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In a hopeless season, highly-regarded rookies shine

The team sucks, but at least the rooks are hitting

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Kansas City Royals v Minnesota Twins Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Entering the 2022 season, there was more optimism surrounding the Royals than in previous seasons. Young pitching prospects had gotten their feet wet in the majors and brighter days for the offense appeared on the horizon with Bobby Witt Jr, MJ Melendez, Nick Pratto, and Vinnie Pasquantino knocking on the door of the majors. The 2021 team had shown signs of progress, winning 74 games after having lost over 100 in the previous two full seasons. Fans hoped that with improvement from the young pitchers as they got acclimated to the majors and the arrival of hitting prospects would help the Royals build on their improved 2021 season.

Alas, the first two months of the season have been a disaster. The Royals sit at 21-41, tied with Oakland for the fewest wins in MLB. The offense has been uninspiring (90 team wRC+) while the pitching has been a flat-out disaster (staff 5.12 ERA/4.66 FIP). However, one of the things Royals fans had hoped for has transpired: Bobby Witt Jr. and MJ Melendez have played well in the majors.

Bobby Witt Jr.

Hopes were high for the #1 Royals prospect as he cracked the Opening Day roster as the starting third baseman. He excited fans early with a clutch go-ahead double for his first big league hit in game one of the season and a remarkable game-saving defensive play in game two. But pitchers quickly figured out how to attack him and he had a disappointing April, slashing .216/.247/.311 (55 wRC+).

Toward the end of April, signs of improvement had already started to show. He closed out the month on a hit streak that reached 11 games, culminating in his first career home run on May 3rd. He would rake for the rest of the month, hitting .243/.295/.534 (130 wRC+) with six homers. The improvement has continued into June, and his season line currently sits at .246/.289/.452 (106 wRC+).

I looked at some of Bobby’s statistical indicators in early May and, while they still weren’t pretty, there were some encouraging signs. The elite max exit velo confirmed his massive raw power and the whiff rate indicated his hit tool, which was the only real knock on him entering the season, might not be a debilitating problem. These numbers have improved almost across the board since:

The problems he’s having now remain the same as they were a month ago: swing decisions. The chase rate remains an issue, but I would also argue that he swings too often in general. Among 157 qualified hitters, Witt’s 53.2% swing rate is 23rd highest. Pop quiz: what do the five best hitters in baseball right now - Paul Goldschmidt, Aaron Judge, José Ramírez, Yordan Álvarez, Mike Trout - have in common? They all keep the bat on their shoulder often. These guys rank 128th, 122nd, 108th, 131st, and 143rd, respectively, in swing rate. Everybody knows you’re better off spitting on pitches out of the zone, but part of being a great hitter is the willingness to take strikes and hunt pitches you can drive. Credit to Witt, he has done a better job lately in looking for his pitch, as evidenced by his improved contact quality metrics. But perhaps by just committing to laying off more pitches, Witt can cut down on that chase rate and take free passes when pitchers are giving them.

I also pointed out last month that he had been struggling with four-seam fastballs. His .272 wOBA against four-seamers is his worst against any pitch and he has struck out in 31.6% of plate appearances ending with four-seamers. Again, you can’t reach top prospect status if you can’t hit fastballs, but it’s concerning that he’s still having issues with the most commonly thrown pitch in baseball.

All that doesn’t change the fact that he’s hit to a 129 wRC+ since the start of May, second highest on the team behind only Michael A. Taylor (!). ZiPS projected Witt to lead the team in fWAR in the preseason. In spite of being impossibly bad through the first 10 games of the season, Witt’s 1.6 fWAR leads the Royals. But there is another rookie on the roster gunning for the title of “Best Hitter in Kansas City.”

MJ Melendez

MJ Melendez’s turnaround over the past couple years has been nothing short of remarkable. After his dismal 2019 in High-A Wilmington, Eric Longenhagen described him as a “likely backup catcher,” and some scouts doubted he had a big league future at all. Guys just don’t make it after striking out almost 40% of the time at that level. But here we are, two years later, and Melendez is in the majors after a 2021 season in which he led the entire minor leagues in homers.

Unlike Bobby, and despite a slow start to the season in AAA, Melendez did not take long to acclimate to big league pitching. He collected his first hit and first walk in his major league debut and he hasn’t looked back. He has yet to go more than two consecutive games without reaching base, and his season wRC+ has only been below 100 for three days since he debuted. Overall, he’s hitting .248/.336/.450 (123 wRC+). The last time a Royals rookie younger than 24 hit this well in their first 38 career games? Salvador Perez, way back in 2011. The numbers under the hood suggest this is no fluke.

While he hasn’t displayed the top end exit velo Witt has shown, Melendez has consistently hit the ball hard, and with a groundball rate of 40.6%, he hits it in the air often enough to take advantage of that power.

What has impressed me most about Melendez has been his approach. Since day one, he’s shown an advanced, disciplined approach at the plate. This is a weird, unfamiliar experience for Royals fans, as we’re used to seeing guys come up and swing at everything. Melendez has averaged 4.08 pitches per plate appearance, third highest on the team behind Carlos Santana and (a very small sample of) Sebastian Rivero. Among Royals with at least 50 plate appearances, his 11.6% walk rate trails only Santana and Taylor.

That walk rate is even more remarkable than it might initially sound. Below is a list of all players (not just rookies) drafted and developed by the Royals in the last 30 years that have received at least 300 plate appearances in a season with a walk rate of at least 11.6%:

  • Alex Gordon (2015, 2008)
  • Billy Butler (2013)
  • Carlos Beltran (2004, 2003)
  • Mike Sweeney (2003)
  • Jeremy Giambi (1999)
  • Joe Vitiello (1996)
  • Bob Hamelin (1994)

Not a long list! None of these players are still active and only three of these seasons have come in the Dayton Moore era. There’s still plenty of season left, but Melendez is on a very promising pace.

While the big league club continues to toil through yet another losing season, the rookies provide some reason to tune in. Sure, it can be difficult to picture a brighter future for this club, but guys like Witt and Melendez give at least a little reason for optimism. Rumor has it there are a couple other decent prospects in this organization as well. Maybe someday they can come up and give fans more to watch.