“Reporter Jottings”: Risk-Taking and Improvements in Defense; A Deep Dive Into the Royals’ Early Hitting Struggles

The Royals are currently 3-7, and though they missed out on a sweep of the Giants on Sunday after a 3-1 loss, winning a series on the road against a team projected to win 83 games, according to ZiPS, is still a positive development nonetheless.

Kansas City now heads down to Arlington to play the Texas Rangers, who are 5-4 and have plenty of punch in the lineup, and some star power in the rotation with recent free-agent addition Jacob deGrom. The Royals will be trotting out their veteran starters for the three-game series, as Zack Greinke, Jordan Lyles (making a Texas homecoming), and Brad Keller are expected to toe the hill in games one through three against the Rangers, respectively.

In this edition of the “Jottings”, I will be mostly recapping what we have seen from the Royals through 10 games, particularly paying attention to the Royals’ improvement (and approach) on defense and their struggles to produce runs early on, especially in “clutch” situations.

Royals Advocating Unique Defensive Approach and Seeing Improvement in Field

It definitely seems like manager Matt Quatraro and the Royals coaching staff as a whole are treating this season almost like a “thinking lab”, and that has been especially true on the fielding end through 10 games this year.

According to Tom Tango of the Tangotiger Twitter account (and author of “The Book”), the Royals have really been the only club in baseball who have employed the “two outfielders” setup, with the right fielder playing extremely in, almost like an infielder, against pull-heavy lefty hitters.

And as Tango mentions, the results haven’t been great for the Royals thus far.

For context, here’s Tango’s response to a few Royals-centered comments about whether or not the Royals should continue to employ the strategy. It also contains a link to an article Tango wrote in the offseason in regard to the two-OF approach, and whether many clubs would employ the strategy.

Royals fans particularly may remember the strategy nearly working against the Twins when they brought in right fielder MJ Melendez and he bobbled a Gallo groundball that resulted in him being safe at first. Initially, it was ruled an error by Melendez, but the MLB rules committee ended up changing it to a single.

Here’s a look at the play and it’s interesting to think about what could’ve happened had Melendez fielded it cleanly and made the throw to first base.

Could Melendez have thrown him out? Or would Gallo have beat it out? While Melendez has a strong arm (he averaged 93.2 MPH on throws from the field last year, according to Savant), I am not necessarily sure it would have been an automatic out even if Melendez fielded the ball cleanly.

Either way, based on the data, it will be interesting to see if Quatraro and the Royals staff will continue this strategy, though I commend them for taking a chance and trying it out. That’s something we didn’t see very often under former manager Mike Matheny or even Ned Yost.

Even though “unique” fielding positioning hasn’t necessarily worked out for the Royals’ defense thus far, we have seen a much better overall defensive performance by the Royals to begin the year, according to Outs Above Average (OAA) data.

The Royals currently are tied for 2nd in the league as a team in OAA with a +4 mark, as they have the same OAA as the Diamondbacks and Mariners. In addition, on an individual end, many Royals fielders have gotten off to stellar starts in the field, with Bobby Witt, Jr. and Kyle Isbel being particularly positive examples.

Here’s a look at the OAA breakdown of all Royals hitters, and notice the positive percentages in success rate added for players like Witt, Isbel, and even MJ Melendez.

To see that kind of success from Witt and Melendez is encouraging, especially since they were black holes defensively at shortstop and in the outfield, respectively, last season. It seems like new infield coach Jose Alguacil is already making waves with this crop of young infielders, for not only has Witt improved, but so has Michael Massey, who had some struggles in his MLB debut defensively last year.

The only ones who haven’t really shown progress are Hunter Dozier, Matt Duffy, Nate Eaton, and Edward Olivares, as they all have negative success rate added marks.

Dozier and Olivares being on this list should not surprise any Royals fans, since it was expected that they would have their issues at third and the outfield, respectively.

Duffy and Eaton though are more mildly surprising ones, especially since both can play a lot of positions in the field. That said, Eaton has made some poor decisions early on in the field, so it’s possible that Eaton could get better once he gets the nerves out and more innings under his belt. Duffy at his age may not be more than just average, but that may be good enough with Dozier’s shortcomings at the hot corner.

The strong ability of the Royals fielders may be a big reason why Quatraro and the Royals staff are testing different alignments in the field: they know their players have the athleticism to cover a lot more ground, even with the new rules regarding the shift.

And stronger defense from this group of fielders will also have a continued positive effect on the pitching staff in 2023, especially considering the spacious dimensions of Kauffman Stadium.

Royals Hitters Continue to Struggle as a Group; What’s the Cause?

The Royals starting pitching staff ranks 4th in ERA, and their bullpen ranks 16th in ERA, which are major improvements from where both groups were a season ago. That is an early testament to the work that pitching coaches Brian Sweeney, Zach Bove, and Mitch Stetter did this offseason and spring.

On the other hand, it’s been a different story for the Royals’ offense.

The Royals rank last in the league in batting average and OBP and 29th in OPS as a collective. Furthermore, they rank 29th in team wRC+ with a 57 mark, which is only three points better than the Detroit Tigers.

A big issue for the Royals’ hitters is that they’ve been swinging a lot and on pitches outside of the strike zone to boot. That can be seen in their swing data, via Fangraphs.

As Royals fans can see, the Royals have the second-highest O-Swing percentage in the league with a 36.2 percent mark (they are behind only the White Sox, who are ironically managed by former bench coach Pedro Grifol). They also are sporting a 49.3 percent swing rate as a group, which is the third-highest percent in baseball (the Rockies and White Sox are the only ones higher).

As a result, the Royals are tied for the second-highest first-strike rate group in baseball with a 64.2 percent mark. For a team that depends heavily on a group of young hitters, it is tough to be consistently productive when constantly behind in the count, especially considering their free-swinging tendencies.

Here’s a breakdown of the swing data from Royals hitters so far through 10 games, via Fangraphs, and notice how some of the key Royals hitters (i.e. ones at the top of the lineup) have particularly high O-Swing percentages.

According to Fangraphs, the league average O-Swing percentage is 31.6 percent this year and was 32.6 percent a season ago. As Royals fans can see in the table above, only two hitters have O-Swing percentages below the league average (Nicky Lopez and Melendez). And while Melendez doesn’t swing outside of the strike zone very often, he is sporting the lowest contact rate on the team with a 59.7 percent mark, which is not good for a guy who’s been regularly penciled in at the leadoff spot this season.

Then again, a big reason for the high O-Swing rates could be due to the low zone rates for Royals hitters, especially the young ones. Melendez, Witt, Pasquantino, and Michael Massey all have zone percentages under 40 percent. The MLB league average is 41.4 percent, so the over-swinging approach from the young hitters could be attested to pitchers just not feeding strikes to them in general, and the young hitters just “pressing” to get a hit, especially in big situations.

And speaking of big situations, notice how many of the Royals’ key hitters who rank low in zone percentage also rank low in “clutch” which measures hitters’ performance in “high leverage” situations.

Vinnie seems to be doing the best of the bunch this year in “clutch” situations, and his recent series against the Giants could be a step in the right direction for him going forward (he hit his first home run in San Francisco).

Unfortunately, notice MJ and Bobby being at the bottom of the group in “clutch” situations, as well as WPA. If Royals fans are looking for a primary reason why this Royals offense has sputtered so much, a lot can be tied to the early-season struggles of MJ and Witt.

On the other hand, while this has been beaten to death amidst the Royals’ struggles, the hard-hit rate of the Royals’ hitters is 48 percent, which ranks them second in the league, via Fangraphs.

While Royals fans want to see results and not “silver linings”, especially after so many losing seasons, take a look at the other teams that rank high in hard-hit rate along with the Royals (I share the Top 10 below).

Safe to say, the Royals rank up there in hard-hit rate along with the Dodgers, Cardinals, Rays, Angels, and Yankees. That’s a promising group to be associated with, especially since all those other clubs mentioned are expected to compete for postseason spots in 2023.

Does that mean the Royals are a playoff team?

No, not at all. But again, I think it does hint that the Royals could be close to turning things around at the plate, though being more patient at the plate and chasing less would help accomplish this rebound offensively sooner rather than later.

Pay attention to MJ and Bobby’s development in the coming weeks.

The quicker they adjust their approaches at the plate, both in regular and “clutch” situations, the more wins we will see in the win column for this Royals group.

Photo Credit: Ed Zurga/GettyImages


One thought on ““Reporter Jottings”: Risk-Taking and Improvements in Defense; A Deep Dive Into the Royals’ Early Hitting Struggles

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s