A lot went wrong for the 2022 Kansas City Royals, but their rookie position player performances weren’t one of them. Bobby Witt Jr.’s inability to work walks hurt his overall value, but he hit the ground running as an above average player out of the gate. Vinnie Pasquantino became a legitimate offensive threat immediately. MJ Melendez showed the advanced plate discipline of a crafty veteran. Even Drew Waters, Michael Massey, and Nate Eaton came out of nowhere to hold their own.
Nick Pratto, former Little League World Series star, top prospect, and 14th overall pick in the 2017 MLB Draft, tends to get overlooked in comparison. Vinnie’s excellence looms large; while there are multiple middle infield and outfield positions, there’s only one first base, and The Italian Breakfast is good enough already to play there for the rest of his tenure as a Royal.
Part of that, though, is on Pratto’s performance: even defensively superb first basemen like Pratto can’t stick in the big leagues if they can’t hit, and Pratto’s top line offensive numbers were alarming. Pratto struck out 36.3% of the time and 44.2% of the time against left-handed pitchers, and his triple slash of .184/.271/.386 led to a wRC+ of 82. Per Fangraphs’ version of WAR, Pratto was below replacement level.
So, with a less than stunning debut performance, does Pratto still fit into the Royals’ plans? And should we expect anything out of him?
If we look at historical comps, Pratto’s initial performance in 2022 is bad news. There just aren’t a lot of first basemen who perform poorly in a young rookie season who bounce back to be an above average offensive competitor. I pulled up Fangraphs and filtered individual season performances looking for debut rookie performances of age-25 or younger since 2000 with 150 or more plate appearances. I selected the players whose rookie performance produced a wRC+ of 85 or lower. Then, I checked to see if those players had a later season with a wRC+ of at least 110. Finally, I only selected players whose positional adjustment per 162 games was -10 runs or lower; this selected the true first base/DH types (we’ll cover this in greater detail in a minute).
For those of you whose eyes glazed over: I basically just checked to see if there have been any young first basemen who had a really poor debut rookie season but still ended up hitting well later in their careers. The answer was, yes, there were some. But there weren’t a lot. Since 2000, there were six players who fit my criteria: Adrian Gonzales, Chris Davis, Daric Barton, Justin Smoke, Kendrys Morales, and Tyler White.
From disappointing rookies...
|2010||Justin Smoak||- - -||100||23||397||13||11.6%||22.9%||0.218||0.307||0.371||81||-0.4|
...to breakout hitters
This collection of players paints a bit of a sobering picture: even if Pratto does have some productive baseball in him, becoming an impact first baseman is hard. Barton, Smoak, and White were league average bats for their career. If anything, Pratto’s high strikeout rate, command of the strike zone, and well above average power comp pretty well to Davis, which is a perfectly good outcome as long as the Royals refrain from handing Pratto $200 million guaranteed in this scenario. But most first basemen who performed as poorly as Pratto did this year don’t end up as All-Star contributors.
The good news: in addition to historic comps, we can take a look at current player comps for Pratto, and those show more promise. Baseball Savant’s handy player similarity tool compares players to each other based on plate appearance results—barrels, solid contact, flare-burner, poorly under, poorly topped, poorly weak, walk, and strikeout. It then gives a similarity score, where 100 is most similar and 0 is least similar. For instance, the high walk, high strikeout, high power Pratto is least like the low walk, low strikeout, low power Nick Madrigal, whose similarity score to Pratto is 0.10.
Pratto’s similarity distribution features four players who are above the rest in similarity score, and they range from 0.78 to 0.80. Their names: Patrick Wisdom, Paul DeJong, Jake Lamb, and Chris Taylor.
Most Similar Players to Nick Pratto, Batted Ball
There is some good news: Pratto doesn’t need to tweak his approach too much, because those most similar to him are all decent hitters. Heck, Wisdom has a career 107 wRC+ and has struck out more than Pratto. And if you subscribe to underlying batted ball stats, there’s evidence that Pratto’s performance was a bit unlucky in 2022. He only managed a .250 BABIP, a low figure even for a left-handed power hitter. His xwOBAcon—or expected weight on base average on contact—was .364, right around the MLB average. And when you look at his spray chart, Pratto had an unusually large amount of almost home runs, with double digit expected home runs in five stadiums.
The secret sauce, as it were, to Pratto’s long-term viability is the outfield. Remember when I mentioned the positional adjustment? First base has the most detrimental positional adjustment of any non-designated hitter position, at -12.5 runs per 1,458 innings (or 162 defensive games). But left field and right field are only set at -7.5 runs per 162 games. Even if you prescribe to a more flattened defensive adjustment spectrum than what is officially calculated in WAR, the difference between corner outfield and first base is still about five runs.
This means a few things. First, it means that if Pratto’s first base defense is worth five runs more than league average, his overall defensive value is the same as a league average corner outfielder. Second, because of the relative difficulty of playing the outfield compared to first base, the offensive bar for what constitutes a viable player is lower. In other words: a league average hitting outfielder can stick around. A league average hitting first baseman probably won’t. And for Pratto, whose swing profile and historic comps don’t suggest that being a fantastic hitter is probably in the cards, the outfield could be the ticket to a spot on the team—especially with Vinnie looking to hold down the fort at first base.
Kansas City might have realized the same thing. Pratto started playing the outfield in Triple-A Omaha in 2021, and played both corner spots again this year in Omaha. Pratto appeared in eight more games in the outfield in the big leagues, most coming in left field.
Whether Pratto could end up as a serviceable outfielder or in an Andrew Vaughn situation is yet to be determined. But, in any case, the Royals don’t have a lot of players with Pratto’s plate discipline and power. It seems to me that the route forward is clear: he deserves to play somewhere everyday. Ultimately, though, Pratto’s career with the Royals comes down to how good of a hitter he can turn into. He’s got to hit. Hopefully he can.