Can Defense and the K Help the Royals’ Pitching Problem and Attract Pitching Talent in the Long Term?

In a bit of surprising news this morning, former Royals draft pick and top prospect Wil Myers signed a one-year deal with the Cincinnati Reds with a mutual option for the 2024 season, according to the Reds’ official Twitter.

The deal is certainly a bargain for the Reds and a far cry from what Myers was making with the Padres previously (according to Ken Rosenthal, Myers’ AAV in ’23 will be about $7.5 million).

Granted, Myers is coming off a season in which he only hit seven home runs in 77 games and posted an fWAR of 1.0. As for Cincinnati, they went 62-100 in 2022, and still appear to be firmly entrenched in a rebuild, much like the Kansas City Royals.

So why does Myers, who was playing on a playoff team last year, head to a losing Reds squad for at least 2023? And why do the Reds, who are still years away from being back in the thick of things in the NL Central, sign a 32-year-old outfielder who has struggled with injuries for most of his career?

One can pretty much credit the match between Myers and the Reds due to Great America Ballpark and its hitter-friendly environment.

According to Baseball Savant Park Factors, only Coors Field was a more hitter-friendly ballpark than Great America Ballpark in Cincinnati.

On a home run factor end, the GAB significantly led all ballparks a season ago with a 150 mark, meaning that GAB produced 50 more runs by home run than the average ballpark. Second-place Guaranteed Rate Field, the home of the White Sox significantly lagged behind the GAB, as evidenced in the data set below:

Cincinnati has pretty much become a place where a struggling hitter can come for a year (or half-year, depending on his trade value), turn around his career, and find a better payday elsewhere the following season. The most recent example was Brandon Drury, who mashed in his brief tenure with the Reds in 2022 and parlayed that bounce-back season with a two-year deal with the Angels this offseason.

There is no question that Myers and his agent are thinking that he can do the same thing as Drury. This is especially helped by the fact that Myers not only played with Drury in the second half of last season (I’m guessing Drury recommended the ballpark and maybe Chili), but has a much better track record than Drury (Myers‘ has a career fWAR of 15.1; Drury has a 3.6 career fWAR, with 3.0 of it coming from last year).

Is this a method for building long-term baseball fans in a small market city?

Probably not, especially since good players who come in are expected to leave just as quickly as they came. But, the Reds know they are good at finding cheap players who fit that mold. Furthermore, they are able to not only jettison those players off in trades for something of value but also recruit future free agents by promoting that the same success could happen to them, due to the club’s natural “resources” (i.e. ballpark park factors).

Cincinnati isn’t the only club that leverages its own “resources” to attract and churn out success with short-term free agent and/or trade targets.

Coors Field has a similar effect on free-agent position players (though the Rockies are able to parlay those factors into more long-term deals than Cincinnati). Cleveland and Tampa Bay attract pitchers with their pitching “development” and “coaching.” Miami seems to utilize its proximity to the Caribbean (the home of many MLB players) as a positive in its favor with free agents (thus explaining the Jorge Soler and Avisail Garcia deals).

So what can Kansas City, a fellow small-market club in the middle of the heartland, do to market itself to free agents and trade targets who could come to Kansas City on cheap, reasonable deals, and provide solid, albeit brief, production?

Plain and simple: utilize Kauffman Stadium’s park factors, and ensure an elite defense is in place year after year to attract potential pitching targets.


Kauffman As a Selling Point for Pitchers Isn’t New

One of the biggest debates among Royals and baseball fans is whether or not Kauffman is a “pitcher” or “hitter”-friendly park.

In terms of pure park factors on a run basis, one could argue that Kauffman has been more advantageous for hitters. Last year, Kauffman had a three-year park factor of 103, which was the sixth-highest park factor in all of baseball in 2022. A big reason for that is due to Kauffman’s big spaces being advantageous for extra-base hits. Kauffman had the eighth-highest triple factor at 128, and the third-highest double factor at 115. Thus, when hitters put balls in the gaps, it often produced positive outcomes on the offensive end.

That being said, what has contributed to the idea that Kauffman is a “pitcher”-friendly park is the fact that Kauffman has been one of the hardest places in baseball traditionally when it comes to hitting home runs. After all, it’s no surprise that the Royals did NOT have a 40+ HR hitter until Jorge Soler in 2019. It simply isn’t as easy to a hit home run at the K as it is at the GAB or Minute Maid Park in Houston, for example.

And the park factor data backs that up, via Savant. In the table below, I compiled the 11th-hardest ballparks to hit home runs over the past 10 years and notice how Kauffman continues to hover in the blue, meaning it is consistently below average on a park factor end in terms of producing home runs.

Over the past 10 years, I would argue that only Oracle Park (San Francisco) has been a harder place than Kauffman for hitters to mash home runs. The K has been a tougher place than the Oakland Coliseum and even Busch Stadium in St. Louis, though neither place is a paradise by any means for hitters when it comes to hitting home runs.

And thus, this SHOULD be a natural advantage for the Royals in any kind of negotiations, especially for pitchers who need a place to “rebound”. If Brian Sweeney is worth his salt as a pitching coach, he should be coaching pitchers to take advantage of the K’s spacious grounds, and communicating that to pitchers within and OUTSIDE the organization.

JJ Picollo’s pitch to possible pitching targets should start with this: Why go to Coors or the GAB or Guarantee Rate field where the ball will FLY out of the park if it’s in the air? Come to the K where the park factors will keep the ball in the yard, and one’s value can increase at the Trade Deadline of the following offseason.

So why aren’t pitchers biting just yet?

Because the defense isn’t where it needs to be to convince pitchers that the Royals can handle “non-HR” batted balls at the K.


Team Defense and Its Correlation to Park Factors

When I was looking at historical park factors on a runs-end at Kauffman, I decided to look at the last 10-12 years, with my focus being on those successful seasons from 2013 to 2017. Here’s a look at the Royals’ run park factors, and how they compare to five other teams since 2010:

Royals fans can see a bit of a “bell curve” of sorts in terms of run park factors at the K since 2010. It starts kind of high in the 104 and 106 range in 2010 and 2011, but then regressed to slightly below the league average in 2014 and 2015 (the glory years). It ticked up to exactly average from 2016 to 2019, and then over the past three years, runs park factors have been much higher than average.

Again, a lot of contributors can go into Park Factors, as Fangraphs’ details in their sabermetrics glossary. Were 2014 and 2015 due to a dead ball time period, which favored the Royals and their HR-suppressed home environment? Or did something else contribute to the K being more pitcher-friendly from that 2014 to 2019 time period?

I’m not going to say this is the cause, but one can definitely argue that defense correlates strongly in this situation.

Let’s take a look for example the Royals’ defensive data, specifically Def rating, from 2014 to 2018 via Fangraphs (especially since there is not any OAA data pre-2016):

DRS doesn’t favor the Royals over that timespan, but UZR still rates the Royals as one of the best defensive teams in baseball over that five-year timeframe. And on a Def end, the Royals’ defense was 58.4 runs better than the second-place Cubs. That is pretty remarkable, and a sign of how elite the Royals were on the defensive end in that five-year period.

So we saw how the Royals’ defense played when the Park Factors were more pitcher-friendly or neutral. But what about from 2019 to 2022, when they began to rise?

Here’s a glimpse of that data table via Fangraphs:

Now, the Royals are still in the Top-10 in Def, which is good. However, they fell to sixth over this timespan, and once again, they are hampered in that category of DRS, and the UZR is still good, but not as impressive as the 2014-2018 time period. And once again, the framing numbers are bad, so any regression in defense in the outfield or infield is going to have a negative impact on run factors against Royals pitchers.


Looking to St. Louis As a Model

One team to notice defensively over the last four years is the Cardinals, who rank at the top of that list is not just Def, but nearly every defensive category (DRS, UZR, OAA). Surprisingly, the Cardinals aren’t great on a framing end either (-22.1), but their infield and outfield play has been so elite since 2019 that it hasn’t seemed to matter.

Now, let’s take a look at Busch Stadium’s park factors on a runs-end from 2010-2022:

Busch Stadium had a run park factor of 90 last year and hasn’t been over 92 since 2019 (when they have been the best defensive team in baseball). Again, not sure if the Cardinals’ defense is the cause of Busch Stadium’s pitcher-friendly confines, but it certainly correlates pretty positively.

Granted, the Cardinals have a big payroll, so they can afford more high-profile sluggers like Nolan Arenado and reigning MVP Paul Goldschmidt. On the other hand, St. Louis making defense a priority has not just made Busch Stadium a more pitcher-friendly yard, but it also has had a direct impact on pitcher production since 2019.

Over that four-year frame, according to Fangraphs, the Cardinals as a pitching staff rank 6th in baseball in staff ERA at 3.07. The Royals? They ranked 27th, ahead of only the Pirates, Orioles, and Rockies.

That being said, a deeper dive into FIP, xFIP, and SIERA data present a different picture:

While St. Louis dwarfs Kansas City in ERA, the gap narrows as the metric gets more fielding-independent. One can see that in the trendlines above.

What does this mean? It hints that St. Louis’ pitching staff skills-wise wasn’t dramatically better than Kansas City’s. Rather, Cardinals pitchers benefited more from the defense and park factors over the past four seasons than Royals pitchers in regard to those two areas.

And further data, especially on a BABIP, LOB% (strand rate), and E-F (ERA minus FIP) end, seem to further confirm those suspicions as well.

The Royals haven’t been all that far off from the Cardinals staff since 2019 (or at least not as behind as the ERA gap suggests). The Cardinals haven’t really had an elite starter or closer over the past four years, and yet, they have been a frequent playoff contender and a mainstay at the top of their division, unlike the Royals.

But Picollo will need to heavily invest again in defense, and new manager Matt Quatraro will have to make the right decisions if they want to replicate this “Cardinals Way” to help Kansas City maximize the pitching they have (as well as their future pitches to potential out-of-organization arms).


How Do the Royals Find That Balance?

Now, saving runs is great in theory, but at the end of the day, the Royals also have to produce on an offensive end. From 2019 to 2022, the Royals ranked 27th in runs scored, according to Fangraphs. So even if they were able to save runs like the Cardinals on defense, they certainly wouldn’t have had enough offensive production to duplicate what St. Louis did record-wise.

And that’s the struggle the Royals have had since 2019. They have had to put players like Soler and Hunter Dozier in the outfield, but unfortunately, their hitting output hasn’t made up for their defensive deficiencies, which hasn’t helped the Royals in the win-loss column over the past four years.

Thus, it’s got to be a priority for Picollo and Quatraro to make sure there’s a right balance of guys who can save runs on the field to maximize Kansas City’s pitching production, along with position players who can hit enough to ensure that pitchers are getting enough run support to close out victories.

Here’s a look at how the Royals players have fared on an OAA end over the past two years, which gives Royals fans a clear idea of which players on the current roster can be depended on defensively (and vice versa):

Quatraro and the staff is going to need to be judicious in regard to who they trot out defensively from game to game, especially with a pitching staff that may not see tremendous gains in strikeout rates in 2023.

For example, Edward Olivares certainly provides offensive upside, but he clearly is a liability on defense based on the OAA data. Therefore, it will be key that Quatraro pairs Oliverares with solid outfielders, like Michael A. Taylor, Kyle Isbel, and maybe Nate Eaton and Drew Waters (though the OAA data doesn’t favor them, they had much better reports in the Minors and they have such limited samples from 2022).

Same thing in the infield. If Bobby Witt, Jr. is going to be at shortstop, then it would be important to have Adalberto Mondesi and Nicky Lopez in the field to ensure that Witt’s struggles are minimized (though let’s hope Witt sees some growth in the field like Tim Anderson did in his sophomore season).

If the Royals can combine elite defense with average to slightly-above-hitting production, then it’s possible that this team could surprise and be a 74 to 76-win club, which isn’t impossible considering the AL Central hasn’t gotten all that much better. But elite defense won’t fix below-average production, which not only hurts the Royals in the standings but in their long-term outlook when it comes to keeping and attracting valuable players.

Kansas City needs to do something, especially in the short term, to attract better pitching talent to the organization.

The Reds are doing this on a hitting end by promoting the benefits of the GAB. It would be nice for the Royals to do something similar with the K, but pertinent to pitchers. It seemed to be something that worked from 2013 to 2017, as the Royals were able to see bounce-back campaigns from flawed pitchers like Jeremy Guthrie, Chris Young, and Edinson Volquez.

Those three benefitted not just from Kauffman, but from an elite defense behind them as well. The Royals need to find a “2.0” version of that strategy under Picollo if he wants to inspire confidence in the Kansas City faithful (and it may be nice if Jordan Lyles could help “spark” this process this year by having a surprising season thanks to the defense and change in the home park).

Kauffman is still the same Kauffman, regardless of how long it will be around…

Now the defense needs to follow suit (and a little more offense to boot wouldn’t hurt).

Photo Credit: Joe Sargent/MLB Photos via Getty Images

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