Shortly before this evening’s finale against the Angels, the Royals made this announcement on their Twitter:
The news was a bit surprising considering that Olivares had a base hit last night in the Royals’ 8-1 loss to the Angels, and hasn’t produced an awful line by any means. In five games and 19 plate appearances, Olivares is posting a triple slash of .278/.316/.278 with a wRC+ of 70, according to Fangraphs. In addition, the 25-year-old who was acquired in 2020 from San Diego in the Trevor Rosenthal trade, has absolutely smashed Triple-A pitching, as he is posting a 187 wRC+ and 0.86 BB/K ratio in 99 plate appearances with the Storm Chasers this season.
Granted, Olivares has struck out 26.3 percent of the time with the Royals, and his contact rate thus far is only 65.8 percent, which are both sub-par marks. That being said, it has been a small sample size for him with the Royals this season, and he offers an interesting speed and defense combination for the Kansas City outfield. Considering the Royals’ defensive woes in right field, one would think that Olivares would be valued as a backup, if not a platoon player at Major League level.
To make matters worse, the Olivares demotion becomes even more maddening for some Royals fans when combined with the fact that the Royals decided to keep up Kelvin Gutierrez, who is not only posting a 47 wRC+ in 78 plate appearances, but is also starting again for the Royals despite going 1-for-12 in his last three games.
Thus, it seems like the Royals are more keen on giving Gutierrez a chance for now rather than Olivares. Is this the right move to make for the Royals, especially as they are in the midst of a four-game slide?
First off, the move bring up Carlos Hernandez makes sense, especially after short starts from Jackson Kowar and Kris Bubic that taxed the Royals bullpen early on in this West Coast road trip. Lewis’ explains the Royals’ reasoning for calling up Hernandez eloquently in this Tweet below:
However, it seems like Royals fans are not necessarily upset with Hernandez being called up, but Dayton Moore’s decision to demote Olivares rather than Gutierrez.
The 26-year-old Dominican third baseman has had a much longer sample this year with the Royals than Olivares, and unfortunately, hasn’t done much with the bat. In 28 plate appearances, Gutierrez is posting a .234/.244/.299 line, and is posting a fWAR of -0.3, which doesn’t exactly help the Royals’ lineup. Furthermore, while Gutierrez flashes potential at the hot corner with a big arm, he still ranks in the bottom 12th percentile in outs above average, according to Baseball Savant. He may be a better defensive option at third right now for the Royals, but that’s more due to Hunter Dozier woes rather than Gutierrez’s effectiveness.
So, with this being said, I tried to figure out why the Royals would prefer Gutierrez over Olivares at the time. As I dug deeper into it, I figured it came down to two things really:
- Gutierrez is older and the Royals want to give him an extended look to see if he is worth keeping long-term.
- The Royals may be set on Dozier being the regular right fielder from here on out, which puts Olivares as an odd man out with Jarrod Dyson as the primary backup outfielder.
In terms of the first point, this seems like a fair line of thinking from the Royals. Gutierrez will be 27 in August, and he only has one Minor League option remaining, which makes this season a crucial time for Gutierrez and his long-term outlook in Kansas City.
In 2019 and 2020, he showed flashes of potential, but unfortunately, saw his seasons cut short due to injury (he hit the 60-day IL both seasons). Now, Gutierrez is fully healthy, and after posting a .347 and .346 wOBA in 2019 and 2021 in Omaha, respectively, he does not have much to prove in Triple-A. Therefore, the Royals are giving him a full look at the position, and it is possible that the Royals could make a major decision on his future with the Royals if he doesn’t turn things around by the end of the month of June.
Right now, things don’t look optimistic for Gutierrez, as he has failed to get any lift on the ball for the third straight season. He is posting a launch angle right now of 0.1 as well as a groundball rate of 68.3 percent, which is 23.1 percent higher than the MLB average. On a positive note, Gutierrez is hitting the ball hard. He is generating a 92 MPH exit velocity on batted balls this year, as well as a hard hit rate of 46 percent, which would both be career highs. When he is able to get some lift on the ball, Gutierrez has produced some impressive hits, as demonstrated by this 104.5 MPH double he hit off Tigers ace Matt Boyd at Kauffman Stadium:
Thus, Royals fans have to wonder if Mike Matheny and the Royals brass think that Gutierrez is close to turning a corner with the Royals. If he can make those adjustments in launch angle, Gutierrez may be the third baseman the Royals need to stay in the Wild Card hunt for the remainder of the season.
Of Royals hitters this season, he ranks 6th in hard hit rate, and 4th in exit velocity on batted balls, according to Baseball Savant. On the other hand, he ranks second to last in launch angle on batted balls on this team, and without elite speed, it will be hard for him to generate a whole lot of hits if he constantly is hitting the ball on the ground, especially with how teams utilize the shift these days (he was a victim of the shift twice last night against the Angels).
An interesting thing to note, which relates to point number two, is that Olivares actually has the lowest launch angle on the Royals this year at -2.9, which is actually 3.0 degrees worse than Gutierrez. Furthermore, while Olivares has succeeded in Triple-A so far this year, he only has 99 career plate appearances in Triple-A, and a lot of his plate discipline numbers haven’t exactly been stellar with the Royals so far this season.
When it comes to chasing balls out of the strike zone, Olivares has been doing so at a 40 percent rate (in comparison to Gutierrez’s 31 percent chase rate), and he is also posting a whiff rate of 34.2 percent as well (which is higher than Gutierrez’s 27.3 percent whiff rate). Lastly, Olivares’s 84.8 MPH exit velocity is also fourth-lowest on the team, higher than only Hanser Alberto, Jarrod Dyson, and Sebastian Rivero. Yes, Olivares’ batting average and wRC+ numbers are slightly better than Gutierrez’s. However, it’s not like Olivares’ hitting skills and batted ball metrics are demonstrating that Olivares is an overwhelmingly better option than Gutierrez at this moment.
And honestly, that’s okay. Olivares needs more time to play every day and develop, as he is nearly two years younger than Gutierrez, and lost some development time in the Minors due to the Minor League season being canceled due to COVID. Additionally, the Royals have a backup outfielder in Dyson, and with Dozier playing more (and being a better fit) in right field, it is likely that Olivares would spend more time on the bench then needed for a player of his age and development level. Yes, Olivares is an exciting player, and it is possible that he could come up in July or August and earn a regular role in the Kansas City outfield. But right now, the Royals don’t need to bury Olivares on the bench or give him inconsistent playing time, which would have still happened had Gutierrez gotten demoted and not Olivares.
Is Olivares a better player right now in Kansas City than Gutierrez? Yes, but only slightly. Furthermore, Gutierrez and Olivares are in different situations. It is possible that this could be Gutierrez’s final season in the Royals organization, especially with Bobby Witt, Jr. continuing to bash the baseball in Northwest Arkansas, as he did last night, though he got robbed of a second home due to a weird situation at the plate:
The Royals need to make a clear and well-informed decision on Gutierrez’s place in the organization and that will only be clarified with more at-bats and innings in the field from Gutierrez at the hot corner. Maybe Gutierrez will turn it around and earn a regular starting spot. Maybe he will flail and prove that he’s not an everyday MLB third baseman. If the latter’s the case, then it could result in the Royals designating Gutierrez for assignment, which may in turn clear a spot for Witt on the Royals 40-man and active roster.
Therefore, playing Gutierrez a little bit more for a couple of more weeks at the very least is a win-win for Royals fans at the end of the day. If Gutierrez turns it around, the Royals have a player who will help them win games in 2021. If he doesn’t, it will only open things up more quickly for Witt, Jr. to make his way to Kansas City in 2021, especially since the Royals don’t have a whole lot of third base options in Triple-A or on the 40-man roster at this moment.
Olivares will be back in Kansas City later in the season…
And maybe by then, Olivares will be in the Royals lineup with Witt, Jr. as well.
Photo Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports