After an impressive 7-0 win in the series opener against the Angels, the Royals dropped two in a row to Los Angeles on Tuesday and Wednesday, as they were outscored 10-0 over the two-game span. The two losses dropped the Royals’ record to 39-59 as they begin a six-game road trip against two “playoff caliber” opponents: the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox.
By the time the Royals return to Kauffman Stadium on August 4th, the roster could look very different, as the Trade Deadline will have passed on August 2nd. It is highly possible that Wednesday’s loss could have been the last game in Kansas City for Andrew Benintendi, Whit Merrifield, and Michael A. Taylor as Royals players, just to name a few.
The roster looking a little re-tooled after the All-Star break could be a good or bad thing for this Royals club for the last two months of the 2022 season.
On one hand, it will mean an opportunity for more playing time for some of the younger Royals position players and pitchers, whether they are currently on the active roster (i.e. Kyle Isbel, Edward Olivares, etc.) or in Triple-A Omaha (i.e. Nate Eaton, Michael Massey, etc.).
On the flip side, the jettison of veteran/proven talent could mean a stretch of some “growing pains” in August and September, and not just from the young players, but even veterans who may struggle to play on a team that is clearly out of the playoff hunt.
In this post, I am going to take a look at three metrics from three key players on this Royals roster, and why their particular metrics will be worth watching over the next two months. Improvement, decline, or even stagnation in these particular metrics from these three could mean a solid finish to the 2022 season for the Royals, or perhaps a rough one that could result in the Royals settling in the basement by season’s end.
Zack Greinke: 1.65 ERA at home; 7.38 ERA on the road
Greinke’s had an interesting return to Kansas City in what could be his final professional season.
The overall numbers aren’t great, as he is posting a 4.35 ERA and 1.29 WHIP over 16 starts and 82.2 IP this season thus far. The K numbers have also declined dramatically for a second-straight season, which can be seen in this chart via Baseball Savant.
As one can see, Greinke’s 13.4 percent K rate is a career-low and a big reason why his xERA is 5.65, a career-high, even though his walk rate of 4.5 percent ranks in the 95th percentile, according to Savant.
On a positive note, the 38-year-old former Cy Young award winner has seen his K rate surge month by month this year, which is an encouraging sign for the Royals rotation as Kansas City enters the last two months of the regular season.
However, that’s not the metric I wanted to focus on when it came to Greinke. Rather, his home/away splits have been pretty remarkable and definitely warrant a deep dive into.
For the year, Greinke is posting an ERA of 1.65 in 43.2 IP at Kauffman Stadium, and an ERA of 7.98 in 39 IP away from the K.
When looking into his advanced metrics, Greinke has walked fewer batters at home. That said, he has struck out more batters on the road, so that walk difference is negligible (which can be seen in the K-BB percentage data below, via Fangraphs).
The biggest difference for Greinke though is that he’s been a lot luckier at the K in comparison to on the road. His BABIP is 79 points lower at home than on the road, and his strand rate (LOB%) is 26.1 percent higher at Kauffman as well. While there is still a difference in his home and away xFIP numbers (0.84), it is not nearly as dramatic a difference as his FIP splits (3.01).
So why is Greinke doing so well at home in comparison to away from the K?
Well, there are two points of data that correlate with this particular profile of success: his batted ball numbers and the competition.
Here’s a look at Greinke’s batted ball home and away splits, via Fangraphs:
Greinke is allowing more line drives at home than on the road (that’s bad), but he’s inducing more groundballs and is much better at keeping flyballs in the park at Kauffman as well (that’s good). Greinke is taking advantage of one of the most spacious ballparks in Major League Baseball, as well as his defense, though the defense has taken a hit from where it was earlier in the year.
In terms of competition, let’s see who Greinke has faced at home and who he’s pitched against on the road. All the home opponents are sorted in the upper part of the table, and all the road opponents are organized below that group.
Of those home opponents, only Cleveland and Minnesota have winning records (though Chicago is currently .500). In terms of his road slate, five of those opponents have winning records.
He’s also been hurt by playing in more hitter-friendly ballparks on the road, as his worst games came at Coors Field (Colorado), Minute Maid Park (Houston), and Chase Field (Arizona), which tend to favor hitters according to Statcast Park Factors. Facing good opponents in tough pitcher parks has been a recipe for disaster this year for Greinke, and explains his near-eight ERA.
Greinke has another tough away start coming in the upcoming four-game series against the Yankees. It will be interesting to see if Greinke’s road struggles will continue or if he’ll be able to turn it around in the Bronx.
Vinnie Pasquantino: .293 wOBA; .386 xwOBA
Pasquantino came up with a lot of fanfare after crushing Minor League pitching in 2021 and so far this season.
Unfortunately, after 25 games and 104 plate appearances, the standard metrics have been underwhelming. Pasquantino is slashing .211/.317/.33 and while he’s generating a walk rate of 11.5 percent and a BB/K ratio of 0.71, he only has three home runs and five RBI, not necessarily what Royals fans want to see from a guy who’s been the primary cleanup hitter since being called up.
That being said, a lot of the metrics seem to hint at a big breakout for Pasquantino, and the wOBA-xwOBA difference is the primary indicator.
For those who are unfamiliar, wOBA is “weighted on-base average” and it’s a nice general indicator of overall offensive performance (in comparison to batting average or even OPS). “Expected weighted on-base average” (xwOBA) is a good indicator of possible “future” performance, as it is formulated, according to Savant, “using exit velocity, launch angle and, on certain types of batted balls, Sprint Speed.” The higher the xwOBA is than a player’s wOBA, the more likely that some correction will be due, because “quality” at-bats are happening, they’re just not producing tangible results just yet.
(Carlos Santana’s breakout with the Mariners shouldn’t be seen as a surprise, as his xwOBA was outpacing his wOBA with the Royals considerably, and thus, he was due to breakout once luck turned for him.)
In the image comparison below, look at how much higher his xwOBA has been than his wOBA on a rolling basis this year. Pasquantino should be one of the most productive hitters in baseball right now (at least in the month of July), but he’s been hampered by the shift and a low launch angle for a power hitter (11.1 degrees).
(Scroll to the right to see wOBA; scroll to the left to see xwOBA).
Notice how you don’t see a red line in xwOBA? That’s because even in his “valleys” this year, he still has been considerably above the MLB average. Pasquantino should be a .280-.300 hitter, not a .211 one as his batting average currently portrays.
Pasquantino is also supported by a solid barrel rate (13.7 percent) and average exit velocity (93.9 MPH), which both are the top mark so far this year for Royals hitters with 100 or more plate appearances. Even his spray chart shows a well-rounded batted-ball profile, though there are more gray dots than other colors. That predominant color presence demonstrates the rough luck Pasquantino has run into at the MLB level so far this season.
It may be easy for Royals fans to get impatient with Pasquantino, especially after fans have been subjugated to Santana and Ryan O’Hearn for the last few seasons. But Pasquantino, based on all the batted ball numbers, as well as xwOBA, could be due for a strong next two months, as long as he is healthy (he missed today due to a thumb issue, though it sounds minor, according to reports).
With Bobby Witt, Jr. being out for the past series against the Angels, the last thing the Royals need right now would be Pasquantino to miss games, especially on this road trip. He could have a big series in New York, as his “hard-hitting” profile could flourish in Yankee Stadium’s “lefty-friendly” yard.
MJ Melendez: -13 Defensive Runs Saved at Catcher
Melendez had another rough day behind the plate on Tuesday night, which has been pretty typical for him all season. As expected, many Royals fans came to his defense, citing that he was “good” in the Minors, and just needed more time to develop at the MLB level.
I really respect Alex and RFR, and I agree to a point that we shouldn’t “abandon ship” just yet. However, his defense behind the plate is a SERIOUS concern, and the Royals need to be looking at perhaps moving Melendez to the outfield if things are not better by the end of the year.
The main metric that stands out in regard to Melendez’s defense at catcher this year is DRS (defensive runs saved) which looks at all aspects of defense, especially from behind the plate. Framing is important, but DRS also includes other factors related to blocking and arm strength as well.
And his -13 DRS ranks 31st out of 31 catchers who have caught 350 or more innings behind the plate this year, according to Fangraphs.
That is not good by any stretch of the imagination.
To be fair, I thought “okay, he’s a rookie; how’s he doing against other rookie catchers?”
So, I decided to create a report where I compared his defense to six other rookie catchers who have been primarily used by their respective teams this season. Here’s a look below at the data via Fangraphs.
As expected, Melendez is the worst of the bunch. But what’s more concerning is HOW much worse he is in comparison to his rookie-catching peers. He’s the only one with a negative DEF rating, and his DRS is eight runs worse than the second-worst catcher on a DRS basis (Washington’s Keibert Ruiz).
He has no positive metrics listed on the chart. That includes not just framing (-9.3) but even his vaunted arm (rSB) is average and in the middle of the pack of this group. That is concerning for a guy who’s been dubbed the heir-apparent for Salvador Perez, which is no easy statement to make considering the number of Gold Gloves Salvy has won.
Salvy is already on a rehab stint in Omaha, and he could be returning within the next week or two if everything goes right in the rehab process. Melendez’s poor defensive showing this year could prompt Mike Matheny to give Salvy more outings behind the plate as Royals catcher, which doesn’t bode well for Melendez’s long-term outlook at the position.
On the other hand, that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Melendez’s situation does mirror Arizona’s Daulton Varsho, who struggled defensively behind the plate in 2020 and 2021 and transitioned to more as a primary outfielder in 2022 (though he has seen sparing time at catcher with Carson Kelly this year). Varsho is producing a 2.1 fWAR for the Diamondbacks this year, and he’s been solid defensively in the outfield, as he is producing a DRS of four this season in the outfield overall.
On Twitter, I mentioned that Melendez had the athleticism and bat to profile well in Kauffman Stadium’s spacious right field, and I compared Melendez and Varsho’s catching stats to show that Arizona made the right move in transitioning Varsho away from behind the plate this season.
Melendez is a sensational athlete, and honestly, his profile would be a lot better in right field than Hunter Dozier, who has seen more time in right field with the call-up of Pratto after the All-Star break. While Dozier and Melendez compare similarly on a pure sprint speed end (Dozier’s sprint speed is 0.1 ft/s faster), Dozier has also been two outs below average in right field this year, which is his worst position defensively this year as well as historically, according to Savant.
The Royals will continue to give Melendez plenty of innings behind the plate this year, even when Salvy returns off the IL. With two months to go and the Royals 20 games under .500, they really have nothing to lose at this point. They might as well see if he can make the necessary adjustments defensively in August and September, hoping he can somewhat salvage his numbers behind the plate.
That being said, if Melendez ranks last, and by a wide margin, in DRS at catcher by the end of the season?
Well…Royals fans might see Melendez working in the outfield primarily in Spring Training in 2023.
Photo Credit: CBS Sports