A Walk is as Good as a Hit, Unless You are a Royal
by Jim Silva
Conventional wisdom says the Royals, who went to the World Series two years in a row and won in their second attempt – 2015 – are about to be broken up. That comes with the usual belief that if they are close to a playoff spot, they need to go for it before their window closes potentially for at least the near future. The core members of their World Series teams have contracts expiring at the end of this season, and the team is unlikely to extend the contracts of all or even most of them as they are already running a payroll slightly above major league average and higher than they ever have by a decent amount, while still ranking at or near the bottom of all the MLB teams in terms of market size. Complicating matters is the fact that their minor league system ranked 26th out of 30 teams in Baseball America’s 2017 farm system rankings, so it is unlikely that they are going to be able to extend their run by bringing guys up to step seamlessly into place when their stars depart. That leaves them with three options as the trade deadline approaches. They can stand pat and hope they have enough to run down the Indians who are currently two and a half games ahead of them in first place. They can make a trade to increase their chances of running down the Indians, but that is hard since their farm system is so weak, making it unlikely that could entice another team to part with a major league talent of enough value to help them. Their third option is to start gutting their team now, trading away anyone who won’t be with them next season in an attempt to improve their dismal farm system. I can’t help but wonder if management wishes the team hadn’t surged of late, moving them so close to the top of the division, because now that third option would be met with vitriol from the Kansas City fan base. It appears that the Royals have chosen the “stay and fight” option as they just completed a trade that brought them three big league arms indicating that they are clearly not selling. So it appears to be on! Let’s look at their infield where three of those soon-to-be free agents reside.
Salvador Perez is NOT one of the three infielders on the bubble and that is a good thing for the future of the Royals. Not many teams are set at catcher, and with their 27 year old star behind the plate, the Royals will at least have that going for them moving forward. Perez is having his best offensive season contributing a wRC+ of 117 so far, driving his career number to 99, with 100 being league average. His batted ball profile has changed quite a bit this year with the percentage of hard hit balls up 10% from his career rate. He has always been a free swinger, but this year Salvy has taken it to new heights swinging at 58.4% of all pitches he sees where league average is 46.5%. Perez is generating misses, but also making a lot of contact when he chases after everything leaving the pitcher’s hand. His contact rate is 80.4% which is almost 3% above league average. So not only is he swinging at way more pitches and making contact more than most players, what he hits, he hits hard. And it isn’t luck as his BABIP is almost exactly league average. The 27 year old catcher has slashed .285/.316/.525 through his first 359 plate appearances, so his offensive success isn’t based solely on a high batting average. With 21 home runs already, Perez is only one away from career high for a full season.
It is not just his offense that makes Perez a star in Kansas City. 2016 saw the catcher make a big leap forward in his ability to control the running game, nailing almost half of potential base thieves. He has always been a good pitch blocker, but he still costs his staff some strikes with his poor pitch framing. He has won the Gold Glove four years in a row, but has never won a Fielding bible Award due to the aforementioned framing issues. Is he really the best defensive catcher in the AL? Yeah – very possibly. Is he the best hitting catcher in the AL? Again, he might just be – Perez and the Tigers Alex Avila are tied atop the WAR leaderboard – sorry Gary Sanchez. If I were the Royals I would build upon the foundation of Salvador Perez, but I would be tempted to trade him if someone overwhelmed me because I’m not sure his offense is sustainable with walk rates like his. Since they aren’t going to trade him right now, which is probably his peak, then they might as well print lots of t-shirts, paint him a parking spot, and schedule a bobble-head night. Yeah, he is great, but his flaws might mean that his offense disappears sooner than a player with better self control at the plate.
Moving to the other guy on the infield who isn’t a free agent at the end of the season, second baseman Whit Merrifield is more of an organizational soldier than a future star or top prospect. Merrifield debuted at the age of 27 after spending the better part of three seasons at triple-A. He is a positional flexibility (PF) guy who has become the main starting second baseman. Calling him a PF isn’t meant to belittle his skills. It has become quite chic to have a guy like him on your roster, especially in this age of bigger pitching staffs and shorter benches. Merrifield has earned the starting role with good defense and a wRC+ of 115 so far this season. The defensive metrics have been in agreement for two seasons now that he is quite a good second baseman. He has also shown the ability to not stink up the joint when they put him at 1st or 3rd, or in left field. This season, he has also improved his stolen base efficiency getting caught only twice in 18 attempts. Even if his bat slows down the stretch, his glove and legs will provide value to the Royals – he is currently the team leader in WAR from positional players. Like Perez and other members of the Royals, Whit doesn’t walk enough, although there is some evidence in his minor league past that he can walk. If his walk rate increases and he maintains some of his batting average, then he is a minor star.
So, now we start on the three guys who are likely to be playing their last season in Kansas City – and why not start at shortstop? Alcides Escobar came to the Royals from the Brewers in a trade before the 2011 season and dude has had at least 598 plate appearances every year since. He is on pace to do it again. Like Perez and Merrifield, Escobar is immune to the free pass, carrying a career on-base percentage of .293. What on-base ability he does manage is based almost entirely on his batting average (a career .259 hitter), but with very little power there isn’t much to say about his game with the stick. Escobar is all about the work with the glove, but with a career wRC+ of 70, his glove has to be otherworldly for the 30 year old shortstop to justify his existence on a roster, much less as a starter. At this point in the 2017 season his glove has been unable to justify his weak bat and he is a WAR hole, costing his team more than he contributes relative to a replacement level player. At 30, and with only two seasons of WAR at 2.0 or above (starter level), the last one being in 2014, it is hard to justify giving Escobar his usual 600 plate appearances if you intend to win. Making predictions about what the Royals will do has proven to be folly, but I will admit to being shocked if Kansas City brings Escobar back as the starting shortstop for 2018.
Next on the train out of Kansas City is third baseman, Mike Moustakas, who is now 28 and was the second player taken in the 2007 draft. Along with seemingly everyone in the Majors, Moustakas is experiencing a power surge having already mashed 29 balls over the fence – his previous season high was 22 in 2015. The home runs hide some backsliding in plate discipline. 2016 was mostly a loss due to injuries, but in 2015 Moose managed a .348 on-base percentage partly due to a career high 43 walks. He also mustered a career low 12.4% strikeout rate. This year however, the third baseman is back to his free-swinging ways with a career low walk rate of 4.2% and a strikeout rate above his career average. In spite of his .279 average, his on-base percentage is only .309. His career high slugging percentage is mitigating the number of outs he makes, and his wRC+ is at 122, tied for his career high. If he could put the two Moose seasons together and get on at that .340 clip while showing 40 home run power, he would be a star.
Moustakas doesn’t look like the agile fielder that he actually is. For the last five seasons, Moustakas has shown good range leading to at least average, and sometimes good, defensive numbers. This year, something is impacting his range driving his defensive numbers down to a bit under league average. He is still playing a clean third base with only 5 errors to date. With the glove and the big stick, Moustakas is a force for the Royals and would be hard to replace if the Royals suddenly fell out of the race and tried to get something for him. It is hard to say if he will age gracefully. He appears to be over the injury festival that held him to 27 games last year, so they are getting the real Moose this year. Whether or not that will be enough to help the Royals make a run to the postseason is to be seen, but it appears that they are riding the Moustakas train at least until the end of the season.
The last member of the Royals core infielders who is also a free agent at season’s end is their first baseman, Eric Hosmer. Hosmer has never been the classic masher that most of us think of when we envision first basemen. That said, Hosmer has a career slugging percentage of .436 due to his modest home run power and ability to hit a decent number of doubles. Last season he reached a career high 25 home runs and appears on pace to break that mark this year as he already has 16. Hosmer does a lot of things pretty well, but doesn’t stand out in any one area. As a third overall pick in the 2008 pick, he is far from a bust, but also far from a star. His glove is not disastrous, but neither is it good and his range has been below average for three seasons now. While he doesn’t muck up balls he should get to, when you hit like Keith Hernandez (minus some walks, but plus a few homers) it would be nice if you fielded like Keith Hernandez (or maybe acted like the former Seinfeld recurring character). One thing Hosmer does a little better than the other five guys I have written about is walk. His career walk rate of 8.0% is acceptable unlike his partners. You can expect him to get on at about a .340 clip and this year he is hitting a somewhat BABIP inflated (.352 BABIP) .319 up from his career mark of .282. There’s a lot to like about Hosmer and he is only 27, so if the Royals are going to keep one of the five, Hosmer, while not an elite first baseman looks like he is continuing to improve offensively, so he might be the best bet to maintain his value for longer than his non-walking, older brethren. Bet on Hoss!
Yes, the Royals do have a minor league system and it is full of guys who play baseball. At the start of the season, the Royals didn’t have a single top 100 prospect, and when the 2018 rankings come out that isn’t likely to change. Their two best infield prospects are now at triple-A. Ryan O’Hearn is a first baseman with decent power, the ability to draw a walk, and some swing and miss to his game. Since he is mostly limited to first base, his bat and his bat alone will dictate whether or not he sticks in the majors if/when Hoss leaves. He has slashed .282/.359/.494 in almost four seasons in the minors and is handling triple-A in his first try (.265/.336/.471) including 17 homers through his first 378 at-bats. With only one hiccup season in the minors, but not exactly dominant performances since he left rookie ball, O’Hearn isn’t someone to get excited about, but he could probably be a 20 home run .250 hitter with a .320 on-base percentage in the majors. He would at least be a placeholder if Hosmer leaves, with strikeouts being the limiting factor.
Hunter Dozier was a Royals top three prospect going into the season. It isn’t clear what position he will play as he is listed as a third baseman, but has played only outfield in his major league cup of coffee, and has played more outfield than third base during his injury plagued 2017 in the minors. He makes a decent number of errors at third, so perhaps the Royals are unsure about his ability to stick there, or maybe they are trying to test his positional flexibility. Whatever the case, Dozier’s offensive game doesn’t thrill. He has some power as evidenced by a 23 home run season in 2016 – his most long balls in a season since hitting 12 in an ugly 2015 at double-A. He has a little bit of speed, stealing 7 bases on 8 attempts in 2016. He has hit for average in some of his minor league stops including .296 in the hitter friendly PCL in 2016, and isn’t afraid to walk. Put that all together and you have a 25 year old with a slash line of .262/.344/.429 in the minors for his career. So like Hearn, he could probably stick with the Royals if Moose leaves, but he is unlikely to be more than a placeholder until someone more exciting comes along. This is not exactly an exciting future that is looming for the Royals, at least with the guys near the top of the system.
The Royals are in the race for the division and for a wild card spot, and their infield core is unlikely to stay intact with guys waiting in the wings who frankly aren’t that exciting. They made some small moves to get a little better for the stretch run, but didn’t do anything to make it much more likely that they could chase down the superior Indians club, while also not trying to cash out their free agents-to-be. They played the middle, which might have been intended to not anger their fans. If they make the playoffs one last time who knows what might happen in a post-season series – probably not much as the Royals really are a .500 team and no longer feature a dominant pen. ESPN has them at 8.5% to win the division and 34.7% to take one of the wild card spots – although if you look at the teams they are chasing for those two spots, the Royals have the worst run differential of the bunch. As Yogi said, “When you come to a fork in the road take it”. The Royals decided instead to stand in the intersection and you can probably guess how that will work out.