Three Pressing Questions After Royals Snap Five-Game Losing Streak

After losing five-straight games, the Royals finally got back on the winning end of things, as they beat the Tigers 3-1 on Saturday afternoon.

It was nice to see the Royals on the field after the game, celebrating with a handshake line, which hasn’t been seen by Royals fans since the second game of the season:

While the Royals pitching staff did allow seven walks, they limited the Tigers lineup to only four hits in game three of the series. The Royals’ pitching staff and defense did benefit from the pitcher-friendly conditions at Kauffman Stadium on Saturday, as the cold weather and wind kept some balls in the yard that might go out during other months in the season.

Robbie Grossman’s fly out was a prime example of this:

While the Royals did benefit from the Tigers’ lack of offense, they also were helped by a solid performance from Hunter Dozier, who has been having a solid start to the 2022 season (.296 average; .802 OPS). Dozier hit a two-run blast into the wind in the bottom of the 6th that broke that tie and gave the Royals a two-run lead (which they eventually kept).

The Royals are currently 3-5 as they enter the final game of the four-game series against Detroit (though who knows if the game will get in, due to weather). After today’s win, I decided to look at and answer three important questions that many Royals fans may have about this squad as we look forward to the coming weeks of Royals baseball in April.

How Long Will Mike Matheny Stick With This Batting Order?

There’s no question that this lineup has struggled to begin the season, and that is putting it “lightly” to say the least.

While Dozier’s home run was nice, the Royals still only managed to score three runs today, and they did leave 15 runners on base. Furthermore, no other Royals hitter had an extra-base hit today beyond Dozier’s homer, which is a concerning sign for a club that has been starved for extra-base hits and runs this season.

In fact, after yesterday’s loss, Alec Lewis of the Athletic posted a sobering stat about the Royals’ OPS mark for the season after Friday night’s defeat:

With the exception of a Cam Gallagher start against St. Louis (which moved Salvy to DH), this has been the typical lineup for the Royals since Opening Day:

Dozier and Benintendi (.902 OPS) have thrived so far this year, and Nicky is doing enough in the nine-hole (.348 average), even though he is not offering a whole lot of power (.766 OPS). Unfortunately, beyond those three, it’s been a rough go for this lineup, and one has to wonder if Matheny will mix things up either tomorrow or in the next series against the Twins, in order to rejuvenate this Royals team.

One of the biggest candidates for a batting order change may be Whit Merrifield, who is only hitting .152 with a .328 OPS, which is far from ideal for a leadoff hitter. While Whit is not the only hitter struggling for the Royals, the fact that he is performing so poorly as the Royals’ leadoff hitter is a concern, especially with the young Bobby Witt, Jr. hitting behind him, who has gone through his share of growing pains this year (though Witt did have two hits today).

Alex Duvall of Royals Farm Report feels that it may be time for Whit to be moved out of the leadoff spot, and honestly, I am in agreement with the move, even if it may be jarring for Whit and Royals fans initially:

In addition to Whit, it will be interesting to see what Matheny will do with Carlos Santana, who is off to a frigid start to begin the season (.341 OPS).

The Royals probably need to play Santana as much as possible (much to the chagrin of many Royals fans) to help drive interest around the league in a trade. That being said, it’s obvious that he’s not providing much value as a run producer, especially in the five-hole (though he is still walking a decent amount and scoring runs).

To make matters worse with this lineup situation, it hasn’t been easy for Royals fans to see young outfielders like Edward Olivares and Kyle Isbel ride the pine day after day when the lineup is proving to be so punchless to begin the season (they have only four plate appearances between the two of them)

I know the Royals believe that they need more time and data from this lineup before making any major moves.

However, if the Royals struggled to score again in the next game and against the Twins, Matheny may need to make a lineup order change sooner rather than later, in order to avoid getting into too big of a hole to begin the season.

Did Kris Bubic Show Improvement? (And What’s His Status in the Rotation?)

Bubic’s line is a peculiar one. On one hand, he went 4.1 IP and only allowed two hits and one earned run.

That’s pretty good, especially considering how awful his first start went against Cleveland.

On the other end, he did give up six walks and threw 89 pitches over that 4.1 innings of work. That’s not efficient, and Bubic and the Royals were lucky that the Tigers lineup didn’t make Kansas City pay more dearly for the number of free passes Bubic gave out.

But, let’s take a look at how Bubic’s command fared from his first start to his second.

Here’s a look at Bubic’s pitch chart from his 2022 debut:

As Royals fans can see, the command is all over the place with all of his pitches. The changeup was particularly bad, as he only had one changeup thrown in the strike zone during that start. Additionally, his struggles to command his four-seamer in this outing didn’t help either and was a big reason why Matheny pulled Bubic out after only 29 pitches.

Now, let’s take a look at his pitch chart from Saturday’s game:

He missed a lot up in the zone with the four-seamer and curveball, which seemed to be mechanics-related. On the other hand, he was much more effective with his changeup command, as there is more green in the strike zone than in his previous start.

Was it a perfect start from Bubic?

Absolutely not, and he’ll be the first to admit that his command (especially of his four-seamer and curveball) needs to improve in his next outing.

However, it was nice to see Bubic throw 60 more pitches than his first start. He also limited hard contact, as Detroit hitters only averaged an exit velocity of 88.6 MPH on batted balls. That is a three MPH improvement from Bubic’s last start against Cleveland.

Bubic showed he could at least command his pitches in the zone to generate groundballs, which plays into the Royals’ strong infield defense, as evidenced by this Adalberto Mondesi play below:

Let’s see if Bubic, who has at least earned another start in the Royals rotation, can generate more swings and misses and be more efficient with his pitch count in his next outing.

Who Will Be the Royals’ “Main” Closer This Season?

I say “main” closer mostly because I know Matheny likes to keep the late innings as fluid as possible.

And honestly, I like that Matheny is willing to bring in Scott Barlow in crucial, high-leverage situations, even if it may not be a “save” situation. The Royals needed Barlow today to come in and keep things close in the 7th and 8th, even if it didn’t result in a “save” for him at the end of the game.

That being said, while Barlow has been the Royals’ “main” closer the past couple of seasons, I wonder if that will change in 2022.

And that’s mostly due to Josh Staumont, who’s been lights out lately after a slow start to begin the 2022 season.

In addition to getting the save today, Staumont flat out dominated Tigers hitters in the bottom of the ninth. Staumont struck out two batters and walked none in an inning of work. He was able to flash a 100-plus MPH fastball, in addition to an 84-MPH curveball, that just made Detroit hitters look silly in the ninth inning.

Take away Staumont’s three-hit, two runs allowed performance against Cleveland on April 11th, and one could argue that he’s been one of the Royals’ best relievers so far this year. In addition, when looking at his Statcast metrics from his outing today, Royals fans have to wonder if Staumont is settling into his pitch mix and stuff, something that he has struggled to do in the past couple of years due to a variety of issues (both health and skill-related).

Here’s a look at his player breakdown data from today, via Baseball Savant:

I mean, a 60 percent CSW and 88.7 Max Exit Velocity on batted balls?

That’s closer stuff right there.

Of course, Royals fans can’t sleep on Collin Snider, who’s been 2022’s breakout reliever for the Royals thus far. In four appearances this year, Snider hasn’t given up a run, has only given up three hits, and has allowed zero walks while striking out four.

And that has been mostly due to a nasty slider, which has given opposing batters fits this year, as evidenced in the clip below:

Barlow will be Barlow, which is a good thing for Kansas City, even if it means he’ll pitch in a variety of situations.

And yet, the Royals have options in the ninth beyond Barlow, with Snider slowly emerging as a favorite of Matheny’s, and Staumont looking more and more like a guy who can be the next “great” Royals closer in the mold of Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera. The fact that Staumont had such a solid performance today, despite pitching on Friday night, is a good sign, especially since he’s struggled in the past whenever he has pitched back-to-back days.

It will be intriguing to see if Matheny will continue to use different options in the ninth as the season progresses and if that could result in Barlow being used less and less in the ninth.

Even if that happens, the Royals could still be in good hands at the end of games…

And that is a good thing, especially if the Royals lineup continues to struggle at the beginning of the season.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

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