Nick Pratto Needs to Be a Serious Extension Candidate for the Royals

Ever since the Mariners agreed to first-year sensation (and Rookie of the Year frontrunner) Julio Rodriguez on a multi-year extension, a lot of the chatter among Royals fans on Twitter and other social media has centered on who of their young core the Royals should look to extend this offseason.

While it may be cheaper in the short-term to go year-to-year with young, cost-controlled talent, the fact of the matter is that in order to keep superstar talent, an MLB organization, especially a small-market one like the Royals, has to lock them down early, even if there may not quite live up to their respective hype.

The Rays did it with Wander Franco a year ago. The Atlanta Braves not only did it with Austin Riley but Michael Harris II as well. And recently, Alex Duvall of Royals Farm Report looked at a few candidates wh Dayton Moore and JJ Picollo could possibly extend this offseason.

In Duvall’s post, he primarily looks at four position players on the Kansas City roster who could merit long-term extensions in that Rodriguez, Franco, and Harris mold: Bobby Witt, Jr., MJ Melendez, Nick Pratto, and Vinnie Pasquantino (though one could argue that Brady Singer deserved to be in that mix as well, especially considering the Royals’ pitching development struggles at the Major and Minor League levels this season).

Here’s how the results panned out from RFR’s poll:

In many ways, it’s not surprising that Bobby earned the most votes of that Royals position-player quartet.

Witt after all was Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year in 2021 and appears primed for at least a 20+ HR and maybe 30+ SB rookie season this year. His OPS (.727 as of Saturday) and his lack of walks (the eighth percentile, according to Savant) will prevent him from being a serious Rookie of the Year candidate, but with a couple of adjustments this offseason, it’s not out of the question to think that Witt can catapult to “superstar” status in his sophomore season.

Profiles like that deserve serious financial committment, and I’m hoping that the Royals are able to pull something off with Witt sooner rather than later.

However, the most interesting name of the bunch may be Pratto, who didn’t even get his own selection in the poll but was actually lumped in with fellow first baseman Pasquantino.

In some ways, it’s understandable why Pratto gets the least amount of hype for an extension (at least on his own accord) in comparison to Witt, Melendez, and even Pasquantino. Pratto was the last of the four to make his MLB debut (though he was added to the 40-man roster before Vinnie), and though he was producing a 129 wRC+ in 337 plate appearances with the Storm Chasers this year, he also was only hitting .240 and posting a K rate of 30.6 percent this year in Omaha, which is pretty concerning for a top prospect who already had 270 plate appearances in Triple-A back in 2021.

So far, the K issues have continued to follow Pratto to the Major League level in his rookie debut.

Going into Saturday’s contest, Pratto was only hitting .197 and he was striking out 35.9 percent of the time in 145 plate appearances with the Royals this year. However, Pratto’s power has been quite pronounced in 2022, as he not only was posting a .228 ISO going into Saturday, but he has collected seven home runs this year, including one in his first at-bat against Detroit’s Michael Pineda.

Pratto may not have the polish of a Witt, Melendez, or Pasquantino. And yet, a deeper dive into his metrics portray a promising profile. A Pratto extension could not just be a more realistic and affordable deal for the Royals this offseason, but he could also be a special kind of power-hitting first-baseman, even if he may have his strikeout and low-batting average issues long-term.

Pratto’s Up-And-Down Rookie Season

Pratto was called up for good after the All Star break and put up solid numbers in the month of July in 48 plate appearances. Not only did he slash .231/.354/.436, but he also put up an OPS of .790. The home runs and power weren’t really there initially, as he only hit one home run in the month of July. At the very least though, he transitioned his patient eye at the plate from Omaha in his first month of play at the MLB level.

August was more of a mixed bag for Pratto at the plate.

On one end, his power became more realized in his first full month of MLB play. Not only did Pratto hit five home runs in 89 plate appearances in August, but he also improved his ISO from .205 in July to .263 in August, according to Fangraphs splits. Pratto also showed a flair for utilizing his power in the big moment as well, as evidenced by his walk-off home run against the Red Sox on August 6th at Kauffman Stadium (which I was able to attend in person).

While the power did surge a bit in August, so did the swings and misses.

In his first full month at the MLB level, Pratto’s K rate soared to 38.5 percent, and his walk rate plummeted to 7.9 percent. As a result, he saw a big decline in BB/K ratio from July to August, as it went from 0.50 to 0.21, respectively. For a hitter known for his plate patience and not hitting for high average, that kind of BB/K ratio drop was certainly concerning.

An interesting thing to note though has been the difference in Pratto’s home and away splits this year.

Pratto has collected more home runs on the road (four) than at the K (three). For context, Pratto does have more plate appearances away from Kauffman this year (68 to 60 at the K), but it is not a tremendous difference in number of games (21 away; 20 at home).

However, here’s a look at how Pratto’s advanced metrics have fared on a home/away split this year.

At Kauffman, Pratto has been much better in BB/K ratio (0.41 to 0.19), OPS (.796 to .683), and wRC+ (117 to 92). This is despite Kauffman being a more pitcher-friendly park.

What is interesting to note as well from the data is that Pratto’s BABIP (batting average of balls in play) at the K (.275) is nearly identical to his BABIP (.273) on the road. Thus, it’s not like Pratto is getting unlucky with batted balls away from Kauffman. He just simply has a better approach at home than he does on the road.

Another interesting thing to take away from Pratto’s batted ball metrics is that while he is producing a solid barrel rate, his other hard-hit metrics are more questionable, as one can see in the table below, via Baseball Savant.

Pratto is above the MLB average considerably in barrel rate and launch angle, and slightly above in hard-hit rate. However, his average exit velocity is 2.3 MPH below the league average, and his max exit velocity is 13.4 MPH below as well. It’s not like Pratto is Nicky Lopez by any means, but for a first-baseman who is known for power and patience, one would like to see him do better than rank in the 50th percentile in batted ball average exit velocity long-term.

That said, Pratto has seen an uptick lately in batted ball exit velocity, as evidenced in the chart below:

It will be intriguing to see if Pratto’s exit velocity numbers will continue to improve or if they will stagnate over the final month of play in 2022. How he finishes in this category could say a lot about Pratto’s outlook not just for 2023, but beyond as well.

Pratto’s Swing-Take Data Puts Him in a Better Light

Swing-Take data can reveal a lot about a MLB hitter. How effective are they with pitches in the heart of the plate, which they should do damage with? How good are they at recognizing waste or chase pitches, which have a low rate of success when swung at? And what do they do in the shadow areas of the strike zone, which can make or break MLB hitters?

Here is a look at Pratto’s swing-take data, as of Sunday, September 4th.

Despite his low batting average, Pratto is producing positive run value in the heart, chase, and waste areas of the strike zone. The only area where he has struggled has been the shadow area, but he has not been really worse than league average in that area, so that’s an encouraging sign.

Now, how does Pratto fare in comparison to other Royals hitters this year? Let’s take a look in the table below.

Of Royals hitters who have at least seen 100 pitches this year, Pratto is tied for fourth with Michael A. Taylor, and Cam Gallagher (who is no longer with the Royals). He ranks ahead of fellow rookies such as Michael Massey (+1), MJ Melendez and Drew Waters (0), Nate Eaton (-3), Bobby Witt, Jr. (-6), and Kyle Isbel (-14). The only rookie he ranks behind is Vinnie Pasquantino, who’s producing a +7 run value on a swing/take end, which is second overall on the team (Salvy leads with a +10 run value mark).

That ranking in comparison to his rookie peers is a positive sign that Pratto’s highly touted plate discipline from his days as a prospect in the Royals’ Minor League system is paying off immediately. As a result, Pratto could be even more productive in 2023 and beyond as he sees more pitches at the MLB level.

What Kind of Extension Makes Sense for Pratto?

In Duvall’s piece, he throws out some possible deals for Witt, Melendez, Pratto, and Pasquantino, and here’s what he says about Pratto and Pasquantino:

As it relates to Pratto and Pasquantino…getting them both to sign for deals around 8/$80M right now would be so damn convenient for the long-term outlook of this team. Pratto raised his wRC+ at the big league level to 109 with a big night last night and is showing why he was thought of as one of the better power hitters in MiLB coming into the season. Pasquantino has been a force in the lineup from the moment he was called up and looks like a lock for a middle of the order bat long-term. Both guys are fantastic around the bag at first base and while Pratto’s range makes him clearly the better overall defender, both guys should create enough defensive value at first base to justify signing at such a young age.

“Deal of No Deal?” by Alex Duvall; Royals Farm Report

The eight-year, $80 million is similar to what Harris II received from Atlanta and makes a lot of sense for both Pratto and the Royals.

For Pratto, he immediately becomes a $10 million AAV player for a good foreseeable time. As for the Royals, if Pratto develops into the players he was projected to be by prospect experts, they will have a cost-controlled mainstay in their lineup for nearly a decade.

Would the Royals be able to get a similar deal with Vinnie? That is tougher to say, especially since Vinnie is more polished with the bat, but less so with the glove (and less versatility too, as Vinnie can’t play the outfield like Pratto). Obviously, getting Pratto and Pasquantino both signed for similar deals would be the best-case scenario. On the other end though, if they can’t get Vinnie to agree on such a deal, they should push it with Pratto, who has fewer MLB plate appearances on his resume than Vinnie.

There’s no question that Pratto is a riskier extension candidate than Vinnie, Witt, and MJ. However, let’s take a look at Bobby and MJ’s swing-take run data, which can be seen in the sliding images below (scroll right for Bobby; left for MJ):

Witt and MJ are both posting double-digit negative runs in the shadow zone and minus runs in the heart. That is a stark contrast to what Pratto has done at the plate on a swing/take run end so far in 2022.

Of course, Witt and Melendez have more plate appearances than Pratto at the MLB level. And yet, the negative performances from them in the heart area (compared to Pratto, who has a positive mark in the heart) does stick out as key factors to justify a Pratto extension sooner than Witt and/or Melendez (in addition to Pratto being a better value).

Will Pratto be a superstar like Bobby or MJ? Probably not. But for a small market team like the Royals, it is a priority to identify regular players who can have an impact at an affordable level for a good period of time. That’s easier to do from within an organization’s farm system rather than free agency, where the prices of such players inflates, due to competing demand for such players from other organizations.

The Royals and Royals fans will figure out a long-term financial plan for Bobby and MJ (and probably Vinnie) soon.

But the Royals should lock down Pratto sooner rather than later.

Because if it’s later, and Pratto continues to develop, the Royals won’t be able to afford him in a couple of years.

And it could be 2017 all over again.

Photo Credit: Michael Reaves/Getty Images

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