Three early Royals takeaways from the start of this late June road trip

The Royals go into a tough stretch at the end of June, as they began a road trip where they have to face the Yankees, Rangers, and Red Sox. Considering the Royals have a losing record and are currently in third place in the American League Central, one could consider this trip a critical one for the club, especially if they have any playoff aspirations. While the Royals’ playoff chances seem like a longshot at this moment, a strong road trip, parlayed with a strong finish before the All-Star break, could perhaps rejuvenate this club for the second half of the season.

Even though the Royals went against Yankees ace Gerrit Cole in game one of the series with New York, the Royals were able to pull off a 6-5 win at Yankee Stadium, a nice way to begin the arduous road trip, as their record improved to 33-38 going into Wednesday’s game.

While it is just one game, here are three early takeaways on the Royals from game one of this road trip, and what Royals fans should be looking for not just for the remainder of this series, but the next two series in Texas and Boston, respectively, as well as beyond.

Ryan O’Hearn could make the DH situation with Jorge Soler interesting

After absolutely mashing Triple-A pitching since being optioned to Omaha in late May, O’Hearn was recently called back up to the Royals after Adalberto Mondesi once again landed on the 10-day IL. In his first game back in the Royals lineup, O’Hearn had a banner performance, as he went 2-for-4 with two RBI and a key bomb off of Cole that tied up the game in the fourth inning:

The home run, as well as a key RBI in the 8th inning, were welcomed sights from Royals fans, who have been frustrated with the Royals’ hitters inability to come through and drive in runs since the Oakland series. Alec Lewis of the Athletic posted an article today about O’Hearn’s newly worked approach, which helped him succeed in his latest stint in Triple-A.

Here is a key snippet from Lewis’ piece:

Think of his approach instead as zen-like: He wanted to prepare himself in the batting cages so that when he stepped into the batter’s box at Triple-A Omaha, he was relaxed. He was comfortable. Yes, even with 90 mph projectiles flying at him. The approach after that?

“Make decisions on pitches, try to stay away from overswinging, which is something I’ve come up here (in the big leagues) and done in the past,” he said. “You don’t have to swing 100 mph. You don’t have to swing as hard as you can to hit home runs. It’s more about getting the barrel to the ball the right way. Technique over speed is something we like to say.”

It all sounds so calm but don’t mistake this: O’Hearn said he took the Triple-A Omaha games seriously, maybe this will do the trick — here were his numbers: In 19 games and 72 at-bats, O’Hearn hit 12 homers and posted a 1.382 OPS.

“Royals’ Ryan O’Hearn homers off Gerrit Cole, explains ever-evolving psyche of a hitter” by Alec Lewis; The Athletic

O’Hearn’s profile on Baseball Savant can be a difficult one to decipher. On one end, O’Hearn is possibly having one of his best seasons yet. His barrel rate is 13.5 percent, a career high, and his 91.4 MPH average exit velocity is the highest it’s been since his breakout year in 2018. Furthermore, he is posting a 51.4 percent hard hit rate, which would best his previous career best in that category by nearly 7.2 percentage points. Thus, he is not just hitting the ball harder than ever, but it seems like he’s doing it more productively as well, which has been a challenge for him in the past.

That being said, O’Hearn has also been less patient than ever. His 48.7 percent swing rate is a career high, and while his average whiff rate is lower than a year ago (28.7 percent to 29.9 percent last year), he is chasing more out of the strike zone. This season, his chase rate is 27.9 percent, which is 5.1 percent higher than a year ago. Being overly aggressive can work out, especially on “meatball” pitches which can be driven productively (he does have a 90 percent meatball swing rate). However, it can also result in unnecessary strikeouts, and O’Hearn’s current 32.8 percent strikeout rate (a career high) and 6.6 walk rate (a career low), demonstrate that.

And yet, it’s hard to argue with a .701 OPS, which is much needed in the middle to bottom of the lineup, where most of the hitter hover with OPS numbers under .620 (i.e. not good).

The issue though with O’Hearn is that he lacks a position and defensive versatility, especially with Carols Santana manning his primary position full time. Therefore, it will be interesting to see if O’Hearn cuts into Jorge Soler’s playing time at designated hitter, where Soler’s been more effective this year than in right field. Soler has been a huge detriment defensively, as he has been four outs BELOW average in right field, according to Baseball Savant. While Soler did play in right field yesterday, it will be hard to play him and Dozier in the outfield full time, especially since that puts more pressure on Michael A. Taylor to make up for both of their defensive deficiencies.

Thus, one has to wonder: could Mike Matheny possibly platoon Soler and O’Hearn at DH? Would that allow Soler to get back in the groove against lefties only, while keeping the Royals’ defense somewhat respectable? Then again, Kelvin Gutierrez isn’t lighting it up either, but it doesn’t seem like the Royals really value Dozier’s defense at third base, which has been pretty sub-par as well.

It will be an interesting development at the Royals DH spot in the coming weeks. If O’Hearn continues to hit on this road trip (I imagine he will get plenty of at-bats), it wouldn’t be surprising to see if he cuts into Soler’s at-bats at the end of June and beginning of July.

Which could make Soler more expendable when the Royals return after the All-Star break.

Singer’s Wild Command

Brady Singer has been a bit of an enigma this year, though I think he’s been the best thus far of the Royals top prospects who have pitched in the Majors this year (though Kris Bubic did have a strong outing as well). Singer’s line wasn’t totally impressive in Tuesday’s outing as he allowed five hits, two home runs, and five walks in 3.2 IP (he threw 96 total pitches as well). However, he only allowed two runs and struck out five batters as well. For the year, Singer is posting a 4.77 ERA, which is higher than a year ago. On the flip side though, Singer’s xERA is only 3.85, and his hard hit rate at 34.3 percent is 5.8 percentage points lower from last year.

On Tuesday, Singer’s command was a bit all over place, ranging from really good to really bad. Let’s take a look at his swinging and called strike breakdown in game one against the Yankees:

He was pretty effective with his sinker, as he had a CSW of 44 percent on the 55 sinkers he threw on Tuesday. However, his slider was a different story. While he was effective in making batters swing and miss on the slider (42 percent whiff rate), he had a more difficult time getting called strikes on the pitch, as only five of the 37 sliders he threw were called strikes. His CSW on the slider was only 27 percent, which is not great, especially with his changeup and four-seam fastball not generating a single strike either.

Let’s take a look at his pitch chart from his 96-pitch performance:

As Royals fans can see, he lost control of a good amount of sliders on the bottom right of the zone, and Yankees hitters weren’t chasing on them for the most part, especially those really outside the strike zone. Furthermore, when looking at his pitch results chart, it’s interesting to see the difference between the slider being located properly, and when it was not:

Notice those pitches just around the bottom right edge of the strike zone. Those are sliders located where he and Salvy wanted them, which ended up in strikeouts. However, notice the three walks in the same area, but more low and away. Those are sliders where Singer lost command on the pitch. When Singer loses control of the slider, as he did in those blue spots above, it’s going to be tough for him to generate consistent strikes, and thus, have consistent outings.

Singer didn’t do horrible, all things considered, but it’s obvious that he’s going to need to develop a third pitch this off-season to put some pressure off that slider. When he’s not pinpointing it, he puts himself in a lot of unfavorable counts and as a result, throws way too many pitches early in the game, which was the case on Tuesday night.

What about Josh Staumont?

It seems like Mike Matheny has found his “go-to” guys in the late innings, and I doubt things will deviate, barring injury. Jake Brentz, Kyle Zimmer, Scott Barlow, and Greg Holland have gotten more and more innings in high leverage situations, and for the most part, those four have come through this year. Yes, Zimmer made a mistake and made the game interesting in the bottom of the eighth. But relievers will have blow ups at times, and Zimmer’s ERA is still 2.57 the year, which is still solid.

Scott Barlow came in for Zimmer though, and limited the damage in the 8th. In addition, Holland earned his fifth save, though he was far from precise with his control and command, as evidenced below:

However, noticeably absent in Tuesday’s game, as well as in the month of June as a whole, has been Josh Staumont, who recently came back after a short IL stint. After returning to the Royals bullpen on June 6th, he has only made four outings, and in his last outing against the Tigers, his fastball was only topping out at 94.8 MPH. That is not a good sign from a guy who was regularly hitting triple digits with ease a season ago.

In the beginning of the year, it seemed like Staumont was in line to perhaps get save opportunities, or at least be utilized in high leverage situations. Unfortunately, it seems like Staumont has fallen out of favor in the Royals bullpen, as Matheny has not utilized him in any critical situations as of late with the game on the line.

Now, the question with Staumont’s usage is simply this: why?

Is he hurt? Is there a lingering problem with Staumont that the Royals are not disclosing? Does Matheny just not trust Staumont in the late innings, especially with Zimmer and Brentz emerging as dependable options in the 7th and 8th innings?

It’s still early, but Royals fans have to be considered about Staumont. Ronald Bolanos went from possible middle innings guy to 60-Day IL just like that.

Let’s hope the same instance doesn’t happen to Staumont. The Royals will need him, especially with the inconsistencies of the Royals starting pitching staff this year.

Photo Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

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