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Friday Notes - February 21, 2020

Spring training games have arrived!

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MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals
Sep 27, 2019; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield (15) slides into third base during the first inning against the Minnesota Twins at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken
Peter G. Aiken

The Royals play a real game today. Well, a real fake game, but still it’s a real game. They’ll wear uniforms and everything. This is the first step in many to getting to the regular season. Next is having starters play more than four or five innings and then having them all play together and then ultimately take the field in Chicago in 27 days to see how long they can keep irrational hope alive for a team destined to lose 90+ once again in 2020. The nice thing about games actually starting is we can stop with hypotheticals and actually start to look at what has happened. As of now, what we know about Mike Matheny is how he managed in St. Louis and what he said in his press conference and a handful of interviews. We’ll know soon enough if he really has changed. We know that Nicky Lopez has worked out and bulked up this offseason, but we’ll know soon enough if it makes a difference. And we know that Maikel Franco cut his hair. We’ll know soon enough if it has a reverse Samson impact and he can become a quality big leaguer in his second chance.

  • Second to BSOHL stories, the most prevalent thing I think we see in spring is pitchers adding new pitches. And yesterday, Alec Lewis in The Athletic wrote about Brad Keller’s new pitch, a curveball. He says he learned it in about a month and is already happy with the shape and effectiveness of it. That’s another thing we’ll probably learn about quickly. It’s an important pitch because, as Alec notes, there really isn’t much difference in velocity in his four current pitches, so the whole idea of disrupting timing is kind of foreign to Keller. If he can add the curve, which he says is in the 70s in velocity, it could add an entirely different element to his game and help to ensure he remains a starter long-term. And, as I mentioned last week when talking about an extension for him that would be affordable no matter his role, even if it doesn’t work out, a fastball/curve guy out of the bullpen could be a nice different look as well. But ultimately, the only thing that’s going to really change Keller’s ability to find success is if he can get more swings and misses. His slider was great in 2018 with a 36.5 percent whiff rate and fell off a bit in 2019, but was still good at 29.5 percent. I think more important than a curve is figuring out his changeup. He didn’t throw it much in 2018, but it was really effective when he did. He threw it even less in 2019 and it wasn’t especially great for him. It’s so silly to think back to one game, but he elicited 19 swings and misses in a game against the Pirates in September of 2018 and while he only threw nine changeups, three of them were on that pitch and I remember one in particular was especially nasty. If he can find that, he’s going to be just fine, but the curve might be a good start.
  • This doesn’t mean a ton, but I found it interesting and wanted to share. I was looking through the team page on Baseball Savant and noticed that Alex Gordon actually had more barrels last year than Whit Merrifield in about 100 fewer batted balls. Adalberto Mondesi had the same number as Merrifield in about 250 fewer batted balls. There are a lot of different directions to take this, but it’s a reminder that Merrifield sort of does things a different way than most guys. He hit .302 with a .463 SLG and a .340 wOBA. His expected numbers were still solid, but not as good at .288, .435 and .325. Should we be worried that Merrifield is eventually going to struggle because he doesn’t make hard contact as much as most of the players on his level? Honestly, yeah, that’s a bit of a concern, especially with his sprint speed dropping below 29 feet per second last season and him entering his age-31 season. But, and this is where you have to dive a little deeper, he’s not getting himself in trouble by making weak contact. According to Savant, Merrifield made “weak” contact just 3.4 percent of the time last year and 3 percent the year before. The league average is 4.6 percent. According to Fangraphs, he made soft contact just 13.8 percent of the time last year and 15.4 percent of the time in 2017 and 2018. The league average on soft contact is 17 percent. So maybe he isn’t going to be in the league leaders of hard hit balls, but he doesn’t really hit it softly, which isn’t quite as important but is a worthwhile skill. Still, it’s worth monitoring at the very least.
  • I was trying to think of the player I’m most excited to follow closely during spring training this year and a few options come to mind. Nicky Lopez is one as a player who, like I mentioned above, has bulked up and has something to prove. I’d also like to see how Hunter Dozier responds to his first solid big league season, though that’s more of a regular season thing. Jorge Soler is another option after his monster 2019 season. I’d love to see him hitting free and easy in the Arizona air. But to me, the guy I’m most curious about is another player mentioned above, Maikel Franco. He’s shown so many signs of being a quality big leaguer and has been able to carry teams offensively at times in his career. But then he also completely disappears. After his offseason work with the new Royals hitting development staff, as well as Soler and Salvador Perez, I’m wondering how he might look in game action. He’s very much the type of player who will put up inflated Arizona stats, but also I think given the work he’s put in, we might have a pretty decent idea of how much benefit it has on him relatively quickly in the spring, assuming he gets a good number of reps.
  • I guess since spring training games are underway today, it’s a good time to remind people both not to trust spring training stats and also why. Even if everyone already knows all this, it’s a nice reminder and if one person can be saved for believing in a spring training stat line that is in no way sustainable, I’ll feel I did my job. I’m honestly not sure what the biggest issue with spring stats is because there are multiple, so these are in no particular order, but the first thing is the sample size is too small. Jorge Soler led the Royals with 57 spring at bats last year. How few is 57? Chris Owings had a .421 SLG in a 57 at bat period from April 2-20 last season for the Royals. A lot of mirages can come in small samples. Second, the Arizona air is pretty beneficial for hitters, so maybe that same Owings who hit four home runs in spring wasn’t a good indicator of things to come. And the third thing that covers most of the issues with spring training stats are the situations are just weird. This one might actually be the biggest as I think about it more. Sometimes pitchers are working on things, and if a pitcher is trying to work on a pitch that he isn’t confident in yet, maybe he hangs it. Sometimes pitchers are bored (hi Zack!) and just throw all fastballs down the middle. And when a guy plays is a huge impact as well. I mentioned that I think Ryan McBroom has a chance to have a monster spring, and honestly a lot of that is because I think he’ll play the later innings against nobody minor leaguers and get to fatten up on them. There’s a lot more to it, but this is my yearly reminder for all of you.