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Is Nelson Velazquez a future core piece for the Royals?

Nelson is a power hitter through and through

Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Royals right fielder Nelson Velazquez (21) hits a home run against the Houston Astros during the fourth inning at Kauffman Stadium.
Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Royals right fielder Nelson Velazquez (21) hits a home run against the Houston Astros during the fourth inning at Kauffman Stadium.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is about scoring runs and preventing the other team from scoring runs, and everything a player does on a baseball field contributes (positively or negatively) to one of those two things. Of course, it’s not that simple; players can contribute to scoring runs in a variety of different ways. For instance, successfully stealing a base contributes to scoring a run. So does taking a walk, or hitting a home run. Likewise, a defender can contribute the other way with a particularly great outfield arm or by minimizing errors. Pretty straightforward.

Not everything a player does has the same value, which is also relatively obvious. Taking a lot of walks is more important than stealing a bunch of bases, and hitting for power is better than having great defensive range. There is, therefore, a concept I like to call “route to viability.” Different types of players can be solid MLB contributors as long as they have the right skill mix. If you take walks at an 18% rate, for example, you can afford to carry a lower batting average and play as a first baseman. But if you hit for a relatively empty .220, well, you better play a premium position at a Gold Glove level.

You can take this to extremes, too. Let’s say you have an outfielder who never breaks into anything more than a leisurely walk when the ball is hit towards him. He’d be a huge liability—except if he hit like peak Barry Bonds, in which case he’d still be an All-Star.

On a more realistic level, we’re watching an experiment unfold: what happens if you turn a player’s power up to 11 while also turning down literally every other dial below average? Because that’s what is going on with Nelson Velazquez, who on Sunday hit his 16th and 17th home runs on the year in only 49 games. Velazquez has hit 14 of them with Kansas City, and he has a chance to have the third-most home runs on the team despite only playing in a quarter or so of the team’s total on the year.

This year, Velazquez has been a ridiculous power hitter. His isolated slugging percentage stands at an almost unbelievable .390. He’s in the 99th percentile in barrel %. And it’s resulted in a wRC+ of 146, deservedly so. He’s crushed the ball. It’s no fluke, either; look at his career and you’ll see an ISO north of .250 and a wRC+ of 113 across 369 plate appearances.

The problem with Velazquez? Everything else. We’ll again look at career numbers here, because we’re at a small sample size already. He strikes out a lot—at a tick over 29%—but carries a single-digit walk rate at 8.9%. His career batting average is .221, and he carries a career OBP just below .300. And defensively, it’s one big yikes. He carries a -10 Defensive Runs Saved and a -4 Ultimate Zone Rating in not yet 700 outfield innings.

That got me thinking: how many players have their been who have done what Velazquez is doing so far in his career? I pulled up Fangraphs to take a look, filtering only qualified hitters since 1995 with more than 500 plate appearances, an ISO above .250, and an OBP below .300. Not a lot of players threaded that particular needle.

Power hitters with sub-.300 OBP seasons

2021 Adam Duvall 555 38 0.263 0.228 0.281 0.491 101 2.6
2004 Jose Valentin 504 30 0.258 0.216 0.287 0.473 88 2.2
2016 Adam Duvall 608 33 0.257 0.241 0.297 0.498 104 2.6
2008 Mike Jacobs 519 32 0.266 0.247 0.299 0.514 102 -1.0

Right away, the Adam Duvall comp makes a lot of sense. Like Velazquez, Duvall is a relatively average-sized, right-handed hitting outfielder with big power but not as much plate discipline as you’d expect from a slugger. Duvall shows up twice on this list, but he’s also put up the requisite .250+ ISO and a <.300 OBP since 2019, a period of time measuring 1547 plate appearances. In other words, it can be done.

But there’s an issue here. Duvall is a legitimately good defensive outfielder who has won a Gold Glove award. Velazquez...will probably never do that. Even with Velazquez hitting the crap out of the ball this year, he’d only be on pace for 2.5 WAR over a 150-game season. If Velazquez was even an average outfielder, his ceiling would be immense. But he is not, and that’s why the Royals were able to nab him for Jose Cuas, a 29-year-old replacement level reliever.

So what does Velazquez’s route to viability look like? Well, it looks a lot like what he’s doing this year: elite power rather than great power and a higher OBP achieved through, most likely, a higher batting average. Indeed, if we expand our search to include players who have accomplished an OBP between .300 and .350 as well as an ISO above .350, we come up with a few examples.

Power hitters with sub-.350 OBP seasons

2018 Khris Davis 654 48 0.302 0.247 0.326 0.549 136 2.7
2017 Joey Gallo 532 41 0.327 0.209 0.333 0.537 119 2.8
1995 Jay Buhner 539 40 0.304 0.262 0.343 0.566 127 2.6
2005 Andruw Jones 672 51 0.312 0.263 0.347 0.575 134 7.9

Khris Davis is another pretty good comp—another average sized right-handed hitter. For his career, he had a .249 ISO and a .314 OBP, and like Velazquez was a poor defensive outfielder.

What do all these numbers mean, then? Well, they mean that we can be pretty sure Velazquez will never be a superstar, and though he might have some solid years in him, he’s unlikely to be a reliably above average player. He just doesn’t get on base enough and he doesn’t play good enough defense.

Velazquez is certainly fun to watch, though, and he’s more than earned a longer look next year. And getting him for a guy like Cuas, who had no future with the Royals, is exactly the kind of move the front office should continue to do. After all, Velazquez is only 24 years and 8 months old, younger than Michael Massey, Nick Loftin, MJ Melendez, Samad Taylor. Nick Pratto, and Vinnie Pasquantino. If other teams can get solid players in shrewd moves, nothing’s against the rules the Royals can’t end up on the receiving end of the good player this time.