror as a manager. general and assess your processes. But at the end of the day, I’m going to believe in our players, in (manager) Mike Matheny and the coaching staff.
What’s striking is how neatly that quote fits into this story a year later – a year in which the club are believed to be closer to discord.
The projections can only differ. FanGraphs’ ZiPS sees the Royals heading to 94 losses.
The pitch failures are part of the reason. Kris Bubic, who the club announced as the starter ahead of Brady Singer after Singer completed three disappointing spring training outings, pitched 12 1/3 innings in five starts. The Royals opted for Jackson Kowar after a major league outing, and he currently has a 10.18 ERA in five starts at Triple-A Omaha. Hernández, who has seen his speed drop and his fastball form decline, has a 7.15 ERA in five starts.
It’s hard to see these situations and not go back to last year. On the pitching side, Jakob Junis has proven to be one of the Royals’ best pitchers in six outings. He had a 3.47 ERA. Then the Royals demoted him to the bullpen. He allowed five runs in his first outing. Neither pitching coach Cal Eldred nor reliever coach Larry Carter seemed to help Junis regain his form.
This is relevant in that Junis is now pitching for the San Francisco Giants. In 15 innings (including one start), he has an ERA of 1.20. Dig deeper and you’ll notice some interesting elements in his pitch mix. In 2019 Junis threw 33.7% four seams, 29.7% sliders and 17.3% sinkers. This season, he’s throwing 54.9% sliders, 22.1% sinkers and 6.9% four seams. His slider is his best pitch. Its four seams have long been one of its worst. Toggle use has worked wonders. So has a change. The Royals wanted Junis to turn the pitch over rather than throw a splitter. Considering his place, it was not an easy task.
Interestingly, Junis isn’t the only pitcher to have evolved and become successful. Brad Boxberger averaged 90 mph on his four-seam fastball in 2019, and the pitch dropped an average of 20.1 inches. In 2021, after signing with the Milwaukee Brewers, Boxberger averaged 93.5 mph on his fastball, and the pitch dropped an average of 14.1 inches, improving upspin and making him much harder to hit. . In 2019 with the Royals, Wily Peralta wasn’t throwing a splitter. Now, with the Tigers, it is on the field that he earns more odors than any other. Jorge López throws nearly four mph faster with the Baltimore Orioles this season than he did with the Royals in 2019. Tampa Bay Rays reliever Jason Adam is one of the best in baseball this season. He throws a change most often (he threw just 7.9% of the field with the Royals in 2018) and uses a slider, which he didn’t throw with the Royals.
Notably, the Royals’ current big leaguers aren’t unaware of the progress others have made elsewhere.
On the batting side, it’s a bit the same thing. In 2021, Jorge Soler was struggling powerfully. Matheny didn’t seem to have an answer. “It’s crazy what he can do,” Matheny said last June. “We just keep looking for keys to unlock it.” Batting coach Terry Bradshaw struggled to find them. It wasn’t until Special Assignment hitting coach Mike Tosar showed up that Soler transformed into the type of hitter who went on to contribute to the Atlanta Braves’ World Series.
Certainly, the Royals added former assistant batting coordinator Keoni DeRenne to their big league staff this offseason to help transform batting work habits before games. Yet Whit Merrifield, for example, ranks last among all wRC+ qualified hitters. Salvador Perez is only batting .204. Carlos Santana, who the club didn’t trade at last year’s deadline, has a .566 OPS. Adalberto Mondesi struck 20 times in 50 at bats before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament. Outfielder Edward Olivares – who a scout mentioned last year and asked: ‘Why doesn’t he ever play?’ – was the club’s leading hitter (172 wRC+ in 38 plate appearances) before suffering a right quadriceps injury over the weekend.
As Moore said last year, the club cannot make excuses for injuries. The fact is this: the Royals have kept Merrifield, Santana and Mondesi for the past few years, rather than trading them. They’ve had Eldred and Carter lead young pitchers in the major leagues since 2017, and the same goes for Bradshaw on the batting side. They continued to operate with one foot in the present water and one foot in the future. Both look cloudier than ever. So what can the Royals do?
Looking in the mirror, evaluating processes, and believing in the roster and coaching staff was the answer last year. And that sounds exactly like the problem.
(Photo by Zack Greinke: Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images),
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