Lucky (and Unlucky) Royals Bats
Whether we want to admit it or not, luck plays a role and these six Royals were especially struck by it.
Luck plays some role in just about everything. After the Royals won the World Series in 2015, many wrote it off as a lucky run. Well…yeah. Every team that wins the World Series is lucky. It’s a gauntlet. They were lucky to have as few injuries as they had, to have the perfect spot in the lineup due up in a big situation, or to have a ball sneak through a hole. And sure, it helps to be prepared and just generally better than your opponent, but there is always going to be luck involved.
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That’s true in the inverse as well. The 2023 Royals had a Pythagorean Record of 64-98. They had an actual record of 56-106. A lot of their issues in falling short of where they “should” have been is due to a bad bullpen and an offense that was one of the worst in baseball in the late innings, but there’s some luck involved with that too. As we learn more and more about batted ball data (and what hitters can and can’t control) and what it means and what pitchers can and can’t control, we can start to dig in to see what neutral luck would have meant for a player. That’s what I want to dig into today. Just based on the data, who was lucky and who could theoretically grow in 2024 and beyond?
I think it’s important to note that a lot of the stats I’m going to mention are not inherently predictive. For example, a 4.50 xERA doesn’t mean that’s what a pitcher will do next year. But there is something to the idea that if that was their xERA in 2023 and they have the same underlying data in 2024, that they “should” post roughly a 4.50 ERA in 2024. By looking at this sort of stuff, we get into a lot of theoretical statistics that can’t be proven or disproven. It’s just fun to look at.
Bobby Witt Jr.
This is the most obvious one, and if the season went another 25-30 games, he might have found his way to reaching the numbers. Take a look at the difference.
Actual: .276/.319/.495, .343 wOBA
Expected: .297/.338/.535, .373 xwOBA
Witt had a fantastic season. His expected numbers were sitting in this range most of the year, even when the actual numbers weren’t even remotely close. What’s the difference between the actual and the expected in terms of rankings among 133 qualified hitters?
Average: 27th to 10th
OBP: 89th to 50th
SLG: 24th to 9th
wOBA: 55th to 11th
Again, expected stats aren’t any sort of guarantee, but based on batted ball data, Witt goes from an very good season offensively to a top-15 season in all of baseball. We’re not talking about defense here, but add that in with his baserunning and suddenly, he goes from an MVP candidate because of his overall game to an MVP candidate on the back of his bat alone. It’s pretty crazy.
He wasn’t a wizard with his batted ball metrics, but he was 74th percentile in average exit velocity, 76th percentile in barrel percentage and 73rd percentile in hard-hit rate. His maximum exit velocity of 113.8 MPH ranks right with a bunch of heavy hitters too. Add in a decreased swinging strike rate (down to 10.5 percent) and a strikeout rate down to 17.4 percent with a .295 BABIP that is a full 26 points below his xBABIP of .321. That equals a guy who theoretically should have been even better.
Of course, he did hit .303/.347/.530 with a .369 wOBA and a .314 BABIP from the start of June to the end of the year. Those numbers are awfully close to the expected ones for his full season, so maybe he’s already evened that out and will just hit the ground running from that point to start 2024.
I struggle a little bit with this because I think a lot of the decline in his numbers came from dealing with his shoulder injury that led to his season eventually ending. But still, his end numbers, while perfectly adequate, probably should have been better.
Actual: .247/.324/.437, .327 wOBA
Expected: .279/.350/.449, .350 xwOBA
I’m not going to go through the rankings here with Pasquantino like I did with Witt, but it goes from a slightly above average offensive season to pretty well above average, even in the limited time he spent on the field in 2023. What Paquantino does at an elite level is put the bat on the ball. His swinging strike rate was just 7.3 percent. He struck out just 11.9 percent of the time. He did chase a lot more than he did during his rookie half-season in 2022, but he was chasing quite a bit in his final few weeks while he slumped/was hurt. I’d like to assume that was the culprit.
What’s interesting about Pasquantino is there’s a pretty clear line in the sand. He had a swing on May 11 that made me worried he’d hurt himself again. He just had that grimace in a game against the White Sox. He stayed in and nothing else was said for a bit, but it looked bad. From that point forward, he slumped. If you break down his season in two parts, here’s what he did pre-May 11 and from May 11 on:
Pre-injury: 163 PA, .298/.383/.539, .389 wOBA, 91.8 MPH EV, 49.6% Hard-Hit
Post-injury: 97 PA, .167/.227/.278, .225 wOBA, 85.1 MPH EV, 24.7% Hard-Hit
Maybe that’s too simplistic, but it seems pretty straight-forward to me. I guess the unlucky part might be more that he found himself hurt again. On the plus side, he got the injury fixed and he’s been out and around the community and looks like he’s in good shape. We won’t know anything until he’s out on a field, but others with that injury, especially to their non-lead shoulder batting, have come back and been basically what they were before the injury. So here’s hoping.
It was an up-and-down year for Massey with the downs definitely outweighing the ups. We all know how he started. He had just six hits in his first 17 games over 54 plate appearances. But he did end well at least with a .269/.313/.513 line in his final 23 games over 83 plate appearances. So there’s a nice end to the season as well. But overall, the production was poor. How poor? Here are the stats and then his expected numbers (come on, you haven’t figured out the formula here?).
Actual: .229/.274/.381, .283 wOBA
Expected: .259/.303/.431, .319 xwOBA
Okay, first glance is that the expected stats aren’t world-beating by any stretch. But for a guy who was an above average defender at second base and seems to have great chemistry up the middle with Witt, those stats certainly play. The improvement as the season went on came down largely to swing decisions. He chased 39.4 percent of the time during those first 17 games and then 35.4 percent of the time after that. That’s still not great, but it’s much better. He saw his swinging strike rate drop from 14.2 percent to 10 percent.
Even his .245/.296/.415 line from April 22 to the end of the year was much more in line with those expected stats. The reality is that if Massey is counted on in the top half of the order, the lineup likely has a problem. But if he can hit, say, seventh, the lineup should be pretty solid up and down.
The smaller the sample, the less meaningful it is, but I worry a bit about the idea of handing over some position to Loftin based on his mini-debut. Here are the stats:
Actual: .323/.368/.435, .348 wOBA
Expected: .245/.306/.338, .299 xwOBA
Where’s the disconnect? He just didn’t hit the ball well enough. This is where the sample comes into play because while he ended the year with a 35.3 percent hard-hit rate and 7.8 percent barrel rate, both below big league average, he was actually around league average until the last week of the season pushed him down.
What we don’t know is how he would have rebounded from the end-of-season slump because, well, the season ended. I like Loftin’s swing and I think he can generally be about average with his batted-ball data and he makes enough contact that he should be able to be a productive hitter. I’d like to see louder contact. His maximum exit velocity of 107.1 MPH combined with an average exit velocity of just 86.3 MPH doesn’t put him in a range that makes me believe he can add a whole lot of power to what we’ve seen from him in his professional career.
That doesn’t mean he can’t be a good player. But I do believe it limits the upside here. I think he works well as a multi-day a week utility player but maybe doesn’t necessarily fit as a starter anywhere. He’s excellent depth and can be a quality starter if needed, but I think the Royals are in a good spot if he’s playing four days a week.
Actual: .232/.307/.353, .292 wOBA
Projected: .207/.286/.333, .277 xwOBA
Yes, I just dove into the stats. And that’s scary when the actual numbers that were lucky to be there weren’t even good. When he was hitting well immediately following his callup, his inflated BABIP was cited, and even with that dropping over time, he ended the year at .388. That’s unsustainable for anyone, but especially a player without speed.
The batted ball data for Pratto is almost secondary given how little contact he actually makes, and that’s baked into the expected stats, but when you only make contact with two-thirds of your swings, you better make good contact. The problem is that the contact isn’t high enough quality to overcome. A contact-based approach can certainly be effective with Pratto’s 41.9 percent hard-hit rate and 8.1 percent barrel rate. Those are a bit above league average and right around league average respectively. But when you’re only making contact with so many pitches, the actual contact needs to be elite and these numbers simply aren’t.
The problem for Pratto is that he simply can’t hit a fastball. He was a bit unlucky by the expected stats on them, but even with them had a .211 xBA and .361 xSLG. It’s the velocity that killed him. On pitches 95+ MPH, he had an xBA of .186 and an xSLG of .305. That just doesn’t work in today’s game. If you can’t hit a fastball at 95+, you simply can’t hit. Even with pitchers throwing more and more breaking balls and fewer and fewer fastballs, almost everyone has the sort of velocity that can make Pratto look bad and they will all use it against him. The upside is you can train for that. The downside is that I just don’t think he’ll make enough contact for it to matter.
Blanco brings a lot to the table that doesn’t even include his. He’s a very good outfielder who can handle center. He was worth four defensive runs saved in just 350ish innings in 2023. And he can be a huge threat on the bases. He was 24 for 29 in stolen base attempts and was 8 for 8 stealing third base. That’s very, very useful. And his actual offensive stats, which I’ll get to shortly, were really good, to the point that you wonder if he should have a bigger role.
Actual: .258/.324/.452, .333 wOBA
Expected: .243/.310/.374, .304 xwOBA
There are a few things in play here on the actual numbers. For one, he didn’t put up those numbers playing every day, so there is every possibility that he was put into good positions for himself. He just doesn’t hit the ball that hard. His average exit velocity of 86.7 MPH is 389th out of 496 batters with 50+ batted ball events. His maximum exit velocity of 108.5 MPH is 355th. And his hard-hit rate of 32.3 percent is 382nd. Those numbers are just inherently not going to help him with these expected stats. He is so fast and does hit the ball on the ball on the ground to the left side enough that he might be a guy who can outperform these metrics just with infield hits, but he was in over his head.
That doesn’t mean he can’t find success. His value without even picking up a bat is big enough that he can work as a reserve outfielder. And not that I’ve seen a lot of people thinking he should get a chance at more time, but I just think those expectations, if they exist, should be tempered.
There’s some comfort here that the three unlucky bats are three guys who should feature prominently in the core moving forward while the three lucky bats are players who could feature, but don’t necessarily need to. I also want to point out that I was fully expecting MJ Melendez to find his way to the unlucky list based on his batted ball metrics, but his .273/.352/.485 line in the second half sort of got him back close enough to the expected numbers that he evened some things out.
Luck is often something that is scoffed at in baseball, but, as I said before, the reality is that luck impacts just about everything. The hope is that the unlucky guys can turn it around and the lucky guys just have a knack to stay lucky. But it’s good to know who might be due for a dip and who might be likely to bounce back too.