We are a few days away from May 1st, and so far, it has been an interesting first month of the 2021 MLB season, especially in the American League Central.
The Royals, who finished second-to-last in the division the past couple of years, are currently in first place not only in the AL Central, but also have the best record in baseball, even after yesterday’s loss to the Pirates.
Currently, according to Fangraphs, the Royals have a 15.5 percent chance to win the division, and 24.2 percent chance to make the postseason, as of Wednesday. Considering this Royals team was projected to win somewhere between 71 and 74 games by most projection systems, the fact that the Royals have this good of a shot to be in the postseason is a huge boost to not only this club, but for a fan base that has been craving baseball success in Kansas City since 2017.
That being said, it is only April, and many Royals fans know about hot starts and seeing those playoff hopes fizzle by August and September (i.e. 2003). Thus, can the Royals be able to stay in this playoff hunt and sneak in, either as a division champ or Wild Card hopeful? Or will the rest of the division suddenly catch up to Kansas City, and push the Royals back to the middle of the division, or perhaps fourth place, where they finished the last two seasons?
Here are three trends going on in the AL Central that Royals fans should pay attention to, and how they could affect the Royals’ playoff hopes this Summer.
The struggles of Minnesota’s Kenta Maeda
Maeda was arguably one of the best pitchers in the AL Central a year ago, which says something considering Shane Bieber of the Indians won the AL Cy Young in 2020. After languishing as a swing man with the Dodgers, Maeda earned a full-time spot in the rotation in 2020 and posted a 6-1 record with a 2.70 ERA, 2.63 xFIP, and 2.1 fWAR in 66.2 IP, according to Fangraphs.
What made Maeda so effective last year was his stellar strikeout ability (32.2 percent K rate), and excellent control (8.00 K/BB ratio). Thus, there was reason to think that Maeda would continue to be the Twins’ ace for a second straight season.
However, Maeda has been really bad thus far in 2021, and that should be worrisome for Twins fans. After last night’s start, he is posting a 6.56 ERA and -0.2 fWAR in five starts and 23.1 IP this season. One of the big troubles for Maeda has been his inability to prevent the long ball, as he is giving up a HR/FB rate of 26.9 percent.
Of course, the HR/FB rate should have been a more worrisome thing for Maeda going into 2021, as he did give up a 18.8 percent rate last year, which is pretty high for a top of the rotation pitcher. That being said, Maeda’s current rate is out of control, and one has to wonder if it will get much better over the course of the season.
A troubling sign for Maeda in regard to his ability to limit the home run ball has been the lack of effectiveness on his fastball. While Maeda has never been a high velocity guy, and relies more on his slider and change as his primary pitches (he only threw the fastball 18.8 percent of the time last year and is throwing it 21.6 percent of the time this year), his four-seamer has lacked punch this year on a considerable note. Last season, hitters had a .150 xWOBA on the four-seamer. This season, hitters are posting a .564 xwOBA on the pitch, which includes three home runs thus far (he gave up no home runs at all on the four-seamer in 2020), according to Baseball Savant.
Furthermore, Maeda has struggled with command and location on the pitch. Without high velocity, Maeda needs to spot the fastball with precision to be effective. That has been far from the case this year, and hitters have made him pay, as evidenced by this Matt Olson home run off of Maeda at the Coliseum:
Maeda can’t serve up 89 MPH fastballs in the heart of the zone and expect to be effective. Of course, it’s only April, and there still is some time for Maeda to improve, even if it seems unlikely at this point that he will recapture his 2020 self. That being said, the Twins already have bullpen problems (they moved Alex Colome out of the closer’s role, which could help their bullpen, which ranks 23rd in ERA), and have not gotten much from Matt Shoemaker (5.49 ERA) in the rotation either. Thus, they will need a somewhat effective Maeda if they want to put themselves back in the Central division race.
As of now, that doesn’t look too promising, and at 7-15, one has to wonder if they will be able to pull themselves out of this early hole, especially if Maeda doesn’t get it going soon.
The Indians’ on-base (and BABIP) problems
It was expected that the Indians’ ability to get on base would take a hit after Carlos Santana signed with the Royals this off-season. However, the Indians have dropped dramatically this off-season in regard to on-base percentage, and one has to wonder if this issue will plague them through the 2021 season.
Currently, the Indians rank 28th in the league in OBP, with only three hitters in the lineup (Jordan Luplow, Jose Ramirez, and Franmil Reyes) sporting OBP numbers over .330. What’s interesting to note is that the Indians’ plate discipline isn’t necessarily bad by any means. They rank 9th in the league in walk rate (9.2) and BB/K ratio (0.39). However, they are posting a .289 OBP as a club, and it’s going to be hard to find any major success overall when a club is getting on base at a less-than-.300 clip.
One interesting thing to note is that the Indians are last in the league in BABIP, as they are posting a .244 mark in this area. League BABIP tends to be in the .290-.300 range, depending on the season, so what the Indians are seeing is pretty unlucky, honestly. Thus, it is likely that Cleveland’s BABIP will rise over the course of the season, and as a result, they probably could see those lackluster OBP numbers improve as a team, which could help their contention case, as their starting pitching and bullpen continue to be solid, as expected.
A key player to watch over the next month may be Eddie Rosario, who made his way to Cleveland this off-season after being non-tendered by the Twins. Rosario was seen as a possible Royals target this off-season, and right now, he’s gotten off to a rough start, as he is posting a 70 wRC+ in 88 plate appearances. He too has been hurt by BABIP, as it is currently .250, so he may be due for a surge after a rough start. That being said, he did only post a .248 BABIP a year ago, and his hard hit rate has dropped nearly four percent from last season. Thus, is Rosario simply going through a bad stretch? Or is this season a true indicator of why the Twins non-tendered him after last season?
The answer to that question could have a huge impact on the Indians’ postseason chances.
La Russa not winning a lot of fans on the South Side
When the White Sox tabbed Tony La Russa to replace Rick Renteria as manager, the decision wasn’t exactly “warmly” received by most White Sox fans.
Yes, La Russa has a winning pedigree from his time in Oakland and St. Louis, but he hadn’t managed a ball game since 2011, and he didn’t have a great off-season when it came to publicity either. While White Sox fans wanted a manager who could help the Sox get over the hump, they weren’t exactly clamoring for a guy like La Russa, who is considered a “dinosaur” in today’s modern game.
And so far, the early results for La Russa aren’t good.
Last night, the White Sox lost to the Tigers 5-2, and La Russa’s decision to keep in Lucas Giolito seem to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for frustrated White Sox fans. Here are some reactions on La Russa from White Sox Twitter last evening:
Again, deciphering a manager’s impact on a club is always a tricky thing. At the end of the day, it’s the hitters and pitchers who win and lose games. If a team doesn’t hit, or if a team doesn’t pitch well, that is going to lead more to a loss than a manager’s decision (or indecision) in a game. If La Russa pulls Giolito at the right time, or if he pinch hits for Hamilton, do the White Sox win the game? Maybe, maybe not. But you can’t absolve the players on the field for bad baseball because the manager made a mistake.
That being said, what often hurts managers are not necessarily the “tactical” decisions, but the atmosphere they develop in the clubhouse and dugout. It’s one of the reasons why the Royals are playing so well under Mike Matheny. It’s one of the reasons why Ned Yost won two pennants, even though he made countless errors in “tactical” judgment. Maintaining strong chemistry can mask a lot of strategic sins for a manager.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the White Sox have that going for them. Yes, “Yermin Mania” is fun, but for the most part, this just feels like an underwhelming club right now. Yes, they did lose Eloy Jimenez to injury, but the White Sox should be better and should have a stranglehold of this division, especially with the Twins down as much as they are.
And yet, they are in second place behind the Royals, blowing games at Guaranteed Rate Field against teams they should beat easily. And White Sox fans seem to feel that disjointedness, and thus, are sharing their dissatisfaction.
White Sox fans are a fickle bunch, believe me. As easily as they can boost a manager (i.e. Ozzie Guillen and 2005), they can easily run out a manager (i.e. Ozzie Guillen post-2005) if they aren’t fully behind him. La Russa could change things if they go on a streak, but if he doesn’t, well…La Russa’s return to the South Side could be shorter than expected.
Which in turn, could only further hurt the chemistry in the Chicago clubhouse.
While that would obviously be frustrating for White Sox fans, on the other hand, it could only help the Royals and their chances in the division.
As Royals fans, we will take any advantage we can get…
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