As you may have heard, the 2023 Kansas City Royals season has concluded and in pretty much every way that matters, it was an awful season.
But there's still several things to talk about. Some of the following are things that seemingly come up in Game Threads. Some of the following are things that I'm probably the only one interested in knowing about. I think quite a few of these things are helpful in understanding the 2023 Kansas City Royals and how things happened the way that they did.
One interesting thing is the Kansas City Royals have had pythag records of 64-98 in back to back seasons. One of those teams finished 65-97 and the other finished 56-106 but they're more similar than you'd think. Not just because both years had teams starting badly at home and getting better in home games as the year went on.
For those reading who have not already been trapped in the Upside Down of baseball stats, think of the Pythag record has pretty much being "what should your record be if it aligned with the total number of runs scored and allowed". There's some more math involved than just that but most of us only took enough math classes to get out of school so let's use the brief version here. (As someone with a History degree, I will try my best to limit how many sentences I start with "So")
Last season, the Royals scored 640 runs and allowed 810 runs. This season, the Royals scored 676 runs and allowed 859 runs.
That's 36 more runs scored and 49 more runs allowed for anybody who didn't already do the math.
Last season, Royals hitters had 1327 hits and 460 walks. Those hits were: 904 singles, 247 doubles, 38 triples, and 138 home runs. This season, Royals hitters had 1325 hits and 411 walks. Those hits were: 861 singles, 258 doubles, 43 triples, and 163 home runs. Fewer hits, fewer walks, fewer singles, more doubles, more triples, more homers. The Royals went from scoring 3.95 runs per game to 4.17 runs per game. The league average for runs per game went up a little more than 0.22 runs (it went from 4.28 runs per game to 4.62 runs per game).
For all the hopium about how the Royals might be an above average offense right now if you cut out enough games. The 2023 Royals had the lowest on-base percentage in team history. The 2023 Royals had a teamwide OBP of .303. The previous record for lowest OBP was .305 in 2018.
We'll get back to the offense in a moment. What about the pitching, a group which will likely get blamed for most of the woes of this team.
The pitching allowed fewer hits this season than last season. They allowed fewer walks. They struck out more batters. They allowed 34 more home runs and as noted several words ago, they allowed 49 more runs this season. Depending on what you look at, Royals pitching either got better or worse than it was last season.
During the October 1st Game 162 broadcast of Yankees/Royals, Ryan Lefebvre mentioned the whole "blown leads lost" stat and how the Royals had 50 games where they blew a lead and lost. Then he said that the Tigers, who finished with 22 more wins than the Royals, don't really have that many players who would be better than the players on the Royals and that the Tigers success was due to pitching, and due to only having 27 blown lead losses all season.
We can't cleanly do a comparison of the Royals relief pitching in 2022 to the Royals relief pitching in 2023 thanks to the proliferation of the Opener during this season's Royals games (Short version: bulk guy stats get counted with the reliever stats and might help Royals bullpen numbers if it's 8 innings of relief in a game instead of 4). But we can compare the numbers in the 7th through 9th innings between years.
Last season, opposing hitters hit 264/364/415 vs Royals pitching between innings 7 and 9. No other team allowed a higher BA/OBP than the Royals from innings 7 to 9 last season while two teams allowed a higher SLG. Opposing hitters also hit 48 home runs and scored 262 runs. The Home run total was not the worst over that time (it was the 7th worst). But the runs total was also the worst in baseball. MLB-wide, hitters hit 231/305/364 from innings 7 to 9.
This season, opposing hitters hit 252/337/398 vs Royals pitching between innings 7 and 9. The BA/OBP were the 7th highest instead of the highest. The SLG went from 3rd to 13th highest For all the improvement in all those averages, opposing teams hit 49 home runs and scored 246 runs vs the Royals in those innings. Out of the 641 batters to reach in those innings (415 hits, 195 walks, 25 HBP, 6 reached on errors), 38.4% of those runners scored. Last season, 696 runners reached in those innings (443 hits, 212 walks, 31 HBP, 10 ROE) and 37.6% scored. If the same percentage had scored in 2023 that scored in 2022, the Royals give up 241 runs instead of 246, which is pretty much the same.
Naturally our next destination for comparison would be the 6th inning, a land of struggling starters, relievers being thrown into games with runners on base, and the occasional clean inning manned by someone who might not be the 4th best reliever in the bullpen.
Last season: Opposing hitters hit 280/358/439 in the 6th inning vs the Royals. 731 PA, 180 for 644, 123 runs, 20 homers, 74 walks. The sort of hitting line that would get somebody paid if they did it often enough. The average hitter hit 242/312/402 in the 6th inning last season. This season, opposing hitters hit 287/367/508 in the 6th inning vs the Royals. 743 PA, 187 for 651, 123 runs, 26 homers, 77 walks. The average hitter hit 253/324/424 in the 6th inning this season. The big difference between last season and this season for the Royals is mostly in the HR totals (and the SLG%).
One more thing to compare 2022 and 2023 pitching. High Leverage.
Last season the average major league hitter hit 246/320/396 in high leverage. Hitters against the Royals pitching staff hit 278/349/436 in high leverage last season. The 4th worst OPS in baseball in those spots. This season, the average MLB Hitter hit 253/330/414 in high leverage. Hitters facing Royals pitchers in high leverage hit 292/363/485. The increase in hitting numbers vs Royals pitchers in high leverage outpaced the league-wide improvements by a little. That might explain a little of how the Royals improved in some fundamental stats, and also gave up 49 more runs despite their improvements.
One tough thing about talking the specific Royals pitchers in 2023 is that a bunch of them are question marks to be on this team in 2024. There are pitchers who had really good stretches in KC who will be here next year like Cole Ragans. There are pitchers who are gonna get paid a lot of money despite being disappointments who will probably be here like Jordan Lyles. But everybody else, it's a tossup. Zack Greinke might or might not retire, it depends on Zack. A bunch of relief pitchers might get traded or released or ignored until they go away.
Jordan Lyles threw the most pitches for the the Royals this season. Only three Royals pitchers threw more pitches than Alec Marsh, who debuted half way through the season. (Singer and Zack are the other two if you didn't guess already). Carlos Hernandez threw the most pitches of any Royals relief pitcher (if we don't consider him a starter for opening some games). Carlos Hernandez threw 68 more pitches this season than Cole Ragans. Taylor Clarke was the only other Royals pitcher to throw 1000+ pitches.
Last season, the Royals had 9 pitchers throw 1000+ pitches. Lynch (who was injured most of this year), Singer, Keller (who spent half the year injured), Zack, Bubic (who was injured for the year in April), Heasley (who spent most of this year in Omaha), Dylan Coleman (who was physically exiled in Omaha as his velocity went to Area 51), Scott Barlow (traded), and Carlos Hernandez. Out of those 9 pitchers, 3 of them topped 1000 pitches in 2023. The Royals went from 29 pitchers last season to 34 this year with a lot more pitchers in-between 100 and 999 pitches in the majors this season.
Dylan Coleman led the Royals this year in percentage of strikes that were called strikes. James McArthur had the second highest percentage of strikes that were called. If I had to guess, James McArthur throws more pitches for the Royals in 2024 than Dylan Coleman. Meanwhile Carlos Hernandez had the lowest percentage of strikes looking of any frequent Royals pitcher, which was only 2% lower than Cole Ragans 21.9% called strike percentage. Carlos could be here next year. He might not be. Ragans will almost certainly be here.
Opposing hitters swung at the same percentage of pitches thrown by Cole Ragans and Taylor Clarke this year (50.3%). It might not shock you to find out that swinging vs Taylor Clarke worked out better than swinging against Cole Ragans.
The three Royals pitchers who led the team in first pitch strike % were Zack Greinke (not a good season overall), James McArthur (good season as a reliever), and Taylor Clarke (not a good season). The Royals pitchers who had the lowest % of first pitch strikes were Brad Keller (his usual routine), Steven Cruz (who somehow got to be an opener while not throwing strikes consistently) and Josh Staumont (who actually pitched 20 innings for the Royals before getting hurt)
Perhaps first pitch strike % is more predictive for a lack of pitcher quality when it's low than predictive for pitcher quality when it's high.
Cole Ragans, who pitched all his innings as a Royal after the All-Star Break almost led the Royals in strikeouts swinging (Singer 94, Lyles 90, Ragans 78, Zack 70). The three mainstays had 25/30/39 strikeouts looking while Cole Ragans ran up 89 strikeouts in 71 2/3 innings with only 11 strikeouts looking. Looking over these numbers makes me wonder what would happen if batters swung less vs Cole Ragans with the two most likely outcomes of "his strike % goes down" or "his called strike % goes up"
The average major league hitter averaged 3.9 pitches per plate appearance. Several Royals pitchers averaged 4+ pitches per plate appearance. Aroldis Chapman averaged 4.27 during his time spent accumulating trade value as a Royal. Amir Garrett had 4.25 pitches per PA. Carlos Hernandez averaged 4.15. Jackson Kowar also averaged 4.15. Cole Ragans averaged 4.09. Scott Barlow averaged exactly 4 pitches per plate appearance as a Royal this season.
On the other side of the coin, Batters didn't spend a long time around Tucker Davidson (3.35 pitches per PA) or Daniel Lynch (3.62 pitches per PA). The Lynch total represents a steep drop from averaging 4 pitches per PA in 2021 and 2022. Singer, Zack, Lyles, and McArthur were around 3.7-3.8 pitches per PA. The difference between a Cole Ragans pitches/PA rate and Brady Singer's 3.72 is the difference between 110 pitches to face 27 batters or 100 pitches to face 27 batters. Getting through the order 3 times and throwing 100 pitches is a little more realistic of a goal than being allowed to pitch 110 pitches in a game with any sort of regularity.
Speaking of that. 21 games had a Royals starting pitcher reach 100 pitches. Lyles did it 6 times. Ragans 5 times. Singer 5 times. Lynch twice. And once each by Bubic, Keller, and Marsh. Make of this information what you will. 12 of those 21 games were pitched by a pitcher who didn't finish the year on the injured list, which is nifty.
The Royals have a certain amount of rebuilding to do with their pitching. A lot of the "Royals just don't know how to win yet" excuse goes away if you get better pitching. Just like how the Royals mysteriously became a lot better at winning games mid-2013 once the veteran starting pitching they got began to get rolling as the traditional early season hitting swoon ended that year.
You might notice some things not included in regards to the pitching. I don't really find it indicative that Zack Greinke was credited with 2 wins this year (the Royals won 8 of his 27 starts). On the other side, the Royals lost 24 Jordan Lyles starts and he only got 17 losses. There's likely no shortage of interesting things that will be typed about over the offseason. I'll leave questions like "Will using the opener develop anybody in particular" and "Are Sweepers actually worthwhile for mediocre pitchers" to others. Maybe having Clarke and Lyles be the main Sweeper throwers is a tough introduction to the pitch around here as opposed to cities where good pitchers threw that pitch.
One thing that is worth noting is that the Royals threw harder this season. Even if you knew it was because of Chapman and Carlos, the numbers are dramatically different.
- 2023: 348 pitches of 100+mph
- 2016-2022: 171 pitches of 100+mph (never more than 43 in a season)
- 2015: 227 pitches
- 2014: 285 pitches
- 2013: 164 pitches
- 2012: 207 pitches
The 2013-2015 Royals are known for good pitching and dominant relief pitching, but we don't really talk much about the velo those teams had especially when the Royals went away from high velo for a time post-World Series. In 2018, the Royals threw 1 pitch of 100+mph. In 2019, the Royals didn't throw a single pitch over 100+mph.
When we move the threshold down to 98+mph, here are the numbers by year
- 2023: 1061 pitches of 98+mph
- 2022: 531
- 2021: 643
- 2020: 256
- 2019: 44
- 2018: 67
- 2017: 300
- 2016: 865
- 2015: 1166
- 2014: 1580
There was some 98-99 velo in 2021/2022 but the floodgates reopened in 2023. Goodness, there was a lot of mediocre velo on the 2018/2019 teams. At the time I joked about how the Royals had a lot of Public Radio frequency velo (90, 91, 92). But you couldn't get a Brad Boxberger tote bag for supporting the team.
If you look into who threw the most pitches 98+mph since 2018, you might figure out why there is a skepticism towards the Royals ability to make high velo work.
Most pitches thrown 98+mph for the Royals since 2018
- Carlos Hernandez: 1004
- Staumont: 382
- Chapman: 290
- Dylan Coleman: 286
- Jake Brentz: 131
- Cole Ragans: 90
- Domingo Tapia: 86
- Rosenthal: 72
- Steven Cruz: 57
Out of those 9. Hernandez had a bad overall 2023. Staumont and Coleman already had injuries and velo decline. The Royals traded Chapman and Rosenthal which is how they got Coleman and Ragans. Brentz has been injured for awhile. Domingo Tapia is a guy whose Royals stint was pretty forgettable.
- In 2018/2019: The 111 pitches of 98+mph thrown by the Royals was the 3rd fewest in baseball (better than the Diamondbacks and Cleveland
- In 2020-2022: The 1430 pitches of 98+mph were the 10th most in baseball over those seasons
- In 2023: The 1061 pitches of 98+mph were the 5th most in baseball. The top 4 being the Dodgers, Orioles, Phillies, and Marlins. The Royals had the most 98+mph velo of any team that didn't make the playoffs.
Fundamentally, that's an encouraging trend but with the overall results, it might be easy to lose faith in velo.
On the other side of the coin, The 2023 Royals threw more pitches under 90mph than any other team. 13813. The Royals also had the highest % of pitches thrown in that velocity range of any team. The bulk of that came from starting pitchers like Jordan Lyles, Zack Greinke, and Brady Singer. 85.5% of Zack Greinke's pitches were 90mph or slower which is the highest of any regular Royals pitcher. If the Royals can get a full Cole Ragans season and/or a Zack Greinke departure, we'll see if the average Royals velo moves up even more in 2024.
Out of all the relief pitchers that are still around, Carlos Hernandez likely got the most attention of any Royals pitcher. The first half of 2023, Carlos yielded a 3.83 ERA with a 0.985 WHIP, 10.3 K/9, and 4.25 K/BB ratio in the first half. During the second half, he yielded a 7.82 ERA with a 1.93 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, and 1.37 K/BB ratio.
A certain amount of the Carlos story is a story of how he did in leverage situations. During the first half there was a noticeable gap in his performance in low leverage vs high leverage. For the full season, the gap is still there.
- High Leverage: 349/400/640/OPS of 1.040
- Medium Leverage: 227/330/453/OPS of .783
- Low Leverage: 143/231/229/OPS of .459
95 PAs of high leverage, 88 PAs of medium leverage, 117 PAs of low leverage. Carlos struck out 34% of batters in low leverage and 14% in high leverage.
It feels like it's less noisy than Carlos allowing 20 of 43 runs on exactly 2 days of rest. Three of the worst Carlos outings were 2 days of rest (April 18th, June 2nd, and August 7th). The conventional wisdom for someone like Chapman when he was in KC was that you couldn't pitch him on back to back days. Carlos Hernandez, on the other hand, gave up 4 runs and 5 inherited runs pitching on back to back days. So if you have a pitcher who only recently started throwing full-effort as a reliever that's struggling, the logical feeling is that you shouldn't pitch him more. If you have Carlos as one of the backend bullpen guys on a bad team, there'll be times when he doesn't pitch for a few days due to the nature of Royals games and you wouldn't want to pitch him just to pitch him when maybe there'll be a close game tomorrow. The Royals kept going to Carlos Hernandez mid-inning with guys on base in the second half as if his stuff was gonna work in that spot. But until he can get his strikeout rate up in high leverage spots, it'll be a rough assignment for him.
There'll be temptation to trade Hernandez, although teams would have an easier time lowballing the Royals on trade returns due to his second half. But as I noted already, Carlos Hernandez threw the most pitches of any Royals reliever and in a year where there were a lot of relievers getting hurt or traded or demoted. So if you're moving the guy who pitched the most, you'd better knock wood hard enough that at least one of the 2024 relief pitchers can fill some of that void. If the Royals can reach the High Velocity tree and get a pitcher who doesn't get hurt quickly, that move could work out. But a certain amount of "trade your relievers" mentality sounds like never letting a bullpen become any sort of strength before you start trading from that strength. The 2008 Bullpen had a good season before they traded Ramon Ramirez and the Former Leo Nunez. The 2023 Bullpen did not have a good season so how much of a lure will the relief pitchers be unless you have a pitching coach eager to show how good he is at developing a talent?
One extra thing on leverage. Both Jordan Lyles and Zack Greinke got torched in high leverage spots. For all the complaints about how quickly Matt Quatraro pulled Zack Greinke, that's one of the smarter strategic things he did. If Zack Greinke had his 2023 in a place where he wasn't a legend, it would have went over a little differently than it did. Jordan Lyles had the worst high leverage pitching season ever although there weren't a lot of high leverage PAs vs Lyles (66 batters faced in high leverage) since when you allow an OPS over 1.400 in high leverage, you won't be in high leverage for long. Jordan Lyles got his 2023/24 contract because the Orioles moved the fences back in Left Field and then he pitched more like he did in Texas this season.
Weird thing about Lyles 2023 season is that it was his best WHIP season in a full season while being one of his worst ERA+ seasons. A certain amount of the story of how the Royals allowed fewer hits/walks and more runs is because of Jordan Lyles. Lyles allowed 176 hits, 45 walks, and 6 HBP. That's 227 runners and Lyles allowed 130 runs. Maybe I already told you why Lyles got cooked so badly. His performance in high leverage. Well, they're likely stuck with him until mid-2024.
I think I'll type a bit more about the hitting than the pitching. Some people almost feel like the hitting can be left as-is while the pitching needs to be made over. I'm more of the point of view that the hitting output really wasn't all that good either and I'll type a few words about what I've noticed in the stats.
I've already mentioned that this 2023 Royals team posted the worst OBP in team history. Among Royals who batted 200 times in 2023, the dividing line between OBPs that were above the team average and below the team average was between Matt Duffy and Drew Waters. Vinnie, Garcia, Fermin, BWJ, Olivares, MJ, Pratto, and Duffy had OBPs above .303. Waters, Salvy, Isbel, and Massey were below average. Now, before we congratulate too many Royals, the league-wide OBP was .320, not .303. The only regular/semi-regular Royals with OBPs above the league average were Vinnie, Garcia, and Freddy Fermin. Bobby Witt Jr, in his season with 30 homers, 49 stolen bases, 11 triples and countless smiles, had an OBP of .319. So while the Royals had various good streaks if you set the exact right endpoints, overall, they were a bad offensive team.
It feels much easier to just assume that for all the talk the Royals do about how they really value OBP. It's a lot like telling your dentist that you're really gonna floss more in the next six months when you know you're not gonna commit to it. Most recent history tells us that the Royals don't particularly value on-base percentage.
The thing is that the Royals hitters really weren't far from the league average for pitches per PA. The Royals averaged 3.87 pitches per PA and the league average is 3.90. The Royals leader in pitches per PA was Nick Pratto. MJ Melendez was the only other regular Royal averaging 4+ pitches per PA. Remember how many Royals pitchers average 4+ pitches per PA, meanwhile the hitters, not quite so much. There are quite a few players in-between 3.9 and 3.99 pitches per PA which helps the average. Nelson Velazquez, BWJ, Drew Waters, Vinnie, Michael Massey. Salvador Perez is his usual self, averaging 3.57 pitches per PA. Kyle Isbel almost saw less pitches per PA than Salvy (Isbel saw 3.59 pitches per PA).
Maybe it would be better for us to put the Royals hitters in context with the league in regards to their plate discipline.
- Runs Per Game: 4.17 (23rd)
- Pitches per PA: 3.87 (23rd)
- Strike %: 65.2% (2nd)
- Strike Looking %: 24.1% (24th)
- Strike Swinging %: 20.2% (9th)
- Foul Ball %: 28.4% (t-15th)
- Ball In Play %: 27.2% (t-12th)
- Swung at Strikes %: 75.9% (7th)
- Percentage of Pitches Swung At: 49.4% (5th)
- Contact %: 73.3% (21st)
- First Pitch Swinging %: 32.6% (t-9th)
- Strikeout Looking %: 24.3% (11th)
This Royals team combined swinging at lot with not making contact and also they strike out looking more than the league average. Which could cause a feedback loop of people thinking they need to swing at even more pitches.
The Atlanta Braves swung at more pitches than the Kansas City Royals in 2023. They swung at more first pitches than the Royals. The Braves had the best offense in baseball during the regular season. Aside from how good the Braves players are compared to the Royals players and park factors, what differences were there between the Braves and Royals which might be helpful information to know before embracing the idea of "swinging more"? The Braves had the lowest % of strikes looking and the lowest percentage of strikeouts looking. They had a league average contact rate. But something like the 2023 Braves swinging more than the 2023 Royals might inspire someone to insist that if they just yelled loud enough, the Royals could bring Kevin Seitzer back (hey, last time the Royals had Seitzer, they were in the World Series 2 years after firing him, so maybe try that again. That's just me joking, Seitzer-fans)
I'm just gonna run through 12 frequent Royals who'll likely be back for 2023 from least to most PAs as a Royal.
First up, Nelson Velazquez. He had 147 PAs over 40 games (a month and a half) and hit 14 home runs. Nelson Velazquez had a wide home/road split over that time. At Kauffman Stadium, Nelson Velazquez hit 11 home runs in 94 PA. He hit 286/351/726. No Royal has slugged more at home in a full season than George Brett's 1980. Velazquez on the road hit 143/208/327 in 53 PA. Neither of these averages is sustainable. It's just a matter of how much he improves on the road and how much his numbers correct themselves at home. Nelson Velazquez won't hit a home run every 7-8 at-bats at Kauffman Stadium next season. Some parts of Nelson Velazquez's hitting in Kansas City felt like Jorge Soler's 2019 and some parts feel like Salvador Perez's 2021. As a Royal, Velazquez has a .299 OBP to go along with 14 HR in 147 PA. There's some boom potential here for Velazquez over a full season. There's some bust potential here. If Velazquez starts slow next April, it'll test people's patience in a guy who doesn't make a lot of contact. Pratto's contact rate is 64.9%. Melendez's contact rate is 65.6%. Velazquez's contact rating is 65.8%. People have soured on Pratto and MJ over this season. What would happen to the mood on Velazquez if he has a more realistic home run rate next Spring? We might find out together.
Skipping Matt Duffy, who stayed around through Game 162 but likely doesn't come back to the Royals next year.
Freddy Fermin had a hot bat for a time in July/August. Then it cooled off as he got more playing time. Neither Freddy or Salvy see many called strikes but Freddy PAs last a little longer and he makes more contact. Over that short period of time, Freddy Fermin probably established himself as the most offensively reliable backup catcher of the Salvador Perez era. If the Royals keep Salvy, there'll be the annual Salvy IL stint more than likely along with no shortage of time where Salvy isn't catching and Freddy Fermin has to handle things.
Vinnie Pasquantino will be back next year. His 2023 was pretty much the epitome of incomplete since it ended 4 months ago. He saw way more pitches in 2023 than 2022 (He went from 3.47 pitches per PA to 3.93 pitches per PA). He made a lot of contact again (82.6% in 2023). He swung first pitch a lot less often in 2023 while swinging at non-first pitches enough to make up for it (2022: 32.6% first pitch swinging, 45.8% swinging overall. 2023: 23.5% first pitch swinging, 46.1% swinging overall). A dude with some power who makes that much contact and a good plate approach has a lot of upside going forward compared to some of the more typical Royals guys we keep seeing out there.
Kyle Isbel and Drew Waters probably should be covered in the same paragraph. Waters saw more pitches and Isbel made more contact. Isbel had a higher percentage of strikes looking than Waters. Kyle Isbel actually had the highest percentage of strikeouts looking on the team (25 of 59) which is an unusual for a guy who doesn't see a lot of pitches. Isbel played over Waters in CF. Drew Waters likely doesn't hit enough for a corner while not meeting the high standards to play CF for the Royals. Isbel is probably defensively acceptable but he follows a stretch of really good defensive CFs. They're both 4th outfielders if one wants to be generous towards them. Isbel is 18 months older than Waters. If the Royals pick up another outfielder (despite already having a ton of outfielders), it might come at the expense of Isbel or Waters.
The 7th most PAs on this team came from the player I jokingly call the BABIP King. Nick Pratto finished the year with a .388 BABIP, which ties him for the highest BABIP ever in a Royals season (Esteban German had a .388 BABIP in 2006). Nick Pratto did not have a .388 BABIP for the same reasons that Esteban German had a .388 BABIP. If you go to the "Team Pitches Batting" section of the Baseball-Reference page of 2023 Royals stats, you'll find that Nick Pratto was either the best or worst of a bunch of Royals batting eye stats. Pratto had the highest Pitches/PA rate on the team (4.20). He had the highest percentage of called strikes on the team. He had one of the lower foul ball percentages on the team. He had the lowest percentage of balls in play on the team. Lowest swung at strikes %. Second lowest swing rate. Lowest contact. Lowest first pitch swinging. Second highest % of 3-1 counts. Second highest number of strikeouts looking on the team but a lower % of strikeouts looking out of all strikeouts.
Basically Nick Pratto was not in the middle in a lot of batting eye stats. Nick Pratto had his share of long at-bats which didn't end with any sort of actual accomplishment. It's sorta similar to Ryan O'Hearn averaging 4 pitches per PA from 2019 to 2022 while posting an OPS+ of 70.
Much like how people probably thought O'Hearn would do nothing post-Royals, there's people who see Nick Pratto's age 23/24 seasons as a sign that he won't make it in the majors. There are some good parts of Pratto's approach. He almost certainly didn't adjust to the fact that major league pitchers would pitch him more aggressively than minor league pitchers pitched him in 2021/22. In other words the difference between being at the bottom of a major league order as opposed to being in the middle of a minor league order. More than likely Pratto starts 2024 in AAA because there isn't a coherent roster spot for him on this team (not like the Royals decisions for bench guys usually make sense). We'll hear that he has to adjust things in the minors despite the fact that he has 775 plate appearances in AAA. The things he has to change aren't gonna be changed facing pitchers who can't get out of AAA. In theory, they could trade him or O'Hearn him away. But another team would need to have a void to see a guy who sees a lot of pitches but doesn't hit them as someone they can rebuild. If Nick Pratto had the foresight to throw right-handed, he could be George Kottaras.
But the number of teams with better hitting instruction than the Royals might not necessarily be willing to take on a project like a 25 year old Pratto. In the scheme of things, guys who can do SOMETHING right while being really bad at other important things are a little ahead of guys who have glaring flaws while having a bad approach. That's a lot of words on someone whose main path to Royals playing time in 2024 involves Vinnie Pasquantino falling down the stairs or something disastrous. I didn't even go into things like how he started hot and wasn't hot again post-June, nor did I go into strikeout percentages because it's as thing where he's bad in enough other more important stats. The whole concept of what's an unacceptably high strikeout % relies more on the other stats or on how much your organization fears being laughed at by other organizations. Nick Pratto actually hat a better OPS+ season last season with a .184 batting average than he did with a .232 batting average this season. It was a rare season where one could have their batting average go up 48 points and still not be good enough. I don't know if they sold out to get his batting average over .200 and limited his power or what went on there with what he worked on and what he did and didn't do. Okay now I'm done.
Now to the early season frustration that was Edward Olivares. Olivares was meh for a lot of 2023 with flashes of batting quality. His defense really sucked to begin the year but it mostly stabilized by the end since it was hard for him to make worse defensive plays than his first months of 2023. Then once he came back in September, he hit home runs and looked good again. Will this be enough to keep him on the Royals or will the Royals move on from Olivares with this September motivating some team to bring Olivares aboard. The Royals have MJ Melendez, Nelson Velazquez, and Edward Olivares. They can all only play in the same lineup if one of them is the designated hitter. There'll be days when only 2 of the 3 would play. Olivares saw fewer pitches in 2023 than he saw in any other season. He had his best contact% season ever. From 2020 to 2022, he swung at 49.4% of pitches, made contact 75% of the time, and averaged 4 pitches per PA. In 2023, he swung at 50.5% of pitches, made contact 77% of the time, and averaged 3.7 pitches per PA. Out of MJ, Olivares, and Velazquez. Olivares is the oldest and has the least amount of power (even if Olivares has some pop) while also playing the worst defense. So if any of those 3 doesn't play for the 2024 Royals, it'll be Olivares.
Michael Massey has some good elements to his game. Back in April when I rambled about this team, I thought they were gonna demote Massey because he was really terrible to start the year and he had the least AAA time of any young Royals player. The Royals stuck with Michael Massey and he was on the roster for the entire season aside from when he hurt himself trying to bunt in June.
From April 23rd to the end of the season, Massey hit 245/296/415 after starting the season with a 6 for 52 (115/111/135). Massey was good in May, stunk in June before getting hurt, was good-ish in July (as good as you can be with a .250 OBP), was bad again in August, and was good in September.
Massey saw more pitches per PA in 2023 than 2022. He swung at less pitchers. He made more contact. He also had a worse OPS+ than Nick Pratto over the entire season. While Pratto started hot and fell off as the year went on, Massey started cold and had to fight and crawl to reach an OPS+ of 79. Even if you grade Massey on the curve that he plays second base. Massey's hitting was worse than the league average for second basemen. Massey will hit enough flyballs hard to make people think that he's unlucky when the reality is that he's a second baseman who hits a lot of balls in the air. I suspect there's a correlation between how much people talk about Massey's defense and how little he's hitting in recent memory. There are some reasons to think Massey could be a 2/3 hitter in the majors if he improves enough. He started at cleanup 7 times, and was hitting 5th/6th because the lineup isn't deep enough to keep Massey in the lower half of the order. In the scheme of things, they have faith in the guy even with the flaws shown in his hitting over a full season.
Maikel Garcia might be around the fork in the road for what type of hitter he's gonna be in the majors. On July 3rd, Maikel Garcia was hitting 298/351/410. After July 3rd, Maikel Garcia hit 254/304/323. Garcia over that period of 68 starts/306 PA was not playable as a leadoff hitter but in absence of better options, he stayed at leadoff. Even with the brief injury absences, that wasn't actively mentioned down the stretch of 2023. This season, Maikel Garcia was a patient hitter. He swings less than Nick Pratto and had more strikeouts looking than Pratto. Garcia saw slightly fewer pitches than the league average (3.85 per PA) despite swinging at 43% of all pitches. Maikel Garcia led the Royals in called strikes that were not in the gameday strike zone (He led BWJ 56-55 despite a difference in playing time).
How will Maikel Garcia adjust to umpires that call a strikezone like Garcia shouldn't take close pitches? Will he swing at more more pitches and produce hitting numbers closer to his cousin Alcides Escobar? Garcia didn't have much power pop this year and might be more valuable hitting the ball hard and hitting hard hit line drives. Garcia might have the most on the line when it comes to the question of where his game goes in 2024. There are some fundamentals that say Maikel Garcia as a leadoff hitter is their best option at leadoff. But this organization will have to ignore their instincts to nudge guys to swing more to really get the most out of Maikel Garcia. As for the frequent question about playing Garcia at 3rd and Bobby at shortstop. It feels like a certain amount of that is people who think that third basemen have to hit a certain way and shortstops hit a second way. Garcia was defensively solid as a third basemen (we've seen worse third basemen recently). He's filling a few voids between batting leadoff and playing third base. There's also a feeling that the Royals should trade Garcia so he can play shorstop somewhere else as if the Royals are running a charity to the rest of baseball. Yeah, I just don't get that push unless something magical just comes down the pipe as a trade offer.
Speaking of trades. Salvador Perez. The Royals almost traded Salvador Perez to the White Sox at this years deadline. Some fans talk about how the Royals should trade Salvy so he can play for a winner. Trading Salvy to the White Sox to put him on a winner would be like sending someone to Siberia for the vibrant beach life. Fortunately for everybody involved, that deal hasn't happened yet. If we're looking at this from how it looks on paper. Salvador Perez turns 34 next May. He's already seen his best baseball. The Royals also signed him up until he's 35 years old for $20M in 2024 and $22M in 2025. The Royals signing Salvy to his current extension was one of those moves (at first none of the three Salvy extensions made sense but the first two went pretty well overall). There's a certain amount that doesn't make sense about Salvador Perez's output and that's a fun thing about him as a player. So it would be easy to look at the player Salvador Perez is and the ballpark that the Miami Marlins play in, and think that Salvy would not be a good investment for the Marlins. But it's Salvy so even in his twilight years, he's gonna do rare things. The Royals don't have to trade Salvy because of his 2024 salary. They're not that broke. If they trade him, it'll likely be spun as something other than "they just want to move on from him". If Salvy's on the roster on Opening Day 2024, there might be an early test to gently nudge him down the order to hit more around 5-6 instead of 3-4. Pretty much all the fundamentals of Salvador Perez are known by now. He has never seen many pitches and gradually he went from hitting for contact to hitting for power. Usually, giving a 35 year old $22M a year is not a great investment. But once you make that mistake, you're probably stuck with it and you'll just have to work around what you're guaranteeing. You can either trade Salvador Perez for salary relief or ask for taxpayer money for a new stadium, it's hard to achieve both in the same offseason.
The Royal with the second most plate appearances was MJ Melendez. This feels like a good opportunity to look into the Royals hard hit rate. Bobby Witt Jr led the Royals in balls with exit velocities of 95+mph (he had the 7th highest number of hard hit balls in baseball). MJ Melendez tied Maikel Garcia for hard hit balls. MJ's best percentile rankings on BaseballSavant are in exit velo and hard hit rate. Early on in this season, there was a lot of talk about how often the Royals hit the ball hard. That tapered off quickly as the Royals were not hitting in April.
Overall, the Royals had the 9th most hard hit balls in baseball and the 3rd highest % of hard hit balls out of all pitches thrown to them. The Royals also tied for the 6th lowest batting average on hard hit balls (a rare time when I'll cite batting average as indicative of anything meaningful). The Royals had the 4th lowest SLG on hard hit balls, ahead of Cleveland/Washington/Detroit. Their isolated power on hard hit balls was also the 5th lowest. After Spring 2023 and early 2022, one couldn't blame Royals fans for rolling their eyes at the concept of hard hit balls. But hey, there's not really a way to move the fences in to help get cheap homers without further screwing the Royals bad pitching staff.
The Royals had the 5th lowest average/SLG on hard hit balls to the opposite field. The Royals were 18th in average and 21st in SLG in hard hit balls up the middle. Lastly the Royals had the 7th lowest average on hard hit balls to the pull-side and the 4th lowest SLG on the pull-side. During the season, it felt like hitting balls hard in the air to the opposite field at Kauffman Stadium was a kiss of death. But the Royals didn't fare great compared to the league on pulled hard hit balls. I'm ready to hear about hard hit balls again next April but there might be something fundamentally different with how the Braves hit the ball hard compared how the Royals hit the ball hard.
MJ Melendez can also be a bit of a polarizing player between fans who think he's awful and fans who are placing their faith in his second half hitting. MJ Melendez finished the season with 170 strikeouts. He also saw 4.06 pitches per PA while swinging first pitch more than the league average (only Fermin and Salvy swung first pitch more than MJ). If the Royals keep two of Velazquez, Melendez and Olivares, they'll likely keep MJ. But if they trade 2 of those 3, they might cash out on MJ. I don't think that's particularly likely. Last season MJ Melendez had an OPS+ of 99 while slumping over the last months of that season. This season, MJ had an OPS+ of 95 while better in the second half than the first half. After two seasons, MJ Melendez's per 162s are 132 hits, 29 doubles, 29 homers, 75 walks, 176 strikeouts and an OPS+ of 97. In theory, we can hope that an offseason of committing to the outfield could help MJ similar to how Bobby Witt Jr improved because he was committed to Shortstop this season. But that's a lot of hope to hold.
Bobby Witt Jr led the Royals in practically everything good this season. The first 10,000 will get a 30/49 t-shirt sometime next Summer. When you compare his 2022 and 2023, he saw more pitches and swung slightly less. He made more contact and struck out less. 8 positions saw more strikeouts in 2023 than 2022, the one that didn't was Shortstop. It's somehow easier to go into detail about a player who had upsides and downsides where there's drama about what they'll do in the near future than a player like Bobby whose main drama for 2024 involves how quickly it'll take him to get going. Once they stopped batting Bobby leadoff, things moved in the right direction. He hit 303/345/535 in 433 PAs as a 2 hitter. It wouldn't surprise me if the Royals find a way to bat Bobby 3rd one day if they actually get two players who hit ahead of him. Ideally, the Royals should make sure that they have Bobby Witt Jr past 2027, but that's a decision that's more in Bobby's hands than anybody else.
One last person to talk about is Matt Quatraro. To be fair to Matt, it is hard to be consistent when you're managing a team like the 2023 Royals. The Royals used 158 different batting orders this season. They did not use a single batting order more than twice. So they used 154 batting orders once and 4 batting orders twice. The Royals also used 146 different defensive lineups and didn't use any defensive lineup more than 3 times. As the year went on, there were hints of trends that could be explained by stats. Garcia/Bobby was the 1-2 for most of the year after June. Michael Massey and MJ Melendez were pinch hit for against left handed relievers which can be explained by their numbers against LHPs. But this only really started in August/September and even then it wasn't necessarily consistent. The perceived amount of fire will get more focus in regards to Quatraro but the consistency is more of a concern. More than likely he'll be around through sometime in 2025 if not a little longer. It wouldn't surprise me if they drop some random part of the coaching staff similar to bringing John Gibbons onto the staff with Trey Hillman. In an era when managers essentially have lineups made for them, the other things that managers have to do for themselves become even more important. Which could be the case for the people talking about "Fire" from Quatraro during games. Hopefully they're more prepared if Cole Ragans falls off a mound multiple times in an inning again. Hopefully they're a little more aware about who to use in mid-inning spots as opposed to seeing Jose Cuas or Carlos Hernandez being awful with inherited runners. While some of the first criticisms come up in the news story after a firing, being able to adjust from year one to year two would be a big help. A nice guy usually doesn't lose the clubhouse but there are optical things about Quatraro that go over way better on a team that isn't losing a bunch.
As for moves to make to magically improve the team. Yeah those moves probably exist. The bullpen is mostly random enough that they have room to make additions. Free Agent relievers in their 30s usually are a lot less useful than Aroldis Chapman. Free agent starting pitching depends on what the starting point is for a rotation. If they don't move Lyles and the currently injured starters aren't out for a long time, then the rotation is Ragans/Singer/Lyles/Marsh/Lynch. Kris Bubic might be back by mid-season but I suspect there'll be an open spot or two by then. If they bring back Zack Greinke for part 3 of the nostalgia tour, then they have to drop someone who they're pretending will make starts for them next year. Brady Singer and MJ Melendez probably have more trade value than you'd think but less trade value than is necessary to make a trade happen. If they're trading Olivares or MJ, is there a logical worthwhile move to trade one of them for a reliever, knowing that might end up as a loser of a trade. The Royals might be around the time that they have to make a trade or two that hurts. Except that this time they would be making trades that hurt because they're paying the stupidity tax for previous mistakes in drafting and development.
When the Royals added 14 wins from 2012 to 2013, that was a remarkable jump. If the Royals added 14 wins from 2023 to 2024, they'd still be 14 wins away from relevance. So it's a hell of a hill to climb. Deion Sanders isn't coming aboard to run off half the team to add all new better guys. This team had some guys who could be good in the future and a certain amount of uncertainty about how much talent the player will really show.
It's hard to complain too much about having 56 wins when you scored/yielded enough to finish 64-98 because 64-98 isn't good either. But if they're really doing an evaluation instead of just saying evaluation a lot. They have no shortage of data to tell them about the players. It's just a matter of what this braintrust thinks a winning team looks like and if that's actually good enough to win games in the 2020s. If past history is any guide, don't get your hopes up. This organization has to show that they've improved certain things before one should really believe that they've improved certain things. They're still playing catchup in the areas where they're making progress and some areas, they are not making progress at all. If you look hard enough, you can find non-Bobby Witt Jr upsides from a 56-106 season.
In the scheme of things, this organization is likely spinning their wheels and telling people how good the wheels look.