Three Royals hitters who will be on the “hot seat” in September

The Royals are 60-75 going into Sunday’s series finale against the White Sox at Kauffman Stadium, and are projected to finish 73-89, according to Depth Charts projections on Fangraphs. While that would be a slight improvement from a year ago (on a pro-rated basis), it is still disappointing considering the aggressive offseason the Royals had.

Thus, with general manager Dayton Moore’s hot seat undoubtedly a little warmer after a season that has not gone according to “internal” expectations, there will be some tough roster decisions that will need to be made this Winter, especially with prospects Bobby Witt, Jr., MJ Melendez, and Nick Pratto knocking on the MLB door in Omaha.

Hence, there will be some Royals players on the “hot seat” per se who will be worth paying attention to over the next month, especially since a good or bad September could determine their future in Kansas City both next year and beyond. Let’s start with Royals hitters, and take a look at three position players who could benefit from strong finishes to the 2021 season.

Ryan O’Hearn, 1B/OF

After a breakout rookie season, O’Hearn has proven to be a mediocre hitter since 2019.

Since posting a 0.8 fWAR in 44 games in his rookie campaign, the 28-year-old former eighth round pick has accumulated a neagtive-1.7 fWAR over the past three seasons, according to Fangraphs. In 71 games and 223 plate appearances in 2021, O’Hearn has hit nine home runs and increased is isolated slugging to .162, which is a 56 point improvement from 2020. However, he has seen his walk rate plummet from 13.6 percent in 2020 to 3.6 in 2021.

A more aggressive approach is not necessarily a bad thing. His aggressiveness earlier in at-bats has produced some solid contact and barrels to boot, including this one against the White Sox’s Jose Ruiz at Guaranteed Rate Field back in early August:

Unfortunately, while O’Hearn can hit the long ball on occasion, the rest of his profile continues to be underwhelming. His xwOBA of .296 would actually be a career low if the season ended today, according to Baseball Savant. And while he has been able to transition to right field this year after being solely a first baseman throughout his professional career, he doesn’t offer much there defensively, as he has been one out below average in his limited stint in the Royals outfield in 2021.

It is possible that if O’Hearn can see his walk rate improve to career norms (career 9.5 percent walk rate) in 2022, he could be a productive player, especially with his 14.9 degree average launch angle being his best mark in that category since 2018. O’Hearn has always been able to hit the ball hard (90.9 MPH average exit velocity), but he’s often been too groundball-heavy to have any value at the plate, especially for a first baseman. Now he’s lifting the ball more, but his paltry BB/K ratio this year (0.13) isn’t exactly promising, especially for a hitter who will always struggle to hit for high average (career .215 batting average).

It seems like Mike Matheny is gradually phasing O’Hearn out of the lineup, especially with the return of Adalberto Mondesi to the active roster (he sat out four straight games until getting the start on Saturday). If O’Hearn wants to make his case to stay on the 40-man roster in 2022, he’s going to need to show some pop again at the plate.

And he’s going to need to do so in limited plate appearances in September.

Hunter Dozier, 1B/3B/OF

Without a doubt, this has been an incredibly disappointing season for Dozier, especially considering the long-term extension he signed this offseason. While Jorge Soler got most of the early grief from frustrated Royals fans, he’s actually turned things around since being traded to Atlanta, as he has hit 22 total home runs and has increased his wRC+ to 96 going into Sunday’s games, according to Fangraphs.

As for Dozier? He’s only hit 10 home runs and is posting a 68 wRC+. Furthermore, even though Dozier is a “slightly” better defensive player than Soler, Dozier is posting a fWAR of minus-0.8, which is actually worse than Soler’s minus-0.6 (and this is despite the Braves HAVING to play Soler in RF everyday because of the lack of a DH in the National League).

The worst part about Dozier’s situation is not just his offensive “lack” of value. Rather, it is the fact that the Royals have struggled to find a place for him to play in the field. The Royals have rotated Dozier at third base, right and left field, and first base, and yet, Matheny has struggled to find a permanent spot for him in 2021. It’s not just the fact that his bat doesn’t play at any of those positions (especially in comparison to the internal options the Royals have), but he has also failed to do much with his glove at those spots in the field as well, as evidenced by Statcast’s OAA data:

Yikes, those are some rough numbers, especially at third base, where he would make the most sense both in the short and long-term if he was even slightly below-average with the glove.

The Royals are kind of stuck with Dozier for right now, as he is guaranteed under contract until 2024 and will be owed $21.5 million over that time (and that isn’t including a $10 million team option in 2025). Thus, the Royals will probably have to play Dozier somewhere next season and just hope that he can turn things around and be that 2019 self, which was a 2.9 fWAR player.

A big thing to pay attention to over the next month will be his plate discipline, as Dozier is posting a K rate of 28.5 percent, which would be his highest mark since 2016, and a walk rate of 7.6 percent, which would be his lowest since 2018, according to Fangraphs. The lack of power from Dozier is concerning (.145 ISO, which would be his lowest mark since 2016). However, he is still hitting the ball hard, as his hard hit rate is nearly 11 percent higher than last year, and would be the second-best mark in his career if the season finished today, according to Baseball Savant.

That being said, it is hard to do anything when one swings at bad pitches, which is what Dozier has been doing this year. His chase rate is over 30 percent for the first time since 2018, and he is swinging 48.9 percent of the time, which would be his highest rate since 2018. I have talked about Dozier pressing before, which I felt contributed to this uptick in chasing, but it seems like things haven’t gotten better, and his over-swinging approach is limiting the raw power that he does possess.

Some hitters can maintain their natural power despite a free-swinging approach. Salvador Perez is a prime example.

Unfortunately, Dozier is not Salvy, and he will need to show some plate discipline and patience down the stretch if Royals fans want to have any hope that he can be a productive player in 2022, wherever he should play in the field.

Andrew Benintendi, OF

I was optimistic that Benintendi could be due for a bounce-back in 2021 when he was acquired from Boston this offseason. While he was transitioning to a much more pitcher-friendly park in Kauffman Stadium (especially for left-handed hitters), I thought Benintendi could take advantage of Kauffman’s spacious outfield, and substitute what would be home runs at Fenway for doubles and triples at the K. In addition, though he was recovering from injury, I figured Benintendi would have the athleticism and glove to handle left field, not an easy thing considering the legacy Alex Gordon left there.

Unfortunately, while he hasn’t been a tremendous disappointment, Benintendi has not really been as productive as Royals fans hoped back in Spring Training. As of Sunday, Benintendi is only posting a fWAR of 0.3, and he is posting negative marks in offensive production, defensive production, and baserunning runs, according to Fangraphs. While he is not necessarily “costing” the Royals runs overall when he is in the field and lineup, he hasn’t been much better than replacement-level this year, which is concerning considering the Royals have much cheaper outfield options in their system in Edward Olivares and Kyle Isbel.

When the going is good, Benintendi can be a dynamic player for the Royals, as his sprint speed ranks in the 63rd percentile, according to Baseball Savant. Here is an example of Benitendi legging out a triple against the Twins’ Jose Berrios at Kauffman Stadium back in June:

When Benintendi is healthy and in the zone, he can be a productive and fun player for the Royals (as he was back in the early Summer when he posted a .821 OPS in 106 plate appearances in May and a .930 OPS in 45 plate appearances in June). However, he has struggled with injuries this year, and one has to wonder if that has had an effect on his overall batting line, as well as production in the field and on the basepaths. It seems like when Benintendi is about to turn a corner in Kansas City this year, an injury happens, and he falls back to square one (i.e. struggling).

Even though Benintendi’s overall line isn’t impressive, there have been some signs of improvement in his first year in Kansas City. His K rate is under 20 percent for the first time since 2018, he is posting a career-high barrel rate (8.8 percent), average exit velocity (89.4 MPH), and hard hit rate (42.3 percent). Granted, he is being more aggressive at the plate than ever, as his chase rate is 30.2 percent and his swing rate is 52.9 percent, both career highs. However, the batted ball metrics show that if he shows a little more patience, it is possible that Benintendi can bounce back in 2022, and maybe over the last month of play in 2021.

A big issue though for the Royals will be that Benintendi will be a free agent after the 2022 season. Thus, does Moore bet on Benintendi to indeed stay healthy and have things come together next season? Or will Moore be more hesitant, especially after being burned on Dozier this past season?

Benintendi could be the fit Kansas City needs long-term in left field. However, he needs to have a strong September to prove that he was worth acquiring in a trade last Winter, even though he had only two years left on his current contract.

After such a down season, it is possible Benintendi could sign a “cheaper-than-expected” extension.

But a strong final last month of play from Benintendi would make Royals fans feel a whole lot better about that possible deal happening this Winter…should things fall in place.

Photo Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

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