Taking a Deep Look At Three Royals Hitters Off to Slow Starts

The Royals have lost three straight games as they begin this weekend’s homestand against the Detroit Tigers.

Granted, the offense did show signs of life on Tuesday against St. Louis.

Not only did Michael A. Taylor hit a home run, but reigning AL Silver Slugger Salvador Perez hit two home runs at Busch Stadium, which snapped him out of his offensive funk to begin the season.

While the Royals showed some signs of righting the ship offensively on the other end of the state of Missouri, it has been still a tough start for this Royals lineup through five games.

The Royals are tied for 27th in the league (with the Washington Nationals) in wRC+ (70). On the other hand, Kansas City hitters are still making contact a the plate, as their K rate is 15.6 percent, tied for last in the league, and their BB/K ratio is 0.43, which is 14th in the league, according to Fangraphs.

To compare, in 2021, the Royals ranked 23rd in the league in BB/K ratio with a 0.33 mark. In addition, while their K rate at 21 percent was third-lowest in the league, their BB rate of 7 percent was actually the lowest in baseball last season. So, there has been some incremental progress from Royals hitters, especially when it comes to minimizing strikeouts and maximizing walks at the plate.

Such an approach should result in much better success than a 70 wRC+.

Granted, the Royals haven’t been all that lucky, as their team BABIP (batting average of balls in play) is .229, which is the fourth-lowest mark in baseball. Typically, BABIP numbers tend to be in the .300 range, with anything above that signifying a team has been luckier, while anything below that suggests the inverse.

So, who have been the main contributors to the Royals’ struggles as a lineup thus far this season?

While many will immediately point to Bobby Witt, Jr., who is posting a -8 wRC+ so far this season (that is not good), it seems like there’s been a growing period for many Royals hitting prospects to begin the year, as I mentioned in a Tweet today:

Therefore, I am going to avoid talking about him for now and will wait to see how he makes adjustments over the coming weeks.

Instead, I will take a look at three Royals veterans who are off to slow starts but will be key if Kansas City wants to turn things around at the beginning of the year, especially in this weekend’s series against the Tigers at Kauffman Stadium.

Whit Merrifield, RF

Whit is off to a tough start, as he is posting a slash of .200/.238/.200 with a wRC+ of 25 and wOBA of .203. over 21 plate appearances. Whit is pretty much doing what he normally does at the plate: swinging a lot, and not walking a lot, but not striking out a lot either. While he is only walking 4.8 percent of the time this year, he is only striking out 14.8 percent of the time, which puts him in the 73rd percentile in the league when it comes to K rate.

In addition, when Whit has been getting on base, he’s been effective, as he has stolen two bases so far this year (though it hasn’t resulted in any runs). The problem is that he’s not getting on base enough with a sub-.250 OBP, which is unacceptable for a leadoff hitter of Whit’s caliber.

Interestingly enough, Whit’s xWOBA is much higher at .323, a 120-point difference. A big contributor to that has been his .235 BABIP. That being said, his 84.8 MPH average exit velocity on batted balls is a bit of a concern, especially considering its nearly 2.1 MPH slower than a season ago.

In fact, Whit’s exit velocity numbers are down all over, as evidenced from his percentile sliders this season via Baseball Savant:

As a leadoff hitter, the 33-year-old super-utility player isn’t expected to hit a dramatic number of home runs (and he has only hit 19 over the past two years combined). However, the exit velocity and hard-hit numbers will be key to watch from Whit this year.

In fact, this average exit velocity concern is not just a standalone thing in 2022. Last season, his average exit velocity was often below league average for most of the season, as evidenced by Statcast breakdown data:

An uptick in those numbers could result in a turnaround of his more surface-level metrics, especially since he is still generating a decent launch angle on balls at 19.2 degrees, which would be a career-high.

That being said, launch angle doesn’t matter when there’s no exit velocity being generated on batted balls, and that is evident by Whit’s complete lack of barrels this year so far.

Furthermore, Whit has just gotten plain unlucky on some batted balls. Take for example this line drive in the clip below off of Cleveland’s Zach Plesac which bounced off of Plesac and into Amed Rosario’s glove (the batted ball had an xBA of .560):

It’s still early for Whit, and his past two games have been better after he went 1-for-12 to begin the season.

But if the Royals want some more offense from their lineup, it starts at the top with Whit. Thus, his exit velocity on batted balls in the coming weeks will be a key indicator of what this season will look like for him not just in 2022, but perhaps next year as well.

Hunter Dozier, DH/1B

This is a big season for Dozier, as he has had two seasons of regression at the plate after a breakout campaign in 2019. So far this season, he hasn’t been great, but he hasn’t been a disaster offensively either.

Dozier is posting a .200/.250/.200 triple slash with a wRC+ of 31 and wOBA of .213 in 16 plate appearances. That being said, Dozier’s Baseball Savant percentiles seem to paint a much different story:

Dozier has seven sliders that are above average and an eighth (barrel rate) that isn’t far below average. Yes, the walk rate and chase rate aren’t good (which is compounded by his whiff rate), but at the very least, when Dozier is making contact, it’s been hard and with decent exit velocity behind it.

The 30-year-old former first-round pick has also been bit by the BABIP bug, as his .231 BABIP ranks 6th of Royals hitters with 10 or more plate appearances this year. As a result, his xwOBA is .350, which is 137 points higher than his actual wOBA mark.

In Sunday’s series finale, Dozier hit the second-hardest ball of the day, which was a line drive off of Emmanuel Clase that had an exit velocity of 109.4 MPH and an xBA of .770.

And yet, this was the result of Dozier’s crushed batted ball:

At some point, those hard-hit balls and line drives will fall for base hits, and Dozier’s average and slugging will start to look dramatically different.

The positive thing about Dozier’s start is that he’s minimizing the strikeouts in comparison to a year ago. His K rate is currently 12.5 percent, which is nearly 15.9 percent lower than his rate a year ago.

Of course, considering how much of a free swinger Dozier is, that percentage will probably go up a little bit as he garners more plate appearances. That being said, his BB rate won’t stay 0 percent either, so as long as Dozier is not seeing a dramatic spike in K rate, he will have value at the plate, especially with his batted ball skills showing some budding power.

It’s very easy to get frustrated with Dozier, especially considering how rough last year was. But, he is showing progress, especially in terms of contact, and that will yield success at some point, which will boost the Royals lineup overall.

Carlos Santana, 1B/DH

Dozier and Santana have been whipping boys for frustrated Royals fans on Twitter, and I get it. Dozier struggled last year immediately after he signed an extension, and Santana is blocking Nick Pratto and Vinnie Pasquantino in Omaha.

However, Dozier’s Statcast percentiles show that the skills are there offensively. It’s just that he hasn’t gotten lucky through these first five games.

As for Santana, it’s a tougher situation, especially when looking at his Baseball Savant percentile sliders:

Santana is continuing to demonstrate his trademark discipline, as his K rate and Whiff rate are in 97th and 94th percentile, respectively, and his chase rate and walk rate are in the 83rd and 82nd percentile, respectively. Furthermore, his average exit velocity, hard-hit, and barrel rates aren’t bad either, as they are in the 63rd-71st percentile range.

Unfortunately, his triple slash line looks a lot different, as Santana is posting a .063/.211/.125 with a wRC+ of 7 and wOBA of .177.

While Dozier and Whit had more palatable xWOBA numbers, Santana’s xwOBA is only .315, which not only ranks in the 42nd percentile but is only better than Adalberto Mondesi (.278) and Witt (.145) when it comes to Royals hitters this year with 10 or more plate appearances.

A big contributor to that lackluster mark is Santana is still getting shifted to his left side by an extreme margin (he faced an infield shift 97.6 percent of the time when he was hitting from the left side a season ago, according to Baseball Savant).

And unfortunately, according to his batted ball profile, he’s hitting right into the opposing team’s desired strategy:

It’s going to be hard for Santana to be successful hitting-wise when he’s being shifted so much and pulling the ball at a nearly 60 percent rate.

Case in point: he had three hard-hit balls on Sunday against the Guardians. Unfortunately, he went 0-for-4, as the defensive shift took away any chances of those hard-hit balls going for base hits at Kauffman Stadium.

Here’s an example in an at-bat against Cleveland’s Emmanuel Clase where a groundball probably would have gone through for a hit without a shift.

However, because the Guardians were set up on the right side of the field, they were able to get out Santana on the groundball, even though it was close (they initially called him safe, but overruled the call after going to instant replay).

Santana has looked much better from the right side of the plate, and he could see some uptick in his metrics when he faces more left-handed pitchers (including Detroit’s Tarik Skubal on Friday).

It’s going to be interesting to see what Mike Matheny does with Santana when they face right-handed pitchers, especially since it would be foolish for opposing teams not to employ extreme shifts against Santana when he’s batting from the left side.

Because I’m not sure if Santana will see a significant improvement in his numbers going forward unless he adjusts his batted ball approach against right-handed pitchers going forward.

Photo Credit: Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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