Three Royals players to pay attention to in the second half

The Royals will begin the second half of the 2021 season at Kauffman Stadium, as they will begin a three-game series with the Baltimore Orioles. While the Royals currently sit in last place in the AL Central, this Orioles series could be an opportunity for Kansas City to build some much needed momentum after a 7-20 mark in the month of June and 3-7 start in the month of July. After all, the Orioles sit in last place in the AL East, and they have relied on former Royals retreads such as Matt Harvey and Jorge Lopez to eat innings for them this season.

However, in order for the Royals to turn the ship somewhat after going 10-27 in their last 37 games, they will need some turn arounds from many players in the Royals lineup as well as pitching staff. Three players in particular will be key to pay attention to as the Royals begin the second half of 2021 on Friday night. Their development over the last two-and-a-half months of the season could have a big impact on not only the Royals’ win-loss record in July, August, and September, but could also impact what the Royals front office will do when it comes to making transactions, especially by the July 31st trade deadline.

Brad Keller, RHP

Keller has had a rough first half of the season, as he is posting a 5.97 ERA and 1.76 WHIP in 95 innings of work. That being said, there have been some positive signs for Keller amidst what has been the roughest stretch of his career as a Royal.

On a positive note, he is throwing the ball harder than ever, as his fastball is 1.4 MPH faster on average than a year ago. Furthermore, his slider, which has become his primary pitch, as he has thrown it 33.5 percent of the time, according to Baseball Savant, is generating some swings and misses, which is an encouraging sign. His whiff rate on the pitch is 31.1 percent, which is 3.6 percent higher than a year ago, and his put away rate of 21.6 percent is 4.5 percent higher than a year ago as well.

Here is an example of Keller in his last start using his slider effectively to punch out Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez:

Unfortunately, Keller’s year overall has been rough for the most part, and his month of June was his roughest yet. In six starts and 30 innings pitched in June, Keller gave up 47 hits, 29 runs, 5 home runs, and 17 walks. This produced an ERA of 8.36 and 2.11 WHIP during the month of June, which was better than his awful month of April (9.00 ERA, 2.28 WHIP in five starts), but not by much (and remember, April included his disastrous Opening Day start at the K against Texas). Keller came into the season as the Royals’ No. 1 starter, and there were rumors that Keller was in line for an extension this off-season, as he began his first season in arbitration. After this challenging season though, it will be interesting to see what the Royals will do with Keller as he enters his second arbitration year, as the Royals definitely have more leverage at this point.

That being said, Keller is coming off his best start of the season, as he went 7.2 IP against the Indians and allowed only four hits and one run while striking out nine, the latter being a season high. Keller has been known for turning it around in the second half of the season, for in 2019, he posted a 2.12 ERA in five starts and 34 innings of work in July (they shut him down in August to preserve his workload). While he had a rougher July in 2018, he really thrived in August, as he posted a 2.89 ERA in six starts and 37.1 IP. Therefore, Keller’s last start before the All-Star break may be a sign that Keller is on the cusp of producing a much stronger stint in the second half of the season.

While the Royals playoff chances are shot at this point, the Royals pitching staff needs to find some hope, especially in the rotation. The Royals rank 28th in the league in starting pitcher ERA and 29th in starting pitcher WHIP, and that is not a good sign for a club that has staked their future heavily in starting pitching. A strong couple of months from Keller could give a shot of positive production to this rotation, which has been sorely needed, especially amidst the struggles of Kris Bubic, Daniel Lynch, and Jackson Kowar at the MLB level.

Hunter Dozier, 3B/OF

I think we’re starting to see the writing on the wall for Jorge Soler, who has been left out of the lineup more as of late, especially with the return of Ryan O’Hearn to Kansas City. While Soler could be on his way out of Kansas City soon (I see him gone in one way or the other by the deadline), the Royals are invested in Hunter Dozier, not just financially, but on the field as well, as he has continued to be in the lineup everyday, despite his immense struggles at the plate.

At the surface level, Dozier has been a disaster in a myriad of ways. His triple slash is .174/.242/.344 and he is posting a .586 OPS in 277 plate appearances this season. After showing some development in plate discipline a year ago with a 14.5 percent walk rate and 0.56 BB/K ratio, both career highs, he has regressed heavily in this area in 2021. His walk rate has plummeted to 7.6 percent (his lowest rate since 2018), his strikeout rate has inflated to 29.6 percent (his highest rate since 2016, his rookie year), and his BB/K ratio currently sits at 0.26, the second-worst mark of his career.

That being said, while things haven’t been great for Dozier, I do think it’s more of a matter of him “pressing” rather than necessarily “regressing”, as I wrote about on this blog before. Dozier is probably feeling the weight of expectations after signing a lucrative extension, and after a slow start to the year, Dozier just hasn’t been able to get on a streak, which is key for a player like him, who rode hot streaks in 2019 to overall success at the plate.

There are some signs that Dozier can still be at least semi-productive, especially in the second half of 2021, which could be a good stepping stone for him going into 2022. His average exit velocity at 90.5 and hard hit rate of 44.8 percent are both career highs, according to Baseball Savant. Through July, he is hitting .265 with a .774 OPS over 39 plate appearances, which would be his best month yet. This is also a line that Royals fans would be happy with if he could replicate it over the last couple months of the season. Lastly, Dozier is also taking advantage of mistakes in the zone more as of late, as showcased on this home run against Cleveland’s Zach Plesac:

There are still issues with Dozier and his future in Kansas City. Can he get that strikeout rate down? Will he be able to settle down a little bit and showcase that 2019 self again over the duration of his extension? Can he stay healthy long term? Will he find a position and will the Royals let him stick to it at some point this season? A lot of those questions need to be answered if Dozier is going to have an impact both in the second half of the season as well as beyond.

That being said, Dozier has been showing some promise in July…let’s hope that he can continue to build on that and have a strong finish at the plate to conclude 2021.

Josh Staumont, RHP

In April, Staumont was showing “closer” potential, as he posted a 0.68 ERA and accumulated three saves in 11 appearances out of the bullpen. Unfortunately, much like the Royals overall, Staumont has been on a sharp decline, as injuries and ineffectiveness have dogged him and his performance on the mound. In May, in 10 appearances and 9.1 innings of work, he gave up 11 hits, seven runs, and posted an ERA of 5.79 in the month. While he struck out 13 batters, he also walked eight, not exactly a promising ratio, especially for a pitcher who has struggled with control issues, even in the Minors.

In June, while his ERA over the month wasn’t bad, he gave up two home runs and walked four in seven appearances. He ended up hitting the 10-Day IL due to a knee issue, but the decline in fastball velocity was probably the most alarming sign. Between June 6th and June 8th, according to Statcast game log data, Staumont was only pumping fastballs in the 94-95 MPH range, a far cry from the 100+ MPH ones he was throwing with regularity back in 2020. Thus, it’s not a surprise that with his inconsistent fastball velocity, Staumont has struggled the past few months, and that was even evident in the month of July, as he has posted a 7.36 ERA and 1.91 WHIP in four appearances, one of his worst months yet this year.

Thus, it will be interesting to see if the time off from the All-Star break helps rejuvenate Staumont, who was deemed a key piece for the Royals bullpen heading into 2021. Scott Barlow has been the Royals’ most dependable reliever, and even though he has had some ups and downs, Greg Holland has been serviceable as the Royals’ closer as of late. Kyle Zimmer has also been a surprise, though he has seen his ERA balloon to 3.45, and has seen his fair share of walks allowed as well (17 total, which is only one less than Staumont). If the Royals want to improve upon their reliever ERA, which currently sits at 24th in the league, they will need a strong second half from Staumont.

What could be key to Staumont’s success in the second half may be the development of his sinker, which he throws 13.4 percent of the time this year, a nine percent increase in usage from a year ago. Though the pitch doesn’t have the velocity of his four-seamer, it does have some good movement, and he has used it more in critical counts since June 28th. Here is an example of Staumont getting Oscar Mercado to whiff on it, even though it is way inside and nearly hits Mercado:

Staumont continues to succeed with his curve ball, as he is posting a 50 percent whiff rate on the pitch, according to Savant, which is close to the rate he had on the pitch a year ago. But he has seen a decrease in whiff rate in regard to his four-seamer as well as sinker, as they both possess sub-20 whiff rates. Without the premium velocity on his four-seamer, it may be hard for Staumont to post a 32.3 percent whiff rate again on that pitch (which he did a year ago). However, with more usage and confidence in his sinker, it is possible that Staumont could get more swings and misses on his sinker, which could in turn make him a better, and more complete, reliever overall in the second half of 2021.

And with an effective Staumont, it is possible that the bullpen can be strong once again, much like it was in April as well as in 2020.

Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

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