Fellow West County residents Mike Matheny, then an adviser for the Kansas City Royals, and unemployed reliever Trevor Rosenthal got together one day this past offseason at Matheny’s home.
Matheny, who managed Rosenthal at the height of his career here when the righthander had consecutive save seasons of 45 and a club record 48 in 2014-15, said he had seen some video of Rosenthal from the 2019 season — when Rosenthal was let go three times — and he had some thoughts about that both pro and con.
“I could tell he was in a good place with his body, as much as anything, and with his mind,” said Matheny. There was other input in the matter but Matheny asked general manager Dayton Moore to “take a chance” on Rosenthal, who was just 29 at the time and had recovered from Tommy John elbow surgery done late in the 2017 season.
But Matheny and Rosenthal both knew there was something that needed to be fixed in his delivery. In the videos, Matheny had noticed that Rosenthal tended to fall off the mound with a “huge tilt” toward first base, thus affecting his command.
So came the first throwing day in Surprise, Arizona, this past spring and Matheny, now the manager, went to watch Rosenthal. He did not stand behind Rosenthal as most coaches and instructors would do, but more facing Rosenthal, interested only in the mechanics of the delivery.
“I don’t ever remember doing that,” Matheny. “I couldn't care less how hard he was throwing.”
Immediately, Matheny could tell that the former All-Star selection had his range of motion back. “And he was squared up and finishing his pitches,” Matheny said.
Afterward, he consulted a technician from Rapsodo who noted that everything was in the strike zone, and then Matheny found that he did care about the velocity.
“(Rosenthal) looked so effortless,” said Matheny. When he was told the readings were 97 and 98 mph, a stunned Matheny said, “How hard?”
Hmmm, he thought. “This is going to be fun,” he said.
And so came the restart of Lee’s Summit native Rosenthal’s career as a closer. The Royals have two other relievers who have had 30 or more saves in a season in Ian Kennedy, last year’s closer, and Greg Holland, a former Cardinal, who was the Royals’ closer during two World Series seasons.
The bullpen also features 100 mph fastballer Josh Staumont who, in Rosenthal’s estimation, “has got a better arm than I ever had. I’ve never seen a ball jump out of anybody’s hand like I’ve seen with his.”
But it is Rosenthal who generally is the finisher. And he has closed almost unfailingly.
In his first 11 games, before Minnesota’s Nelson Cruz homered off him in a non-save spot on Sunday, Rosenthal saved six games and posted an 0.87 earned run average with 14 strikeouts and four walks over 10 2/3 innings, in which he had permitted five hits. Last year, with Washington and Detroit, he worked 15 1/3 innings, giving up just 11 hits but 24 runs as he walked 26 and hurled nine wild pitches.
“He’s doing a fantastic job,” said Matheny, who will be here with Rosenthal for the next three days as the Royals come to town for an interleague series.
Rosenthal admitted he had adopted some bad habits while he was rehabbing from his surgery.
“I started messing around with a different throwing program,” he said. “I tried to change some mechanical stuff that led to the majority of my struggles last year. I thought there was something I could do to be more efficient. It was the wrong thing.
“Things kind of snowballed. Once the season was over, I pretty much went back to what I had done in the past. I started to get comfortable. I started to get my confidence back and then I came into spring training and everything was clicking. And I’ve been able to continue building on that.”
One of the low points came in late August last year after the New York Yankees signed Rosenthal with an eye possibly to include him on the postseason roster and ran him through a brief camp in Tampa. In his one regular-season game with the Yankees’ Scranton-Wilkes Barre AAA team, Rosenthal walked three and hit one, and with another less than stellar outing in an International League playoff game, there was no ticket to the big leagues.
“That was a bummer,” said Rosenthal. “I was excited about the opportunity. I pretty much had to pitch well one time and I was going to be a September call-up. So that opportunity kind of faded away.”
Rosenthal received plenty of advice last year. “But it just seemed like there was never really anybody that could explain to me what I was doing — really give me any quantification why my results were the way they were,” he said.
“I had to do a lot of it on my own. It took an offseason to figure it out.”
To have his former manager in Matheny and a former Cardinals pitching assistant in Cal Eldred as the Royals’ pitching coach has been a large benefit, said Rosenthal.
“Mike understands me more than anybody,” Rosenthal said. “And I understand him. With this being his first year here as manager, a lot of players come to me and ask me questions about him. In the bullpen, I can let guys know what he’s thinking and how he operates.
“At the core of it — the best thing about Matheny — is he cares about us more than you will ever know. This guy would do anything for any guy on the team. He’d give you the shirt off his back. And that carries over to the game.
“Obviously, he’s here to win but he wants every guy to get the best situation and the best opportunity to succeed. That’s where his heart is and when guys understand that, they have a lot more trust in him and what they tell him is going to be the truth.
“And Cal’s amazing. He’s been super supportive.”
Last year, Rosenthal said, there was little fun to be had. In Washington, he thought of himself as someone “that nobody wanted to get too close to because they didn’t want to catch what I had,” Rosenthal said.
“It wasn’t like my stuff wasn’t there. I had all my pitches. I just couldn’t locate my fastball. It was mentally draining. I just wasn’t having fun when I was coming to the field. I really wasn’t enjoying baseball at all — and there was nothing I could do about it.”
Rosenthal, however, did get a World Series championship ring and a partial share for his troubles. He would have made $2.2 million with the Royals this year if he reached all his incentives in a full season. But he might be an attractive free agent this offseason.
During the season, Rosenthal actually is sleeping in his old room in Lee’s Summit at his parents’ house. “More the home-cooked meals is what I’m appreciating,” he said, laughing.
As a potential free agent, Rosenthal will keep his home in Des Peres with his wife and three small children — until further notice.
“The plan is to stay in St. Louis, especially when I’m still playing,” he said. "It’s just too much work to move. But, with the nature of my job, from year to year now, who knows where I’m going to be?”
Would he stay in Kansas City?
“The organization is amazing and I’ve really enjoyed the people here. You can’t argue with the results that I’ve had,” he said. But, he said whatever happens, “hopefully, I can do a little bit better than having a minor-league invite this year.”
When he trots in from the bullpen this week, the “300 Violin Orchestra,” his theme song suggested by John Mozeliak, Cardinals general manager at the time, won’t be playing.
But the adrenaline will be rushing. “Like always, I’ll just try to show what I’ve got,” Rosenthal said.
“Getting that last out and shaking hands … that’s a pretty cool experience.”