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The Royals have a leadoff man problem. What’s the solution?

They need OBP desperately

May 12, 2023; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Kansas City Royals right fielder MJ Melendez (1) reacts after striking out during the sixth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at American Family Field.
May 12, 2023; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Kansas City Royals right fielder MJ Melendez (1) reacts after striking out during the sixth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at American Family Field.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The minutia of lineup construction is probably overrated. No lineup can compensate for a team with poor hitting talent, and likewise a stacked offensive team will score no matter how the hitters are arranged. Additionally, most lineup optimizations are variations on a theme of “bunch your best hitters at the top.”

Still, there are a few key pieces in any lineup that are more important than the others. In a famous 2006 article for Bill James’ website, John Dewan—who went on to become CEO of STATS, Inc. and Sports Info Solutions—explored where a team’s best hitter should bat. Dewan looked at two key metrics based on leaguewide data: how many plate appearances were accrued by spot in the lineup over a full season, and the amount of times each spot in the lineup came to the plate with men on base.

Unsurprisingly, the first spot in the lineup, for one team over the course of a whole season, had 767 plate appearances, 23% more than the ninth spot in the lineup. Also unsurprisingly, the fourth spot in the lineup had the most per-team average of plate appearances with men on base at 363, with the first spot in the lineup at the least with 259. Considering that these are the two positions in the lineups with names—“leadoff” and “cleanup”—we’re not exactly breaking new ground here.

Who is the ideal leadoff hitter, then? It’s simple: someone who gets on base. The leadoff hitter is the only lineup position that is guaranteed to have at least one plate appearance without anybody on base, and yet the leadoff position gets the most plate appearances—and therefore the opportunity to make the most outs. The Royals, however, have a problem. This is the leaguewide triple slash and strikeout rate for leadoff hitters so far in 2023:

  • .258/.333/.405, 19.9%

In other words, the league’s leadoff hitters have a composite OBP of .333. That’s good. Here, uh, is the Royals’ leadoff hitter triple slash and strikeout rate this year:

  • .205/.249/.409, 24.9%

The good piece of news here is that Royals leadoff hitters have had significantly better power output than the league. The bad news is...everything else. Royals leadoff hitters are making outs 75% of the time and are striking out 25% of the time, both figures being significantly worse than the league.

Much of this falls on Bobby Witt Jr., who consists of 87% of all leadoff plate appearances. As I keep pointing out, Witt stinks at getting on base and it is a huge roadblock for his success. But Witt isn’t the only player on the team who could hit in the leadoff spot. Kansas City’s problem is bigger than Witt—they just don’t have a lot of good candidates for leadoff hitters. Here are the Royals’ active players and their hitting stats over the past three seasons:

Active Royals hitters, 2021-2023

Vinnie Pasquantino 112 469 11.7% 11.1% 0.291 0.378 0.473 138
Matt Duffy 194 625 7.4% 20.0% 0.278 0.341 0.361 97
Nicky Lopez 317 1112 7.7% 13.4% 0.262 0.326 0.327 83
Edward Olivares 123 409 5.9% 18.6% 0.259 0.314 0.408 98
Nick Pratto 65 243 10.3% 35.0% 0.223 0.310 0.417 102
Salvador Perez 310 1286 4.1% 23.8% 0.268 0.309 0.511 120
MJ Melendez 165 685 11.8% 26.1% 0.215 0.308 0.387 94
Freddy Fermin 14 36 5.6% 25.0% 0.265 0.306 0.588 142
Maikel Garcia 19 66 6.1% 19.7% 0.267 0.303 0.333 74
Michael Massey 85 308 4.9% 27.6% 0.236 0.294 0.351 80
Bobby Witt Jr. 189 803 4.9% 21.3% 0.247 0.288 0.425 95
Hunter Dozier 299 1124 7.6% 27.1% 0.223 0.287 0.384 83
Kyle Isbel 160 457 5.9% 25.6% 0.222 0.274 0.359 73
Nate Eaton 61 158 7.0% 29.7% 0.206 0.268 0.298 57
Jackie Bradley Jr. 295 872 6.5% 25.7% 0.182 0.246 0.282 45

Frustratingly, Kansas City only has two players who match the leaguewide average OBP for leadoff hitters. Neither of those are good candidates as a leadoff hitter. Matt Duffy is a part-time player at this stage of his career, and especially for this young team now that Nick Pratto and Maikel Garcia are full-time players (as they should be). Vinnie Pasquantino would be a really nice leadoff hitter, except he is far and away the best option for driving in runs, so he makes much more sense in the two through four range.

But I think there is one clear candidate for the leadoff spot: Edward Olivares. Olivares doesn’t have big power, but his hit tool and plate discipline are clearly better than Witt’s right now. Olivares would allow the Royals to continue with Vinnie batting second and Salvador Perez batting third and either MJ Melendez or Pratto at cleanup.

Long-term, Drew Waters could be an option. Last year, Waters had a .399 OBP with Triple-A Omaha and a .324 OBP in his first stint with the big league club. Garcia and Melendez could be options, but both would have to make strides at the plate. The Royals could also fill the spot in free agency; Michael Conforto, Joc Pederson, Cody Bellinger, and Joey Gallo should all be available and all have career OBPs north of .325.

Kansas City’s win/loss record this year doesn’t mean anything whatsoever, as the whole year is about talent evaluation. As a result, if they want to just shovel as many plate appearances into Witt’s bat as they can to give him more experience, well, let’s just say there are worse ideas. Even so, you can still get Witt regular appearances without shoehorning him into a position he’s not best built for, and you’d probably get a more competitive team from the meantime, too.