He looked up at the sky and then down on his glove, tugging at the blue leather strings. He appeared to be searching for something: an answer, an explanation, some optimism.
Carlos Hernández, the 25-year-old right-hander from Venezuela who showed promise last season, had just allowed six runs in an inning during the Royals’ 6-1 loss to the Baltimore Orioles. The defeat capped another shameful series in 2022. The Royals have only won two of nine this season.
It’s May 10, and the Royals are 9-17. If it were not for the struggling Detroit Tigers, the Royals would boast the worst record in the American League.
The numbers explain the putrid start. At the 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 percent). The pitching seems to take those rankings personally — and raises. The Royals rank 27th in ERA (4.62), 27th in WHIP (1.39) and 29th in strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.90).
This would be easy to dismiss if it were a one-off. But it is not. Not in the slightest.
Since 2018, the year the Royals began their rebuild, they rank 28th in OPS (.700) and 27th in ERA (4.85). Maybe this explains why the Royals rank 25th in attendance (16,435 fans per game at Kauffman Stadium). Maybe this is what fosters a feeling summed up nicely by B.D., a commenter at The Athletic: “The only thing worse than inducing frustration and anger in one’s fan base is inducing what comes after that: apathy. Once again this year, the Royals are dangerously close to doing just that.”
In case you need a reminder, the Royals lost 10 games in a row over the first two weeks of the 2019 season. They lost six in a row in the second week of the 2020 season. And they lost 11 consecutive games last May. Even though the Royals have only played 16 percent of their season in 2022, the angst is not confined to the fan base. Multiple players have expressed frustration with the state of things, which propels the following questions: What is it going to take to maintain interest? What is going to give folks optimism that the club is destined for a run in the near future?
The questions, in general, conjure up 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 Royals’ lackluster performance.
“You’ve heard me say this before, but you’ve got to do a lot of things right to win a Major League Baseball game,” he said. “When you have breakdowns in several areas, I mean, it makes it darn near impossible to win. But you can’t make excuses with injuries. At the end of the day, you’ve got to look in the mirror as a general manager and evaluate 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 seamlessly this quote fits into this story a year later — a year in which the club is supposed to be closer to contention.
Projections beg to differ. FanGraphs’ ZiPS sees the Royals heading toward 94 losses.
Pitching breakdowns are part of the reason. Kris Bubic, whom the club announced as a starter over Brady Singer after Singer completed three underwhelming spring training outings, has pitched 12 1/3 innings in five starts. The Royals optioned Jackson Kowar after one outing in the big leagues, and he currently has a 10.18 ERA in five starts at Triple-A Omaha. Hernández, who has seen his velocity dip and the shape of his fastball decline, has a 7.15 ERA in five starts.
It’s difficult to view these situations and not harken back to last year. On the pitching side, Jakob Junis proved to be one of the Royals’ best pitchers through 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 bullpen coach Larry Carter seemed to help Junis gain his form.
This is relevant in that Junis is now pitching for the San Francisco Giants. In 15 innings (including one start), he has a 1.20 ERA. Dig deeper, and you’ll notice some interesting elements in his pitch mix. In 2019, Junis threw 33.7 percent four-seamers, 29.7 percent sliders and 17.3 percent sinkers. This season, he’s throwing 54.9 percent sliders, 22.1 percent sinkers and 6.9 percent four-seamers. His slider is his best pitch. His four-seam has long been one of his worst. Flip-flopping the usage has worked wonders. So has a changeup. The Royals wanted Junis to turn over the pitch rather than throw a splitter. Given his slot, that was not an easy task.
Interestingly, Junis is not the only pitcher to have moved on and succeeded. Brad Boxberger was averaging 90 mph on his four-seam fastball in 2019, and the pitch was dropping 20.1 inches on average. In 2021, after signing with the Milwaukee Brewers, Boxberger was averaging 93.5 mph on his fastball, and the pitch was dropping 14.1 inches on average, enhancing the rise effect and making it much harder to hit. In 2019 with the Royals, Wily Peralta was not throwing a splitter. Now with the Tigers, it’s the pitch he earns more whiffs on than any other. Jorge López is throwing 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’s throwing a changeup most often (he only threw the pitch 7.9 percent with the Royals in 2018) and utilizing a slider, which he did not throw with the Royals.
Notably, current Royals big leaguers are not ignorant of the strides others have made elsewhere.
On the hitting side, it’s much of the same. In 2021, Jorge Soler was struggling mightily. Matheny did not seem to have an answer. “It’s freakish what he can do,” Matheny said last June. “We just continue to look for keys to unlock it.” Hitting coach Terry Bradshaw had trouble finding them. Only when special assignment hitting coach Mike Tosar showed up did Soler transform into the type of hitter that went on to contribute to the Atlanta Braves’ World Series run.
Granted, the Royals added former assistant hitting coordinator Keoni DeRenne to their big-league staff this offseason to assist in transforming the work habits hitters employ before games. Still, Whit Merrifield, for example, ranks last among all qualified hitters in wRC+. Salvador Perez is only batting .204. Carlos Santana, whom the club did not trade at last year’s deadline, has a .566 OPS. Adalberto Mondesi had struck out 20 times in 50 at-bats before he tore his ACL. Outfielder Edward Olivares — whom one scout mentioned last year and asked: “Why doesn’t he ever play?” — was the club’s best hitter (a 172 wRC+ in 38 plate appearances) before he suffered a right quad strain this weekend.
As Moore said last year, the club cannot make excuses for injuries. The fact of the matter is this: The Royals have held onto Merrifield, Santana and Mondesi in past years, rather than trading them. They have entrusted Eldred and Carter to shepherd the young pitchers to the big leagues since 2017, and the same goes with Bradshaw on the hitting side. They have continued to operate with a foot in the present water and one in the future. Both seem cloudier than ever. So, what can the Royals do?
Looking in the mirror, evaluating processes and believing in the roster and coaching staff was last year’s answer. And that feels precisely like the problem.
(Photo of Zack Greinke: Keith Gillett / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images),
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