Is Nick Pratto’s Start in 2023 With the Royals Legitimate?

The Royals won their second series of the year, highlighted by a walk-off 4-3 victory over the Chicago White Sox at School Day at the K on Thursday afternoon.

The Royals are now 12-27 as they begin a nine-game road trip which includes stops in Milwaukee, San Diego, and the South Side of Chicago before returning home for a series against the Detroit Tigers on May 22nd. While the postseason, and perhaps even a .500 record may be shot at this point in the season, the Royals have been a much better team during the month of May, especially on the hitting end of things.

One catalyst to the Royals’ improvement in hitting in this current month of play has been the performance of Nick Pratto.

Last season in his rookie campaign, Pratto posted a slash of .184/.271/.386 with a wRC+ of 82 in 49 games and 182 plate appearances, according to Fangraphs. Pratto had some memorable moments in 2022, including a dramatic walk-off home run against Garrett Whitlock of the Red Sox in an early August contest at the K.

Even though I thought he was a candidate to earn an early long-term contract extension, Pratto cooled off at the end of the season and was demoted to Omaha in the final weeks of 2022. With the emergence of Vinnie Pasquantino at the end of 2022, the signing of Franmil Reyes this offseason, and the need to keep the DH spot open to preserve the legs of Salvador Perez, it wasn’t a surprise that Pratto didn’t make the Opening Day roster in 2023.

Pratto got off to a slow start in Omaha, as he only slashed .159/.259/.319 with a wRC+ of 42 in 19 games and 81 plate appearances with the Storm Chasers. However, his BABIP was comically low at .173, and he was posting a solid BB/K ratio of 0.53, highlighted by a 21 percent K rate, which was a 9.5 percent decrease in that category from the previous season.

In addition, Pratto posted a line drive rate of 22.6 percent in the Minors and only had a swinging-strike rate of nine percent, which were both significant improvements from his previous stint in Omaha in 2022.

Since being called up, Pratto is slashing .347/.439/.531 with a 172 wRC+ in 15 games and 57 plate appearances. Even though he did not garner a hit in the series finale against the White Sox, he did draw two walks and scored two runs, including the game-winning one on the Freddy Fermin squeeze bunt.

Pratto looks like a different hitter from the one that struck out 36.1 percent of the time last season.

However, is this Pratto breakout this year legitimate? Or is Pratto simply riding a hot streak, and Royals fans should embrace a serious regression sometime soon that could result in him being back in Omaha in another month or so?

Royals and Non-Royals fans alike are already asking that question, especially as Pratto becomes more of an everyday mainstay in the lineup, especially in the wake of Reyes’ demotion and eventual release, which happened officially today.

Let’s dive deeper into Pratto’s start to the 2023 season, what the positives have been thus far, and what should be some concerns to watch out for as Pratto gets more at-bats in the coming weeks.

The Positives: The Quality of Pratto’s Contact

I was asked a question by Dae of Vice today regarding Pratto that relates to the title of my post, and this was how I responded to his inquiry:

On a power end, Pratto’s barrel rate is down from 12.5 percent in 2022 to 6.7 percent in 2023, and his max exit velocity on batted balls this season is 106.4 MPH, which is 2.6 MPH down from 2022. On the other hand, his average exit velocity is up to 88 MPH, which is two MPH better than a season ago, and his hard-hit rate, as mentioned in the Tweet above, is 11.1 percent higher than his rate in 2022.

Thus, it’s not a surprise that Pratto is producing a .374 xwOBA, which is 107 points higher than his xwOBA last season. Furthermore, his xwOBA has continued to trend up after a rough finish in 2022 and a slow start this year, which can be seen in the rolling xwOBA chart, via Savant.

Pratto’s hard-hit rate though has gone through a more intriguing trend in comparison to his rolling expected wOBA chart. Since his 60th plate appearance in the Majors, Pratto has seen a spike in hard-hit rate and has pretty much been above-average in this category with the exception of a small stretch at the end of the 2022 season.

Since being called up from Omaha, Pratto has maintained solid hard-hit rates in Kansas City. Even when he has seen regression (which is to be expected for any young sophomore hitter) at the plate in the Majors, his hard-hit rate has continued to be above the MLB average.

Another interesting development for Pratto is that he’s traded hard-hit flyballs for line drives in his second season at the Major League level.

Last season, Pratto only generated a line drive rate of 17.7 percent, and conversely had a flyball rate of 40.6 percent. While that led to decent home-run numbers (14 percent HR/FB rate), it also contributed to a subpar .250 BABIP. After all, flyballs don’t always fare well in Kauffman Stadium’s spacious grounds.

This year, those percentages have flipped dramatically. His flyball rate is only 6.7 percent, and his line drive rate is 43.3 percent.

Instead of trying to hit flyball home runs, like he did in Omaha and Kansas City last year, Pratto has focused more on hitting the ball harder and into the gaps, even if it comes at the expense of his launch angle, which can be seen in the rolling launch angle chart below.

Granted, the average launch angle dip has led to an uptick in ground balls, which isn’t necessarily a good thing for a hitter.

As of Thursday, he is posting a 43.3 percent GB rate this year, which is 10 percent higher than a year ago. That being said, an emphasis on line drive has helped him to connect with pitches harder, which consequently has led to line-drive home runs like this one below on Wednesday against Chicago’s Lance Lynn.

To be fair, some regression will come in terms of line drive rate, as it won’t stay above 40 percent for the remainder of the season. Furthermore, his BABIP is insanely high .536, which will also regress significantly as he garners more MLB at-bats. That will bring his batting average and some other surface-level numbers back to earth.

However, it’s obvious that hitting coaches Alec Zumwalt and Keoni deRenne have emphasized a different kind of swing approach with Pratto this offseason and Spring Training.

So far in May, that adjustment has paid off early on for Pratto and conversely, the Royals lineup as a whole in terms of production this month.

Concerns: Walks, Strikeouts, and Plate Discipline

Pratto is seeing a tick of improvement in his strikeout rate this season, as it is slightly down from the 36.3 percent mark last season.

On the other hand, his walk rate and BB/K ratios have also declined, and his metrics as a whole in this area don’t compare favorably to the league average as well, via Fangraphs.

In terms of his overall contact though, especially in the strike zone, that is a more complicated issue.

When looking at just strikeouts alone, he has improved in striking out less on pitches thrown in the strike zone, which can be seen in this zone K percentage chart comparison between the 2022 and 2023 seasons, via Savant.

As Royals fans can see, he is also striking out less on pitches low in the zone, which was an area of struggle for Pratto in his rookie season. Granted, it’s a small sample, so it will be interesting to see how this chart evolves as he garners more plate appearances for the Royals in 2023.

That said, Pratto has shown some positive trends in his plate discipline in 2023, especially in regard to O-Swing percentage and overall contact percentage, as evidenced in the table below via Fangraphs:

Not only is he swinging on pitches outside the strike zone less (9.6 percent less to be specific), but he is also making more contact as well (five percent more). This is despite swinging 6.6 percent less and seeing nearly a two percent increase in pitches inside the strike zone and a called-strike percentage increase of 5.6 percent as well.

Pitchers are attacking Pratto in the strike zone more often than a year ago. And yet, the former Royals first-round pick is laying off pitches he can’t hit more frequently than a year ago, and making contact more often when he does swing, especially on pitches inside the strike zone (notice the 91.4 zone-contact percentage).

That is a good sign that Pratto is maturing as a hitter, and is truly being more “disciplined” and not just “passive” which hurt him both at the Major League and Triple-A level last season.

Overall Thoughts on Pratto’s Outlook

Pratto has seemingly taken Hunter Dozier’s spot in the playing rotation this month and it has paid off, as evidenced by the Royals’ record in games that Dozier has not appeared in this season.

Of course, the Royals’ improvement without Dozier in the lineup solely can’t be credited to Pratto.

Maikel Garcia has added a dependable contact-heavy element at the bottom of the batting order. Furthermore, MJ Melendez has gotten on a hot streak, thanks to hitting lower in the batting order and making some minor changes to his batting stance that have shortened his swing.

Nonetheless, Pratto adds a productive element in the middle of the order for the Royals that wasn’t being met with Reyes and Dozier.

If the Royals want to succeed in the short and long-term, Pratto most likely will need to be part of that process. Additionally, Pratto also adds a more dependable high-upside glove at first base, and he can also slide into the corner outfield positions as needed.

It’s the kind of versatility that makes a Pasquantino-Pratto lineup feasible in the long term. Even if Vinnie takes over first base for an extended period starting later this year or next, the Royals could move Pratto to left field. Pratto’s defense in left field would still be better than what the Royals are getting defensively from Edward Olivares, at least based on Outs Above Average data, via Savant.

Pratto will not be hitting over .340 for very long. If anything, it’s likely that Pratto will be a .250 or so hitter, especially once that BABIP regresses to a more realistic number. It also wouldn’t be surprising to see Pratto’s wRC+ also decline to a more modest number, perhaps in the 98-105 range, depending on how quickly the BABIP dips.

Nonetheless, there’s a lot of legitimacy to what we’re seeing from Pratto at the plate, especially in regard to his hard-contact ability, as well as his improvement in swing decisions.

And those two developments could make Pratto a key piece for JJ Picollo and the Royals front office when it comes to building this Royals lineup for the remainder of 2023 and beyond.

Photo Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images


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