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One Gift for Five Key Royals Position Players
It's the holiday season, so let's be generous.
There are many things that can be true about the current iteration of the Kansas City Royals. They are not good. They lack in too many areas to likely get good in one offseason. And they have quite a bit of talent, mostly concentrated on the position player side. Part of what makes all of this true is that their key players all have flaws. But the beauty of the holiday season is that it’s a time where we can be generous and provide gifts. This year, I want to provide a shopping list for a handful of Royals who will be key to turning a 67-loss team into a contender in the next two or three seasons.
I don’t know where to shop for these items. That part is up to you. But if we can pool together to get these players this one thing, maybe the Royals can get better a little faster.
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Bobby Witt Jr.
Let’s start with the franchise. Witt didn’t roar out of the gates like I think most expected he would, but he was roughly league average offensively (99 wRC+, 102 OPS+). I wrote about him back in October and I maintain that the hamstring injury…hamstrung the rest of his season. So I’m not quite as worried about the offense.
I know the 4.7 percent walk rate is well below average and his 34.7 percent chase rate is higher than the league average of 29.2 percent. But I also see a swinging strike rate of 11.6 percent that’s roughly in line with the league average and a guy who hits the ball hard and as I noted in the above article, was hitting it hard way more consistently before the injury. There are obvious concerns that it could be a long-term issue for him to ebb and flow on contact, but if you look at his percentile rankings in 2022, one thing stands out even more than that.
Witt wasn’t just subpar defensively. He was downright awful. That’s as low as you can go. I think the offense works itself out some. A year of knowing what works and what doesn’t has likely led Witt to the same lab we see Patrick Mahomes work in during the offseason. I feel comfortable waiting and seeing if he can break out with the bat, but his glove needs some work, especially if he’s going to be playing shortstop for the team in 2023. And if you think, well he should just play third and give shortstop to Nicky Lopez or Adalberto Mondesi or Maikel Garcia, he actually didn’t rate well at third either, though I think he would if he spent all his time there and focused on it. Still, give Witt an above average glove and he’s Dansby Swanson even if his offense didn’t tick up.
Do I really even need to write that much here? He swings and misses a lot more than he used to because he altered his approach to hit tanks, which is fine. But we all know the issue with Salvy. His 3.8 percent walk rate was one of the worst in baseball because he swings at EVERYTHING. His 43.2 percent chase rate was nearly eight percentage points higher than the second-highest on the team. Give Perez the patience of a Nick Pratto or MJ Melendez and he’s an absolute monster. You can see where his biggest issue is on this swing/take profile.
Let’s move on because nothing more really needs to be said.
I wrote toward the end of the season that my bold prediction was that Pasquantino would be a top-30 hitter in baseball in 2023. Then I started digging around and realized that in his small sample of 2022, he already was a top-30 hitter. Don’t believe me? He had the 29th-highest wRC+ among hitters with at least 250 plate appearances. His OBP was eighth. His wOBA was 26th. He was one of eight hitters with those plate appearances to have more walks than strikeouts. All of this is out of 317 hitters. So yeah, you might want to argue one way or another that he may not keep that up over 600 PA, but in the limited sample we saw, he absolutely was top-30.
It’d be nice if he was an elite defender at a more important position, sure, but what do you get for the guy who has everything? Give him some wheels. Pasquantino’s 25.6 ft/s sprint speed ranked as third-slowest on the team ahead of only Perez and Sebastian Rivero. And he was a full foot and a half feet per second behind the fourth-slowest. Can you imagine what he could do with some Nate Eaton or BWJ speed on the bases? Some of those laser doubles to the outfield would turn into triples easily. Even if you just reversed his sprint speed percentile (15th percentile) and turned that to 51st he’d be even more of a monster. I’m not sure if he’d get a lot more hits, but he’d get more total bases at least.
Drew Waters was kind of a revelation after coming over from the Braves in the deal that sent a draft pick to Atlanta. He hit .246/.305/.393 in AAA with the Braves and then hit .295/.399/.541 in AAA with the Royals. He walked 16 times in 210 plate appearances in Gwinnet and 20 times in 143 plate appearances in Omaha. There were other differences but his approach was just so much better in the Royals organization that it was kind of shocking. And then when he was promoted to the big leagues, we got to see his big power potential, his continued patience and his very good defense. He hit .240/.324/.479, which was good for a 124 OPS+ and 125 wRC+. His defense actually didn’t rate that well, but the sample is small and that’s not what we’re here for anyway.
He had a 36.7 percent strikeout rate in the big leagues, which makes sense given that he had a 28.7 percent strikeout rate in Omaha. Some of it is that his approach at the plate gets him deeper into counts. He faces some of the same issues we see with Nick Pratto in that he doesn’t seem likely to pounce on a pitch early in a count unless it’s something he can drive. There’s a lot going on here, but you can see his whiff percentage compared to the league averages.
On the bright side, he’s right with the league or better on a lot of the driveable pitches. On the negative side, there are some spots in what should be a hitter’s zone that he isn’t making nearly enough contact with. Give Waters the gift of more contact and the Royals have themselves a star.
Like his fellow partner in crime, Witt, Melendez has more than weakness that he needs to shore up, but I think some of it will fix itself. His swinging strike rate isn’t outlandish, sitting about where it did in his breakout 2021 in the minors. We know he has an excellent eye at the plate, chasing well below the league average and finishing 29th in all of baseball in walks in spite of ranking 111th in plate appearances. He was 13th in walk rate among qualified hitters.
We also saw his pure power. His average exit velocity ranked in the 81st percentile, his max was in the 71st, his hard hit rate in the 69th and his barrel percentage in the 72nd. His average home run was the 14th deepest in all of baseball. So as much as I worry a bit that he hit just .217, I think a lot of that was trying to learn to catch in the big leagues plus learn a new position on the fly. I don’t think he’s a .330 hitter or anything, but if he went out and hit .240/.350/.500 in 2023, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.
His defensive value, though, according to Fangraphs, was -17.5. At first I thought that must be at least partly because of the positional adjustment for left field, but he kind of surprisingly only played 197.2 innings out there (which is another reason I’m not ready to write him off in the outfield if that’s where he ends up). So it was mostly the work at catcher where he was at -18 in defensive runs saved and had a framing value on Fangraphs of -15.7. He also ranked in the first percentile in framing according to Baseball Savant. No matter where he played, he was a liability defensively in 2022.
I’ve heard mixed messages on his role for 2023. Well, they aren’t totally mixed. He’s going to play in a corner in the outfield. The organization has said that he’s not done catching. But as a catcher, he struggled with a lot of the basic tenets of catching like actually coming up with the ball after it was thrown. And as bad as Royals pitching was, you can compare his blocking to Perez pretty well. Melendez caught 578.1 innings and Perez caught 621.2, so it’s pretty close. Melendez allowed six passed balls and a whopping 49 wild pitches while Perez allowed one passed ball and 29 wild pitches. That’s a big difference. Melendez had some trouble throwing early in his big league tenure, but ended up throwing out 28 percent of base stealers and showing off slightly better pop times to Salvy. But the actual receiving was a problem. If he’s a catcher, that needs to improve.
He as an outfielder is the role that I think probably allows him to focus more offensively, but he needs to get better there. I still maintain that he will given how little outfield he’s played in his professional career, but it needs to improve. When you add in his time in right field, which admittedly was where he played first before the Royals put him in left field, he had -5 DRS and was -4 OAA. But he has a plus arm, runs well and, to my untrained eye, appeared to be getting better as the season went on. But if he could be an above average defender at either position, I think Melendez becomes the second-best overall position player on the team.
Jordan Lyles, Come on Down
This may be official by the time you read this, but the reports from last night are that the Royals are nearing a two-year deal with Jordan Lyles. My first reaction when I saw that they were nearing a deal was, “okay fine, he provides innings and doesn’t walk a ton.” Then when I saw it was a two-year deal, I thought that if it takes two years to sign Lyles, just don’t sign him. I do always like to try to look at things from the team perspective and while this signing doesn’t move the needle, like at all, I also understand their thoughts on him.
He threw 179 innings last season, one of just 45 pitchers to even qualify for the ERA title, which is crazy to me. And he did it with a walk rate of just 6.7 percent. Remember, the league average was 8.2 percent and the Royals walked 9.4 percent of all batters. Royals starters were better than that at 8.3 percent, but Lyles is an improvement there. He finished pretty well after the break with a 3.91 ERA (though a 4.47 FIP). So I think it’s pretty fair to say that Lyles was signed to not walk hitters and throw a bunch of innings for a team that, as we’ve discussed, needs innings.
And, again, for one year in a year when the team isn’t expecting to compete, I’m good with innings. It’s the second year that bothers me. Lyles just isn’t good enough to warrant a two-year deal. The surface stats show a pitcher who has never had an ERA below 4.00 and has only had one season with an ERA+ above 100. He’s given up more hits than innings pitched the last three seasons and actually only gave up fewer hits than innings pitched in his two best seasons, 2018 and 2019. I wonder a little if there’s something we can take from those two seasons because he spent time with Milwaukee in both of them. To be fair to Lyles, a team like the Brewers that handles pitchers exceptionally well did intentionally acquire him two years in a row for their stretch drive.
And he was really good for them. in 2018, he made 11 relief appearances and struck 22 in 16.1 innings. In 2019, he made 11 starts for them and gave up 43 hits in 58.2 innings with 56 strikeouts. I’m not going to get too deep today in what was different in Milwaukee compared to the rest of his career, but that could be telling.
He has a four-seamer that stinks. He allowed a .286 average and .540 SLG on it last season and both of those numbers were actually better than the expected stats. His slider is actually solid and he threw it a lot in 2022, but maybe should be throwing it more. He also has a sinker that was probably better than the numbers indicated and started throwing that more as the season went on. He also has a curve ball that’s good, a changeup that has been good in the past but wasn’t in 2022 and a cutter that he threw just 80 times, but could be something he uses more, I guess.
The profile is one that doesn’t provide much upside. It’s hard to say that definitively because we don’t know what Brian Sweeney can do as pitching coach. Some guys have a touch with certain types of pitchers. Maybe Lyles is that guy and Sweeney has seen something in him for years. I guess my questions are how likely the Royals could be to shift Lyles to the bullpen if needed, where he’s actually had some success, at least since leaving Colorado. And the other is how much this deal costs them. Again, we’ll probably know that fairly quickly. If it’s something like two years and $10 million, I don’t especially care that it’s a two-year deal. If it’s two years and $20 million, that’s just spending money to say you did it.
And now we know. It’s two years and $17 million and I really, really dislike it.