by John Unrein
The forecast for Grain Valley on February 17th was a high of 21 degrees with a chance of snow. In stark contrast was the sunny skies and 66 degree forecasted temperature in Surprise, Arizona. The latter is the spring training home of the Kansas City Royals. February 17th was the first day pitchers and catchers are eligible to report for the Royals in Surprise. The first full team squad workout is scheduled for February 22nd.
Familiar faces remain for the Royals as they head to Arizona. Danny Duffy and Salvador Perez are both set to begin their 10th season with the team that signed and developed them. Both are also entering the final year of their contracts, otherwise known as the “walk year” in baseball terminology. Designated hitter Jorge Soler is also in the same boat and is scheduled to be paid $8 million in the final year of the deal he originally inked with the Chicago Cubs.
Joining Duffy, Perez, and other long term Royals such as Whit Merrifield, who enters his 6th season with the team will be new faces like first baseman Carlos Santana, left fielder Andrew Benintendi, center fielder Michael Taylor, and the return of veteran southpaw Mike Minor, who was previously with the club in 2017.
The Royals only have a few spots open for competition during Spring Training as they return an established team that David Adler of MLB.com suggests will be one of the seven teams that are going to better than people think. General Manager Dayton Moore has also gone on record saying he expects the Royals to be competitive within the American League Central Division this season.
The Major League Baseball Players Association has rejected the MLB proposal to delay the start of the 2021 season due to COVID-19 concerns. Instead, the players union is advocating for a full 162 game season that begins on time. That means the Royals first spring training game is still scheduled to be played at 2:05pm CST on February 28th against the Texas Rangers.
The start of baseball can be a smorgasbord of memories and eagerness for fans. Some will look forward to the unmistakable smells of popcorn and hotdogs in the brisk spring air. Others will debate if they can sing “Take me out to the ballgame” better than the late longtime Cubs broadcaster Harry Carey. And no doubt some will ignore statistical probability and still bring their glove to the game and wear it an effort to be prepared for the inevitable foul ball they expect to be hit their way and catch. If all else fails, a continued generation of fathers and their children who struggle to find common things to talk about will banter back and forth about baseball.
Grain Valley Eagles head baseball coach Brian Driskell has his own reason he looks forward to the start of professional baseball. Driskell witnessed the 2020 high school baseball season erased due to COVID-19. The Eagles were 19-11 the last time they took the field as a team in 2019. Grain Valley News recently discussed baseball related topics with Driskell, including what he looks forward to the most and what he has missed about the sport.
“The anticipation of a new season and the excitement around it is special. There is a reason why places like the ‘K’ (Kauffman Stadium) sell out on opening day. It is a like a New Year’s resolution in that you are starting again with hope,” Driskell said.
“I also miss the day to day of practice and hanging out with the boys and the memories created. I do enjoy my time away from the game as well. Coaching my son’s team during the offseason is rewarding. I get in modes when I am drowning in baseball. My family and I try to make the months of July and August our time away from professional responsibilities.”
One of the keys to the 2021 season that will be paramount to the success of the Kansas City Royals is the continued growth of their young pitching. Three-fifths of the Royals starting rotation will be under the age of 25. Brad Keller is 24, Brady Singer is 23, and Kris Bubic is 22. Southpaw starters Danny Duffy and Mike Minor are set to be the crafty elder statesmen of the rotation at 31 and 33 years of age, respectively.
The Royals finished the shortened 60 game 2020 season with a team Earned Run Average (ERA) of 4.30 and an average of 9 strikeouts per nine innings pitched, while giving up 1.375 walks and hits per innings pitched (WHIP). Those numbers compare favorably to the Royals World Series appearances of 2014 and 2015. This revelation should continue to fuel the optimism of the organization for the upcoming season. Having top pitching prospects such as Asa Lacy, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, and Carlos Hernandez approaching the status of being “major league ready” as they polish their skills does not hurt either.
Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn once said, “hitting is timing, pitching is upsetting timing.” One of the age old debates around America’s pastime is the effectiveness of pitching inside and when to do it in the hitter’s at-bat. The risk and reward involved is upsetting the hitter’s comfort level versus possibly giving the batter first base or worse if they take exception to being plunked.
Driskell shared his thoughts on the decision of pitching inside and its worth.
“I read a piece the other day on Trevor Bauer and him attacking guys away late in the count. The ability to pitch inside give you an advantage. Anthony Rizzo stands close to the plate and his hands hover over the inner half of the plate saying if you can hit the inner half of the plate three times, then I will tip my hat to you,” Driskell said.
“If you miss in, you hit them, of if you miss away then you give the batter a hittable pitch. Showing a hitter that you have the confidence to pitch inside and disrupt a hitters timing or thinking gets into the head of the person at the plate and may mess with their confidence. This gives a possible advantage to the pitcher.”
The Royals are also heading to spring training with a limited number of proven lefties in their bullpen. Typically, managers like to have the availability to call on southpaws for favorable lefty to lefty (pitcher to hitter) matchups as the game unfolds. Royals General Manager Dayton Moore and Manager Mike Matheny have elaborated that they are less concerned with traditional thinking in that manner and more concerned about what statistics and advance metrics show in relation to a pitcher’s ability to get a batter out from either side of the plate.
Control, the arsenal contained by a pitcher, and the recent streak that pitcher has been on during relief appearances is the approach Driskell believes matters the most.
“The matchup scenario depends on the lefty you have in the bullpen. I was a sidearm change up and sinker pitcher in college and pitched better to lefties than I did to a right hander. Someone like Max Scherzer has the stuff to get a batter out regardless of what side of the plate he hits on,” Driskell said.
“Control matters as well. What streak the pitcher and current batter at the plate has been on, that is important to consider as well. I like getting the best guy on the mound.”
Offensively, the Royals have focused this offseason on adding bats to the lineup that have good eye discipline in relation to the strike zone and strong on-base percentage. The Moneyball adage that it is hard to score runs if you cannot get on base and runs lead to wins. Enter the acquisitions of first baseman Carlos Santana and left fielder Andrew Benintendi.
Santana led the American League in walks with 47 during the shortened 2020 season as well as boasting a healthy .349 on-base percentage. Benintendi posted a .359 on-base percentage last season and has been at .350 for OBP four out of his six seasons at the major league level.
Moore and Matheny have both spoken highly of the team’s newest acquisitions.
“We have admired Carlos for a long time within this division. We have watched him develop and mature into a productive hitter, a winning-type player. Very grateful he can be part of our organization. He fits in extremely well with our lineup and our players,” Moore said.
Matheny added in relation to Benintendi, “Sweet swing. Trying to watch his swing through a scout’s eye, you see this guy had a real nice idea of plate awareness. He just didn’t have a lot of swing and miss.”
Driskell views on-base percentage at the high school level for the Eagles more about the hitter’s place in the lineup and the approach used at the plate, especially dependent on the count.
“Top of the lineup guys, I pay attention to on-base percentage. How hitters at the bottom of the lineup hit and attack may be different. We want to get a ‘quality at-bat.’ We use a computer program called ‘GameChanger’ to track that at the high school level,” Driskell said.
“Is the pitcher working ahead? Consider that in your approach at the plate. Our preference is not to swing at breaking balls. I have a chart of different MLB averages matched to pitch count. The 1-1 count is a big tipping in which way the at-bat goes based on what the pitcher and hitter does next.”
Baseball is upon us. With it comes the age old renewal of hope and endless conversation about strategy that makes the sport so great.