The Royals’ Complicated Case With Michael Massey

We are starting to see the Royals lineup get more consistency on a day-by-day basis as we approach our 15th game of the season under first-year manager Matt Quatraro.

Here’s a look at how the lineups have fared over the past six games, according to Roster Resource depth chart data.

Over the past six games, we have seen fewer lineups with Hunter Dozier and Jackie Bradley, Jr., and more with Franmil Reyes, Edward Olivares, and Nicky Lopez. While that hasn’t produced a winning streak by any means (the Royals are 4-10 as of Saturday), the offense has scored more runs and at least looked better at the plate overall than they did during that first homestand of the season.

However, there are still some hitters in the lineup that continue to get at-bats, even though things haven’t turned around for them at this point early in the season.

Michael Massey is one player who has struggled out of the gate but still has gotten consistent at-bats, especially against right-handed starting pitchers.

Last year, Massey produced a promising rookie campaign. Even though Nicky Lopez and his Gold-Glove caliber defense remain on the roster, the Royals have made Massey their regular second baseman, though Massey will typically get days off when the Royals face left-handed starters.

So far, it hasn’t been a sterling start for Massey at the plate.

The former University of Illinois product is currently hitting .128 in 41 plate appearances, and he is also producing a wOBA of .118 and a ridiculously low wRC+ of -43. Even though he is 1.1 defensive runs above average according to Fangraphs’ Def metric, his lackluster offense has dragged his fWAR down -0.4 through 13 games played, which is the lowest fWAR for any Royals player with 10 or more plate appearances this year.

While Massey though has a cringe-worthy batting line, his advanced metrics paint a more optimistic picture, and one has to wonder how long Quatraro and this more “analytically-friendly” coaching staff will continue to give Massey opportunities in April and possibly May, despite this nightmarish start for him.

In this post, I am going to take a look at the positives to glean from Massey’s start, the further concerns and challenges, and what Royals fans should expect and look for from the sophomore second baseman over the next couple of weeks.

The Positives for Massey

Before diving into his hitting metrics, let’s just point out an obvious positive from Massey’s first 13 games played this year:

His defense seems to be stabilizing at the Major League level after a rough 2022 campaign.

Massey has always been rated as a plus defender in the Minor Leagues, so it was a surprise that he rated so poorly in 2022 (demonstrated by a -4 OAA last year, according to Savant). He actually won a Rawlings Minor League Gold Glove in 2021 during his time primarily in High-A Quad Cities.

After a below-average OAA mark in 2022, here’s how Massey’s OAA has fared so far through 13 games at second base.

As Royals fans can see, he is producing a +1 OAA at second base, which is four outs better than what he produced at the keystone in 2022. And it’s not just his OAA that has improved, but his success rate added as well. After posting a -2 success rate added percentage a season ago, that success rate added has gone up to +3 percent.

Granted, the estimated success rate for plays he was involved with is not as high as a year ago (and it will likely go up with the more balls in play he sees in the field). That said, the OAA illustrator chart demonstrates that he’s been better so far this year in making plays than a season ago (i.e. you see more shades of red in 2023 than shades of blue).

While his defense has seen improvement, Massey has also gotten much better in terms of generating hard contact at the plate from a season ago as well.

Even though there has been a slight regression in barrel rate (from 13 percent to 11.5 percent), he has seen an increase in his average exit velocity on batted balls, as it has gone from an 89.3 MPH average in 2022 to a 90.6 MPH average this season. Furthermore, his hard-hit rate is currently 50 percent, which is an 11.8 percent improvement from his 2022 mark.

Thus, it’s not a surprise that there’s a 130-point difference between his wOBA and xWOBA this season, which demonstrates that Massey has suffered from SOME batted ball unluckiness. His rolling wOBA and xwOBA charts also showcase the same kind of trend difference as well.

Notice that in the xwOBA chart, even though there’s been a dip since his 25th plate appearance, his xwOBA rolling chart trend hovered above average. That hasn’t been a trend at any point this season on his wOBA chart, which just goes to show that the results at the plate haven’t necessarily matched what Massey is producing on a batted ball end.

And for context, we have seen some positive batted ball regression from MJ Melendez, Vinnie Pasquantino, and Bobby Witt, Jr. since the Giants series as well after slow starts during the opening homestand.

For reference, here’s a look at Melendez’s xwOBA and wOBA rolling charts. Notice the spike in wOBA after a slow start to begin the year (despite his xwOBA spiking much earlier in the year).

I am not saying that Massey is Melendez by any means (Melendez has been much better at drawing walks, which we will go into with Massey in the next section). That being said, Massey hasn’t experienced that spike in positive regression despite displaying solid batted-ball skills.

One has to wonder if Quatraro and the Royals are keeping Massey in the lineup for now, hoping that the regression can manifest soon.

Concerns and Challenges

Last season, Massey produced a wOBA of .302 in 52 games and 194 plate appearances. This year, that wOBA is only .118 through 41 plate appearances.

If Royals fans want to see what the difference has been, one can get an idea through his zone wOBA chart comparison from 2022 and 2023, via Savant.

Massey pretty much is doing well on pitches thrown in zone four on the outer edge of the strike zone. But his wOBA has gone down in those upper one and two zones, as well as the middle five and six zones to boot.

A big reason why the wOBA in those zones has plummeted can mostly be tied to two factors:

1.) Pitchers are attacking his zones of weakness from a season ago. 2.) They’re attacking him with more offspeed stuff in 2023 than last year.

Here is a look at Massey’s pitch percentage zone chart comparison from a season ago and notice how many more pitches Massey is seeing pitches in zone 7 and 13 in 2023.

Notice Massey seeing 30.4 percent of pitches in those two zones this year than the 21.5 percent a season ago. And it makes sense why pitchers are pounding that area, as he is producing a K rate of 66.7 percent and 55.6 percent in zone 7 and 13, respectively, so far this season.

In addition to opposing pitchers throwing Massey more pitches in his zones of weakness this year, they have also utilized more offspeed stuff against him, which are primarily the pitches that are located in those 7 and 13 zones.

Here’s a look at the trend in breaking, offspeed, and fastballs Massey has seen from 2022 to 2023.

With that being said, let’s take a look at his results against offspeed pitches this season. Pay special attention to the zones that a majority of the pitches fall in, and how those individual results correlate with the K and wOBA zone charts from this season.

Not only does Massey have a lot of swinging strikes on offspeed pitches this year, but he also has chased a lot of those offspeed pitches outside of the strike zone to boot. That is not a recipe for success, even with a hitter like Massey who has surprising power and batted-ball potential for a second baseman.

Here’s an example of Alex Wood of the Giants and Nathan Eovaldi attacking Massey with splitters in the arm side areas of the strike zone and Massey swinging and missing badly on both pitches.

On fastballs, Massey is only producing a .093 wOBA, which is obviously a paltry mark. That being said, he also is sporting a .304 xwOBA on fastball pitches this year, and his whiff rate on fastballs has gone from 20.9 percent last year to 12.8 percent this season. Those are positive improvements and could be signs that Massey can be more successful against fastballs if he can take advantage of fastball mistakes in his sweet spot.

Based on his pitch hex bin chart via Savant, Massey isn’t doing hot on fastballs up in the zone (most Royals hitters aren’t honestly, though that’s a whole separate post in itself).

However, on those fastball pitches lower in the strike zone? That’s been a bit of a different story for Massey, which can be seen in the chart below.

Here’s an example of Massey taking advantage of a 96 MPH four-seamer down in the from Minnesota’s Emilio Pagan, back at the K during the first home series of the year.

Massey is striking out in 36.6 percent of his plate appearances this year and hasn’t drawn a single walk this year to boot. That is a far cry from the 23.7 percent K rate and 4.6 percent BB rate a season ago. Even though those 2022 numbers aren’t exactly great, his power more than made up for it last year.

The same can’t be said with his current walk and strikeout numbers.

And thus, it will be interesting to see if Massey can lay off more on those pitches low and away and instead, take advantage and pounce on pitches, especially fastballs, thrown down or in the middle of the strike zone in the next couple of weeks.

What Will the Royals Do at Second Base?

The Royals are definitely in a tough spot when it comes to determining how patient to be with Massey at this time.

Massey has the most upside of Royals infielders currently on the Royals’ active roster, but Lopez is a veteran who has struck out less than Massey and walked more as well this season, which can be seen in the Fangraphs comparison below:

Lopez has seen more time at the hot corner though recently, so it could be that Quatraro doesn’t think of Nicky as necessarily a “replacement” for Massey at the keystone (at least on a regular basis anyways). I think that may be a wise decision, as Nicky’s xwOBA is only 20 points higher than Massey’s, even though Massey’s wOBA is 177 points lower than Nicky’s, as of Saturday.

That shows that the Royals wouldn’t be getting a whole lot more upside with Lopez’s hitting if he took away at-bats from Massey at the keystone position. And thus, Lopez would be better suited at either third base or a utility role, which Quatraro has been doing with Nicky so far in 2023.

On the other hand, what about Samad Taylor and Maikel Garcia, who are off to solid starts so far with the Storm Chasers?

Taylor is hitting .317 with two home runs and a 118 wRC+, and though Garcia has cooled a bit in the past couple of games, he is still hitting .296 with a 122 wRC+. Garcia also produced the game-winning single in a comeback victory on the road against the Iowa Cubs on Friday night as well.

If the Royals are going to take away the starting position from Massey, it is likely that they will option Massey to Omaha and bring up either Taylor or Garcia to replace him for the time being.

Who that will be and when that will occur though is to be determined.

If I had to guess though, it wouldn’t happen until May 1st at the earliest, as a month of plate appearances should give JJ Picollo a large enough sample to make a decision on Massey as well as Taylor or Garcia’s futures.

This makes these next couple of weeks super important for Massey if he wants to stay up with the big league club.

Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports


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