We have our first peek into how Royals manager Matt Quatraro will use his bullpen
Over the past several weeks, Royals manager Matt Quatraro shared conversations with players, coaches and members of the front office. He actually avoided some sort of research project immediately after he took the job, preferring to formulate his own opinion on those he was about to meet for the first time.
The evaluations would follow rather than precede those introductions — both on team processes and individual players. And so by the conclusion of spring training in Surprise, Arizona, a first-time manager hoped he wouldn’t resemble, well, a first-time manager.
But for all of the preparation, there’s one thing he couldn’t truly replicate.
The spring training games follow pitching scripts — to hell with any emphasis on the win-loss result — leaving Quatraro to simply imagine what he might do, even if he wasn’t actually pulling the lever.
It all counted Thursday.
The Royals lost their season opener 2-0 to the Twins, and in the middle innings — the sixth, to be exact — we got our first peek into Quatraro’s blueprint. Let’s underscore that it’s just a peek and provide the obligatory sentence that this was Game 1 of 162. But that’s more than we had a day earlier.
And his first move did factor into the score line. With one out in the sixth inning, Quatraro removed starter Zack Greinke after 80 pitches. In his place, he summoned left-hander Amir Garrett.
The decision seemed pretty elementary on the face of it. The Twins had a runner on first base and lefties Nick Gordon and Joey Gallo due up, so if the left-handed Garrett gets both out, that’s that.
Except that was not that.
The Twins pinch-hit righty Kyle Farmer for Gordon (and he walked), and then pinch-hit righty Donovan Solano for Gallo, and he directed a single into left field that scored the Twins’ second run during an afternoon in which it’d become clear the Royals would not score many. It was not yet clear they would not score any.
To his credit, Garrett escaped the inning without further damage, leaving the bases loaded.
Regardless of how it worked out, I had planned to ask Quatraro the reasoning behind his first decision — but particularly after the Twins countered his initial move with a couple of their own.
Did he run into something unexpected his first time out?
Here’s what he said, and the interruptions are my own, spliced between his full explanation: “I mean we kind of figured they would hit for one, if not both, of those guys.”
So why the lefty if he’d end up facing two right-handed hitters?
“Amir is pretty neutral as far as being able to get righties and lefties, so I felt pretty good about that,” Quatraro continued on his own.
Somewhat. Left-handed hitters really struggled against Garrett last year, with only 7 hits in 66 at-bats (.106 average). Those are the matchups you want. But right-handers still hit only .228 against him in 92 at-bats with just five extra-base hits and zero homers, so the primary point stands. Having Garrett face a right-handed hitter is not an avoid-at-all-costs proposition.
But there was an extra layer to it Thursday, and this one in the sense that not all those right-handed stats are created equal.
“You know, guys coming off the bench tend to play down a little bit,” Quatraro added.
That’s backed by the data. In the American League last season, pinch-hitters totaled an OPS (on-base plus slugging) of .628. That’s compared to an OPS of .702 in all other spots.
So either the Royals get Garrett against a lefty, or they get him against pinch-hitters. Either way, the data shifts in their favor. In other words, it’s the role that makes the most sense for Garrett — even if it didn’t completely work out on the first try. These are a gambles. All playing the best odds, not the perfect odds.
It’s interesting, even educational, to hear Quatraro walk through his thinking on his first opportunity. And it’s a bit refreshing that after it prompted a run on opening day, he was still just fine with replying to a question asking him to explain it. (If your reasoning is sound, you should be eager to explain it.)
Quatraro and pitching coach Brian Sweeney are communicating to relievers pregame, hoping to provide them a bucket of hitters — and timing — in which they might enter a game. Ideally, the roles would fall naturally as a game progresses, with Garrett, Jose Cuas, Dylan Coleman and Aroldis Chapman working as one-inning setup men for closer Scott Barlow; and Taylor Clarke, Ryan Yarbrough and Carlos Hernandez providing the potential for multiple innings, if necessary; and with Yarbrough even available for a potential piggyback spot when a starter lasts fewer than five.
Subject to change any day, of course.
The ‘pen had some bright spots in the opener, with Cuas, who struck out the side, and Hernandez, who is shifting to a full-time bullpen role after sprinkling in as mostly a starter over the past couple of seasons. The only run Garrett allowed as was actually an inherited runner — it charged to Greinke — leaving the bullpen with 3 2/3 scoreless innings spread across four arms.
This is still the group that offers the clearest path for the Royals’ improvement in 2023, but much of that is about using guys in the right spots. And much of that is about the starting pitchers allowing everyone on the back end to be fresh and available.
We’ve discussed that already. We haven’t yet had the chance to discuss an actual move.
More of them to come.