First, we looked at metrics to watch out for from Royals starting pitchers in 2020. Now, we’re going to take a look at the expected Royals outfield rotation in 2020, and see what metrics Royals fans should be paying attention to from individual Royals outfielders. Outfield will be an interesting area to watch in Kansas City in 2020, as Whit Merrifield and Hunter Dozier are expected to move from the infield and be the full-time center and right fielders in 2020, respectively. The Royals will also have considerable outfield depth on the bench, as Brett Phillips and Bubba Starling are expected to make the active roster, even though they offer more defensive upside than offensive impact.
For this post, I also included Jorge Soler in the metrics, even though he is the team’s primary designated hitter. This post will only focus on hitting metrics, and Soler does play some outfield in Interleague play, so I figured it would be best to include him in this category. That being said, even though Ryan McBroom did play some outfield in 2019, I am going to include his analysis in corner infielders.
Alex Gordon: 15.8 K percentage
Offensively, 2019 was a nice rebound for the longtime Royals outfielder, one of the few remaining remnants from the 2015 World Series team. After posting a .303, .269, and .305 wOBA from 2016-2018, Gordon rebounded with a .319 wOBA in 2019, his best season under the extension he signed in 2016 for four-years, and $72 million. While Gordon still produced good defense in left field (he won another Gold Glove in 2019), there were many Royals fans who wondered before 2019 started if the organization would be better long-term by allowing Gordon to walk after 2019. However, after a solid season at the plate, the Royals brought him back for at least one more year, in what could perhaps be the 36-year-old’s final season in Major League Baseball.
One of the biggest improvements Gordon made at the plate in 2019 was lowering his strikeout rate to 15.8 percent, which was the lowest percentage of his career. His strikeout rate was the lowest of all Royals outfielders with 60 or more plate appearances in 2019, and his 0.51 BB/K ratio was the highest of Royals outfielders in that category as well. However, the 15.8 strikeout percentage will be the metric to watch for Gordon in 2020, especially since this career-best percentage could be the sign of Gordon as a changed hitter, which possibly could extend his MLB career past 2020.
Prior to 2019, Gordon tended to be a high-walk, high strikeout hitter, who relied more on home runs to make up for the whiffs. However, after struggling campaigns in 2016 and 2017, Gordon, as profiled in an article on Fangraphs from Devan Fink, began to modify his stance and approach in 2018 and built on that change even more in 2019. The result? Less power and walks, but more contact and less strikeouts. The days of Gordon being a 20-home run hitter may be gone, but with a higher-contact approach that puts more balls in play in the spacious Kauffman Stadium, this approach may help him play beyond 2020, especially if his strikeout rate stays around that 15-17 percent range in 2020.
Whit Merrifield: 34.1 O-Swing percentage.
It’s hard to find a lot of flaws in Merrifield’s hitting, as he has led the AL in hits for two straight seasons. The former 9th round pick of the Royals, never a top prospect in the Royals system in his professional career, has come a long way to not only prove the naysayers wrong, but also make his case that he is Royals franchise player that the club can build around for the future. Whit provides the ability to provide position flexibility (though it seems like the Royals are intent on him playing center field full time and have Nicky Lopez take the second base position), and even though his stolen base numbers declined in 2019 from 45 to 20, he did increase his home runs from 12 in 2018 to 16 in 2019, which gives some Royals fans hope that he can be a 20-20 guy in the 2020 decade.
While Whit’s .302/.348/.463 slash in 2019 was impressive, his wOBA actually declined from .349 to .340 from 2018 to 2019, respectively. One of the biggest contributors to that regression was Whit’s increase in strikeouts, as his strikeout rate increased from 16.1 percent to 17.1 percent. Combined with a decline in walks (8.6 percent to 6.1 percent), it is possible that Whit could see further regression in his overall numbers in 2020 if those BB/K metrics and ratios (0.36 last year, which was fourth of Royals OF with 60 or more PA in 2019) don’t improve.
The biggest metric though that could foreshadow Whit’s continued success or regression in 2020 may be his O-Swing percentage, which is the percentage of pitches out of the strike zone that Whit swings at. After lowering that percentage from 34.3 to 32.9 from 2017 to 2018, his O-Swing percentage increased back up to 34.1 percent in 2019. That led to regressions in contact (82.3 to 81.7) and an uptick in swinging strike percentage (8.4 to 8.9). Whit, is one of the best hitters in baseball, at least when it comes to hitting for average. However, it will be interesting to see how he makes adjustments to a more free-swinging approach that began to show some holes in 2019, even if those holes were minute. Opposing teams will definitely try to take advantage, and it’s likely that Whit will see less pitches in the zone in 2020. If Whit can stabilize his O-Swing percentage at least back to 2018 averages, that could be a sign that Whit is adjusting as a hitter. However, if that percentage stays around the same, or in fact, gets worse, it could lead to a decline in production from Whit in 2020 and beyond.
Hunter Dozier: 44.7 swing percentage
Dozier, a former first-round pick and a top prospect for a while in the Royals system, had a season to remember not just for himself, but Royals fans as well. After posting wOBA numbers of .250 in his debut season in 2016, and a .291 mark in 2018 (he didn’t play in the Majors in 2017 due to injury), he broke out with a .360 wOBA mark in 586 plate appearances, which also included 26 home runs and 84 RBI. The season was sweet redemption for Dozier, who had underwhelmed in his first couple of seasons at the Major League level. Even though he is making a shift from third base to the outfield after the acquisition of Maikel Franco, he still should be one of the Royals’ most dependable and productive hitters in 2020 after Whit and Soler.
One of the biggest contributors to Dozier’s breakout in 2020 was refining his approach at the plate, which included being more patient and selective. His 44.7 swing percentage was a 5.4 percent decline from 2018, and a 6.5 percent regression from 2016. This helped Dozier not just see more pitches at the plate, but also get into more favorable hitter counts, where he could use his power to his advantage. Due to his more patient approach, Dozier whiffed less (from 28.4 percent to 27.0 percent), hit more line drives (28.4 percent) and fly balls (28.2 percent), and less ground balls (34.5 percent). Also, Dozier’s exit velocity in 2019 ranked in the 86th percentile in baseball, which shows that when he is not chasing at bad pitches and either striking hit or hitting the ball on the ground for easy outs, he can produce one of the strongest, and most productive strokes in baseball.
The big issue will be if Dozier will continue his patient plate approach in 2020. He did strike out more and walked less after the All-Star break, and many baseball fans wondered if Dozier was regressing back to his 2018 self by the end of the year, at least when it came to plate discipline (his power and production remained stable throughout the year). Thus, it’s not surprising that baseball experts are a bit tame with Dozier when it comes to projections, since 2019 was such an outlier from 2016 and 2018. However, if Dozier can continue to transition this patient approach and keep that swing percentage around that 44.7 percent mark, it is possible that his production will continue from 2019, and he could produce even greater numbers, especially if he can stay healthy for a full season in 2020.
Jorge Soler: 16.9 barrel percentage
No hitter was more productive in 2019 than the Cuban-born Soler, who set single-season home run records for Royals players (shattering Mike Moustakas’ mark of 38 in 2017) and Cuban-born players (passing Rafael Palmeiro, who held the record previously at 47), and became the first Royals hitter in club history to finish the year as the American League home run leader. Derided by many Royals fans early in his tenure due to him being traded for Wade Davis, a Royals postseason hero, Soler proved into 2019 that he could have a productive future offensively in Kansas City.
Soler not only was one of MLB’s most productive hitters in 2019, but also one of the strongest. His hard hit percentage and exit velocity put him in the top 4 percent of MLB hitters, and his 16.9 barrel percentage put him in the top 2 percent as well. While the exit velocity and hard hit percentages contributed to his success, the barrel rate should be a heavier focus for Royals fans going into 2020, especially since he made such a sharp jump from 2018 (10.3).
Soler relies so much on his power for production at the plate, and though he did display better plate discipline in 2019 (0.41 BB/K ratio), he still whiffs at a considerable rate (13.2 swinging strike percentage; 69.9 contact rate). Thus, his barrel percentage will be key to watch in 2020. If he continues to square up on the ball in 2020, he probably will be able to put up power production in 2020 that Royals fans were so used to seeing in 2019. However, if he does see a regression in that barrel rate, which unfortunately seems likely, that could hurt Soler in 2020, since so much of his production is tied to power numbers like home runs. Soler will be entering his last year of arbitration in 2021 before he becomes a free agent, and how Soler’s power stroke fairs in 2020 (as well as his barrel rate) could make the difference between a long-term extension in KC, or the Royals exploring trade options involving the Royals DH for 2021.
Brett Phillips: 73.2 contact percentage
Phillips has definitely been the most entertaining Royals player during this COVID shutdown. However, he has failed to impress at the plate since being acquired from Milwaukee (along with pitcher Jorge Lopez) in the Mike Moustakas trade in 2018. As a Royal he has put up a 47 OPS+ in 202 plate appearances between 2018 and 2019. Safe to say, even though he provides stellar defense in the outfield, Phillips’ time in KC may be coming to an end soon if he doesn’t turn it around at the plate.
One of the biggest issues that has plagued Phillips in KC at the Major League level as been his ability to make contact at the plate. In 2018 with the Royals, Phillips only put up a contact percentage of 72.5 percent, which correlated strongly with his 14.7 swinging strike percentage. Phillips did make some gains in making contact at the plate at the MLB level in 2019, as he decreased his swinging strike percentage to 11.8 and his contact rate rose to 73.2, his best contact rate at the Major League level. However, the MLB average for contact rate was 76.2, which shows that Phillips, despite his progress in 2019, was still subpar by MLB standards when it came to making contact.
If Phillips wants to see an uptick in playing time and continue his future in Kansas City, or Major League baseball in general, he will need to improve upon that 73.2 contact rate from 2019. If he can improve it 2-3 percentage points in 2020, and make it around league average, if not slightly above, he could be decent at the plate, which would only amplify his value to the Royals due to his strong defense. Since Phillips is out of Minor League options, Phillips will get his chance to show that he can be productive in a bench role during this abbreviated season. Most likely, his contact rate will give Royals fans a sign of his future in KC, for if he regresses below that 73.2 rate, it is probable that Phillips’ career as a Royal will be done by season’s end.
Bubba Starling: 29 percent hard hit rate
Royals fans have to take Starling’s 2019 with a grain of salt. Yes, Starling was not very impressive in his big league debut at the plate, as he posted a .247 wOBA in a 197 plate appearances in Kansas City last season. However, going into 2019, many in baseball felt that the Gardner, Kansas native’s MLB career was done, as he was turning 27 and hadn’t played in the Majors yet, a disappointment considering he was once a Top-5 draft pick by the Royals. However, the fact that he produced in Omaha, and earned himself a decent stretch of play in 2019 was cause for celebration, especially considering all Starling had gone through in his Minor League career up to that point (injuries, not living up to expectations, etc.).
Defensively, Starling proved to hold his own, but much like Phillips in 2019, he failed to produce at the plate. As expected, Starling struggled with making contact at the plate, as his 0.16 BB/K ratio and 71.5 contact rate were some of the worst marks of Royals outfielders in 2019. However, the most concerning metric was his 29 percent hard hit rate, which was second lowest of Royals outfielders with 60 or more plate appearances in 2019. Only Billy Hamilton was worse, but at least Hamilton had elite speed. While Starling is a good athlete, he’s not the kind of speed demon Hamilton is on the basepaths, and thus, Starling’s lackluster ability to hit the ball hard only looks worse in retrospect.
There could be a lot of reasons why Starling didn’t hit the ball hard: he was overwhelmed in his first major league stint; he was just trying to make contact, which helped him rebound in Omaha in 2019; pitchers adjusted to his free-swinging approach with more scouting, etc. But, if Starling wants to stay on the Royals roster in 2019, he needs to hit the ball harder and be more productive at the plate. He has the physical tools to at least be a 10-15 home run hitter on paper, and he showed flashes of his power stroke at times in 2019. But a 29 percent hard hit rate won’t cut it, and that will be a key metric for Royals fans to follow in 2020 when it comes to predicting Starling’s future in Kansas City beyond next year.