Five knee-jerk reactions to the Royals’ Opening Day Win

I was hoping to post later in the day after attending my first Opening Day in person at Kauffman Stadium yesterday, but as all Royals fans know, the game went four-and-a-half hours, and I was pretty spent by the time I got back home. Thus, I decided to post this today, knowing that it was an off-day, and the Royals wouldn’t be playing until Saturday afternoon.

So, after yesterday’s marathon 14-10 victory over the Rangers, here are my five knee-jerk reactions and what they could mean for the upcoming Royals season:

The Royals offense is going to be as good as advertised

Yes, I understand it is only one game, and it came against the Texas Rangers, who in all honesty, do not look very good (I felt like I was in the movie “Major League” when reading off the names of their starting lineup). Rangers starter Kyle Gibson couldn’t locate his pitches, and after he was pulled in the first, it was obvious that the Rangers bullpen was not only going to be running on fumes in yesterday’s game, but could be doing so over the course of the year, especially as Jose LeClerc recovers from injury. It will be more interesting to see what the Royals offense will be able to do when they face better pitching staffs, especially in the AL Central (Indians, Twins, and White Sox, specifically).

However, regardless of the competition, the Royals lineup looked pretty good 1-through-9. Carlos Santana, brought into improve the club’s OBP, drew three walks, and looked like his 2019 self at the plate in Game 1 in Kansas City. Michael A. Taylor, who’s been touted as a dark horse breakout candidate, not only flourished with his glove (two outfield assists), but also with his bat, as evidenced below:

Jorge Soler also joined in on the home run fun, as he mashed a classic #SolerPower bomb to deep center, which not only went 435 feet, but also had an exit velocity of 113.5 MPH, which was the hardest hit batted ball of the game, according to the Baseball Savant’s game feed. Here is a glimpse of what hopefully will be one of many for Soler in 2021 (it isn’t out of the question to think that he could challenge the 50-home run mark, which seemed unthinkable to do in Kansas City prior to his arrival).

Just go up and down the lineup, and pretty much everyone on the Royals roster put up impressive at-bats. Whit had a “three-hit” performance, which also included a pretty classic “Whit bomb” into the visitor’s bullpen over right field. Kyle Isbel not only made his much anticipated MLB debut, but also produced a productive three-hit performance. Nicky Lopez made a surprising start at shortstop, especially since he was demoted earlier in the week. However, Adalberto Mondesi was put on the 10-Day IL due to an oblique issue, and Lopez not only gathered two hits, but looked a lot better at the plate today than he did at any point this Spring.

Hunter Dozier and Salvador Perez didn’t impress, but there still are 161 games to go, and it is likely that both will have their fair share of better offensive games throughout the year. Furthermore, this lineup is still incomplete, as Mondesi was missing, and he was batting in the three-hole late in Spring Training. Thus, it will be really interesting to see what this lineup could do once Dozier and Salvy get in a groove, and once Mondesi returns off the IL.

The Royals the past few seasons have had some flashes of promise, but overall, some serious holes in other spots in the lineup. However, as evidenced by the Royals’ 14-run and 15-hit performance, this club has some serious depth offensively, and could be at the very least, the third-best offense in the AL Central, as long as they are able to stay healthy.

Keller’s rough outing should be expected from time to time

Brad Keller has arguably been the Royals’ best starting pitcher over the past three seasons, as he is coming off a season in which he posted a 2.47 ERA in 54.2 IP and has accumulated a 6.1 fWAR since 2018, according to Fangraphs. That being said, Keller has always been seen as a conundrum in the baseball analytics community. While he is known for limiting home runs (career 7.9 HR/FB rate) and does a good job of generating groundballs as a starting pitcher (career 52.1 GB percentage), he doesn’t generate a whole lot of whiffs, as he only has a career K/9 of 6.30, a pretty mediocre mark for a club’s No. 1 pitcher. Furthermore, his command can be spotty as well, as he only has a career K/BB ratio of 1.82, which is pretty sub-par, especially for a top-of-the rotation pitcher.

There has been a lot of analysis among Royals analysts in regard to what the future holds for Keller, and even David Lesky of “Inside the Crown” pointed out that Keller is a “unicorn” of sorts when looking at potential comparisons, both now and in the past. However, today is a prime example of when things go bad for Keller, they can go south really quickly, especially since he struggles to generate swings and misses to get outs.

In 1.1 IP, Keller gave up nine hits, six runs, three walks, and struck out ZERO batters. Surprisingly, Keller kept the ball in the yard, as he didn’t allow a home run. That being said, he did give up three doubles in the first, and after getting bailed out by the Royals offense, his struggles continued in the second inning, and he was replaced by Carlos Hernandez after giving back up the lead on a Nate Lowe single.

While this may be jarring to Royals fans after his superb 2020, Keller was far from flawless this Spring, as he gave up 20 hits in 13.1 IP, and posted an ERA of 5.40 and WHIP of 2.10. The 25-year-old former Rule 5 pick also posted an unimpressive K/BB ratio of 1.50 in Cactus League Play, and those control and command issues seemed to carry over into Opening Day.

While I do not think that Keller will be posting performances like this often (at least I hope not), these kinds of days will happen for Keller from time to time this year, especially since he struggles to strike batters out to get out of innings.

The closer spot will be up for grabs

The umpire had a tight strike zone, which certainly didn’t help either club. However, Mike Matheny pretty much employed every possible closer option in Thursday’s game, with the exception of Josh Staumont. And as a result, all the Royals relievers showed their own respective strengths and weaknesses in their outings.

Jesse Hahn struck out two batters, but he struggled with his command, and also gave up a hit, a run and a walk (and he was consistently in hitter-friendly counts). Scott Barlow looked like closer material for an inning and a half, roughly, but he allowed two walks, and was pulled when the situation got dicey in the 8th. And while Greg Holland got out of the jam in the 8th, he also had two walks, gave up a hit, and eventually had to be pulled for Wade Davis, who eventually shut the door with two strikeouts in the top of the ninth to end the game:

As stated before, it’s only one game, but I think Matheny is going to rotate closer duties throughout the season, much like he did last year, even when Trevor Rosenthal was dealing (remember, it seemed like Ian Kennedy’s job to lose going into 2020). As successful as Holland was last year, I find it hard to believe that at his age he’ll put up another campaign like his 2020 one, especially over the course of a full 162 game season. Furthermore, Hahn, Barlow, and Davis all have potential to handle the role in the ninth, but they also have their own flaws at times too, so it’ll be interesting to see who of that trio will emerge in the 8th and perhaps even in the ninth later this season.

Thus, the Royals closer situation is far from set, and it will be interesting to see who Matheny will give a majority of the opportunities to, especially during this first month of play.

Kyle Isbel handled his Opening Day (and MLB) debut splendidly

The Royals story of the Spring for the most part was Bobby Witt, Jr. and whether or not he should have been starting on Opening Day. However, all the “Witt hype” caused Royals fans to overlook Isbel, who was quietly having an even BETTER Spring than Witt, and was a more realistic option to make the active roster on Opening Day, especially since he played in High-A ball in 2019 and was expected to play in Double-A in 2020.

Isbel posted a .333 batting average and .968 OPS in 50 plate appearances this Spring, which helped him earn not only a spot on the active 26-man roster, but also a nod in the starting lineup on Opening Day at Kauffman Stadium. Isbel didn’t disappoint, as he went three-for-five in his MLB debut, and cued up a key rally in the bottom of the first that re-energized the Royals crowd after a rough top of the first:

Just watching him at the plate and field in person, it’s amazing how maturely Isbel handles himself out there, and how he plays the game so effortlessly. While Whit could handle right field defensively, Isbel looks like a much better fit there, especially when playing aside Taylor in center and Andrew Benintendi in right field. I thought Isbel would have a shot at right field in Kansas City eventually this year, but thought it wouldn’t happen until June or July, after Lopez was given a month or two to show that he could handle the starting second-base job.

Thankfully, Moore acted quickly, and I’m excited to see what Isbel, Taylor, and Benintendi could do in the KC outfield, both offensively and defensively in 2021.

Safe to say, this could be one of their best outfield trios in quite some time, maybe since 2015…which is certainly saying something.

Kauffman Stadium is going to be a great place to watch games live in 2021…regardless of fan capacity

Kauffman Stadium has been a little tamer in the post World Series era since 2017. In 2018 and 2019, when games were still happening at the K, it was more of a place for entertainment and diversion, not serious baseball following, especially if one was a casual Royals fan. Yes, it was a great place to hang out, tailgate, and enjoy some “hot dog” races, but in 2018 and 2019, the Royals were 100-plus loss clubs, and it was hard to really have high hopes for the club on the field amidst such losing.

However, the Royals have much higher expectations in 2021 and the fans could feel it, even before the game started, especially when Alex Gordon came out to throw the first pitch:

Even after the rough top of the first, it seemed like the Royals fans got a much-needed jolt of energy once the Royals started to piece together good at bat after good at bat. As the Royals started scoring runs and making this a game again, the crowd really got behind the club, and the Royals also seized on that crowd momentum, which eventually led to their four-run win.

Not only was this Opening Day much needed for Royals fans, but it also seemed to be much needed for the players, who pretty much played with fake crowd noise for 60 games in 2020.

Overall, everything about the game felt incredible, even if it was a 4.5 hour marathon, and in front of less than 10,000 fans. Baseball purists out there at Kauffman on Thursday loved that it took longer than normal, as it helped them really sink in what had been missed over the pandemic affected season in 2020. In all honesty, and I imagine I’m not alone, I just appreciated everything about my experience on Opening Day, from getting into the parking lot, to tailgating with my girlfriend and her family friends, to walking into the stadium, to even all the pregame festivities before, which I tend to take for granted. Opening Day on Thursday made me realize not only how much I missed watching a game at the K, but how great the overall experience is at Kauffman just in general. Even in the upper decks of section 429, the game felt vivid and engaging, and it was an incredible feeling to get that sensation again after such a long hiatus.

Props to the Royals and the Kauffman Stadium crew for making Opening Day such a great experience, even with limited capacity.

I cannot wait to go back for my next game on April 17th against the Blue Jays.

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