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Friday Notes - January 10, 2020

This week we’re talking about catchers, infield defense, trimming the fat and if a once budding superstar can make a jump.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Minnesota Twins
Sep 20, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Kansas City Royals shortstop Adalberto Mondesi (27) hits into a fielders choice during the third inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jordan Johnson
Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Pitchers and catchers are just a little more than a month away from reporting, which means we’re probably about two or three weeks away from guys showing up in Surprise and telling reporters that they’re in the best shape of their lives. The season is almost upon us, friends, and I can’t wait to look at a grainy photo to determine if, in fact, random players truly are slightly more muscly than they were the year before. I’ve mentioned this before that the last two offseasons have actually kind of spoiled us in a way because they were so slow that big news was still happening this time of year, and now there really isn’t a ton left to happen so we’re left counting down days instead of thinking about where the big stars are going. But hey, at least we still have Josh Donaldson’s decision and the three outfielders left on the market to think about over the next few weeks before some guys put on the ol’ uniforms and play some baseball.

  • The Royals backup catcher situation in 2020 is actually somewhat interesting, at least as interesting as backup catchers can be. As it currently stands, the options are Cam Gallagher and Meibrys Viloria on the 40-man roster, quite a few names on the free agent market and then some of the Royals minor league depth that likely won’t get a shot ahead of the two on the 40-man. The reason that it’s actually interesting is because Salvador Perez, while expecting to be ready for Opening Day, likely won’t be ready to catch his usual amount, at least to start the season. I think Gallagher is a perfectly acceptable backup, so for my money, just stick with him and let him go. The organization believes Viloria can handle playing somewhat sporadically as he develops. I’m honestly not sure if playing every day outweighs the benefits of working with Perez, Pedro Grifol and Mike Matheny (remember, you may not like him as a manager...I don’t...but he was a heck of a catcher when he played), so I’m kind of torn on what exactly to do here. I think Viloria has the makings of a solid defensive catcher who might develop enough bat to turn in some offensive seasons similar to someone like Tucker Barnhart. And given the spotty track record of catchers returning from Tommy John surgery, I think the Royals need to be especially aware of who might take over catching duties when Salvy’s contract ends. That’s not to say that I think they actually won’t stick with Salvy beyond the deal, but you never know. They might not have a choice. If they do look to plug in a veteran behind the plate who would make Matheny comfortable sitting Salvy more, I guess they could do worse than a guy like Matt Wieters, who at least hit for some power last year backing up Yadier Molina in St. Louis. But honestly, just let Gallagher play two or three days a week in the big leagues and let Viloria play five or six days a week in Omaha and call it good.
  • Statcast came out with a new toy, which is infield defense statistics and the results were actually pretty interesting. There were a few that didn’t surprise me like Matt Chapman, Nolan Arenado, Andrelton Simmons and Javy Baez being awesome or Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. and Tim Beckham being, well not. But there were some surprises too. I didn’t expect to see Fernando Tatis, Jr. as one of the worst and I also didn’t expect to see Cavan Biggio rate positively after all the reports I’ve heard on his defense at second base. From a Royals perspective, Adalberto Mondesi and Nicky Lopez ranking at the top of the team with four outs above average is both unsurprising and encouraging for the future of the middle infield. Whit Merrifield at four runs below average is a bit surprising, but also maybe justifies his move to the outfield a bit. And then there’s Hunter Dozier right at average with Maikel Franco well below it and that makes you maybe rethink the supposed defensive upgrade. Of course, there are still issues and defensive statistics aren’t quite as well developed as others, so let’s not make this the be all, end all, but any time more data is available, we’re better for it, provided we use it appropriately, which I guess is really the biggest concern with anything.
  • I mentioned this yesterday in my article about potential improvements for offensive players in 2020, but a lot of people seem to have the idea that the Royals offense wasn’t the problem last year. And I guess they’re right. It certainly wasn’t the problem, but it was most definitely one of the many problems they had. I think one of the reasons people had that idea was the emergence of both Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler as legitimate middle of the order bats paired with Whit Merrifield and the electricity of Adalberto Mondesi (even though his numbers weren’t great with the bat). And I think the reason is that people were fooled by more competence than we were all expecting. There were 97 qualified hitters who ended up with a wRC+ of 100 or better. The Royals had three of them. That’s about right per team. Now, take it down to the teams who finished below .500 (there were 14 of them) and there were just 31 qualified hitters with a wRC+ of 100 or more. Only the Pirates and White Sox had more hitters fit that bill than the Royals. Nine of the 14 had only one or two. So the Royals did have a good number of good hitters for a bad team. Which highlights the real biggest problem the Royals had offensively, and it was giving away at bats to truly awful players. The quartet of Billy Hamilton, Chris Owings, Lucas Duda and Martin Maldonado hit a combined .210/.275/.309 in 832 plate appearances, which was a bit less than 14 percent of the plate appearances accumulated. Maldonado may not be fair because of circumstances, but I’m leaving him in here. Those four dropped the team average and OBP by six points and the SLG by 16 points. While there’s no guarantee a young player will be better, I’d much rather see someone get a shot to fail than go this route again. And I left Maldonado in there because if Salvy is able to hit at the level he was prior to his injury, that’s a huge improvement right there. If you want to dream on the Royals offense going from the bottom of the league to the middle, it’s by eliminating the garbage had to sit through for 14 percent of the team’s plate appearances in 2019.
  • Also from my article yesterday, one of the people most mentioned in the comments as possible to improve was Adalberto Mondesi. And I do agree that he has a chance. He has age, pedigree and he’s just a year removed from a season that would make him one of the most valuable players on the team if he could show that for a full season. The reason I didn’t include him in the list of four was not because I don’t believe in him, but just because the signs aren’t exactly there for 2020 to be the year. He’s coming off a serious shoulder injury which may or may not sap his power, but that’s not what keeps me from predicting it just yet. It’s the 4.3 percent walk rate and 29.8 percent strikeout rate. The guy is extremely valuable even if he doesn’t improve a lick offensively, but those numbers have me worried that he’s going to have a tough time making a real jump. He did take a step forward with swinging at bad pitches in 2018 before a step back last season, so maybe that was a blip and if he can bring his O-swing% down to about 35 and bring his contact percentage up to about 70 (those are big differences from 2019), he could be in good shape. And if you want optimism regarding Mondesi, look no farther than Javy Baez of the Cubs. He swung at even more bad pitches than Mondesi. He made just a bit more contact than Mondesi. He swung and missed a bit less, but still a lot. And actually over the last two years, their plate discipline numbers are really fairly similar. On a game-for-game basis in 2018 and 2019, Mondesi has been almost Baez’s equal in terms of fWAR. Of course, the actually getting on the field part is a big issue for him, so I’m just not quite ready to say he’s going to make a jump next season. But you know what? He absolutely could. I hope he proves me wrong.