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Crown Jewels: Catching Changes Coming, New DH Possibility and Ned's Moment
Pitchers and catchers have arrived and reported for duty. It's finally here!
Friends, we made it. The offseason, while still kinda sorta not over, is over. Pitchers and catchers have reported to Surprise, Arizona (and many others who were there long before) and spring training has officially begun. One week from today, the Royals will play a game that will be officially scored by someone (and you can listen locally and probably online on KCSP). For many, the start of spring was overshadowed by the Chiefs winning the Super Bowl. I’ve written this so much the last few weeks, but I think it’s fair to say there’s a good chunk of overlap in the fanbase, so that’s been pretty fun. But they won their game, they had their parade and now it’s all baseball.
For me, and based on the comments a lot of others, this is one of the more interesting and exciting seasons I can remember in awhile. And it’s not because I think they’ll be good. I’ll have my official record prediction here in about five weeks, but the spoiler alert for you is that it won’t be above .500. But even with that, getting the chance to see progressive leadership on the field is something I never thought I’d see from the team that I follow. And here we are with guys from the Rays, Guardians and Twins (yes they’re progressive) taking over the coaching staff along with a progressive hitting approach from within the organization. I know a lot of people need to believe it to see it, but the willingness to change so much is what it gives me long-term optimism.
It’s a Set-up!
There was a great article in Baseball America this week about how the Rays get their pitchers to throw more strikes. At first glance, it might seem like a bit of a stretch to make this about the Royals, but it also makes sense with Matt Quatraro coming over as the new manager and him bringing Paul Hoover as bench coach. And one line early caught my attention.
There is an overriding theme, however. The Rays try to simplify what they ask pitchers to do. Often, they ask their catchers to simply set their target within the strike zone. They ask pitchers to throw to the big part of the plate and trust the movement on their pitches to ensure they don’t actually end up throwing a meatball over the heart of the plate.
Then I think back to something I heard on MLB Network Radio on Sunday (I think) when JJ Picollo was talking about some things the catchers can do to help. And then I thought about Hoover and how he worked with Rays catchers and tada!
In the BA article linked above, they showed some shots of Tyler Glasnow. I want to caution people here to know that these are just screenshots and the Royals do set up in the middle at times, but look at a few of these fastballs that ended up as balls and where the catcher was set up for Kris Bubic.
Those are all the first pitches of at bats. There is absolutely no reason to be setting up off the plate on the first pitch of an at bat as we see in two of these shots. Like I said, there are examples of setting up in the middle of the plate, but there are far more examples like the ones above. Remember, all of these pitchers were called balls. I think the Royals talk about strike one as much as anyone, but with good reason. After a 1-0 count, they allow a .292/.412/.471 line. After an 0-1 count, it’s .241/.288/.361. That’s consistent with the league in terms of difference. Bubic himself allowed an insane .351/.477/.571 line after the count was 1-0 compared with .251/.297/.367 after 0-1.
Setting up in the middle of the plate doesn’t guarantee a strike. And they still need to be careful because big league hitters are good and they can hit strikes. But that’s still something that I think can really help. In watching a few of the videos, it’s also very apparent that Royals catchers move a lot before the pitch. I don’t think it’s realistic to stay completely still, but I imagine that’ll be a bit of a change as well and something that the new coaching staff will be preaching.
A guy like Salvador Perez is such an interesting catcher because he’s won multiple Gold Gloves and so many pitchers love throwing to him. But I’ve also thought for years (and I’m not alone) that he isn’t nearly as good as the reputation would indicate. He throws very well and that’s been a huge benefit that maybe gets magnified even more with the rule changes, but I think his issues with framing could be mitigated quite a bit with some changes in his setup to catch a pitch. If he starts more in the zone and moves less, maybe the framing improves too. I still maintain it’s silly that there’s skill to tricking the umpire, but there is and Perez hasn’t done that well historically. This change could be a big help to the pitching staff in a way that doesn’t even require any change from the actual pitchers. And it can help Perez’s value as well, so it’s a double win.
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And this is a bit of a peak behind the curtain, but I generally start writing Crown Jewels throughout the week. I wrote this on Wednesday morning and then Josh Vernier came through with a great tweet to back up a lot of what I’m thinking will happen.
The Royals made an intriguing minor league signing on Wednesday, bringing Franmil Reyes to the organization with an invite to spring training. Do I wish they’d have done this on Monday so I could have included him in my roster projection? Absolutely. Am I upset about the move? Not at all. I honestly forgot he was a free agent or else I would have been pounding the table for the Royals to sign him. Reyes is such an interesting move to me.
From 2018 when he came up through 2021, he hit .260/.325/.503 in 1,540 plate appearances. He struck out a lot (29.5 percent of the time), but he also walked a decent amount (9.0 percent of the time) and he hit a ton of homers. His 92 homers in those four years were tied for 35th in baseball, but he also had fewer plate appearances than anyone ahead of him on the list because he spent a fair amount of time in the minors in 2018 when he was in the Padres organization before he was up for good. He’s massive and he hits the ball hard and far. But 2022 was kind of a disaster for him.
He started the year extremely slow and was hitting .195/.255/.278 for the Guardians when he went on the IL with a hamstring issue. He came back in mid-June and at least showed off some power again, hitting .231/.252/.423 before he was DFA’d and signed by the Cubs where he hit .234/.301/.389. There was basically nothing good to take from his season statistically. His strikeout rate, which crept up in 2021, kept climbing. His walk rate plummeted. He chased more than he had since 2019. He watched strikes. He was just a mess. But that last part is what has me a bit encouraged and I’ll get to it in a second.
What remained good was his batted ball data. No, it is absolutely not everything, but Reyes continued to hit the snot out of the ball. His average exit velocity was 92 MPH, which was tied for 21st in baseball with Julio Rodriguez. His maximum exit velocity was still in the 85th percentile. His hard-hit rate was still in the 79th percentile. And his barrel rate was still in the 80th percentile. So basically when he hit the ball, he hit it hard. The problem goes back to the increased chase rate and increased called strike rate. His approach was a disaster.
It may not be fixable. He may have fallen off a cliff. But this is a minor league deal for a player who could provide a massive power boost to the middle of a lineup that doesn’t have a ton of it. As I noted last week in talking about Keith Law’s prospect rankings, the Royals organization now has a reputation of being able to help hitters with approach issues. If, and it’s a big if, approach is what was holding Reyes back, the Royals are basically the perfect place for him. And if he can get back to doing what he did wth his approach in the years prior to 2022, the Royals might have a masher on their hands. Would you be surprised to know that 2023 is his age-27 season? I was. He’s also under team control through 2024 and he has two options left.
This is a heck of a flyer. My question now becomes how he could impact the roster if he does make the team and the guy has hit .315/.372/.649 in the Cactus League over the last four seasons. So he seems like a pretty decent bet to rake in the desert. He’s a DH. I don’t think he’s going to be playing much outfield, though I suppose I could see him maybe standing out there on days that Kyle Isbel and Drew Waters are both playing, maybe in a smaller park. But he’s a righty masher with a .271/.351/.482 career line against lefties. Could he be a platoon partner for Isbel? Or, and this is what I think happens, he gets the job of Edward Olivares. It’s worth noting that the Reyes deal has an opt-out at the end of spring. That’s fairly standard, but also tells me that they think he has a real shot to make the club.
I’ve thought for awhile that Olivares would be trade bait. And it won’t happen today or anything (probably) because of a minor league deal for a guy who may be finished, but if Reyes shows his old self, I think he does more of what the Royals need than Olivares. I really like Olivares, so I’m not completely sold Reyes is actually better, but it’s hard to argue that the Royals lineup wouldn’t be boosted by a .254/.324/.522 line like he put up in 2021. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.
Congrats to Ned!
It was announced yesterday that Ned Yost was elected to join the Royals Hall of Fame this season as the only inductee from the ballot that included Carlos Beltran, Billy Butler, Johnny Damon, Jason Vargas, Yordano Ventura and Yost. I still think Butler should have gotten in, but Yost is an exceptionally deserving candidate in spite of his losing record. It’s a funny tenure with the Royals. He was welcomed for being decidedly not Trey Hillman and then fans turned on him as happens with most managers of losing teams. And in 2014, in spite of leading the team to the playoffs, I wonder a lot if he’d have lost job had they lost the Wild Card game. But they didn’t, he didn’t, and we all know what happened next.
While things ended on a down note with a couple of brutal years following the dismantling of the World Series core, Yost had a couple of notable achievements. For one, the team got better every year under him leading up to the title in 2015. For another, they won a freaking title! In Kansas City! That was something that felt like it was never going to happen as the team wandered aimlessly for so many years and whether or not they won the title because of Yost, in spite of Yost or somewhere in between, he was the manager when they won it and deserves to be enshrined for that alone, in my opinion. And my guess is that his number gets retired too. That’s pretty cool for him.