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The Approach Could Be The Difference
The way the Royals attack the zone, both as hitters and pitchers, is encouraging this spring.
We say all the time that spring statistics can be incredibly misleading, and they absolutely can. The Royals currently lead the world in offense this spring. Their .961 OPS is 93 points higher than the second-best team and we’re super excited about it, but do you think the Tigers are going to have a good offense this year? Because they’re the second-best team. But they also have the fifth-lowest walk rate and the 12th-highest strikeout rate. Can you win like that? Yes. But the Royals are tied for 16th in walk rate and third in strikeout rate. The walk rate being middle of the pack is news and the strikeout rate being way better than that is ideal.
I mentioned something on Twitter about the Royals approach at the plate while watching the game on television on Saturday. Spring is tough because you know that the stats can be misleading, but unless you’re there, you’re likely not seeing that much baseball since they’re only televised a few times every spring. So I try to take advantage of that, but I’ve also become lucky enough to get to talk to a couple of scouts who have seen the team regularly. One, in particular, is on some AL Central teams mostly, so he’s spent a lot of time watching the Royals. He was impressed.
“The approach isn’t better than other teams, but it’s on par and it’s noticeable,” he told me. And that does check out with a few things. One, my eye test from watching on television shows that. I believe that they have targeted a zone that they want to hit in and, at least prior to having two strikes, they are doing a great job of not deviating from that zone. Nobody is perfect and the pitchers are still really good, so you’ll see some chases. And it’s also fair to note that the pitching is generally not as good in spring training, so maybe you see less chasing. But the point remains.
While everyone’s best hitting zone is different, we can look at the league numbers for pitches with fewer than two strikes in the heart of the plate vs. anywhere else from last season. The league hit .351 with a .623 SLG on those pitches last year. On all other pitches, the league hit .306 with a .466 SLG. Now remember, this is before the count gets to two strikes, which is where the hitters live. The Royals weren’t that different. They hit .356/.621 on pitches in the heart of the plate and .305/.440 outside the heart. But it’s about swing decisions because that’s when they swung. They actually swung at a higher percentage of pitches in the heart of the plate than the rest of the league, but they also swung at a higher percentage of pitches not.
Because that was the approach for the Royals last season. It was to swing. And that’s with adding guys like MJ Melendez and Vinnie Pasquantino who have some of the best plate discipline on the team. The idea isn’t to swing less or more, though. The idea is to swing in smarter situations. But also, maybe swinging less isn’t the worst thing.
Someone like Miguel Vargas for the Dodgers walked four times in his first eight spring plate appearances. He wasn’t cleared to swing a bat. Pitchers knew he wouldn’t swing and he walked in 50 percent of his plate appearances. He has 21 now and still has four walks. He’s hitting well, so swinging isn’t a bad thing, but swinging less might be the play.
The scout I spoke with specifically pointed out four players who he thought had made huge strides since last season. One he didn’t see much of this weekend because he didn’t return from the bruise until yesterday, but Michael Massey was mentioned along with Kyle Isbel and Nick Pratto and then Bobby Witt Jr. as a bit of an afterthought just because he isn’t there right now. He also said that he really liked CJ Alexander’s approach, so put him in the camp with George Brett of enjoying him. But those three in particular are very interesting because they sort of run the gauntlet of approaches in previous years.
Massey is an aggressive hitter, though he has drawn some walks in the minors. And this is definitely a situation where seeing the numbers only tells part of the story. He has no walks and five strikeouts in 22 plate appearances. But he has three home runs and a double among his eight hits. Why? Because he’s attacking the ball when he should be attacking it. Isbel has shown signs of being patient but I think he got away from his approach last year when he had some bad luck on calls early. This spring, he has four walks in 26 plate appearances to go along with five strikeouts. He’s not doing damage to the ball, but I think he’s very much working on swing decisions.
And then there’s Pratto, who is so interesting to me. We know he has an incredible eye at the plate. The story has gone that he knew better than the umpire in the lower levels. But he swings and misses too much and he ends up striking out too much. This spring, he has four walks and eight strikeouts in 23 plate appearances. That’s a lot of strikeouts and a lot of walks. But the scout was impressed with the swing decisions he was making. Pratto is going to strike out a lot because he gets himself into deep counts by taking pitches, but where he was absolutely too passive last year, the scout didn’t get that impression in seeing him a few times this spring. It’s a small sample, but that’s an encouraging thought.
With Witt, I thought what was so interesting is that he noticed a swing that was geared more to being able to get to velocity up, which is good because he hit .150 on pitches 95+ MPH up in the zone or above it last season. But he also really felt like when he saw Witt earlier this spring that he was identifying one area to swing and wasn’t swinging otherwise. I think we can all agree that the tools are there for Witt to be a superstar, but he needed some improvement to his approach. It’s a small sample and an even smaller sample of what this scout has seen, but it’s a good sign.
I asked about which players aren’t impressing him and he said that he didn’t see much of a difference in approach from Hunter Dozier, though he did like the swing changes to be shorter to the ball and keeping the bat in the zone longer. He also noted that Dozier’s approach is generally fine. He just has his limitations that could probably be lessened with improvement there, but he actually did like the swing a fair amount more. And he also noted that he’d almost definitely be talking about hating Salvador Perez’s approach, but I think we just understand that’s how it is.
The pitching side is no different. I wrote about the strikeout and walk rates on Friday, and this scout just kept raving about how different it felt watching the pitchers attack the zone from last season and the year before. He made an interesting point that I’ve talked about with Josh Staumont in the past and said that the pitch clock may be a huge benefit to young arms. There just isn’t time to think. Even if a guy like Daniel Lynch worked quickly before, he had the option not to. Now he doesn’t. That may be a good thing.
We talked specifically about Lynch and Kris Bubic, and I thought his comments on Lynch were interesting because he said Lynch just didn’t have it yesterday against Cleveland. And he still went three innings with just a run allowed against a lot of Guardians starters who have seen plenty of him. He did walk two and only struck out one, but he said he was absolutely fighting everything in the first and sort of worked his way through it. My concern is that we’ve seen too much of Lynch not having it. My excitement is that he also hasn’t typically been able to fight through it. My question is what happens when he has to see that lineup a third time in a regular season start. He can gut through three, but can he gut through six? I don’t know the answer to that.
And with Bubic, he was raving about the attack mode. Bubic is likely never going to be a control artist, but he should be able to get strikeouts with his changeup and he LOVED the slider. Now, this particular scout believes Bubic is a reliever because he thinks he can get the fastball to 96 in the bullpen and has the weapons to get strikeouts, but he was especially intrigued with the rest of the repertoire in this short outing againt Milwaukee the other day.
Just some quick notes from him on other arms:
Aroldis Chapman looked like the old Chapman, hitting 100+ a few times. He saw him look like 2022 Chapman a few days ago too, but at least we know it’s in there.
In his exact words, he texted me “Heasley ain’t it.” Not great! He did back off it a little and said that he still believes there’s hope, but he just isn’t even remotely close to good enough right now. And that’s okay.
Josh Taylor looked the best he’s seen him this spring with two strikeouts in an inning of work.
Dylan Coleman is nasty, but will have his wild moments.
Amir Garrett is going to have a big season. He believes the catchers setting up differently is going to make a massive difference for him and that he can just aim for the middle and watch the movement take over. It’s not like there won’t be hiccups because he doesn’t generally know where the ball is going, but the stuff is good enough that he should return a decent amount in a trade in July.
He’s never been a fan of Jose Cuas, so seeing him give up all those runs yesterday wasn’t great for his opinion of him, but he just sees him as decent depth, but not someone you want to worry about on the roster. He thought he saw something different in his last outing, but then things reverted back yesterday for him.
It’s always great to get the scout’s view, especially when the sample is too small and too misleading to get a lot from the stats. Of course, this is just one opinion and others may vary, but I do really believe that the approach for both the pitchers and hitters could be what leads to a big improvement if there is a big improvement to be made.