In 2014 and 2015, local and national commentators developed a sense for the the profile of a “Royals player” (position player anyway). Athletic. Free swinging. Contact oriented. Little power. Never strikes out. Never walks. When commentators spoke about the Royals, that was the line, and it bore out statistically, as the Royals had the lowest walk rate and strikeout rate in the majors in 2015.
The next wave of Royals talent looks very different in at least two ways. 1) They walk a lot more. 2) They strikeout a lot more.
I don’t know if there’s a new emphasis on working counts or if the Royals just managed to find more patient hitters, but there’s a distinct difference between the players populating the minor league ranks today and the profile of what’s become known as a “Royals player.”
During their 2015 season, the Royals held the lowest walk rate in the majors at 6.3 percent. That season, six of the Royals nine regulars had walk rates lower than league average (7.7 percent) and in many cases much lower than league average. Alcides Escobar walked at a 3.9 percent rate. Alex Rios, 3.7. Salvador Perez and Omar Infante (remember him?), each walked at a nearly impossible 2.4 and 2.0 percent rate, respectively. All four made it into the bottom 12 in walk rate for hitters with at least 400 plate appearances.
But the days of swinging at anything that leaves the pitcher’s hand may be coming to an end.
Down on the farm, the Royals are cultivating a series of prospects extremely adept at not swinging. In fact, they’ve seemingly gone from one extreme to another in terms of the types of players they’d like to produce.
The Wilmington Blue Rocks (the Royals A+ affiliate) are the best example of this, though it’s noticeable at each level. As a team, Wilmington has taken more walks than any other club in the Carolina League at 265, 12 more than Potomac and 36 more than Winston-Salem, the team with the third most walks.*
*Wilmington has played more games than Potomac at this point.
Individually, the Blue Rocks have three players in the top-8 in walk rate in the Carolina League. Khalil Lee is second at 17.4 percent. DJ Burt is fifth at 13.8 percent. And Meibrys Viloria is eighth at 13.3 percent. These rankings don’t include Rudy Martin (21 percent), Chase Vallot (18.8 percent), or Nick Heath (13.4 percent) because they fall short of the number of qualified plate appearances. So does John Brontsema, but I won’t count him either since he’s only had 16 plate appearances (the others have at least 100).
The Royals hope this group is the beginning of their next wave of contention. Lee is the team’s number one prospect, and Martin and Burt have the potential to be high on-base, table setters at important defensive positions. If he ever develops his hit tool, Vallot may be the team’s DH of the future (full disclosure, I have less faith in Vallot than some).
In Lexington, where the Royals are stacking most of their young talent, the emphasis on patience is less stark but still noticeable. Brewer Hicklen, Seuly Matias, and MJ Melendez have all walked over 7 percent of the time, and though Nick Pratto is struggling to balance his patience (5.9 percent walk rate this year) and aggressiveness, he famously has a patient approach. Before getting hurt, Michael Gigliotti was also walking at a high clip (25 percent in just 24 plate appearances).
With the turn toward a more patient approach, though, comes an inevitable rise in strikeouts. Wilmington is fourth in the Carolina League in strikeouts. Vallot is second in the league for hitters with at least 100 plate appearances (40.9 percent), and Heath (29.9), Lee (23.6), Martin (22), and Viloria (20.2) all have strikeout rates higher than 20 percent.
A shift toward more strikeouts fits the pattern seen more broadly in baseball. Specialized pitching, increased velocities, and hitters selling out for power have driven strikeout numbers sky high. So, a strikeout rate in the low or mid-20s isn’t so shocking any more, but for many of the Royals farmhands, it’s a byproduct of getting deeper into counts and drawing more walks.
It’s not clear that this pattern is a new organizational approach or philosophy. It could be a coincidence. But either way, it’s quite the experiment. The Royals won their last championship by putting the ball in play and running like hell. Their next championship may come by taking ball four and jogging down to first … and then running like hell.
Photo Credit: Jen Nevius