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The Royals are hitting great in spring training...just like they always do

Hitting in Arizona is fun.

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Los Angeles Dodgers v Kansas City Royals Photo by Chris Bernacchi/Diamond Images via Getty Images

The Royals have been pounding the ball in spring training, scoring 47 runs in their last four games, including a 19-run outburst on Monday against Cleveland. As a team, they have hit .345/.401/.585 in the Cactus League with 8.2 runs per-game, by far and away the most in all of baseball.

If Royals hitters lighting up the scoreboard in spring training sounds familiar, that’s because they tend to this almost every year. Here are their spring training numbers the last few seasons, keeping in mind the 2020 spring training was cut short in mid-March due to the pandemic.

Royals offense in spring training

Season Runs/Game AB HR BA OBA SLG
Season Runs/Game AB HR BA OBA SLG
2018 6.3 1115 50 .291 .353 .510
2019 6.8 1070 42 .293 .376 .497
2020 4.5 780 31 .235 .305 .418
2021 5.6 923 48 .265 .329 .501
2022 8.1 458 23 .345 .401 .585

The torrid offense in the hot sun of Arizona never seems to carry over into the regular season when the temps dip to the 40s in April. In the last four seasons, the Royals have never posted a team OPS above .710 or scored more than 4.3 runs-per-game, finishing in the bottom three in runs scored in the league each year.

I have frequently written that spring training performance means virtually nothing - the sample size is too small (David Lesky pointed out that Salvador Perez was hitting .118 the other day - now he’s hitting .348), the competition is very uneven (teams don’t seem to be sending their regulars for road games), and players are usually working on things (Kris Bubic and his new slider, for example). In other words, the game conditions are not very similar to what they will be in the regular season.

This week, Alec Lewis of The Athletic refuted the notion that spring training performance is totally irrelevant, citing a study by Dan Rosenheck, an editor at The Economist who made his case at the 2015 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. While Rosenheck doesn’t necessarily see value in batting average or even home runs, he does find a few stats that can reveal an improvement in performance.

Here’s how he summed them up: “The claim that spring-training numbers are useless is wrong. Not a little bit wrong, not debatably wrong — demonstrably and conclusively wrong. To be sure, the figures are noisy. But they still contain a signal.”

The signals, he found, reside not in statistics like home runs, slugging percentage or batting average but in the data that stabilizes faster, such as strikeout rates, walk rates and even isolated power.

Jeremy Greco wrote a bit about this in spring training in 2017 (remember Peter O’Brien?) He makes the point that spring training statistics won’t translate to regular season stats 1-for-1, but they can perhaps be useful in relative terms. Obviously Edward Olivares isn’t going to post a .652 ISO, but performing well against his peers is perhaps evidence of increased power.

So let’s take the Royals likely starting nine including Kyle Isbel, Ryan O’Hearn, and Edward Olivares, and look at their spring training walk rate, strikeout rate, and ISO.

Royals hitters in spring training

Hitter PA BB% K% ISO
Hitter PA BB% K% ISO
Andrew Benintendi 19 15.8% 21.1% .375
Hunter Dozier 27 0.0% 18.5% .075
Kyle Isbel 25 16.0% 20.0% .524
Nicky Lopez 22 9.1% 27.2% .100
Whit Merrifield 23 5.3% 13.0% .364
Adalberto Mondesi 18 11.1% 27.8% .313
Ryan O'Hearn 20 0.0% 15.0% .400
Edward Olivares 25 4.0% 4.0% .652
Salvador Perez 24 4.2% 8.4% .217
Carlos Santana 25 4.0% 8.0% .087
Michael Taylor 20 15.0% 10.0% .188
Bobby Witt Jr. 23 8.7% 8.7% .381
271 7.4% 14.8% .303

These Royals are hitting .399 collectively! While Alec highlights some encouraging numbers, if we were to take these statistics seriously, there would be some worrying trends as well. Has Nicky Lopez suddenly become a free-swinger who has trouble making contact? Have Hunter Dozier and Carlos Santana become sapped of power, with no ability to draw walks?

Along those lines, what do we make of the pitching staff, which has the second-worst spring training ERA of any team in baseball? They have the second-highest walk rate among all Cactus League teams, and the lowest strikeout rate among all teams in spring training.

These statistics do stabilize sooner than others, but we’re talking about still needing 100-150 plate appearances, not a mere 20. In just 20 plate appearances, fluke plays can distort stats - say the wind was pushing against one of Ryan O’Hearn’s home runs and it lands in the glove of the right fielder at the warning track - his ISO would be 150 points lower.

We can also see through Baseball-Reference’s Opponent Quality rating, that Royals hitters have faced largely non-Major League pitching. In 116 spring training innings, they have faced a starting pitcher who was worth at least 1 fWAR last year in just 19 of them. Royals hitters faced Shohei Ohtani, Frankie Montas, Dane Dunning, Anthony DeSclafani, Kyle Hendricks, and Logan Gilbert, and did get to them for some runs with 12 runs on 26 hits, but just 3 walks and 19 strikeouts.

So I’m still pretty skeptical of spring training statistics. I don’t think spring training performance is completely irrelevant. There are still many things to watch for - how Bobby Witt Jr. manages the strike zone, how Brady Singer’s change up performs, how Carlos Hernández is able to throw strikes, how healthy Adalberto Mondesi looks. Of course there is a chance that these stats are the result of some improved hitting development. But I’m not convinced 11 games can tell us much of anything yet.

It’s fun to see the Royals pound the ball in spring training. Just don’t expect that to be a preview of what we’ll see starting next Thursday.