A .500 start has given Pirates fans hope in a season where that’s pretty unexpected for them.
The Royals will get their first taste of pitchers batting since 2019 when they take on the Pirates in Pittsburgh for a two-game set. The Pirates were widely expected to be one of the three worst teams in baseball this season, along with the Rangers and Orioles, and they still might be, but they’ve gotten themselves off to a nice start. They started the season 1-6, but have gone 10-5 since then to get to their 11-11 mark, finally reaching .500 after taking two of three from the Twins, so that was helpful to the Royals. Looking up and down their roster, especially without the amazing Ke’Bryan Hayes, it’s hard to see this keeping up, but good for their fans for getting to see a nice stretch.
Offensively, the Pirates haven’t been good, but they’ve got some decent enough numbers. Bryan Reynolds, a guy who I thought the Royals might target either this past winter or coming up, has bounced back from a terrible 2020 to be more the hitter he was in 2019. Phillip Evans was surprisingly fantastic at first in filling in for Hayes, hitting .406/.441/.750 in his first eight games replacing him, but he’s fallen off, hitting just .119/.245/.190 since. But they’ve got some pop with Colin Moran, some OBP with Adam Frazier, Reynolds and Jacob Stallings and a few guys with just a nice approach. I wouldn’t say they’re good, but they can beat you on any given day.
On the pitching side, it hasn’t been quite so rosy. The Royals will get to face one of the two Pirates starters who hasn’t been pretty awful so far this season, and of course it’s their lone lefty in the rotation. The bullpen has been pretty solid, though, with a handful of really nice performances, but I really want to single out Duane Underwood, Jr. who has always gotten strikeouts, but he’s really upped his game so far this season. He has 19 strikeouts in 12 innings for Pittsburgh. He’s a multi-inning weapon to watch out for in this series.
Probable Pitching Matchups
The Pirates signed Tyler Anderson as one of those typical veteran arms bad teams sign to stabilize a rotation as they wait for young pitching to arrive. It was a good move. He spent the first four years of his career in the pitching wasteland that is Colorado and outside of a brutally horrible final season that lasted just five starts, he was pretty okay. Then he went to San Francisco last year and he was pretty okay. So far this year, he’s been a little better than pretty okay. It’s a good signing. And he does it in the way a classic lefty does it. His fastball sits around 90, but good spin gets him a lot of swings and misses. His cutter is another good pitch for him that he’s used a lot more this year than last and it’s worked out well. He also has a really good changeup and mixes in the occasional two-seam fastball to change eye level on the four-seamer. Nothing is hard, but everything moves. But he has a massive platoon split with righties hitting .291/.349/.509 against him compared to lefties hitting .250/.250/.292. I wouldn’t be too surprised if we see Hanser Alberto in there for Nicky Lopez in this one, leaving Andrew Benintendi as the lone lefty in the lineup.
Jakob Junis is coming off his first bad start of the year, but I think that start actually showed something impressive about him because he had a brutal first inning, giving up four runs. But the Royals had just had a short start the night before, so he was going to have to wear it for at least a little bit. He could either have continued to struggle or he could adjust and that’s exactly what he did. He was struggling to get to velocity, probably due partly to the cold, and went to his changeup more than he has in all but one game in his career. It got hit a little but not with any authority and he was able to get through five with five runs allowed and kept the team in the game. This is going to be a test for Junis and the new cutter. The Pirates as a team are hitting .346 with a .692 SLG against righty cutters. They’re hitting just .250 with a .346 SLG against righty sliders, so that might be the pitch of the day for him in this one.
Mitch Keller’s Baseball Reference page is weird. You see crazy ERAs flanking a sub-3.00 last year. But in last year’s sub-3.00, you see more walks than strikeouts. But also only nine hits allowed in 21.2 innings. Go into his game logs and you’ll see he didn’t allow a single hit in his final two starts last year, spanning six and five innings respectively. He ended his season without allowing a hit while recording his final 35 outs. But he also walked 10 in that time. So yeah, I’d say control is a bit of an issue for the Pirates’ Keller. It’s been…better…this season. But still not great. He made big strides against the Tigers, not walking a single batter in his last start, but we just saw what pitchers can do to that Tigers offense, so it’s hard to say if that’s for real. The stuff look like it’s for real. His fastball is 94-95 with good spin. He gets whiffs on 31 percent of swings against his slider. He’s struggled with his curve, but really he’s struggled with everything. He’s gotten crushed by lefties. But also by righties. So that’s not a concern. Maybe the craziest stat in all his splits is that when he falls behind in the count, he’s allowed a .500 average and 1.000 SLG. But on the bright side for Keller, opposing pitchers have yet to get a hit off him.
Mike Minor’s last start was his best of the year. Sure it’s only four starts and sure the Tigers offense was anemic for the most part during their series, but a good start is a good start. I would have liked to see him be a little more pitch efficient, but all those swings and misses were so nice to see for him. I have my concerns about him with his velocity down, but he’s still spinning the fastball about as well as anyone and his breaking balls have been dynamite so far this season. I’m surprised his changeup hasn’t played as well as it did last season, so maybe this is the chance for it to get going. I’ll feel a lot better about his fastball moving forward if he can get his changeup to see results.
The Royals need to take at least one of these games and I’m confident they will, but I’m thinking that’s all they take because AL teams playing in NL parks gets weird even when it shouldn’t. I don’t know if that’s scientific, but that’s what I have in my head, so that’s what I typed here.