Can Bench Coach Paul Hoover Help the Royals’ Catchers Improve Defensively?

It’s not a surprise that the Royals were one of the worst defensive teams under former manager Mike Matheny from 2020 to 2022, especially on a framing end.

Last season, the Royals ranked dead last in framing with a -21 mark, 10 runs worse than the second-worst club in baseball (the Padres), according to Baseball Savant. And not only were the Royals bad on the framing-runs end last season but they also ranked last in called-strike percentage with a 42.9 percent mark, which can be seen below:

Other sources also seemed to confirm the Royals’ struggles defensively behind the plate, especially via Fangraphs catcher defense data.

From 2020-2022, Royals catchers ranked last in both framing runs (FRM) and Defensive Runs above average (DEF), and they ranked third-to-last in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). That can be seen in the table below:

Of course, framing isn’t everything, and there seems to be a momentum that “robo-umpiring” will be coming to Major League Baseball at some point. That will lessen the importance of catchers “stealing” extra strikes.

However, human umpires will continue to be calling balls and strikes in 2023, so that is something that Royals catchers will have to continue to adjust to for now, despite their shortcomings historically.

Thus, there will be a need for Royals catchers to improve their framing ability in this upcoming season, especially with a pitching staff that needs all the strikes they can get to be successful (the Royals as a staff ranked 29th in BB/9 last year, according to Fangraphs).

Thankfully for the Royals and Royals fans, the Royals have a coaching staff, led by bench coach Paul Hoover, who is dead set on helping Salvy, Melendez, and the other Royals catchers in the system improve in this area of framing for the 2023 season (and hopefully beyond as well).

Looking at the Royals’ Catching Situation (And Recent Framing Struggles)

I have talked about the framing struggles of both Salvy and Melendez on this blog before, so this isn’t exactly new territory among Royals fans.

Here is a look at how Royals catchers with 100 or more pitches called fared last season via Savant, and notice that the Royals’ best two catchers last year on a framing end are no longer in the Kansas City organization.

Going into this Spring, the Royals’ catching situation seems to be centered around Salvy, which makes sense since he is the highest-paid player on the Royals’ roster, according to Roster Resource. While Salvy’s health and ability behind the plate is a concern at his age (he will be 33 years old this season), he still has the desire to be behind the plate as much as possible for the upcoming season.

Even though Salvy is ready to be the Royals’ regular catcher for 2023, he understands that he needs to improve his receiving and adjust to other aspects of the game if he wants to be effective defensively.

After Salvy, it’s difficult to determine what route the Royals will go when it comes to the club’s backup catching position.

A year ago, they seemed to rotate between having MJ as the primary backup and carrying three catchers on the roster (primarily Cam Gallagher and Sebastian Rivero). MJ gave the Royals a better offensive option in the lineup at the catching position, but his defense was so bad that it actually contributed to him having a -0.2 fWAR overall last year, according to Fangraphs.

When comparing Melendez to the other catchers who saw time last year for Kansas City, he actually ranked second of Royals catchers with 10 or more plate appearances in wRC+, according to Fangraphs (and he actually had a better xwOBA than Salvy last year).

On the other hand, it seems like the Royals are more open to playing Melendez in the outfield, which could open the door for Freddy Fermin to earn the Royals’ backup catching position. Fermin was added to the 40-man roster this offseason, but he hasn’t gotten much time in the Majors (his lone stint was during the Blue Jays series in Toronto due to the Royals’ unvaccinated situation).

On a positive end, Fermin is coming off a solid Winter League campaign where he earned Rookie of the Year honors, so he definitely has a bit more upside as a backup catcher than Rivero or even Gallagher, who both served as third catchers a season ago.

If Fermin can have a strong Spring, and if Melendez continues to show issues defensively behind the plate, then the Royals could have a “three catcher” situation, much like they did at times in 2022.

That said, Hoover and manager Matt Quatraro don’t seem to be dead set on making Melendez a full-time outfielder just yet.

And that is because they hope Hoover’s work can help close that framing gap and help them be more serviceable in that category in 2023.

What Hoover Has Done in Tampa (And What He’s Doing in Kansas City)

In a recent article by Royals beat writer Anne Rogers of, Rogers profiled Hoover’s work with catchers in the Rays organization, and how he’s transitioning that coaching to the Royals.

Here’s a quote from Hoover in regard to what they did in Tampa, and what they’re trying to do with Salvy, MJ, Fermin, and the other Royals catchers who reported to camp this Spring.

“It’s something we’ve seen work in Tampa, power arms throwing to the bigger areas instead of moving to the corners and smaller areas,” Hoover said. “When they miss, they’re still missing in the strike zone. We see similar pitchers over here that have power, that have stuff, but maybe not the best accuracy and pinpoint control.

“If we give them the whole plate, instead of corners, they’re more apt to throw strikes. That’s something that we need to help the pitchers do in this organization is fill up the zone and try to get ahead of hitters.”

“Bench coach Hoover already resonating with Royals catchers,” by Anne Rogers;

Thankfully, it seems like Hoover’s tutelage is already having an impact on the Royals’ catchers in a short period of time.

In addition to Salvy’s comments about being receptive to Hoover’s coaching (which is huge considering how close Salvy was with former bench and catching coach Pedro Grifol, who is now the White Sox manager), Melendez also has remarked how helpful Hoover has been this Spring, especially when it comes to their work with pitchers.

“We’re working together with the pitchers, throwing a lot of strikes and throwing them early in the count,” said Melendez, who has also worked with Hoover on quieting his movements behind the plate to be less sporadic. “Getting ahead and putting the pressure on the hitter, rather than us always being on the defensive side. We need to go out there and establish that zone early for us and put the hitter on their heels.”

“Bench coach Hoover already resonating with Royals catchers,” by Anne Rogers;

It was also interesting to see Melendez behind the plate in live batting practice shots from 610 AM Radio Royals show host Josh Vernier in a Tweet yesterday. It goes to show that Melendez is getting work in, and he will be utilized in some kind of role behind the plate in 2023.

(He is catching Aroldis Chapman and Zack Greinke in the clips below.)

If the Royals want to be successful in 2023, they will need Melendez to take a step forward at the catching position, even if that may not be his position long-term.

While Fermin is a nice story this Spring and could fill in if Salvy hits the IL (or MJ though that’s less likely), the Royals could use more proven bats as bench pieces that could also be more easily moved around the infield and outfield (like Johan Camargo, Matt Duffy, Nate Eaton, and perhaps Franmil Reyes, who the Royals just recently signed to a Minor League deal).

Hoover seems to be having an impact already…

Let’s just hope as Royals fans the impact sticks after Opening Day and is not just one of those “feel good” Spring Training stories we see year after year.

Photo Credit: George Kubas/Diamond Images via Getty Images

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