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Crown Jewels: The 2024 Infield, Targeting Pitchers and a Much Better Team Looming
The Royals have had a lot of questions answered, but they still have some decisions on how they line up and what sort of pitchers they target.
Every year, there comes a point for me where I almost burn out on writing about baseball. It’s not the quality of the team, though a good team helps. But even in 2015, I remember taking a few days off somewhere a few days after the break just because it gets really daunting. Back then, I was writing series previews which I loved doing to start the year and dreaded by about mid-June, so that didn’t help. But what’s funny for me is that I hit this burnout zone probably two-thirds of the way through the season and then find myself with a burst of baseball writing energy at the end of the year. I wonder a little if it’s because the offseason brings so many possibilities that it’s just sort of fun for me to look forward.
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I tell you all of this because I do have some newsletters planned (both in my head and portions written) for the long, cold offseason that I’m really excited about. I’m working on some pretty cool exclusive stuff that I’m not ready to actually discuss but also just some different looks at how I would go about “fixing” the Royals. I’ll be annoying and say it again. This winter is potentially the most important one in franchise history. All of that is to say that I’m excited about what’s to come, at least on Inside the Crown, and I’m sort of dreading what’s to come out of the Kauffman Stadium offices. I will also say that I’m considering changing the model of paid subscriptions. I promised to keep all articles free all 2023 season and I’m not sure what I’m going to do after the season, but I’ll keep everyone informed as I make those choices. Let’s get to some notes.
Aligning the Infield
Coming into the season, I was adamant that the best defensive infield for the Royals was Bobby Witt Jr. at third base and Maikel Garcia at shortstop. I may still be right about that, but I think it’s clear that Garcia at third and Witt at short works just fine. By outs above average, Garcia is fifth in all of baseball and Witt is 10th at their respective positions. Defensive Runs Saved doesn’t like either of them as much, which I’m a little confused about, but I think the eye test matches OAA, so I’m willing to believe that.
Moving to the right side of the infield, Michael Massey rates quite well at second base with 4 OAA, but DRS also doesn’t like him much. I don’t know. I’ve watched probably 98 percent of the innings played by the Royals this year and Massey is a good second baseman. It’s not just the flashy plays he makes with Witt, but I find him to be above average at the very least. It was something I actually sort of expected because he has a below average arm and I thought the shift hurt him quite a bit last year because some of those throws from short right field were a little worrisome.
At first base, defensively, it’s not good. Nick Pratto sometimes looks the part, but he’s rated poorly by all metrics defensively. I’ve thought he handles the line pretty well but struggles to his right. The OAA numbers back that up. I do think the way a first baseman receives throws is more important than the way they handle ground balls because of how it impacts the entire infield and, by the eye test, Pratto does that quite well. So maybe the numbers aren’t quite fair there, but I’ve been disappointed because I’ve expected so much more. And Vinnie Pasquantino didn’t rate well either, but I also thought he received throws fine.
So defensively, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the Royals infield defense. If they went into 2024 with this alignment, they’d turn a lot of batted balls into outs. The problem is the hitting. Witt means nothing in this conversation. He’s hit and played a great shortstop. He’s all set. But the rest are interesting.
As great as Garcia has played at third base, a .367 SLG and, maybe more importantly, a .094 isolated slugging percentage (ISO is SLG minus average and shows how many extra base hits a guy gets basically) doesn’t scream third base. I sometimes believe that the idea that this position has to hit this matters a lot less than it should because who cares where the offense comes from as long as the offense comes from somewhere? Is it easier to find a third baseman who can hit or a second baseman? And then another question comes up of is the defense worth it with Massey at second and Garcia at third that you just don’t care and hope that Pasquantino and potentially an outfield addition gives the offense enough juice that you don’t have to care?
I don’t know the answer, but I think there’s an interesting argument to move Garcia to second and either find a third baseman or give that job to Nick Loftin who can play second, but I think profiles better as a third baseman. There’s a risk there for sure. A guy who hit .270/.344/.444 in a pretty strong offensive environment doesn’t scream upgrade. But he’s made an impression on me in a short time for two reasons. One, his approach is great. He doesn’t chase like at all. When he swings, he makes contact. And when he makes contact, it’s hard-hit quite a bit and he does a nice job of getting the barrel to the ball. He’s obviously in over his head at .345/.424/.586, but the approach and metrics are interesting.
I’m not sold on that, for what it’s worth. The third base free agent market is interesting. Jeimer Candelario is going to be out there. So is Matt Chapman. Gio Urshela is someone I wanted them to go after this season. It’s not great, but there are some names who could be improvements. The trade market seems kind of bare, though there are certainly guys who will become available who don’t jump out.
I just find this question interesting. I think Garcia is a big league regular who is an excellent defender at third, but can the team get better if he plays second or is even traded? Maybe. I think they can win with the current alignment (and Pasquantino over Pratto because of the bat), but they either need Garcia to find more power, which is possible with his batted ball metrics, or Massey to find more consistency with the bat. I suppose it’s probably not a bad idea to look at free agent second baseman. Only the choices are brutal. Elvis Andrus and Whit Merrifield are the best options. So this’ll be something I’m following closely this winter with this team.
Types of Pitchers to Target
Every year, I make a list of all the free agent pitchers and I sort them by walk rate and then I try to find the ones who won’t cost a fortune and are among the best walk rates and suggest the Royals sign them. I’m not sure that’s how I’ll do it this year. I’m sort of buying what this coaching staff is doing with regard to control on the mound and wonder if that allows them to target a different sort of arm than previously.
For the season, Royals pitchers have the 10th-worst walk rate in baseball at 8.9 percent. That’s an improvement in itself over last year when they were second-worst at 9.4 percent. But what’s really interesting is their improvement over the course of the season. In March/April, they were actually pretty good at 8.8 percent. But they were the worst in baseball in May at 11.7 percent and then have steadily gotten better. They were at 8.5 percent in June, 8.1 percent in July, 8.1 percent again in August and are currently at 7.2 percent in September.
Now, since the break, they rank as the 11th-best in baseball at 7.9 percent. Sure some of it is Brad Keller not being on the roster (though he’s back), but I think some of it is that the idea of raiding the zone and simply throwing strikes has started to stick with some of these guys. Not all strikes are good strikes and that’s why they’re fourth-worst in ERA since the break, but the fact that they aren’t walking hitters is a good place to start for two reasons. One, they can target higher strikeout arms. And two, based on improvement throughout the year, you have to feel like this group can actually help improve control.
I don’t think the Royals are going to be going after Blake Snell and I don’t love the profile on the kind of free agent deal he’s likely going to want, but think about guys like him. He has a 31.4 percent strikeout rate but a 13.4 percent walk rate. Lucas Giolito may have priced himself into the Royals range, especially on a short-term deal where he can rebuild some value. He doesn’t walk a lot of batters, but he’s at 8.6 percent and could improve there.
My point is that by getting the current staff under control, pun totally intended, it opens up a lot more options when looking to build out next year’s club. And that’s a good thing because while they’re not walking guys, they aren’t striking nearly enough batters out. Their defense has helped some, but a strikeout is (almost) always an out. Batted balls can be fickle. Find some guys who give up fewer batted balls.
Tough Series with Houston
The Royals have proven to not be very adept at beating good teams. Okay, it’s fair to say they haven’t been very adept at beating any teams, but it’s been especially bad with the good ones. They’re 20-63 against teams currently .500 or better. Yikes. They’ve been even worse against the teams that are .550 or higher with an 8-27 record. If the Blue Jays hadn’t just been swept, it would have looked even worse, but their winning percentage dropped to .544. The point is that they haven’t fared well against teams like the one they’re about to face, though they did win a series against the Dodgers.
The Astros somehow lost two of three to Oakland earlier this week, so you could argue they’re either vulnerable or mad. The smart money is on mad. On the bright side, they got their weekly no-hit bid out of the way on Wednesday, but on the down side, they didn’t get it, so maybe they try again. I’ll get to the pitching, but the Astros offense is as scary right now as it’s been all year. They finally seem to have everyone back. Michael Brantley made his season debut a couple of weeks ago. Jose Altuve is healthy and mashing. Yordan Alvarez is healthy and mashing. Kyle Tucker is just a consistent force of excellent player. Alex Bregman has rebounded from a couple of rougher years. They found a catcher who can actually hit in Yainer Diaz. And Chas McCormick has broken out this year. They’re third in the AL in runs scored, but I’m not sure that does them justice.
Their pitching has been a little more jumbled, but they’re still good and the Royals will see Cristian Javier, JP France and Framber Valdez. The Royals appear to be countering with Zack Greinke, Cole Ragans and Jordan Lyles. So there are two former Astros going up against their old teams, which isn’t really a story, but it’s about the only thing interesting about the Greinke and Lyles games. Javier isn’t having a great year, but we know how tough he can be. I feel like I keep hearing things about Valdez struggling, but every time I look up he’s throwing a good game and getting a million groundballs. That will be tough for the Royals. And France is a 28-year old getting his first big league shot and pitching pretty well, at least on the surface. He probably is due for some regression, though.
If you’re heading out to the stadium this weekend, at least there’ll be some beautiful weather because it doesn’t feel like there’s a great shot at wins. Well, maybe tomorrow if Ragans can keep his footing on the mound. But hey, don’t listen to me. I never would have predicted they’d take a series from the Dodgers and they did that, so maybe lightning can strike twice.