Fact or Fiction: Struggling Hitters
Let's look at the main culprits of a struggling Royals offense to see who looks poised to emerge and who, well, doesn't.
As much as we all wish the 14-game sample we have of the Royals is enough to make definitive conclusions, the reality is that we don’t. So far, they’ve scored 43 runs for an average of just a touch over three per game and done so with a .215/.272/.336 line, which is far enough south of atrocious that it’s reasonable to be concerned at the least and petrified of what this season could bring at the most. But it’s important to remember that 14 games played over 18 days is prime for random variance. What we know is that they’ve gotten there via a few players being truly terrible.
The Royals are actually getting good performances from Andrew Benintendi (177 wRC+), Salvador Perez (163 wRC+), Hunter Dozier (138 wRC+) and Nicky Lopez (110 wRC+). They’ve also gotten probably about the best they can hope for from Michael A. Taylor with a 92 wRC+. That’s five regulars performing above average or above their average. It should be enough. But it’s not. I’m going to look at the four regulars who have been somewhere between horrific and awful and see if their performance so far this young season is more fact or fiction.
Let’s work from the bottom up using wRC+ as our guide.
Stats: .125/.176/.125, -13wRC+
There is no sugarcoating what is going on with Adalberto Mondesi right now. His strikeout rate is the highest of his career. He’s without an extra base hit in 51 plate appearances. And he’s not even hitting the ball hard like he normally does. Last year he had a 44.2 percent hard hit rate. That’s down to 28.6 percent this season. The good news is he’s chasing way less outside the zone, but the bad news is that he’s swinging way less inside the zone too. So the short answer here is that he isn’t being more patient. He’s being passive.
So what’s happening, is he’s hitting just .094 with zero extra base hits (obviously) on pitches inside the zone. That’s not ideal. Last year, it was .286 with a .549 SLG. The guy is going to chase, but he’s been able to do damage inside the strike zone throughout his career and that’s just gone. Narrowing the zone down to the heart of the plate rather than simply strikes because the edges can be tough, the numbers get just a touch better. He’s hitting .125 on those pitches, but he hit .327 with a .654 SLG on those pitches last year.
He’s not whiffing significantly more on those pitches. He’s just not doing any damage on them. And he comes by his numbers honestly with a .179 xBA and a .260 xSLG. The big problem for him is that he hasn’t been able to do any damage on fastballs. He’s hit just .154 on them this season with a 32.1 percent whiff rate. In past years, in order, it’s been .300/24.7%, .295/33.2%, .286/30.6% and .291/25.2%. So the whiff rate isn’t necessarily that worrisome, but the average and the average exit velocity on them is troubling.
What we know about Mondesi is that he’s extremely streaky. While we talk a lot about his injuries in 2021, it’s easy to forget that he had a bizarre 2020 season where he was one of the worst hitters in baseball for most of the short season and then was a monster for the last three or four weeks. But the one thing that has been constant through the hot streaks is the end numbers.
From 2019 to 2021, he’s had a walk rate between 4.3 percent and 4.7 percent, a strikeout rate between 29.8 percent and 31.6 percent, a sub-.300 OBP and a .160+ ISO. Last year, he had less OBP and more power, but I have a hunch that would have evened out if he had more than 136 plate appearances. I’m going to stick with my Mondesi mantra I’ve carried for awhile now. He’s told us what he is. It’s up to us to believe it.
Maybe I’m harsh here. He isn’t this bad, but it’s not like he’s going to magically turn into the guy we all thought he might after some great play in the second half in 2018 and flashes over the last couple seasons. I just don’t see him putting it all together enough to be an every day player. He’ll get to his numbers, but not in a way where he can be counted on daily. The best thing the Royals can do while he’s still on the team is be so in tune with him that they ride him when he gets into one of his amazing stretches and not be afraid to pull back when he cools down.
Stats: .136/.164/.169, -8 wRC+
I wrote a lot this winter about how Merrifield was in decline. I did not expect him to look this bad. Now, a lot of the thought about how bad he looks comes from him striking out four times, including in a huge spot, on Sunday. That’s actually half of his strikeouts on the season, which is kind of insane. If you listened to the broadcast, you’d assume that Merrifield has hit about 400 line drive outs already and should probably be hitting .780.
Well they’re not entirely wrong. His xBA is .246 and his xSLG is .357. That’s much better than the actual numbers, but much like I’ve argued with Ryan O’Hearn and his “unlucky” numbers, just because things should be better doesn’t mean better would be good. Merrifield’s hard-hit rate is up this year, but he was also in the bottom 7 percent of the league in 2020 in terms of hard-hit rate and the bottom 6 percent last year, so going up, again, doesn’t mean getting to good levels. But Merrifield has always done a nice job of doing well in spite of that.
Let’s talk about this bad luck for a second. Just looking at him for a second, he’s hit .364 on line drives. Those are batted balls between 10 and 25 degrees. The exit velocity doesn’t make a lick of difference there. That looks good, but his xBA on those is .691. On the surface, that seems to be the biggest issue, right? Well…no. It’s on 11 batted balls. So he’s 4 for 11, but if he was hitting to his xBA, he’d be more like 7 for 11. Sure, three more hits would look better, but he’d be hitting .186 instead of .136. Again, better doesn’t mean good. Through Sunday’s action, the league was hitting .634 on line drives, so there’s some positive regression potentially there for Merrifield, but it’s still not good enough.
Now let’s look at hard-hit balls. Remember, those are hit 95 MPH or harder. It’s considered hard hit if he hits it at a 90 degree launch angle or pounds it into the ground. He’s just 2 for 16 on those, which is a .125 average. His xBA there is .415. Let’s be kind there and say that he “should” be 7 for 16 on those based on the xBA. Of those five hits, we’ve likely already accounted for three of them, so let’s give him two more to get his average up to .220. Better, but still not good.
My biggest concern, though, isn’t any of that, though it is communicated through those numbers. He looks helpless against fastballs. He was eaten alive on Sunday and he’s now 0 for 6 this year on pitches 95 MPH or harder. Even if you drop the velocity to 92 MPH, he’s 1 for 17 and not significantly unlucky there. I know that the league is turning more to breaking balls, but when the average velocity on two and four-seam fastballs is 93.7 MPH, being unable to catch up with velocity is a huge problem.
I don’t think Merrifield is completely done, but I want to see him actually hit some velocity soon or else I’m going to amend that statement. He hit .349 last year on fastballs 95+. I know that aging can happen fast, but I just have a hunch this is a blip and he’ll be fine, but not good soon enough.
Bobby Witt Jr.
Stats: .185/.214/.278, 40 wRC+
Okay, we finally have someone who is just bad and not horrific. Not to toot my own horn, but you might recall I warned people Bobby Witt Jr. could start off slow. So many of the best players in the game have come to the big leagues and looked lost for a good chunk of plate appearances. Unlike the first two on this list, I have no real history to go on here other than minor league history, and even that’s just one year.
I generally try to ignore what a rookie is doing for at least 50-75 PA. Witt is at 56, so he’s going to have to show some adjustments at some point soon, but then I like to give them a little time to pull the numbers up from the dumpster. That means that I’m waiting until maybe mid-May to worry about this guy. A couple things that I’ve liked are that he seems to be working to let the ball get deep into the zone and is happy to hit the ball the other way. I don’t want that forever because he has some ridiculous power and he should be turning on pitches, but I think that’s fine while he gets his legs under him.
Unlike Merrifield, Witt has smoked hard fastballs. He’s 0 for 4 on them, but with an average exit velocity of 98.4 MPH and he’s only swung and missed at one. The sample is impossibly small, but you’d rather see good than bad regardless. What I’m seeing from Witt is a little passivity that I think will work itself out, but can’t know for sure.
He’s struggling on pitches inside the zone, going just 4 for 33 with one extra base hit, a triple. He’s taken 28 called strikes in the zone and 18 are on the first pitch. That’s part of why he’s found himself behind in the count in 46 percent of his plate appearances when the league average through Sunday was 34 percent. He’s been 0-2 in 26.8 percent of plate appearances compared to the league average of 21.7 percent. Just for a frame of reference on some of these stats, he’s seen a first pitch in the zone on 60.7 percent of plate appearances. The league, through Sunday, saw a first pitch in the zone on 52 percent of first pitches.
This goes against the idea of working counts, but if he gets aggressive on that first pitch, he has a chance to pick up some hits now and get worked differently later. He’s a smart hitter with insane talent, so I’m confident he’ll figure it out.
I’m not concerned. Yet. I said before the season started that if Witt doesn’t become a star, then we can never predict anyone will again. I stand by that. It hasn’t been pretty but the adjustment to the big leagues is a tough one and Witt is going to be an impact hitter soon enough.
Stats: .100/.250/.200, 43 wRC+
I wrote a lot about Santana in yesterday’s Weekend in Review, so I won’t go quite as in depth here as I have on the others, but I will look at some of the expected numbers. There’s an awful lot of red on that chart above, and I think we saw a look at the Santana on Saturday and Sunday that looked a lot closer to the early season version from last year. He’s been patient all year and made contact with a 16.3 percent walk rate and just a 10.4 percent strikeout rate.
So the question that has to be asked is how does someone have the above profile without any kind of reasonably decent stats. Is he suffering from bad luck? As I mentioned yesterday, he’s 3 for 16 on hard-hit balls. Let’s do the same match we did with Merrifield. He “should” be hitting .486 on those balls. So if we add five hits to his ledger, his average jumps to .225. That’s the better, not good thing again. But his OBP would jump to .354. And even if all five hits were singles, his SLG would jump from .200 to .325, which is still not good or even serviceable, but his SLG on hard hit balls is .438 compared to an xSLG of 1.046. So let’s give him two doubles on those extra five hits and suddenly he’s slashing .225/.354/.375.
Nope, still not good enough. But also not killing the team. Your goal for your $10 million first baseman isn’t to not kill the team, but the point here is that I think if anyone deserves the “he’s hitting into some terrible luck” treatment, it’s Santana. Where he “should” be still isn’t enough, but I think it at least lends some credence to them trying to make it work with him because the whole plan here is to move him. If he can show that he can be a help to a team, they can at least get something for him.
I still think he’s cheating to get to fastballs, which is very difficult in today’s game where pitchers have the nasty breaking stuff they do. That’s why he’s hitless on breaking balls and changeups this season and why he’s whiffed on more than a quarter of swings on those pitches. I will say he looks a bit more balanced, but until he is able to actually gear up for a fastball and hit something with a wrinkle or off-speed, it’s all going to be window dressing.
I think he’s got some juice left in his bat, but he shouldn’t be playing every day and probably will be especially prone to droughts because of the way he has to get ready for the fastball. He’s better than he’s shown, but the Royals would be better off with someone else in the lineup.
To be honest, I think that paints a somewhat decent picture for them moving forward. I have full faith in Witt to become a difference-maker, though the when of that is a different story. I think Merrifield will figure some things out and be productive enough soon, though he should absolutely be getting days off and not hitting at the top. And I think Santana can produce some. Also, at some point Mondesi is going to have a .440/.452/.930 stretch where he’ll help out some. So the offense has been horrible, but hopefully these guys can turn it around enough to support the four who have been doing their part.