“Royals 3 Stars”: Benintendi Carries Kansas City Offense

It’s been a while since I have done a Royals “3 Stars” post. Instead of doing a daily post, I’ve decided to do a “3 Star” post at the conclusion of each series, especially since I don’t really have the time to do a “3 Stars” post every day at this time (maybe once school gets out).

It was another tough one for the Royals as they lost 10-5 at Kauffman Stadium in the final game of the four-game series against Cleveland. While the Royals split the series against the Guardians to open the season, they were outscored 27-10 over the past two games, and 28-14 overall during the opening homestand of 2022.

The fact that they won two games against Cleveland, despite that kind of run differential, is really a minor miracle for Kansas City.

While it’s easy to dwell on the negatives of the last two games as Royals fans (and there certainly have been a fair share of that on Twitter), there were some bright spots for the Royals over the past four games.

That’s what the “3 Stars” themed posts are for: to keep an optimistic outlook over a long, 162-game season.

So, here’s the Royals’ “3 Stars” from this Opening series against the Guardians.

Three Stars: Nicky Lopez, 2B

Lopez is batting in the nine-hole and thus hasn’t been getting much attention from Royals fans so far this year. However, Lopez is posting a slash of .400/.455/.500 with a .955 OPS in 10 at-bats this season.

Granted, Lopez is still showing his typical, light-hitting approach, but that is much needed for a lineup that has struggled to make consistent contact over the first four games of the season.

While the barrel rate still ranks in the 1st percentile, he is averaging 92.6 MPH of exit velocity on batted balls, which is not only a 5.8 MPH improvement from a year ago, but also currently ranks him in the 71st percentile after four games.

Actually, many of Lopez’s percentiles look pretty solid, as there is a lot more “red” in those sliders than what Royals fans have typically seen from Lopez the past few seasons.

The chase rate and K percentage are also encouraging trends that he’s keeping up his high-contact approach. That is greatly welcomed at the bottom of the Royals order with high-strikeout hitters like Adalberto Mondesi and Michael A. Taylor in the 7th and 8th spots in the order, respectively.

Lopez though has shown some early pop, as evidenced by this double to the left-center gap on Opening Day off of Shane Bieber:

And of course, Lopez continues to show his signature glove, as demonstrated by this sensational play on Opening Day where he robbed Reyes of a base hit and also saved a run.

The Royals will need the top and middle of the order to turn things around this week against the Cardinals and Tigers.

At the bottom of the order though?

The Royals are in good hands both offensively and defensively with Lopez.

Two Stars: Brad Keller, SP

Keller had a rough season in 2021 and the Royals needed him to have a bounce-back year if they wanted to have any shot to compete in the AL Central division.

Thankfully for Royals fans, after one start, Keller is on the right track to having such a campaign.

In his 69-pitch start on Saturday, Keller went six innings and allowed no runs on two hits and one walk while striking out five. In addition to being an efficient outing, the 2021 Opening Day starter also changed up his pitch mix against Cleveland, as evidenced by his Statcast data below:

Last season, Keller mostly relied on his four-seamer, which ended up being a futile strategy, as it was his most inefficient pitch on a Statcast end. Instead, he upped his slider and sinker usage and lessened the four-seamer, which ended up working to his advantage in his first start of the 2022 season.

Let’s see Keller use his slider, his most used pitch on Saturday, effectively against Cleveland’s Franmil Reyes to generate a swing and miss.

Furthermore, the increased usage of his changeup was also a promising development. Keller threw his changeup 14 percent of the time on Saturday, an over eight percent increase from his usage of the pitch a season ago.

Here’s Keller getting Bobby Bradley of Cleveland to swing and miss on a 90 MPH changeup that falls just out of the strike zone:

So far, Keller is looking like the Royals’ most impressive starter, which is closer to his 2020 season than his rough campaign a year ago. If the Royals’ young pitchers can turn things around somewhat, the Royals’ rotation may be back in good shape again, especially after how stellar Keller and Zack Greinke looked in the first two games of the season.

Of course, it is only one start of many.

That being said, let’s hope his first start is a sign that Keller has gotten his command and pitch mix ironed out for 2022.

One Star: Andrew Benintendi, LF

Benintendi is in the last year of arbitration before becoming a free agent after the 2022 season.

There was some talk early in the offseason that Benintendi would be an extension candidate. However, the lockout happened, and it seems like the Royals and Benintendi’s team stalled not only on extension talks but in arbitration as well.

Despite Benintendi’s uncertain future in Kansas City, he’s been sensational at the plate to begin the season.

He leads the Royals in hits with 7 in 13 at-bats, and he is currently posting a line of .538/.625/.769 with an OPS of 1.394. In addition to leading the Royals in RBI (four), he also hit his first home run against Cleveland today to pull the Royals within three runs in the bottom of the ninth.

I am not sure how long Benny will stay in Kansas City. If the Royals’ 2022 season takes a turn for the worse after this homestand, then it’s possible he could be a trade candidate, especially since it’s unlikely that he will sign an extension after this season.

On the other hand, Benintendi appears to be healthy and seems to have found a groove at the start of the season, which is the exact opposite of what happened at the start of the season in 2021. If the Royals can rebound after this rough homestand, and keep the Royals in contention, then Dayton Moore may be tempted to continue to try and hang on to their Gold Glove-winning left fielder, especially if they believe that Kyle Isbel or Edward Olivares could play centerfield anytime soon.

Maybe this is just a hot series for Benintendi, but I think this year could be a breakout for him, and his best season since 2018, his first full season in the Major Leagues.

And in the process, he could change the opinions of a lot of Royals fans who may not think he’s much better than Isbel.

Photo Credit: David Berding/Getty Images

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