Do the KC Royals give Richard Lovelady enough love?

(Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)
(Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports) /

Have the KC Royals offered a reliever enough of a chance to repeat his minor league success in the big leagues?

If the minors were the majors, KC Royals pitcher Richard Lovelady would be a shining star. But, as Lovelady’s baseball case proves, the minors aren’t the majors, and success on the farm doesn’t guarantee the same in the city.

Ever since the club dispatched him to Rookie ball promptly after it picked him in the 10th round of the 2016 amateur draft, Lovelady’s time in the Royals’ farm system has been superb. His role as a reliever preordained, he pitched exclusively out of the bullpen his first professional season, splitting 21 relief appearances between Kansas City’s Arizona and Idaho Falls affiliates. The debut went well–Lovelady was 2-1 with a 1.80 ERA, saved nine games, and struck out 30 in 25 innings.

He started 2017 with a 1-0, 1.08, seven-save, 21-game performance at Advanced A Wilmington that earned him a promotion to Double A Northwest Arkansas, where he posted a 3-2, 2.16 record and again fanned more than a batter per inning.

Continuing the natural progression that comes with such success, Lovelady moved up to Triple A Omaha for the 2018 season and, in 46 appearances, went 3-3 with nine saves. His ERA was 2.47, a near-remarkable achievement in the run-scoring utopia that is the Pacific Coast League.

The Royals started their rising star at Omaha again in 2019; he suffered his first losing campaign (1-2) since going 0-1 at Idaho Falls three years before, and his ERA exceeded 3.00 for the first time. But 1-2 isn’t typically cause for much concern for relievers and Lovelady’s 3.08 ERA was probably more in line with the Pacific Coast League’s norm than his sub-3.00 of the season before.

Lovelady’s control remained good and he continued to average more than nine strikeouts every nine innings. But what his Omaha numbers don’t reflect is that he accumulated them in between three trips to Kansas City: the Royals called him up from April 19-May 24, from May 25 to the 26th, and from July 26-Aug. 23. It was this time in the big leagues that first cast doubt on Lovelady’s ability.

The rookie pitched 16 times during his first stay with the KC Royals. Although he didn’t give up a run in 11 of those appearances, he ended up surrendering six in 12.2 innings, a rate a bit too high for a good big league reliever.

Kansas City optioned him to Omaha, called him back for a day, then sent him down again. He appeared in nine more games after returning to the Royals in mid-July.

Those nine games were a collective disaster. Lovelady gave up runs in all but one and surrendered 11 in 7.1 innings. The Mets tagged him for four straight hits and three runs in mid-August, forcing manager Ned Yost to yank him before he could get an out. He gave up three hits in an inning twice and finished the season with a 1.900 WHIP and 7.65 ERA.

To make matters worse, Lovelady underwent knee surgery after the campaign. But a good spring training rekindled any hope the Royals might have lost for him and he made the club’s 30-man roster when the 2020 season got underway in late July. New manager Mike Matheny gave Lovelady an early opportunity by summoning him to start the sixth inning of the team’s third game. With Kansas City trailing Cleveland 7-2, Lovelady walked Yu Chang on four straight pitches and induced a full count, double-play grounder from Cesar Hernandez.

But the lefty gave up a second-pitch home run to Jose Ramirez before retiring Francisco Lindor to end the inning. Lovelady’s effort certainly wasn’t horrible—he was one of six Royal hurlers to give up at least a run in the Indians’ eventual 9-2 win.

Curiously, though, the KC Royals optioned Lovelady to the team’s alternate training site the next day, where he worked until getting recalled with just a few days left in the season. But even after any slim playoff hopes the club harbored had long since vanished, Lovelady didn’t get into a game.

And therein lies the mystery. Lovelady, a rare lefthander among the many righthanded KC Royals relievers, is a talented pitcher with serviceable pitches (fastball, slider, sinker and rare changeup) and potential. Why the Royals didn’t use him more in 2020, a unique season ripe for providing prospects with opportunities (especially for a team, like KC, with nothing to lose, and which afforded far more opportunities to struggling pitchers like Ian Kennedy, Chance Adams, and Gabe Speier) is indeed curious.

Perhaps the KC Royals know something the fans don’t, but that seems unlikely given Lovelady’s September recall. Maybe he was injured in his lone major league appearance and the club wanted him to recover at its alternate site. Maybe there were things management wanted him to work on and through there, free and far from public scrutiny. Or perhaps, behind the walls of T-Bones Stadium, where the public couldn’t venture, Lovelady struggled in games against the rest of the Royals’ Player Pool.

We’ll probably never know. But on the basis of his stellar minor league career, and the brevity of his big league chances, Lovelady deserves more. The club needs to take a much longer look at him against major league hitters.

The Royals should give him a little more love.

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