It’s not too early: KC Royals’ hitting needs to improve

The KC Royals have mustered nine hits, most of them singles, in two games. It’s not too early to say their bats need to improve.

Say what you will about small sample sizes, premature worries, and pitchers being ahead of hitters early in the season. Say what you will about good pitching beating good hitting; that cliche is irrelevant to the KC Royals after two games because, overall, their hitting hasn’t been good.

The Royals managed only four singles in Friday evening’s season opening shutout loss to Cleveland. Tribe starter Shane Bieber, a superbly talented hurler beginning just his third big league season and who hadn’t lost to KC in four previous starts, dominated by striking out 14 in six innings, the Royals ultimately fanned a humiliating 18 times and Cleveland’s bullpen held them hitless.

And yes, the Royals won 3-2 in 10 innings Saturday and mustered one more hit than Friday, but still struck out six times in Cleveland starter Mike Clevinger’s seven innings. Two of KC’s hits–solo, back-to-back home runs by Jorge Soler and Salvador Perez–came in the very first frame, and the Royals managed only a double and a pair of singles the rest of the way.

The winning run, a product of this season’s extra-inning rule placing a runner at second to begin each extra half-inning, scored without the benefit of a hit. Kudos, though, to pinch hitter Erick Mejia, whose perfect sacrifice bunt moved the eventual winning run to third, and Maikel Franco, who drove in the winner with a sac fly.

In two games and 19 innings, only five KC Royals have hits–unsurprisingly, Whit Merrifield has two. So does Perez; Soler, Alex Gordon, Ryan McBroom, Nicky Lopez and Bubba Starling have the others. Merrifield’s double is the only extra-base hit to go with the homers by Soler and Perez.

Adalberto Mondesi and Franco are hitless.

Simply put, the Royals need to hit more.

(As a point of some reference, and generally speaking, major league teams have averaged between eight and nine hits a game for many years; Kansas City’s two-game average of 4.5 isn’t yet cause for great alarm, but the number hopefully will improve quickly).

This commentary isn’t meant to, and can’t, diminish the club’s fine pitching (which limited Cleveland to nine hits) in the campaign’s first two games. Despite taking the loss, Opening Night starter Danny Duffy was good but suffered perhaps from a strike zone he appeared not to like. Rookie Brady Singer’s much-anticipated big league debut was excellent–he struck out seven in his five innings and left with the score tied 2-2; his breaking stuff, fastball and command were all good.

And save for Scott Barlow’s bumpy outing in the first game, the bullpen did its job well, a welcome sight indeed for the Royals and their fans who’ve too long endured a painfully inconsistent pen. Manager Mike Matheny, skippering the game like it was a deciding postseason contest, brought in presumed closer Ian Kennedy to start the sixth, used possible setup man Trevor Rosenthal after Kennedy shut down Cleveland for two innings, and had Kevin McCarthy warming before Barlow struck out two with the bases loaded to escape the ninth.

And then there was old hand Greg Holland, once the lock-down final piece of the feared “H-D-H” bullpen back end trio of 2014 and ’15. Matheny called on Holland to reprise his former role and Holland responded by striking out the side in the 10th for the save.

But the KC Royals won’t get that kind of pitching all season. The rotation is shaky and, for the time being, shorthanded with Brad Keller and Jakob Junis not yet ready after positive COVID-19 tests. The bullpen may be better, especially if Rosenthal and Holland return to their formerly dominating selves, but that’s not a given and Kennedy will, if he approaches the good season he had in 2019, likely be moved at the trade deadline.

So it is that Kansas City can’t put all its eggs in the basket of superb pitching. The Royals must hit, and hit well often. This is another team in the long, historic line of KC clubs never tailored to win consistently with power, but instead with small ball speed, base stealing, and base hits strung together to “keep the line moving.”

After two games (and three exhibition contests in which the club didn’t hit consistently), is it too early to panic? Certainly. Is it too early to consider roster moves? Of course. Is it too early for Matheny to shake up the lineup? Yes.

But it’s not too early to say the KC Royals must do better at the plate. Unless they’re banging out hit after hit and scoring a lot of runs, it’s never too early for that. Especially in a short season.

The KC Royals’ bats have been relatively quiet in the first two games of the 2020 season. They need to hit. Sooner rather than later.