Royals Rewind: 4/12-4/18 - Walk It Out

The second week of the Royals’ season came with a few surprises. Scott Podsednik keeps hitting like he’s in a video game on the Easy level. Jose Guillen looks years younger. And the Royals pitching staff is soon to guest star on The United States of Tara because I just don’t know who’s going to show up on a given day.

All told, the Royals went 3-3 which, considering some of the performances of certain pitchers, is a small miracle. So it could be worse. But it could be a lot better. If it doesn’t improve, more people may be following Roman Colon out of Kansas City.


4/12: Guillen and Pods cage the Tigers
Detroit struck first, scoring two runs after Johnny Damon’s slide forced a Chris Getz throwing error on what otherwise would have been an inning-ending double play. The Royals responded, jumping on Max Scherzer for four runs, stringing together a bunt single by Podsednik, an Alberto Callaspo walk and a Billy Butler double for the first two runs. Following that, Jose Guillen fouled off a ton of pitches before popping out in foul territory to Miguel Cabrera. Or he should have, but Cabrera dropped the ball, and Guillen took advantage, slamming his third homer in two games. They added another run after Pods followed a David DeJesus double with a bunt. Scherzer rushed his throw (Pods was safe anyway) and the ball sailed into foul territory, scoring DeJesus while Podsednik went to third. Nice to see the Royals take advantage of another team’s mistakes for a change.

Starter Luke Hochevar wasn’t nearly as sharp as his first start, but he did enough to get through five innings, and the Royals bullpen put up a stunning four scoreless innings, led by lefty John Parrish. Kansas City rapped out 15 hits and walked five times in the 10-5 victory.

4/13: Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory
With Jose Guillen’s power surge, Trey Hillman shifted the batting order (despite the 10 runs from the previous day’s lineup), shifting Guillen to cleanup, moving Butler to third and moving Alberto Callaspo down the the sixth spot. The move paid off when Callaspo drove in Butler and Guillen in the top of the third inning with two outs, giving the Royals an early 3-0 lead (DeJesus hit his first homerun of the year to lead off the inning).

Brian Bannister was sharp in his second start, starting 14 of the 25 batters he faced with an 0-1 count. Perhaps troubling, however, was a continuation of flyball tendencies. In his first start, Bannister had a 1/13 GB/FB ratio. On Tuesday, he had a 3/13 GB/FB ratio (though many of those were weak popups). Bannister can’t sustain success with a 2/26 GB/FB ratio in the long-term, so hopefully he knows what adjustments need to be made. If his third start has similar results, it will catch up to him.

Bannister’s hard work was all for naught, however, as the bullpen again blew a lead. Bannister got the first out of the seventh inning, striking out Carlos Guillen. The rally began after he walked Brandon Inge. Following an RBI double by Gerald Laird, Hillman went to the bullpen, calling on Roman Colon. Colon gave up a double but then got a foul out and the Royals were an out away from getting out of the inning. Which they of course didn’t. In the end, it took Dusty Hughes and Juan Cruz coming into the bottom of the seventh to end the inning, but not before giving up six runs and the lead. Curious to me was leaving Dusty Hughes in the face Magglio Ordonez after he’d surrendered an infield single to lefty Johnny Damon, especially when Ordonez walked and Hillman turned to the right-handed Cruz against Miguel Cabrera. If this was 1975 and not 2010, we’d have seen Joakim Sora in the game at this point, as it was imperative to get the last out and stop the momentum. But Soria has to hang out to save the game – but you can’t get a save if you’re losing 6-5.

This was not a good loss. At all. It still stings.

4/14: How are the Royals like the Beatles? Lots of hits!
I was wrong about Kyle Davies. Okay, maybe it’s too early to say that, but going into the season, I just didn’t think he was going to be effective or consistent as the fifth starter. On April 9th, he picked up a quality start to open the season, and he picked up his second on the 14th. And while he walked three in 6.2 innings (which is pretty much in line with his career average of 4.5 BB/9), he jumped ahead of 16 of 29 batters. For Davies, who has a tendency to nibble, starting out ahead will help him in the long-term if he can maintain that tendency.

Jose Guillen went 3-4, slugging his fifth homer in a four game stretch. I don’t know where this surge is coming from, but I’ll take it while it lasts. Guillen has had hot streaks in the past where he’s impossible to get out. And he’s usually followed it up by swinging at everything and usually missing.

The big test in this one came in the bottom of the fifth inning after Davies gave up a double and hit a batter. Johnny Damon doubled, driving in a run and leaving runners on second and third with no outs and Magglio Ordonez and Miguel Cabrera to follow. The stage was set for the typical Kyle Davies blowup and a walk to Ordonez loaded the bases for Cabrera and the Royals clinging to a 3-2 lead.

And then, amazingly, Cabrera grounded into a double play. A run still scored to tie the game at 3, but after Carlos Guillen flied out to end the inning, escaping with only two runs scored in that situation turned out to be a turning point as Detroit didn’t score again. The Royals pounded out 17 hits – mostly singles – en route to a 7-3 win. Billy Butler added a pair of RBI sac flies, so at least somebody figured out that you should get a run home with a runner on third and less than two outs. Joakim Soria got four outs for the save.

4/16: Sigh Young
Friday’s game was a nightmare. It was like watching the Royals of 2004-2006. Before the game (the first night game at the new Target Field), Roman Colon was designated for assignment and Josh Rupe was brought up from Omaha to take his place in the bullpen. With seven other relievers. Seven. Yeah, anyway.

Chris Getz was a late scratch, and Willie Bloomquist got the start at second base. This would be significant later…

Zack Greinke, 2009 American League Cy Young Award winner, was the story in this one. But not in a good way. First, here’s his line:
5 IP 6 H 4 RA 2 ER 5 BB 5 K 108 pitches, 57 strikes 9/26 first-pitch strikes.
Those aren’t AWFUL numbers. They’re certainly poor, and not what you want to see from your best player and last year’s best pitcher. Following an “eh” start on opening day and a disappointing second start, I’m starting to wonder where the real Zack Greinke went and who this guy is in his place.

Most troubling, Greinke showed an uncharacteristic lack of control, especially with the fastball. Check out this unofficial PitchFX from BrooksBaseball.net:

Pitch Statistics (Velocity Histogram)
Pitch Type Avg Speed Max Speed Avg H-Break Avg V-Break Count Strikes / % Swinging Strikes / % Nibbleness Time to Plate
FF (FourSeam Fastball) 91.25 94 -3.53 9.02 40 22 / 55.00% 3 / 7.50% 6.26 0.411
CH (Changeup) 84.52 89.3 -6.53 2.63 22 11 / 50.00% 2 / 9.09% 6.67 0.441
SL (Slider) 85.68 88.5 3.41 1.52 18 11 / 61.11% 1 / 5.56% 6.85 0.435
CU (Curveball) 72.41 77.8 7.94 -4.77 11 5 / 45.45% 3 / 27.27% 5.60 0.518
FT (TwoSeam Fastball) 91.04 92.6 -7.71 6.71 15 7 / 46.67% 0 / 0.00% 7.14 0.412

You’ll notice the unofficial number of fastballs and the low percentage that went for strikes. Compared to his first two starts, Greinke struggled with the fastball, and watching, it looked as if it had more horizontal movement than normal. His velocity was down as well in Minnesota, hanging around 91.5 mph after averaging around 93.5 mph against both Boston and Detroit. Somewhere, Zack lost 2 mph. He pitched more like the kid who got moved to the bullpen a couple years ago and not the force of 2009.

For now, we can chalk it up to perhaps the first road start of the year, or maybe he was trying to take a little off for more movement against a powerful lineup and didn’t harness it as well as he’d anticipated. In his first two starts, Greinke walked one batter in 12.2 total innings. On Friday, he walked five, so it’s an outlier – for now.

In numerous stretches, Greinke would start out 0-2 only to lose the batter and on two different occasions he threw seven consecutive balls out of the strike zone (in the first inning) and later nine out of the zone (in the third). The pitch count kept rising.

Despite all of that, Zack almost snuck out of five innings with only two runs against if not for (DUN DUN DUNNNN) Willie Bloomquist. Let’s revisit the bottom of the fifth briefly. Greinke started Orlando Hudson off with an 0-2 count before going to 3-2 and giving up a single. Joe Mauer put a charge into one, but Scott Podsednik tracked it down at the warning track for the first out. Justin Morneau singled, putting Hudson on second base. Then, the key play, Michael Cuddyer grounded to Alberto Callaspo at third who threw to Bloomquist at second to start the double play – except Bloomquist dropped the ball. It was a low throw by Callaspo, but Bloomquist has to get one out on the play if he can’t make the turn. Instead of two outs and runners on first and third, Jason Kubel came up with the bases loaded, bringing in a run when Greinke walked him. Still with one out, Delmon Young hit a sac fly to center. Greinke struck out J.J. Hardy to end the inning, but it was too late to clean up the mess.

Keep in mind, if Bloomquist gets the out at second, Zack has two outs and an open base when he walks Kubel, so no run scores. Further, the Young sacrifice fly would have ended the inning with no runs scoring. So thanks Willie Bloomquist, and heck, thanks Callaspo for the throw.

Further adding to the frustration, the bullpen took an at least somewhat close 5-2 deficit at the bottom of the eighth and turned it into a 10-2 margin. That one’s on Juan Cruz and Robinson Tejeda. The Royals made it easy on Scott Baker in the middle innings, seeing a total of six pitches in the top of the fourth, then making two outs on the first three pitches in the fifth. The Twins threw 116 pitches in nine innings. The Royals threw 190 in eight. The Twins drew nine walks. The Royals drew none. I can almost see Ken Harvey and Benito Santiago now…

There were two bright spots to this game. One, Podsednik made a possible catch of the year in the bottom of the second inning, sprinting from left field to the foul line to rob Delmon Young of a hit (and likely inside the park homer if Pods doesn’t catch it on the dive). Two, Yuniesky Betancourt went 3-4, hitting his second homerun of the year and driving in two runs. Unfortunately, Jose Guillen’s homerun streak ended at four games.

4/17: Meche pitches well for five innings…
Unfortunately, while Gil Meche pitched well in five of his six innings, that one bad inning was enough to put the Royals behind. Take out the second inning, and Meche went five innings, only allowing two hits, and two walks (one of those being intentional). That pesky second inning though, he gave up two walks and five hits for five runs. Ouch. It was Meche’s second start of the year after starting on the DL with shoulder tightness, and he’s still not in gear after giving up four runs in the first inning last Sunday against the Red Sox. My hope is after this start, he’ll be more settled into game speed and able to bear down and get some consistency. Or he’ll get rocked in the third inning next time out. He started batters with a strike in 19 times out of 28 total batters faced, so he stayed aggressive. But that second inning…

Jose Guillen’s homer streak may have ended on Friday, but Rick Ankiel picked up the slack for him, belting two dingers off Nick Blackburn. The Royals chipped away, tying the score at 5-5 until Orlando Hudson led off the bottom of the seventh with a homer off John Parrish (who to that point hadn’t given up a hit in the young season).

The Royals made it interesting in the end, though. Callaspo, in his new sixth spot in the order, led off the top of the ninth with a single and moved to second after an odd sacrifice bunt from Jason Kendall (who had extended his hitting streak to 11 games to open the season earlier in the day). He moved over to third after a Betancourt flyout to center, and just as the game rested on the shoulders of Willie Bloomquist, a familar face came out to pinch hit.

Remember the late scratch of Chris Getz the day before? Well he has an oblique issue similar to what Callaspo ran into at the end of spring training, so he was placed on the DL and Gordon, the day after a 3-4 day in a rehab start in Omaha, took his place. After Gordon coaxed a walk, Minnesota closer Jon Rauch snuck a fastball past David DeJesus for a game-ending strikeout.

4/18: I think Callaspo’s comfortable in that sixth spot…
The hits keep coming as the Royals pounded out another 16 hits off Carl Pavano and the Twins’ bullpen. Luke Hochevar took the win after 6 IP in a game that I think he would have been chased out of last year.

Leading off for the Twins, Denard Span doubled. Orlando Hudson walked. Joe Mauer singled sharply to left so Span had to hold at third base while Justin Morneau came up with the bases loaded and nobody out. Morneau drove in Span with a walk and Michael Cuddyer hit a sacrifice fly to make it 2-0 Twins with only one out. Hochevar limited the damage, getting Jason Kubel to pop out and finished the inning with a Delmon Young flyout.

Last year, Hochevar probably gives up 5 or more runs in that same scenario. He seems to have found the poise and maturity that can mix with his talent to make him a formidable third starter behind Greinke and Meche. Hochevar gave up another run in the third inning, but it wasn’t earned as Alex Gordon’s throwing error should have ended the inning. Otherwise, Luke got batters out when he needed to and mostly stayed out of trouble. That should do a lot for his confidence through this year and hopefully, into next year and beyond.

The aggressive baserunning we saw in the first week continued, as the Royals stole four bases, giving them 17 in 18 attempts for the young season. This seems like it’ll be a continuing theme as long as Scott Podsednik is healthy, though even Alberto Callaspo, Jason Kendall and Rick Ankiel have been given the steal sign and were all successful. Even Jose Guillen stole third base.

Even. Jose. Guillen. Stole. Third. Base.

I can’t believe it either.

The Royals scored six in the top of the third, capped by a Callaspo three-run homer, a nice response to the opening frame from the Twins. Things got a bit scary in the seventh inning, as Josh Rupe came on to relieve Dusty Hughes who had walked Hudson and Morneau with a Joe Mauer lineout sandwiched between them. Rupe gave up a hit to Cuddyer, loading the bases. Then, Yuniesky Betancourt failed to get the out at second on a potential 3-6-1 double play and Hudson scored while Morneau moved to third. Delmon Young grounded out but brought Morneau home, and after a J.J. Hardy walk, Jim Thome came out to pinch hit with the bases loaded and two outs. I’ve seen enough Royals games over the years to know this isn’t usually going to end well, but Rupe battled, forcing Thome to foul off a bunch of strikes before sneaking a high fastball past his bat. Threat neutralized.

Just to cement the game, Callaspo hit another three-run homer in the top of the ninth while Soria finished the game off (and got the save since he came in when it was 7-5).

The numbers: 4/12-4/18
Team batting average/on-base percentage/slugging/OPS
.345/.376/.528/.904
9 home runs
8/9 stolen base attempt success rate

The Verdict
Here’s an interesting observation:
In games started by Zack Greinke, Gil Meche or Brian Bannister, the Royals are 0-7. In games started by Luke Hochevar or Kyle Davies, the Royals are 5-0.

For the week, the Royals got at least nine hits in every game. That’s pretty remarkable for what looked like a weak lineup coming into the season. Some of the keys to this are the continued development of Billy Butler and Alberto Callaspo as professional hitters (more on Callaspo in the near future). Also, new Royals Jason Kendall and Scott Podsednik have been solid so far, with Podsednik getting on base consistently and Kendall opening with hits in 12 straight games. The power of Guillen and Rick Ankiel has given the Royals an unfamiliar punch after Butler. It’s fun to watch.

There’s just one catch – it can’t last.

Sure, you can’t get a video game team to sustain a .345 batting average, but this week, the Royals had a .361 average on balls put in play. The general league average calls for 30 percent of balls put into play to fall for hits (the formula is [total hits - homeruns]/[total at bats - homeruns - strikeouts]). So this past week, the Royals had 20% more balls fall in for hits than usual. Once some of those balls start finding gloves, the batting average will go back to normal. The problem is that the Royals, while leading the majors in team batting average, are only seventh in on-base percentage because only two other teams in the league have walked less often. More games like Friday’s against Scott Baker are going to gut that powerful-so-far offense because other than Podsednik, DeJesus, Callaspo and Butler, everyone else in the lineup either makes too poor contact or is too impatient to really break out.

Now Guillen and Podsednik may stay relatively hot and from what I’ve seen, Pods is surprisingly better than I gave him credit for. Also, the increased attention on base-stealing can manufacture more runs and this Royals lineup can at least outperform expectations.

This team’s success will build off of the starters. This week, Hochevar, Davies and Bannister put up decent lines. Even Greinke’s start wasn’t too bad from an ERA standpoint. I expect the rotation to get back in line as Greinke returns to form and Meche gets caught up to game speed (which I think should be soon, likely his next start).
The bullpen is a mess. I trust Soria right now, and that’s it. John Parrish is performing well and I think he’ll be around all year barring injury, but hitters will catch up to him. Josh Rupe has performed well so far, but again, he’s never been very successful at any level to date. At this point it’s waiting for Carlos Rosa, Blake Wood, Chris Hayes or Victor Marte to get ready to come up – I don’t think Colon is the only casualty in that bullpen.

Kansas City starters threw 35 innings this week, giving up 18 earned runs for a 4.63 ERA. It’s not pretty but it could be much worse – the bullpen has given up 12 earned runs in 16 innings, a 6.75 ERA. Worse, the bullpen has a strikeout to walk ratio of 10/18 (though the starters’ 24/22 isn’t much better).

Walks are going to be the end of this team, both in driving up pitch counts unnecessarily, and in adding runners that could have been outs. Also, the more often the Royals allow opposing batters to sit in hitter’s counts, the more often they’ll get hard hits all over the field and the runs will come from there. Just ask Robinson Tejeda or Roman Colon or Juan Cruz or Dusty Hughes…

Tags: AL Central Alberto Callaspo Alex Gordon Baseball Billy Butler Brian Bannister Chris Getz Comerica Park David DeJesus Dayton Moore Detroit Tigers Dusty Hughes Gil Meche Jason Kendall Joakim Soria Joe Mauer Jose Guillen Josh Rupe Juan Cruz Kansas City Royals KC Kyle Davies Kyle Farnsworth Luke Hochevar Minnesota Twins MLB PitchFX Rick Ankiel Robinson Tejeda Roman Colon Royals Scott Podsednik Target Field Trey Hillman Willie Bloomquist Yuniesky Betancourt Zack Greinke

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