Singer became a favorite target for social media posts poking fun of some of Singer’s less than flattering moments captured in photos or video. Often, they were associated with rain delays. And then, of course, there was the time Merrifield hid behind the Zoom backdrop and doused the unsuspecting Singer with water in the middle of his media session with reporters.
But when Singer got word he was being demoted to the minors late last month in the visiting clubhouse in Guaranteed Rate Field, Merrifield pulled up a chair to Singer’s locker and the two had a one-one-one conversation.
That brief sitdown helped Singer handle his first demotion to the minors, and it has paid off as Singer gets set to rejoin the Royals’ rotation on Sunday for their series finale against the Minnesota Twins at Kauffman Stadium.
Singer made a spot-start in the second game of Tuesday’s doubleheader, but with Carlos Hernandez sent down to the minors on Friday, a rotation spot opened up on the major-league club.
“He said just go down there and do your thing,” Singer said of Merrifield. “Don’t change anything. Don’t do anything different. Don’t put any more pressure on yourself. It sucks. You don’t want to go to Triple-A. Nobody wants to go down. But just go in there and pitch your game. Do what you know how to do. Get back to the way you’ve always thrown. Have a good attitude and be a pro about it and keep going.”
Merrifield, a two-time All-Star, knows what it’s like to feel like you’re establishing yourself in the majors only to have the rug pulled out from under you by a demotion. He made his big-league debut in 2016 and played half a season in the majors (81 games), batting a more-than-respectable .283 before starting 2017 back at Triple-A.
“The up and down thing is something that I’d say 95 percent of people go through,” Merrifield said. “He hadn’t been through it yet, so I just wanted to hear what they told him and how he was feeling and just kind of be there for him. I know it’s a tough thing.”
The Royals optioned Singer to Triple-A Omaha on April 28, following three relief appearances. He began the season in the bullpen after having lost the competition for one of the five spots in the starting rotation.
Did Merrifield’s words of advice prove helpful?
“Absolutely,” Singer said. “You can go down there and you can be sour about it, upset about it, pissy about it, act that way. But if you don’t, then be a pro, be a man, understand the situation, go down there and do your work. Do what you need to do, shove and be good. Then get back up here.”
Singer made strides in Omaha
In his three appearances at Triple-A, Singer allowed five runs in 13 2/3 innings with 11 strikeouts and four walks. He held opposing hitters to a .163 batting average and posted a WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) of 0.88.
While in the minors, he also continued working on some minor tweaks he’d started making during side sessions and while pitching out of the bullpen.
For one thing, the coaching staff noticed his hand placement on his fastball had crept up higher than it had been in past years. That small difference affected the movement as well as his ability to command that pitch.
“Hand placement is huge,” Singer said. “You can see the movement on the fastball. I feel like it’s much different than it has ever been since I’ve been in the big leagues.
“Just getting the hand a little bit lower, not the elbow or the arm or anything like that, getting a little more movement on the ball. I feel like I’m commanding it better as well. I feel like the misses are smaller, and then kind of playing it right off the changeup and the slider.”
During Singer’s better stretches from 2020-21, one of the common themes was the quality of his missed locations. When he was going well, he consistently missed in locations where he was less likely to get hurt by the opposing hitter. That’s when he turned in some of his most dominant outings, such as when he carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning in Cleveland in 2020.
One of the obvious differences between Singer before and after his stint in Triple-A was his use of the changeup. In 2020, he threw that pitch less than 5 percent of the time. Last season, he went to the changeup 3.9 percent of the time.
In his start against the White Sox on Tuesday, he threw his changeup 17.2% of the time. He also tossed seven scoreless innings and set a career high with nine strikeouts.
Asked how differently he’s approaching things now that he has returned to the majors, Singer said, “Not much different, just really attacking the strike zone. I think that’s the main thing. Going right at guys. Getting strike one and trying to get deep into ballgames.
“We’re playing a lot of games in a short amount of time here lately. So I think we’re all trying to get deep into ballgames. But I think that’s the main thing, using all my pitches in the strike zone and going right at guys.”
Royals manager Mike Matheny certainly noticed a difference in Singer in his return outing. Matheny said definitively that Singer “got better.”
What aspects stood out?
“Everything,” Matheny said. “Confidence. A little edge. More changeups than he’s ever thrown in his whole life combined. All of that, making it very impressive when you get the results along with some of the other things we were hoping to see him do. Part of that was to get the right pitch shape — from even his fastball — there was some small things that he was doing ever since spring training, trying to get fine tuned. He’s a pro. He’s going to make the adjustments that need to be made.”