In some ways, Dayton Moore can take a bit of a victory lap so far on his acquisitions of Carlos Santana via free agency and Andrew Benintendi via trade this off-season. Other than Salvador Perez, not two hitters in the Royals lineup has been more productive or effective as of late than both Santana and Benintendi, especially when Royals fans look at the offensive leader boards for Royals hitters with 10 or more plate appearances, according to Fangraphs. Here is how the list looks when organized on a wRC+ basis via Fangraphs:
While Kelvin Gutierrez is up there in wRC+, his sample is relatively small, as he only has 26 plate appearances (the same could be said of Jarrod Dyson, who has a wRC+ of 101, but only has 35 plate appearances). Thus, of “regular” Royals hitters (i.e. those with 100 or more plate appearances), Santana leads the pack with a 140 wRC+ and Benintendi ranks third of Royals “regular” hitters with a 108 wRC+, which is a promising sign considering his early-season struggles.
However, while the Royals have to be happy about the results for Santana and Benintendi, the inverse could be said of Whit Merrifield and Jorge Soler, two hitters who were expected to be major producers in the Royals lineup, albeit in different ways. As of May 24th, Whit is producing a wRC+ of 93, while Soler is producing a wRC+ of 65, both pedestrian marks in those categories.
Thus, based on these metrics through the first 45 games of play, what can Royals fans expect from the quartet of important Royals hitters? Will Santana and Benintendi continue to carry this Royals lineup during the summer month of June, July, and August, critical months of the MLB season? Also, can Whit and Soler be the hitters that they once were back in 2019 and 2020, or has the tide turned on their once promising careers?
Let’s take a look at what Royals fans should look for from all four hitters as the Royals hit the “dog days” of summer.
Santana’s walks and power combined with Benintendi’s contact skills
While Santana and Benintendi have been both successful at the plate thus far this season, they have both approached it in different ways. Santana was acquired to boost the club’s on-base percentage and add some power to the heart of the lineup, which has been much needed at the first-base position since Eric Hosmer left Kansas City for San Diego after the 2017 season. So far, Santana has been as advertised offensively. He is posting a higher walk rate (18.2 percent) than strikeout rate (14.1 percent) which is insane for a hitter who has played for the Royals during the Dayton Moore era (which has been known for free-swingers). But, while the Royals were expecting a walk machine who could avoid strikeouts (currently, he is sporting a 1.30 BB/K ratio) this season from Santana, the power has been much welcomed and a surprise, especially after he struggled to do much damage on the power end in his last season in Cleveland in 2020.
Last season, Santana only posted a wOBA of .316, and he only hit eight home runs and posted a .350 slugging in 255 plate appearances, according to Savant. This season though, in 192 plate appearances, he not only has increased his slugging percentage to .461, but he also has nine home runs, which included this walk-off shot off of Tigers closer Michael Fulmer on Sunday afternoon at Kauffman Stadium:
Right now, Santana is having a career renaissance with the Royals in 2021. His barrel rate at 10.9 percent would not only be a career high, but also the first time it has been over 10 percent in his career. His average exit velocity is 1.6 MPH higher than 2020. His .391 xwOBA would be a career high, and his .388 xwOBA on contact would be his highest mark since 2016. And Santana is producing these power metrics while keeping his elite plate discipline, as his 14.1 percent strikeout rate would be his lowest mark since 2018.
Also, Santana has seen a big bounce back in his swing-take metrics so far in 2021. In 2020, Santana generated -3 runs on a swing-take basis in his final season in Cleveland. This year? He is producing a +13 run mark on a swing-take basis, according to Baseball Savant.
So while Santana is producing and has been the Royals’ most efficient hitter through the first two months of play, Benintendi has been one of the most dynamic as of late.
What makes Benintendi so interesting though is that he isn’t succeeding with a massive amount of walks or power. Rather, Benintendi is focusing on contact and simply putting the ball in play, which is a throwback to the “Royals Way” of hitting that this organization has been known for.
Here are Benintendi’s last 30 base hits, according to his Statcast game log via Baseball Savant:
As Royals fans can see, Benintendi’s last 18 hits as a Royal have been singles. Furthermore, only four of his last 30 hits have been extra base hits, which have included two doubles and two home runs. However, even though Benintendi has posted less flash than Santana at the plate in terms of raw production, his contact-heavy approach has yielded some good results in key moments, as evidenced by this key single against the Tigers’s Matt Boyd that drove in two runs:
Furthermore, Royals Farm Report posted this latest tidbit which not only highlighted the production of Santana, but also Benintendi, and why he’s been so key to the Royals lineup:
The power hasn’t been there thus far for Benintendi, as he ranks in the 44th percentile in average exit velocity and 27th percentile in terms of barrel rate, according to Baseball Savant. However, while the power hasn’t come through yet, Benintendi has increased his contact at the plate, as his whiff rate has dropped from 33 percent in 2020 to 19.6 percent this year, which is closer to his 2018 levels (19.2 percent), in which he posted his breakout campaign in Boston.
Thus, while Benny is a little slow with the power, he could be on the verge of a breakout this summer, especially now that he has his contact skills down after a rough 2020 in Boston.
Whit and Soler’s issues at the plate
Whit and Soler have been fan favorites of Royals fans the past few seasons. After all, “Two Hit Whit” and “Soler Power” have been household monikers for both players both in person and online. Whit has a promotion through Price Chopper, and Soler has a ticket package named after him. Safe to say, entering 2021, the Royals were banking on these two fan favorites to help fuel the Royals’ offensive success in 2021.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t been quite the case this year, as Whit and Soler have both had their fair share of struggles, despite playing in all 45 games this year. Whit is only posting a wOBA of .305 so far this season, which would be a career low for him since debuting in 2016. As for Soler, he is posting a .263 wOBA, which would be his lowest mark as a Royals since joining the club in 2017 after the Wade Davis trade (he posted a putrid .226 wOBA that year in 110 plate appearances).
While both are struggling to meet expectations offensively, they are both doing it in different ways. Whit is posting a career-low strikeout rate (10.7 percent), but it is possible that his overly-aggressive approach may be encouraging him to swing and make contact on balls that tend to be generated into easy outs, rather than ones that can be driven for base hits.
Here is an example of Whit being overlay impatient and swinging on the first pitch of the game against Dylan Cease of the White Sox, which results in him flying out easily to the right fielder:
While Whit is making contact more than ever before, it isn’t necessarily always good contact, and it leads to easy, early outs, which is not a good sign for a leadoff hitter. While expecting Whit to be a Santana-esque hitter may be far-fetched, he is swinging at the wrong pitches as of this moment, and it’s affecting his overall line. Surprisingly, Whit has been a more disciplined hitter than ever before, but it hasn’t really paid off. Matthew Lamar of Royals Review pointed this out in his most recent post about Whit, as he mentioned this list below:
And, luckily for Merrifield, his hitting profile this year is actually starkly different from his career averages:
He’s swinging at pitches outside the zone less than any other season
He’s making more contact at pitches inside the zone than any other season
He’s making more contact at pitches outside the zone than any other season
He’s swinging and missing less than any other season
He’s had fewer called strikes than in any other season
He’s pulling the ball more than in any other season
He’s hitting fewer line drives than in any other season
He’s posting a career-high walk rate
He’s posting a career-low strikeout rate“It might be time to start worrying about Whit Merrifield” by Matthew Lamar; Royals Review
On one hand, while Whit is swinging and making contact more than ever, Soler has been the inverse, as he swinging and missing at a prodigious rate. Currently, Soler is posting a strikeout rate of 31.3 percent, and his swinging strike rate of 14.6 percent is actually fourth-highest on the team, according to Fangraphs. Soler isn’t really swinging outside of the strike zone, as his swinging at pitches outside the strike zone rate is actually 5th lowest on the team. That being said, Soler has struggled to make contact in critical counts, especially on the slider, as evidenced by this strikeout against Jose Urena of the Detroit Tigers:
Soler ranks in the 95th percentiles when it comes to exit velocity and hard hit rate, as well as the 85th percentile when it comes to barrel rate, according to Baseball Savant. Those are positive signs that hint that he could turn it around soon. On the other hand, Soler’s strikeout issues have reared their ugly head thus far this season, and unless he at least minimizes those swing and miss issues, it will be hard for Soler to recapture that success he found during the 2019 season.
In many ways, the Royals offense can only go up from here. The Royals ranks 23rd in OPS and 28th in HR/9, according to Fangraphs, and considering the weather and park dimensions of Kansas City and Kauffman Stadium, respectively, one would like to think that the Royals would be able to turn it around come June, especially Whit and Soler. Santana and Benintendi are at least producing sustainable results. At the very least, Santana will be a walk machine, as his plate discipline metrics have always been off the charts. Furthermore, Benintendi’s contact numbers suggest that he will be a guy who can drive in a large number of hits, even if they may be singles.
Whit and Soler on the other hand are game-changers, and their struggles without a doubt have had an effect on the Royals lineup this season. Whit was expected to be a hit-accumulating leadoff man who would set the tone at the top of the lineup in 2021. Soler was predicted to bring home run power and prodigious production in the middle of the lineup. Neither has lived up to that moniker this year, unfortunately, thus far. Whit has hit the ball often, but too often for outs. Soler on the other hand has been a whiff and strikeout machine.
The Royals will need all four to make a playoff run in 2021. Yes, Salvy is important and should produce in the 4-5 hole in the lineup. That being said, the Royals need Whit and Soler to make an impact at the plate, and more importantly, in the AL Central this year. Whit needs to find his groove and the base hits again after a rough start to the 2021 season (.257 BABIP, a career low). Soler needs to not only find his power stroke, but also has to figure out how to cut down on the strikeouts this season. Nobody is expecting him to be Nicky Lopez. That being said, he will have a hard time being successful if his strikeout rate continues to hover over 30 percent. That’s Chris Davis territory right there.
Manager Mike Matheny has leaned on Santana and Benintendi the past couple of weeks, and it has paid off for him. Both players have been exactly the players they were acquired to be in the Royals lineup so far in 2021, and the future remains bright for the both of them, even if it may only be for a two-year span (both are on two-year deals, though Santana’s comes with a club option). But Santana and Benintendi (and Salvy) alone will not get them to October. The Royals will need Whit and Soler to find a hot streak as well.
Let’s see if Whit and Soler can follow Santana and Benintendi’s lead…
And become the productive hitters they were expected to be at the beginning of 2021.
Photo Credit: Stadium/MSN