Salvy’s Struggles Put the Royals in a Tough Spot

When the Royals signed Salvy to an extension prior to the 2021 season, some serious questions were tied to the move.

Would Salvy stay healthy over the course of the deal, especially after missing all of 2019 and significant time in 2020? Would he age gracefully at a position where players deteriorate quickly, due to the physical demands behind the plate? Would his free-swinging approach be exploited over time?

And then, Salvy ended up having a career season in 2021.

The Venezuelan-born catcher not only tied the Royals’ single-season home run record with 48 home runs (also a record for a primary catcher in a season), but he also produced a 121 RBI and generated a 127 wRC+ and 3.3 fWAR over 161 games.

The excellent campaign earned Salvy his fourth Silver Slugger and 7th All-Star game appearance. He also finished seventh in AL MVP voting, an impressive feat considering the Royals finished 74-88 and were out of the playoff hunt by the end of May.

Even though the commitment to Salvy was a significant financial risk by the Royals, it seemed like after one season, Salvy would live up to the deal, even if he saw some slight regression in 2022.

While it was foolish to think that Salvy would put up another 48-home run season this year, no Kansas City sports fan could have envisioned the struggles that Salvy has experienced so far after roughly two months of play.

And that is putting the Royals in a challenging roster situation, especially with the presence of rookie phenom MJ Melendez, and the impending return of Cam Gallagher, who began his rehab stint recently in Omaha and is expected to return off the IL soon.

Through 39 games and 163 plate appearances, Salvy is posting a triple slash of .187/.227/.355 with an OPS of .582. While Salvy is still hitting the ball as hard as ever, his xwOBA, xBA, and even xSLG percentiles demonstrate that he is in a tremendous funk, and it may be hard for him to bounce back in a major way this season, unless something significant happens adjustment-wise.

Some of the percentiles are not surprising.

Salvy has routinely been a low-walk, high-chase hitter, especially over the past few seasons. In 2020, when he posted a crazy 162 wRC+, he had a strikeout rate of 23.1 percent. Last season, he had a career-high K-rate of 25.6 percent. In addition, his walk rates were 1.9 percent and 4.2 percent in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

Therefore, it’s not a surprise that Salvy’s walk rate is only 2.5 percent, which is actually better than his mark two seasons ago.

However, his strikeout rate is 27 percent, which would be a new career-high if the season ended today. And that is only the tip of the iceberg as well. His contact rate is 67.9 percent, which is a career-low, and his called-strike plus whiff rate (CSW rate) is a career-high at 28.3 percent.

This unfortunately has been a trend for Salvy as he has gotten older, especially since 2020.

The table below looks at how his plate discipline metrics have fared over his career, according to Fangraphs. Notice how his contact rates have plummeted over the past few years, while CSW rates have risen steadily as well.

The power has made up for Salvy’s increase in walks. That being said, as evidenced by his excepted metrics, the power hasn’t caught up fast enough this year, and that has not only sunk Salvy’s production, but the Royals lineup as a whole, especially since Salvy has been the Royals’ primary cleanup hitter this year when healthy.

The most concerning expected metric so far this year is Salvy’s .276 expected wOBA. According to Baseball Savant, xwOBA is formulated using exit velocity, launch angle, and, on certain types of batted balls. If a hitter is doing well in xwOBA, but suffering in wOBA, it may hint at some kind of correction at the plate in the near future.

Unfortunately, Salvy’s xwOBA is not much greater than his .256 wOBA. Also, his .276 xwOBA ranks poorly in comparison to other Royals hitters with 10 or more plate appearances, as one can see in the table below, via Fangraphs.

Salvy’s xwOBA is the third-worst mark of Royals hitters with 10 or more plate appearances, ahead of only Adalberto Mondesi and Gallagher, who have 72 plate appearances combined. To show how rough this year has been, his xwOBA is 50 points lower than Whit Merrifield, and 51 points lower than Carlos Santana.

The latter comparison should be deflating to Royals fans, especially considering how much grief they have given Santana on Royals Twitter.

Now, is Salvy showing no positives at all? Not quite.

He is still hitting the ball hard, and his barrel rate at 9.2 percent is still the fourth-best rate of Royals hitters with 10 or more plate appearances this season. In addition, according to his rolling xwOBA chart since 2015, Salvy has been known to see tremendous jumps in xwOBA after tremendous dips.

Notice in 2018 he had two major drops, which were followed by huge jumps in xwOBA. Even at the end of 2021, he saw a tremendous increase in xwOBA toward the end of the year after a bit of a drop, which is around the time when he got on a hot streak and began his chase of Jorge Soler’s single-season Royals home run record.

However, he has never seen as low of a drop in xwOBA as this season, and as one can see in the chart, even with his first spike in 2022, it wasn’t quite enough to make him more than just a slightly better than league average in this category.

And he’s already begun to drop again, and who knows how far this slide in xwOBA will be this time around.

Therefore, on an offensive end, this could be a very sobering season for Salvy and Royals fans, even if this is just a rough stretch of the season (which has been typical for Salvy).

And the presence of Melendez is only making the situation even more complicated.

While all the hype has been on Bobby Witt, Jr. as the Royals’ most anticipated rookie, Melendez has arguably been the more productive Royals rookie at the plate. He is posting a triple slash of .259/.329/.471 and has four home runs in 93 plate appearances.

In addition, Melendez’s batted ball metrics have been stellar.

He is producing an average exit velocity of 92.2 MPH on batted balls, an 11.3 percent barrel rate, a 50 percent hard-hit rate, and an xwOBA of .365. Those metrics show that Melendez’s power tool, which he flexed in the Minors last year (he hit the most home runs in Minor League baseball a season ago) have translated well to the MLB level.

In fact, his smooth stroke has been a rare bright spot for this Royals team during a rough month of May, with this home run against Minnesota’s Yennier Cano being a prime example:

Right now, the numbers back Melendez over Salvy by a wide margin (Melendez’s xwOBA is 89 points higher than the veteran Royals catcher).

What is interesting though is that Salvy has actually been better than the heralded rookie on an xwOBA end when he makes contact in the zone, based on xwOBA zone charts via Savant.

Salvy’s is on the right and Melendez’s is on the left, and there’s a lot more blue in the strike zone in Melendez’s zone surprisingly (blue is not good).

Melendez has been much better against pitches on the outside edge of the strike zone, but he has actually been kind of mediocre on middle-midle and middle-in pitches, as evidenced by those .289 and .238 xWOBA rates. Salvy on the other hand is pretty red in the middle three and lower three zones, which shows that if he can be aggressive on those pitches, some positive regression could be in store.

He’s just needs to lay off on those pitches up in the zone, as he is averaging .156 in those upper three areas of the strike zone. Below is an example of him getting a good pitch in that upper zone (a hanging slider) and he ends up just popping it up for an easy out.

Melendez seems to be exercising good judgment on laying off on those pitches that he cannot do damage with, while Salvy is doing the opposite. Thus, one has to wonder if Mike Tosar and Alec Zumwalt can help with that adjustment, like they have with Melendez so far, to help turn around Salvy’s season.

Regardless, Salvy is going to be in the lineup everyday due to his veteran status and his contract (I mean, if they’re doing that with Santana, they are going to do that with Salvy). On the other hand, Melendez should be in the lineup everyday, as he is not only producing now at the dish, but he is the future of this organization, especially as Salvy gets older and needs more days off behind the plate.

With Gallagher’s impending return though, Lynn Worthy of the KC Star hinted that the situation could be more complicated when it comes to catcher, as it seems like they are entertaining the idea of carrying three catchers on the active roster.

Adding Gallagher seems superfluous at this point, especially considering the emergence of Melendez in Gallagher, as well as Salvy’s, absence. Unfortunately though, Melendez has not offered much on a framing end behind the plate, while Gallagher has been a solid framing catcher this year, as he has been in the past.

Here’s a look at the framing metrics of Royals catchers this year, via Savant:

Thus, Gallagher provides a nice complement defensively to Salvy, who has struggled with framing issues since the stat became more important in the game the past 3-5 seasons. As for Melendez, he’s actually been worse on a framing runs as well as strike rate end than not just Gallagher, but Salvy as well.

That isn’t promising, especially with a pitching staff that struggles to generate strikeouts and limit walks on a consistent basis. As Alec Lewis, pointed out in a Tweet this morning, the Royals rank last in the league in K/BB ratio with a 1.77 mark, which isn’t an indicator for pitching, or overall success.

Therefore, the Royals need a catcher, even if it’s not on an everyday basis, who can help garner those extra strikes and help this pitching staff out. Unfortunately, neither Salvy nor Melendez boast that quality.

That puts the Royals in a tough spot.

Do they give Melendez fewer at-bats, even though he’s a long-term centerpiece of this roster? Do they dare bench Salvy when they start Gallagher? Or do they do something else with Gallagher, even though he offers that framing skill set? Luckily, he does have a Minor League option remaining, so they could keep in Omaha for the time being.

Benching or keeping Gallagher in Triple-A doesn’t help boost his trade value, and the Royals need to explore all they can for players who will not be a part of this roster long-term.

It’s going to be a tough decision for the Royals once Gallagher, as well as Michael A. Taylor, return off the IL.

And Salvy’s continued struggles at the plate doesn’t help make the situation any easier, both in the short or long-term.

Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

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