SURPRISE, Ariz. -- With Spring Training entering its third week, here are four storylines from around Royals camp to keep an eye on.
First: Health is better than expected
Royals manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Cal Eldred had no idea what shape their pitchers would be in when they arrived in camp after no communication for three months because of the lockout. When it lifted, there was a thought that the club would have to rely on piggybacking starters to open the season, just to get to the back end of the bullpen.
That doesn’t seem to be the case, at least for now, although it’s clear the Royals will have more long relievers ready in their bullpen than we typically see to start the season. Most pitchers showed up with a normal build-up, and almost all of them were healthy.
“I told [president of baseball operations] Dayton [Moore], I don’t know what shape these guys will be in, how far they’ll be and if we’re going to have any hiccups,” Matheny said late last week. “Proud of the way they all prepared to get to where we are right now. We’ve got a long way to go, and that’s knocking on wood. But they’ve all responded well.”
Some pitchers are farther than others in their progressions based on how they were building up before arriving in Arizona. Daniel Lynch, for example, used his Spring Training plan from a year ago while training in Nashville, so where his pitch count was on March 10, 2021, was where he was on March 10 of this year when the lockout lifted.
Second: Jake Brentz has a revamped two-seamer
We talk a lot about starters adding to their arsenal over the offseason, but rarely do we get to see a reliever trying to incorporate something new. That’s what Brentz has done in his Cactus League appearances. Statcast shows the lefty threw a sinker 12 times in his rookie campaign, but he tinkered with the pitch this offseason and is determined to throw more two-seamers this year to complement his fastball-slider combo. Brentz also has a changeup he threw 12.7% of the time in 2021.
“I started throwing it more in bullpens about a month ago, before we came down here,” Brentz said. “It actually had a lot of horizontal movement. It’s going to be a big pitch for me this year.”
Brentz throws 97-100 mph with his four-seam fastball, which has some ride to it. He wants to give hitters a different look with the two-seamer, and in a five-pitch inning last week, he was pounding the zone with the pitch.
“I am really happy about it,” Matheny said. “It’s hard for a guy who’s been used to trying to miss bats to try to initiate contact, but he’s still got the swing-and-miss stuff. Let’s get ahead strike one, put the ball in play, trust our defense. If not, now we’re in an advantage count, [then] get nasty. And he is nasty. He’s still going to use that high-velocity, high-spin four-seamer. It’s just another weapon that I think really helps him.”
Third: Hunter Dozier's swing looks locked in
Dozier knows that positive spring results don’t mean anything until those results translate over to the regular season, but the Royals' slugger looks much better at the plate in 2022. After dealing with an early-season thumb injury, Dozier posted a .680 OPS in 2021, a far cry from his .870 clip in ‘19 and even his .736 clip in ’20.
Dozier reset his mind and swing this offseason, and so far, it’s paying off. In seven Cactus League games, the 30-year-old is 11-for-21 with a double and just three strikeouts. After spending the winter studying video from 2019, Dozier’s swing looks like his again.
“I worked really hard this offseason trying to get back to what I know I can do,” Dozier said. “Being able to hit the ball the other way, it opens up a whole bunch of stuff for me.”
Dozier acknowledged the mental toll of last season, especially after signing a four-year extension. When he failed to outperform the new contract in his first year, he dove into trying to fix his swing without giving his mind a break. Finishing the season on a high note -- Dozier hit .272/.346/.576 with six home runs the final month of the season -- helped him reset going into the offseason.
“I’m not worried about stats or anything right now,” Dozier said. “It’s a long season, so I don’t want to begin the year trying to do too much, which could get me back to what I was doing last year. So just understanding it’s a long season and continuing with the process. If I do that, at the end of the year I’ll be happy.”
Home: First-pitch strikes
There’s a digital board on the wall of the Royals' clubhouse, near the door where players walk out to the back fields every day. On it lists the percentages of first-pitch strikes that pitchers are throwing in exhibition games compared to the rest of the league. Coaches and staff have put a huge focus on first-pitch strikes, because the Royals ranked last in baseball in that category last year at 57.3 percent.
For their young staff to improve, it can’t get behind in the count as often as it did last season.
“Keeping their eyes on it, knowing that we’re keeping our eyes on it,” Matheny said. “We’re ready to take that step forward and have the accountability. … We know if we’re going to be the kind of team we’re going to be, this has to be a part of it -- working ahead, and in tough counts, being able to get back in the strike zone and not giving up those free bases.”