The 2018 season is behind us, thank heavens, so we can look forward to the 2019 season and what it brings. There is some optimism from Royals fans after the team played well down the stretch with younger players populating the lineup. Will that improved play carry over into the 2019 season?
Player projection models, while not perfect, can give us a guide on what to expect next season. Fangraphs has released 2019 Steamer projections, which are considering one of the best models around. Steamer incorporates not only past performance and aging trends but actual pitch tracking data to project players. Let’s take a look at some notable projections for Royals hitters and pitchers. Would you take the over or under on these projections?
Whit Merrifield hits a .734 OPS
Whit projects as the third-best Royals hitter by OPS behind Jorge Soler and Salvador Perez at .734, with a near league-average wRC+ of 99. Still, a line of .274/.329/.405 would be a lower batting average and slugging percentage than he’s put in each of the last two seasons, and that on-base percentage is nearly 40 points lower than what he did last year. Even with this projected decline in offense, he still projects to be a valuable player, worth 2.7 WAR.
It is difficult to project Whit because his career path has been such an outlier, but I feel confident in thinking he’ll out-hit this projection. Over.
Adalberto Mondesi hits 21 home runs
Jay Bell owns the Royals franchise single-season record for home runs by a shortstop with 21, but Steamer expects young Adalberto Mondesi to tie that record next season. Mondesi hit 14 home runs in 75 games last year, one of the most home run-friendly seasons in MLB history. He showed terrific power from both sides of the plate, and his home runs didn’t just come off September callups, as he went yard against guys like Andrew Miller, Michael Fulmer, Chris Archer, and Jose Quintana.
But a jump to 21 home runs seems like a lot. We know Mondesi has had trouble staying on the field, so getting enough playing time to hit 21 home runs may be a challenge. Pitchers are going to adjust to Mondesi, so the key will be how he adjusts to pitchers that have more of a scouting report on him. With his plate discipline still an issue, Mondesi may find it difficult to make enough contact. For now, I’ll take the under, but I don’t feel strongly about this.
Jorge Soler draws 64 walks
A Royals hitter has drawn as many as 60 walks in a season just 11 times since Dayton Moore took over in 2006, but Steamer thinks Jorge Soler has a shot at joining that list. Soler can certainly draw walks - his career MLB walk rate is 9.6%. And Soler showed glimpses of turning the corner last year, getting off to a hot start and hitting .265/.354/.466 in 61 games.
But as he has so often in his young career, Soler got hurt. And that’s really what this 64-walk projection rests on, Soler’s health. Will he stay healthy? Let’s just say the track record is unconvincing. Under.
Ryan O’Hearn hits 22 home runs
O’Hearn came on strong at the end of last season with 12 home runs in just 44 games while showing good plate discipline. O’Hearn hasn’t been putting up big home run numbers in the minors - he hit just 11 home runs in 100 games in Omaha before his promotion. But the Statcast data showed he was mashing the ball, and the Royals were rewarded for trusting his pop.
Steamer thinks O’Hearn may struggle in his first full season with a line of .235/.310/.421. However the numbers still project good power with 22 home runs, a number Eric Hosmer only topped twice in his tenure with the Royals. I like O’Hearn a lot, but 22 seems like a pretty big number for a player in his first full-season. I hope to be pleasantly surprised, but I think he falls just short. Under.
Brett Phillips posts a .285 on-base percentage
Phillips quickly became a fan favorite with his quirky laugh, fun-lovin’ atttitude, and bazooka arm. But he didn’t impress much at the plate, hitting .187 in 51 games with the Royals, coming off an underwhelming season in AAA with the Brewers. Phillips has the tools, hitting for power, drawing walks, and stealing bags in the minors. But he also has a pretty high whiff rate - Steamer projects him for a team-high 175 strikeouts.
Phillips had a solid 10.5% walk rate in the minors, so if he can hit for any kind of average in the big leagues, he seems like a decent bet to get on-base at a good clip. I think the 24-year old outfielder can put it all together next year and turn the Mike Moustakas trade into a huge win for the Royals. Over.
Brad Keller posts a 4.62 ERA
Steamer is projecting a fair amount of regression from the former Rule 5 draft pick. Keller impressed in his rookie campaign with a 3.08 ERA and 3.55 FIP. He succeeded with a 54% groundball rate, the second-highest in baseball among pitchers with at least 140 innings pitched. His strikeout rate was underwhelming, although he did improve as the season progressed, with a 17.6% strikeout rate over his last nine starts.
I think Keller is due for some regression, but I think he can be a pretty solid back-of-the-rotation pitcher in the long-term, which is a pretty good result for a guy the Royals got for nothing. I could see this going either way, but I like the strides Keller made down the stretch and I think he can succeed despite the low whiff rate if he keeps the ball on the ground. Under.
Danny Duffy is a 1.7 WAR pitcher
Steamer projects Jakob Junis to be the best pitcher on the staff at 1.9 WAR, with Duffy right behind him. Steamer projects 175 innings pitched with a 4.38 ERA for the lefty who ended last season on the disabled list with a shoulder impingement. Duffy has been a bit enigmatic in his career with the Royals, showing flashes of brilliance with back-to-back 2.5 WAR seasons in 2016 and 2017. On the other hand, he has only qualified for the ERA title once and has never pitched over 180 innings in a season.
The upside seems high with Duffy, but injuries and inconsistencies have limited him. Now that he is entering his 30s, it seems unlikely that will suddenly go away. Duffy is one of the most likeable players on the team, and we’re rooting for him, but even 1.7 WAR doesn’t seem like a good bet right now after he ended last season on the disabled list. Under.
What do you think? Any other projections that stand out to you?