Nothing like early April to turn a two-game losing streak into widespread panic.
Fortunately, an 0-2 stretch to start the season counts the same as an 0-2 stretch in mid-August. Two games. Nothing to worry about. There might be reason to be concerned if the Royals had been blown out in both games. But they lost the first game 1-0 because Tyler Flowers heard me mock him on The Baseball Show as not fit to wear A.J. Pierzynski’s jock, and because Salvador Perez hit a bullet that just wasn’t quite high enough to clear the fence in left field.
They lost the second game 5-2 because Alex Gordon set up on the fence about three inches to the right on Dayan Viciedo’s home run. If he were just the slightest bit to the left, he makes an epic catch, the game is tied going into the bottom of the 7th, and there’s no way that Ned Yost goes to Luke Hochevar with the score tied in that situation. (Right? Right?)
If you’re looking for one reason why the Royals started 0-2, you can start with this: four times they batted with the bases loaded, and four times they made out, without driving in a run. You can rail about “they can’t hit in the clutch!” all you want, but aside from the fact that there’s miniscule evidence that “hitting in the clutch” is a real skill: it’s four at-bats.
Two games. Two close games. No reason to panic yet. But yeah, I was awfully relieved when they won this afternoon as well.
- The story so far for the Royals is their inability to generate offense. Five runs in three games, and no homers in maybe the best home run park in the American League, is a little concerning.
In their defense: it’s cold out. It was very cold on Monday and Wednesday, a little warmer this afternoon, when the Royals finally put together a three-run rally (sparked by a walk. Who knew?)
Also, the funny thing about the first series of the season is that you’re pretty much supposed to face the opposing team’s top three starters. Chris Sale is one of the best left-handed starters in the game. Jake Peavy won a Cy Young Award once, and last year (when he was an All-Star) was his best season since then. Struggling to score runs against those two guys isn’t a huge indictment of your offense. Today the Royals faced Gavin Floyd, a perfectly reasonable mid-rotation starter, and got to him for three runs.
So yes, of the ten hitters who have started a game for the Royals, one (Alex Gordon) has an OPS of even 600. But let’s wait until the Royals have actually seen a fourth or fifth starter before we get too concerned.
- Speaking of starters, given that I wrote here that Ervin Santana’s success is directly tied to his ability to keep the ball in the park, it’s not exactly the best omen in the world that he gave up three home runs in his first start. Yes, US Cellular Field is a terrible fit for Santana – but the White Sox were dealing with the same weather conditions the Royals were.
In Santana’s defense, he walked one batter and struck out eight, and if you do that every time out you’re going to have a good year no matter how many home runs you surrender. (Not that I want to test the limits of that prediction. If Santana gives up three homers every start, the previous sentence is invalid.) The homers are concerning, but I see no evidence that Santana is going to go full Jonathan Sanchez on us.
The bigger concern is that, according to Jeff Zimmerman’s research over at Royals Review, Santana’s fastball has been losing velocity all spring, and is now 2 mph slower than it was last year. This is, obviously, a concern, particularly since two of the three homers he gave up were on fat, 89 mph fastballs right down the middle.
Early April sample sizes will be the death of all of us. It’s just one start. But it definitely bears watching.
- If you’re going to panic over Santana giving up three home runs in his first start, then you have to be equally excited over the fact that in his first start, Jeremy Guthrie struck out nine of the 24 batters he faced.
After all, if Santana’s weakness is the gopher ball, Guthrie’s weakness is that, despite a pretty good fastball velocity-wise, he has always had a low strikeout rate in a game in which that is increasingly becoming untenable. His career high K% is 17.0%, and he hasn’t hit even 15.0% since 2008. Meanwhile, the league-wide average jumped all the way to 19.8% last season.
So even though it’s just one start, given that strikeout rates stabilize much quicker than other stats, it’s a good sign that Guthrie missed so many bats. It’s just the sixth time in 184 career starts that he’s whiffed nine or more batters. And just once in his career has he struck out a higher percentage of batters in a start, that coming way back in 2007, when he struck out 10 of 25 hapless Nationals hitters.
I’ll take Santana’s homers if it comes with Guthrie’s strikeouts. Santana may yet prove a turkey like Sanchez was – but like Sanchez, he’s only under contract for this season, and if he’s truly terrible the Royals can cut their losses in June and move on. But the Royals sunk a three-year commitment into Guthrie. They gambled $25 million that his perennially low strikeout rate wouldn’t come back to haunt them. They have to breathing a little bit easier after his performance today. I know I am.
- The importance of a good bullpen is generally overstated, but when you have a bullpen like the Royals do, you can understand why. It took the Royals 24 innings to get their first lead of the season, but when Guthrie turned over a two-run lead with nine outs to go, the relievers did their job. Aaron Crow, Kelvin Herrera, and Greg Holland may all be among the top 50 relievers in the game (along with Tim Collins, although we haven’t seen him yet and he struggled some in spring training).
It’s not exactly news that the Royals have a very good bullpen, or at least a very good top half, which is what matters most. Last year those four guys combined for a 2.99 ERA, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they improved on that mark this season.
But the real difference this season isn’t that the Royals have the bullpen to shut opponents down when they have the lead after six innings – it’s that they have a rotation full of starting pitchers who are capable of throwing six innings. In each of their first three games of the year, they got six innings from their starter – and keep in mind that managers sensibly don’t want to stretch out their starters too much at this point in the season, particularly in cold weather.
Six innings from your starter each night may not sound like much, until you remember the disaster that was last season. Last year, the Royals didn’t get three consecutive starts of six innings or more until June 17 through 19. They didn’t complete their first four-game streak until August. This is the Royals’ whole strategy this year: get six innings from your starter that don’t suck, and then let your relievers take over. It’s not a bad strategy, so long as your starters don’t suck, and your bullpen takes over.
Oh, and that your offense scores more than five runs in a series. But remember, it’s early.