The Royals have played two Cactus League games so far, and are currently 2-0 under new manager Matt Quatraro this Spring. Granted, it’s Spring Training contests, and they’ve played both games against the Texas Rangers, who share the Surprise Stadium complex with the Royals.
Nonetheless, it’s nice not just to have baseball back (especially on TV), but to see Tweets like this again.
After two exhibition games, it’s too early to come to any concrete conclusions just yet. That is especially true with the World Baseball Classic looming, which will result in many Royals players playing outside of Arizona in the coming days.
However, there have been some exciting trends possibly emerging, which were evident even in the short two-game sample so far. Let’s look at three things for Royals fans to pay attention to this Spring, based on what we have seen from the first two games against the Rangers.
Nick Loftin Breakout in 2023?
Former Baylor product and 2020 first-round pick had a game to remember on Saturday, as he launched his first home run of the Spring against the Rangers in the seventh inning.
I rated Loftin as the third-best prospect in the Royals system, according to my 2023 rankings. However, it seems like Loftin has been getting mixed reviews from other prospect experts, especially after he had a rough campaign in Triple-A Omaha in 2022.
Loftin started 2022 in Northwest Arkansas and even though the 100 wRC+ in 90 games and 425 plate appearances was exactly average, a deeper look into his metrics paints a more optimistic picture. He slashed .270/.354/.421 for the year, and also hit 12 home runs and stole 24 bases for the Naturals. In addition, he also showed strong plate discipline in Double-A, as he only struck out 13.4 percent, and posted a BB/K ratio of 0.79, which was a 0.09 point improvement from his mark in High-A Quad Cities in 2021.
Unfortunately, things went south for Loftin once he made the move to Omaha and that shows in his overall numbers.
His wRC+ was 69, his BB/K ratio dipped to 0.24 (highlighted by a 24.4 percent K rate), and he slashed .216/.289/.359 in 38 games and 153 plate appearances. Thus, it’s not a surprise that some prospect experts have cooled on Loftin in favor of other infield prospects like Maikel Garcia (understandable as I rate him as the Royals’ No. 1 prospect) and Peyton Wilson (not so understandable considering Wilson struck out nearly 25 percent of the time in High-A Quad Cities last year, according to Fangraphs).
That said, there are two things from last year that should be noted that could bode well for a Loftin bounce back in 2023, which could result in him making his Royals debut perhaps in the second half of the season.
The first issue is that Loftin got off to a slow start in Omaha, and that is highlighted in his splits in Triple-A Omaha in August and September. Here’s a look at his first 17 games from August 9th (his call-up to Triple-A) to August 28th.
Now, let’s take a look at what those numbers look like from August 30th to the end of the season.
Granted, some Royals fans may look at the comparison and say “he still hit .238! That’s not good!” But let’s ignore the batting average for a second and look at the other numbers.
He walked four more times from August 30th on (including getting hit by a pitch four more times as well) and struck out five fewer times. And this was despite having 22 more plate appearances in the second-half Omaha sample. Even though he hit one fewer home runs, he also hit three more doubles and scored eight more runs.
In the first half, Loftin was more of a run-producer, which wasn’t exactly what he was known for in previous stops in the Royals organization. In the second half though, Loftin was more of a run-scorer. That fits his profile more, and his focus on improving plate discipline from August 30th to the end of September shows that he made getting on base and scoring runs more of a priority.
Lastly, Loftin was hurt by lackluster BABIP marks in Double-A and Triple-A in 2022. His BABIP was only .288 with Northwest Arkansas and .259 with Omaha. These were both big dips from his .323 BABIP in Quad Cities in 2021 (keep this in mind Wilson fans).
Dips in BABIP can be due to park factors, but the Texas and International League tend to be more hitter-friendly in terms of ballpark environments. And thus, the low BABIP probably means that Loftin needs to improve the hard-hit quality of his batted balls, especially if he wants to get balls in the gaps or past more talented infielders and outfielders at the MLB level.
It seems like Loftin has been working on that, not just based on the home run he mashed on Saturday, but by bulking up a bit to help improve his overall strength, as MLB.com Royals beat writer Anne Rogers reported.
If Loftin is able to avoid that decline toward the end of the year that he experienced in 2022, it is possible that Loftin could make his way onto the Royals’ active roster and maybe lineup by August, especially if the Royals make some moves at the Trade Deadline.
Tyler Tolbert: Utility Sleeper?
I have been a big fan of Tolbert, mostly because he’s the most talented baserunner in the Royals organization. That says something with an organization that has Bobby Witt, Jr. and Nicky Lopez at the Major League level, and Samad Taylor, Garcia, and Loftin in the Upper Minors.
Last season, Tolbert stole 60 bases in High-A Quad Cities in 60 attempts. That’s right Royals fans. Tolbert not only stole 60 bags but didn’t get caught once in the process. That shows the kind of talent Tolbert has on the basepaths, which would be quite helpful for a Royals club that needs to improve on the basepaths in 2023 after some inconsistency in 2022 (the Royals ranked 14th in BsR according to Fangraphs).
Tolbert earned a non-roster invite to Spring Training, despite him not having played beyond High-A yet in his Minor League career. On Saturday though, the 25-year-old utility player showed that he can be a sleeper in this organization when all things are clicking.
First off, he displayed some surprising power with a three-run home run in the fourth inning that pretty much solidified the lead for the Royals in their 10-5 win over the Rangers.
But it wasn’t just his bat that impressed, but his glove as well. Here is a sensational catch he made in the bottom of the fourth that ended the inning.
And in the next inning with Carlos Hernandez on the mound, Tolbert covered some impressive ground and took away a ball hit in the gap that resulted in him colliding with the wall.
I am not sure how long Tolbert will stay up with the Cactus League roster before being optioned to Minor League camp. Regardless, Tolbert is making his case that he should be a player to be paying attention to in Double-A Northwest Arkansas in 2023.
Catcher Set-Up Approach Paying Off So Far?
One of the big priorities of new manager Matt Quatraro and pitching coach Brian Sweeney has been solidifying the catcher setup for pitchers, especially early in the count.
Instead of setting up on the edges of the strike zone to have pitchers throw in a specific area (which was more typical under the former regimes), the Royals now are focusing on having catchers just set up in the middle of the strike zone, with the hope that Royals pitchers can focus just on the pitch quality rather than the location. It’s a strategy that did wonders with pitchers in the Rays organization who had tremendous stuff but sported inconsistent command (Tyler Glasnow is a primary example).
Since the start of Spring Training, the Royals coaching staff as a whole has been pushing this approach, as chronicled in this article by Sam McDowell of the Kansas City Star.
Last year, the Royals ranked last in the league in first-strike percentage, with a 58 percent mark, according to Fangraphs. Unfortunately, this wasn’t just a problem in 2022 either. From 2018 to 2022, under former pitching coach Cal Eldred, the Royals averaged the worst first-strike percentage in baseball with a 58.8 percent mark, according to Fangraphs.
It makes sense that the Royals have opted to do something dramatic to help turn around a trend that has plagued them year after year since their last semi-competitive season in 2017.
So far this Spring, while the Royals have given up nine runs in two games, they have limited the walks for the most part. That has been especially true with live arms such as Hernandez, who saw a major decline in 2022 after a promising 2021.
Let’s take a look at how Hernandez and the other Royals pitchers fared on Saturday in the win over the Rangers.
The only one who struggled with walks was Dylan Coleman, who had two walks in an inning of work (though he made up for it with two strikeouts and no hits allowed). Even Yefri Del Rosario, who struggled a bit in his outing, didn’t allow a walk, despite giving up four hits, two runs, and a home run.
Even in Friday’s walk-off win, the Royals limited free passes on the basepaths, and Quatraro made sure to recognize that in the postgame talks.
Then again, throwing strikes in Spring Training and against MLB batters once the real games start in late March and early April are two different things.
That being said, it’s nice to see the Royals pitchers, especially those who struggled with control in 2022, embracing the Royals’ coaching staff’s emphasis and approach early on in Cactus League play.
Photo Credit: Abbie Parr/Getty Images