A spot along the rail of the batting practice cage is reserved for Royals manager Ned Yost. On many days, he is perched directly behind one of his hitters, a leg propped up on a step and two arms folded across a ledge.
Standing next to hitting coach Terry Bradshaw, it is here that Yost takes inventory of the hiccups in swings, aiding in diagnosing the root of slumps. But for two seasons now, the batting practice sessions of outfielder Paulo Orlando have baffled him.
“He consistently hits the ball harder than anybody,” Yost said. “Line drive after hard line drive after hard line drive. Guys are hitting fly balls and hitting homers, and he’s boom, boom, boom.”
And yet the production in major league games shares a different story. A narrative of a hitter who for 18 months has been unable to recapture the success of 2016.
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Orlando hit .302 that season, a number his manager insists was no fluke, especially considering it encompassed 484 plate appearances. It has been a consistent struggle ever since, with injuries and demotions to Triple-A Omaha the only interruptions from major-league poverty. Orlando has hit .188 in 2017 and 2018 combined. That includes 43 strikeouts and only four walks.
“It’s just trying to get my timing back,” Orlando said. “It’s hard when you don’t play every day. Sometimes you swing at every pitch coming. It’s hard to get on time for every pitch and recognize a pitch. That’s what it’s all about.”
Orlando, 32, joined the Royals for the weekend in Chicago, a temporary call-up as outfielder Rosell Herrera was placed on the paternity list to be with his wife in New Jersey. Orlando was in the starting lineup Saturday afternoon.
For Orlando, the call-up interrupted an 11-game hitting streak in Omaha. He batted .366 during the 11 games.
“I feel better at the plate,” Orlando said. “After maybe five days, I feel better; I feel more confident. That’s because I have my timing back.”
It this sounds familiar, well, it should. As the MLB struggles prolong, Orlando has enjoyed extended hitting surges in the minors many times before. Earlier this season, for example, he earned a call-up after hitting .523 (23 for 44) over an 11-game stretch. But in the subsequent shift with the Royals, he hit just .156 (5 for 32).
In all, Orlando has batted .309 with Omaha this year, packaging an .835 on-base plus slugging percentage. He’s hitting .177 with the Royals without a home run.
Hence the frustration — and perplexity — from the Royals.
“Paulo’s had a bit of a struggle here,” Yost said. “Two years ago, it was no fluke. ... But he struggled last year offensively, and up here (this year) has struggled.
“I don’t know why he’s struggled. His swing looks the same to me.”
Orlando said he was bothered earlier this year by left knee pain, derived after he suffered a fractured shin in May 2017. During the rehab process, Orlando believed he overcompensated to try to prevent re-injuring the shin, leaving his knee weaker. It prompted him to skip winter ball.
It was recently that he felt fully healthy, and if nothing else, that’s provided a mental boost. Whether it materializes on the field is much less certain.
“I feel more confident because my body responds perfect,” Orlando said. “I got my body going. I’m confident in myself.”