Nick Pratto’s Demotion Raises All Kinds of Questions With the Royals

The Royals surprisingly shut down the Boston Red Sox 9-0 on Saturday afternoon at Fenway Park. The victory clinched the season series for Kansas City over the Red Sox, and it was a nice bounce-back win for the club after getting swept in Minneapolis earlier this week.

Kansas City also made some surprising noise before the first pitch. They announced not only the activation of outfielder Edward Olivares off the 60-day IL but the demotion of Nick Pratto to Omaha as the corresponding move to make room for Olivares on the active roster.

The move was a polarizing one among the Royals fanbase (and that is putting it lightly).

On one end, Pratto has struggled enough to earn a demotion, especially over the past couple of weeks. Prior to today’s move, Pratto was hitting .103 in September, while posting a 40 percent K rate and 8 wRC+ in the month as well. To make matters worse, while Pratto’s walk rate was 11.1 percent this month, his ISO had fallen from .263 in August to .077 in September.

It’s hard to justify playing time for a guy at the Major League level with not only a rising K rate but declining power as well, even if he is only 23 years old. Furthermore, some Royals pundits agreed that Pratto may need to take some time at this time to work on his development, which would be better done in Triple-A Omaha than in Kansas City.

On the other hand, while the demotion itself is not necessarily a bad thing at the surface level, it is the timing that is peculiar. While Pratto would certainly benefit from some more intentional development in Triple-A, there are only 10 games left for the Storm Chasers this season, as they are currently not in playoff contention at 69-71.

Hence, it feels like this move by JJ Picollo and the Royals front office is a “too little, too late” situation that probably should’ve been done at the start of September, not near the end of the month.

So what is going on with Pratto and his struggles at the plate? And why did the Royals make this move at this time, with the Minor League season pretty much at its conclusion, which puts Pratto in a weird roster limbo?

Let’s take a look at this roster move, and why it makes us as Royals fans wonder what this front office is doing, especially during a lost season where 100 losses could be a possibility.

Pratto’s Contact and Power Struggles

Not too long ago, I talked about Pratto being an extension candidate this off-season. My reasoning for it still holds true, even amidst this tough rookie year: Pratto still has considerable upside, and he could be signed at a reasonable price in the process.

That said, there is a lot of work that Pratto needs to do if he wants to be the Royals’ Opening Day first baseman not just for 2023, but beyond as well.

Two issues have plagued Pratto during his initial stint in the big leagues. The first one is the most obvious and that is his strikeout problem.

Pratto for the year is striking out 36.3 percent of the time, which is the highest rate of Royals hitters with 80 or more plate appearances this year, according to Fangraphs. In fact, his K rate is nearly 10 percent higher than the second-highest rate of Royals hitters in that category (Kyle Isbel at 26.4 percent), which just goes to show how pronounced Pratto’s strikeout problem is.

And it’s not just strikeouts that are the issue either, but rather his ability to make contact in general. Not only does Pratto lead Royals hitters in called strike plus whiff rate (CSW), but he also boasts the lowest contact rate as well, which can be seen in the table below:

This whiff issue is not due to questionable plate discipline, as is the case with hitters like Salvy or Dozier for example. Salvy is boasting an O-Swing (swings outside the strike zone) percentage of 46.3 percent. Dozier is producing a 36.4 O-Swing percentage. Their questionable plate approaches contribute heavily to the pair’s contact issues this year (which has been the case for most of their careers).

Pratto on the other hand? His 30.9 percent O-Swing rate is the 5th best mark for Royals hitters this year, and third-best of Royals currently on the roster (Carlos Santana and Andrew Benintendi are No. 1 and 2; MJ Melendez and Vinnie Pasquantino lead current Royals in O-Swing percentage). That demonstrates that Pratto is laying off pitches outside the zone, which is a positive thing. Unfortunately, he is just swinging and missing on too many of them IN the zone, which is demonstrated by his 78.2 Z-Contact rates (contact in the strike zone). That rate is the worst mark for Royals hitters this year.

Here’s an example of Pratto in Minneapolis this week swinging and missing on a 94 MPH Joe Ryan four-seamer that’s in the heart of the strike zone.

Ryan has some good movement with his four-seamer (which makes up for the lack of premium velocity). But in that part of the strike zone, and with two strikes, Pratto should at least be able to make contact with that kind of pitch.

When one takes a look at Pratto’s run value data against different kinds of pitches he’s seen this year (via Baseball Savant), it’s obvious that he has struggled to adjust against MLB stuff.

The only pitch he’s produced positive run value against is the sinker (at +6). Furthermore, he’s posted 30 percent or over K rates on five of the seven kinds of pitch types he’s seen this year at the MLB level, which can be seen in the table below.

It’s not just one particular pitch or pitch type that Pratto is struggling against. It’s nearly every kind of pitch at the MLB level. That screams for Pratto to get some help from Royals hitting development so he can at least produce consistently in the near future against one type of pitch, whether it’s a fastball, breaking, or offspeed type.

Lastly, it’s not just Pratto’s struggles to make contact at the MLB level this year that sticks out.

The second problem with Pratto this year that’s not being discussed enough is that he’s also struggled to make productive contact (i.e. show consistent power) in his rookie debut.

Pratto’s hard-hit rate currently ranks in the 49th percentile, not an encouraging sign for a first baseman at the MLB level. Furthermore, Pratto has shown inconsistency in his power production, which can be mainly measured by his expected slugging percentage (xSLG). If Pratto was swinging and missing frequently but still hitting the ball with authority, that would be a silver lining, and a reason to keep him up in Kansas City for the remainder of 2022.

Unfortunately, his xSLG percentage rolling chart shows that Pratto’s ability to hit for power has been declining steadily after an initial jump around his 130th plate appearance at the MLB level.

The Royals need Pratto to work on these contact issues with Drew Saylor and the hitting development team in Omaha for the remainder of 2022 if they want to salvage him as a cornerstone of this Royals franchise come Spring Training in 2023.

That being said, why did the Royals wait so long to do so, especially with Kansas City 30 games under .500?

Short-Term Wins Over Long-Term Development

To be fair, Pasquantino’s injury and Dozier’s struggles probably kept Pratto up at the Major League level longer than they wanted.

If Pasquantino was healthy or if Dozier was producing like he was before the All-Star break, then it is likely that Pratto would have been demoted at the start of September. However, due to this Royals roster issues, manager Mike Matheny and Picollo were forced to keep him in the lineup, despite the obvious struggles at the plate.

On the other hand, some of the comments coming from Royals management about the decision to bench Pratto have been a little incoherent. The most peculiar one came from Matheny’s pregame talk with the media, where he pointed out the need to get Pratto “consistent at-bats” as the reason for his demotion.

It’s one thing if Olivares played the same position as Pratto or was also a left-handed hitter. But, Olivares is an outfielder and a right-handed hitter. Olivares isn’t taking at-bats away from Pratto (one would think Kyle Isbel would be more affected by Olivares’ return). Rather, it seems like Dozier and O’Hearn would be the ones taking away the at-bats from Pratto, especially since they both can play first base.

And see how Dozier and O’Hearn compare to Pratto, as of Saturday evening.

O’Hearn is producing a wRC+ that is 23 points lower than Pratto. As for Dozier, his wRC+ is five points higher, but he also has 278 more plate appearances this year than Pratto. Honestly, Dozier hasn’t proved that he’s much more productive than Pratto. In addition, Pratto is eight years younger than Dozier (who’s 31 years old), which gives Pratto some chance for improvement and growth, unlike Dozier, who probably peaked as a player (or peaked back in 2019).

That’s where the Royals should be focusing on right now: the 25 and younger players; not ones in the late 20s or early 30s like O’Hearn and Dozier, respectively.

And that’s what makes the Royals’ thought process so frustrating.

It’s one thing if Matheny is saying “Hey, Nick’s process is out of whack, and he needs to work with our guys to fix it in Omaha.” But saying “Well, he just needs more at-bats because there aren’t enough to go around right now in Kansas City?”

That’s harder to stomach as a Royals fan and further shows that Matheny and his staff continue to prioritize short-term success over long-term gains.

Matheny and the Royals coaching staff (and probably the front office) seem to be more concerned about trying to avoid 100 losses, probably in a last-ditch effort to save their jobs.

Those kinds of “minor” victories are the last thing a rebuilding club should be worrying about. The A’s, Pirates, and Reds, all rebuilding clubs, aren’t throwing 30-something retreads out there just to get a couple of wins here and there. They are focusing on developing their young, cost-controlled players, and evaluating who will be part of their respective clubs in 2023 and beyond.

The Royals should be doing the same.

Maybe Pratto’s numbers don’t get much better by the end of 2022. But I’m not sure if a week-and-a-half of Triple-A at-bats makes all that much of a difference ultimately.

At this point in the year, let him continue to gel with MJ, Witt, Massey, Pasquantino, and Eaton, and perhaps see if Saylor or some of his team can get up to Kansas City, especially with the Minor League season in general near its conclusion.

And yet, the Royals aren’t pursuing that route. That is just another check mark against them in the case of NOT bringing back this coaching and front office group for the 2023 season.

Winning does take time, especially for small market teams in Major League Baseball.

But questionable decisions like this one with Pratto will only further delay the return of winning baseball in Kansas City…

And I’m not sure how much longer Royals fans can wait.

Photo Credit: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

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