Rewind: Reviewing the first week of Royals baseball

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Thankfully, following a long, cold winter, the gods have blessed us with a new baseball season (and some spectacular weather for it, as well through most of the league). It’s early enough that there’s still the optimism of a clean slate, so how are the Royals doing so far?

I went into detail about opening day already, but that’s just one of many gamedays. So here’s a quick review of the rest of the week’s action, along with a few morsels, stats, and observations, as well as things to look for in the coming weeks and months.

4/7: Luke Hochevar steps up
With Gil Meche starting the season on the DL, his turn behind Zack Greinke went to Luke Hochevar who showed the talent we saw glimpses of last season, going 7.2 shutout innings. Despite only 11 first pitch strikes, Hochevar chewed through the Detroit lineup, inducing 16 ground ball outs while hitting 97 mph on the radar gun (assuming it wasn’t juiced…)

One of the knocks on Hochevar is that he can melt down and give up a big inning. I looked at his performance after allowing a baserunner, and thankfully, he responded every time by getting an out. He showed remarkable poise and focus, and it gives hope that he can start to get closer to the expectations placed on him as a former first overall draft pick.

You should know that Joakim Soria blew a save, surrendering a solo home run to Miguel Cabrera after a long at bat that went off the foul pole. Credit to Cabrera, he’s one of the best hitters in the game, but he got lucky. After Kyle Farnsworth (shockingly!) gave up the lead run, Rick Ankiel won the game in the bottom of the 11th with a walk off double.

So along with Hochevar’s fine performance, another big performer was Scott Podsednik. Okay, sure, he went 0-3, but he walked twice while seeing 23 pitches and stole two bases. I wasn’t sold on Podsednik when the Royals signed him, but a couple of observations jumped out at me. In working those two walks, Pods took some close pitches, showing patience and (perhaps) a better-than-advertised eye. When he got on base, he also showed good recognition of pitching deliveries, stealing bases at opportune times. Joel Zumaya came in after Podsednik’s 8th inning walk and showed a pattern of using a slidestep with his fastball, but a slow, more deliberate delivery on his slider. When stealing second base, Podsednik had run on the fifth pitch to Alberto Callaspo after watching Zumaya go slider/fastball/slider/fastball and taking off on the slider that followed. He may have just guessed right, but it felt to me like he caught a pattern, which is very important for a player who relies on steals to make up for a lack of power. Also, with his steal in the 4th inning in this afternoon’s game, he’s five for five on steals.

4/8: Same ol’ Royals
Here’s the good: Brian Bannister went six innings, threw strikes, and only gave up six hits with no walks. A troubling observation (which Bannister was aware of himself) was the 1/13 groundball/flyball ratio for the game. I don’t think that’s something to be worried about – yet – as Bannister’s shown the ability to make adjustments to improve his game.

With runners in scoring position, the Royals were 4/13. Unfortunately, all but one of the 11 hits on the day were singles. Station to station baseball isn’t going to work most of the time, so the Royals are going to either get more extra base hits or find another way to gain bases. More on that in a moment.

The story, again, was a bullpen meltdown. Luis Mendoza is quickly becoming the symbol of bullpen futility giving up 5 earned runs in 1.2 innings and taking the loss. More on THAT later, as well.

The worst part is the bullpen woes and Punch and Judy hitting are nothing new. We’ve all seen poor Royals offensive teams and poor bullpens over the years, but again, more on that to come.

4/9: Welcome to Kansas City, Rick Ankiel
What shouldn’t go unnoticed is the fourth consecutive quality start to start the year, this time from Kyle Davies. If the worst performance by a starter in your first week is 6 IP and 3 ER by your fifth starter, that’s something you’ll take any time – even better when Davies only surrendered one walk. That gives your team a great opportunity to win the ballgame.

The bullpen performed much better as well with three scoreless innings, led by Joakim Soria, who got the save with 14 strikes in 16 pitches.

But the real story was a career day for Rick Ankiel, who collected his first 4-hit game with a home run, a double, and two singles, one of which drove in the tying and go-ahead run in the bottom of the eighth. Oh, and he also stole a base. After the walk-off win from 4/7, the early returns are positive on the Ankiel signing.

4/10: Greinke returns to earth…kind of
I touched on this in the opening day recap, but if you ignore the two hanging curves that Jeremy Hermida and Jason Varitek knocked over the fence (which of course you can’t), Greinke pitched 6.2 innings, giving up only six hits and two earned runs with no walks. And yet it still feels like a disappointment. Unlike opening day, Zack got ahead of hitters better, throwing 18 first pitch strikes to 29 batters, so his first start should be an aberration, or could even be an approach to induce the Tigers to chase more, whereas he attacked a more patient Boston lineup.

The Royals stuck around, down only 4-3 after seven innings. But Dusty Hughes gave up a leadoff homer to Kevin Youkilis and shortly after Luis Mendoza put it out of reach – again – by giving up 3 runs in .2 innings. If Kyle Farnsworth hadn’t run into some shoulder tightness on Thursday, I’d have to think Mendoza would have been the odd man out with Gil Meche’s return from the DL, but alas, it didn’t happen. His days are numbered.

Total, the Royals gave up five home runs, and you’re probably not going to win that kind of game. At least, the Royals aren’t.

4/11: Welcome…back…Gil…um..
For the first time (other than opening day with Bloomquist at third over Callaspo), Trey Hillman altered his starting lineup, having Mitch Maier relieve David DeJesus. Luis Mendoza survived Gil Meche’s return (though the Royals didn’t), while Mike Aviles was optioned to Triple-A to play more often and build up his arm for a return to shortstop. Probably the right move, though it does leave the Royals defensive bench a bit thin. Could expect either a Farnsworth DL stint or the release of Luis Mendoza with likely Wilson Betemit coming up to add some infield depth.

In Meche’s defense, he can’t be as sharp as you’d expect after spending the last couple weeks of spring training in throwing sessions and simulated games. It’s a lot different throwing pitches to minor leaguers in a controlled setting and trying to get the Boston Red Sox out. A 35 pitch first inning made it clear that Meche, on a 90 pitch count, wouldn’t be going too deep into this one. And he did settle down in the third inning before shutting down at 88 pitches and 3.1 IP. The bullpen only gave up one run in 5.2 innings from there, led by 2 scoreless innings from Juan Cruz (2.25 ERA and 6/1 K/BB ratio in three appearances).

Jose Guillen woke up, blasting two homers and getting the Royals close with a three-run shot in the 8th. Podsednik stole two more bases. Billy Butler and Alberto Callaspo both chipped in two singles. But it just wasn’t enough and the Royals finished the week at 2-4.

Overall
Other than the Meche start, the starting pitching was strong all week. Greinke hasn’t been as sharp as he was last year, but that’s like asking Michelangelo to improve on the Sistine Chapel. Or for Val Kilmer to improve on his role as Chris Knight in “Real Genius”. Those are high standards to meet, much less surpass.

The bullpen blew the opening day lead and also killed chances for a comeback on Thursday and Saturday. It took late-inning heroics from Ankiel to get Soria and Farnsworth off the hook for their failings. Moreover, Hillman doesn’t seem to have much of an idea as to how he wants to use his bullpen. There were rumblings that Roman Colon might be the 8th inning guy ahead of Soria, but he was the first pitcher used on opening day, and after doing poorly, has been chipping in when the Royals were behind. Farnsworth shouldn’t be counted on in late-inning situations anyway, but with shoulder tightness, he’s even less reliable. Right now, Juan Cruz looks like he could be the guy to setup the Mexicutioner. Lefty Dusty Hughes has the only hold on the season so far, while John Parrish is effective. But it’s rare for left-handed relievers to be the bridge to the closer. Luis Mendoza should be nowhere near any team right now, at this rate. Robinson Tejeda has been predictably wild, but is also giving up hits. Basically, it’s a mess early on.

The most unexpected observation of the first week, however, is the willingness to steal bases. Given the Royals lack of a proven 30-homer type of hitter, they’ve given the green light to former White Sox Podsednik and Chris Getz and so far it’s paying off. Through Sunday, the Royals were 10/10 on steals, leading the league in quantity and efficiency. Another steal today by Podsednik makes them successful in their first 11 tries.

Why the importance of the stolen base? On opening day, Chris Getz singled in the bottom of the fifth and stole second. DeJesus reached on an infield single to short, moving Getz to third. He then stole second. After a Podsednik walk, Billy Butler singled in Getz and DeJesus. Without stealing second, Getz is likely forced out. DeJesus, without Getz moving from second to third, doesn’t have the opportunity to take second and while he probably still scores on Butler’s single, it’s one less out and an extra run by stealing bases.

In the bottom of the 8th on Thursday, Willie Bloomquist pinch-ran for Callaspo after a walk with DeJesus on third after a double and a sacrifice bunt. Bloomquist stole second after a Billy Butler strike out put two outs on the board. With runners on 2nd and 3rd, Ankiel hit a bloop broken-bat single to left that scored both runners, only one of which would have otherwise.

In the bottom of the 7th on Saturday, Chris Getz singled, stole second, and scored on a DeJesus single to pull the Royals within one run. Scott Podsednik grounded out to end the inning, so Getz otherwise wouldn’t have scored.

Yesterday in the first, Podsednik led off with a single, stole second and moved to third on a Maier ground ball to the pitcher (which probably would have moved Pods to second as it wasn’t hit that hard). He scored on a botched popup that would have been the second out. Billy Butler popped out after which would have been the third out that stranded Podsednik. In the third, Podsednik singled and stole second, then moved to third on a sacrifice, scoring on Alberto Callaspo’s single and putting the Royals within two after Meche’s poor first three innings.

That’s five runs the Royals otherwise wouldn’t have scored, runs that put them closer to tying the score (before the bullpen could blow it all up). Those runs add up over the year.

Now the Royals won’t go all season stealing bases at will. Things will even out. But it does seem like Getz and Podsednik have the green light when they see an opening (and Getz stole 25 of 27 last season, so he has a knack for picking his spots). The Royals can’t sit back and wait for the 3-run homer, so they do have to create runs, and a way to do that is through the running game. Was that a consideration when Dayton Moore acquired the two former White Sox? Or is it taking advantage of opportunities? We’ll keep an eye on that in the following weeks, but for now, it looks like a strategic approach to take advantage of the hitters that do reach.

For the week, by the numbers (4/5-4/11)
.269/.327/.408/.735 (All of these fall about in the middle of the league, which, hey, isn’t the bottom, at least)
10/10 on steal attempts (leads MLB)
18 walks surrendered (2nd lowest in the AL)
2-4 record, 23 RS, 36 RA

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