You Gotta Have Heart
Royals hitters had mixed results on pitches they should have crushed in 2023.
It feels like we spend excessive time talking about the pitching issues for the 2023 Royals and don’t spend nearly enough time on the offense. Some of that is probably because the pitching was so bad. Some of that is probably because the offense was generally fine in 2023 after the break so our last taste of it is that it was good enough. And some of it is probably because Bobby Witt Jr. broke out, so there’s a sense that the Royals have something to at least anchor the lineup for a few years or more. But the reality is that the overall numbers weren’t good enough.
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They hit .244/.303/.498 with a wRC+ of 87. Their batting average ranked 19th. Their OBP ranked 28th. Their SLG ranked 21st. Their wRC+ ranked 28th. And they got there including a .260/.313/.432 second half with a wRC+ of 98. They ranked sixth, 18th, 10th and 15th respectively in those categories after the break. On some level, I think those numbers are a bit more indicative of what we can expect moving forward given that they weren’t giving plate appearances to guys like Hunter Dozier, Franmil Reyes, Jackie Bradley Jr. or Nicky Lopez (much) after the break and they were giving plate appearances to players who might actually factor into the future. But also, the first half happened, and it happened with a bunch of guys who factor into the future too.
One of the areas I like to look at after the season is how hitters do on pitches they should do well on. Baseball Savant breaks down the zones like so:
I’ll give you the numbers on the shadow, chase and waste real quick just to give you a taste of how the Royals fare, but I want to focus on the heart zone today. So briefly, here are the numbers for the Royals compared with the rest of the league in the other three zones.
It’s no secret the Royals chase too much, so it’s not a huge surprise that their chase numbers are worse than the rest of the league. The expected stats do paint a better light for them, but expected didn’t actually happen, so it only means so much. And the shadow numbers are pretty comparable with the rest of the league. I think it’s reasonable to say that there isn’t a lot to evaluate other than that they need to swing less.
But where there is some interesting insights are in the heart of the plate. Here are the overall numbers:
That’s actually a lot closer than you might expect and paints the same picture we’ve discussed before about how the Royals suffered from a bit of tough luck. But again, expected stats at the end of the season only mean so much. Anyway, here are individual numbers for players who, at least as of now, factor into the 2024 Royals club.
This is sort of interesting to me. The general numbers are better than I expected heading into this, but I suppose the fact that the team isn’t too far from average means that I shouldn’t be too surprised by this.
Pitches in the heart of the plate are the ones that need to be punished. In 2023, just 26.4 percent of all pitches were in the heart of the plate. And yet:
53.9 percent of all hits were on pitches in the heart
58.3 percent of all doubles were there
58.4 percent of all triples were there
67.5 percent of all home runs were over the heart of the plate
Hitters don’t see those pitches often, but the best do damage on them. It’s where most of the pain inflicted on pitchers comes from. We can look at this player-by-player, but that would get kind of tedious. I do think there are a couple of interesting tidbits that I’ve surmised from here.
Bobby Witt Jr. Can Take a Next Step
For someone who hit .276/.319/.495 and finished seventh in the MVP vote, taking another step isn’t easy but you’d hope that someone with his pedigree and likely massive contract could be better. But when you look at the .303/.347/.530 he hit from June on and say the same thing, it makes you sit up and take notice. He was a monster on pitches in the heart of the plate.
Even with an average lower than you’d like, his slugging percentage was behind only Nelson Velazquez and Edward Olivares (nope, not a typo) and was nearly 100 points above league average. But his expected numbers were even better. Imagine what he’d have done had he hit .344 with a .726 SLG on those pitches. Get him to those expected stats just on pitches in the heart of the plate and he’s a .298/.339/.524 hitter for the season. It’s not that simple, of course, but there is something to be optimistic about on that front.
But I think it’s more than that for Witt. I know I’m writing today about what guys do with pitches over the heart of the plate, but what if he saw a higher percentage of pitches in the heart? He saw 26.6 percent of his pitches in the heart of the plate. I’ll admit to that being more than I expected to see and ranking a lot better than I expected on the team. But I still think there’s an opportunity for him to either get a higher percentage of pitches in the zone.
We all know that Witt isn’t exactly the best at laying off pitches outside the zone. The actual rate at which he chases can vary from site to site, which I think is due to the different definition of the strike zone (a bigger baseball-wide issue), but no matter where you look, he’s below average. By Baseball Savant chase percentiles, he’s in the 35th percentile, ranking 169th out of 258 qualified hitters. That’s not good. It stands to reason that if he chases less, he will either see more pitches in the zone because he isn’t getting himself out or will walk more, which is huge for him because of his speed and the ability to turn a walk into him standing on third base within two pitches. Either way, he stands a chance for big improvement in 2024.
Salvador Perez Isn’t a Beast
If I thought any team was relying on reading me to make their decisions, I’d pull a fan move and leave this off the list. But the truth is that Perez doesn’t appear to be an offensive monster anymore. The question we’ve always asked is why pitchers ever throw the ball in the zone against him. And while we would still wonder that because of his propensity to chase, his .313 average and .533 SLG on pitches in the heart of the plate are just at league average. That’s not what you’d expect from someone who is supposed to be a middle-of-the-order masher.
The whole idea behind Perez is that he’s going to make some of the worst swing decisions ever, but he’s occasionally going to do damage on those and he’s going to crush mistakes. From 2020 to 2022, he hit .383, .414 and .351 and slugged .809, .864 and .669 respectively on pitches in the heart of the plate. Maybe we should have been prepared for some of that regression because of the drop from 2021 to 2022, but he was also on another level in 2021 and the 2022 numbers were still more than good.
So to see him drop to the levels he did in 2023, which are still solid, it has to be a big concern moving forward for someone who may not even project as a regular catcher as soon as 2024. Can you win with his bat in your lineup? Absolutely. Can you win with him as your number three or four hitter? Ehhhh, I’m not so sure.
It’s easy to look at him and say the injuries were part of the reason for it. And I’d argue you’re probably right. He was hitting .274/.310/.506 with 14 home runs through June 14 when he got hit on the hand and had to miss a couple of days (and we expected he’d miss way more). He was hitting .384 with a .767 SLG on pitches in the heart of the plate to that point too. After that point, he hit .239/.278/.354 with nine home runs and just .266 with a .376 SLG on pitches in the middle after. So sure, that’s a huge drop and if he’s healthy, you’d anticipate him getting back to what he did before the injury.
But how can you predict health with him at this point? Since returning from Tommy John, he played 37 out of 60 games in 2020, 161 out 162 in 2021, 114 out of 162 in 2022 and 140 out of 162 in 2023. But in 2023, he only started behind the plate in 90 of those games. Maybe not catching can keep him healthy, but is the value there if he’s not catching? It’s hard to say and I just don’t see a way you can expect him to get back to that pre-injury mashing he was doing. Of course, betting against him is also a fool’s errand, so maybe I’m just an idiot here.
Free Agents Who Mash in the Heart
If the Royals are willing to sign someone to DH, likely trade Perez and commit to Vinnie Pasquantino at first base, there are some DH options out there who could be interesting:
JD Martinez - .359 AVG, .847 SLG, 22 HR
Mitch Garver - .383 AVG, .730 SLG, 14 HR
Eddie Rosario - .350 AVG, .713 SLG, 15 HR
Jorge Soler - .333 AVG, .658 SLG, 19 HR
Teoscar Hernandez - .369 AVG, .644 SLG, 14 HR
Carlos Santana - .328 AVG, .612 SLG, 15 HR
Sure some of these guys can also put a glove on their hand and stand in the outfield, but they probably shouldn’t. But there are some others who fit what the Royals say they’re looking for who can slot into the outfield:
Michael A. Taylor (I know, I know) - .326 AVG, .717 SLG, 15 HR
Nick Senzel - .349 AVG, .667 SLG, 12 HR
Tommy Pham - .321 AVG, .621 SLG, 11 HR
Kevin Kiermaier - .356 AVG, .588 SLG, 7 HR
The free agent market for position players is pretty dim this year, as we’ve discussed, but these are some of the players who fit the Royals lineup who could really help to add a little extra thump.
If the Royals want to improve their offense, there is quite a bit they can do in terms of both refining approach and refining the players they give their plate appearances to. Their reported attempt to acquire Mark Canha and subsequent reports about them wanting to add a better approach are all encouraging but are just words until we see evidence. But still, even without any acquisitions, getting better on the pitches that are supposed to be crushed is a huge start. Guys like Witt, Vinnie Pasquantino, Nelson Velazquez, Michael Massey and Drew Waters do a nice job with it. They need to get even better and hopefully have some of that luck even out a bit with a few players. It’s not the only thing that’ll make an offense better, but it’s certainly one of the things.