I want to take you guys back to the 2019 minor league season. Here is a quick look at the Royals leaders in wRC+ at the end of the season (min. 300 PA):
- Brewer Hicklen, 131 (23 YO in High-A)
- Michael Gigliotti, 119 (23, Low- and High-A)
- Brett Phillips, 112 (25, AAA)
- Khalil Lee, 112 (21, AA)
- Eric Cole, 110 (22, Low-A)
- Chase Vallot, 107 (22, Low-A)
- Jose Marquez, 106 (21, Rookie)
- Freddy Fermin, 104 (24, High-A
- Gabriel Cancel, 104 (22, AA)
- Nick Heath, 102 (25, AA/AAA)
That is ALL of the Royals prospects playing in full-season ball to have a wRC+ of 100 or greater (meaning they were at least league average). One of those guys wasn’t even playing in full-season ball. Jose Marquez spent most of the season as a 21-year old in rookie ball. Of the other nine guys on that list, only Khalil Lee and Gabriel Cancel were in what I would consider to be “age appropriate” leagues and neither of them exactly lit the world on fire. Only Brewer Hicklen had a truly “great” season that year and he was 23 years old playing in A-ball still.
As of today, the Royals currently have 30 players in their system with at least 200 plate appearances and 23 of them have a wRC+ of 100 or greater. There is admittedly a long way to go, but the difference in overall organizational performance is night and day from what it was just a few years ago. We all know what changed in 2019, right? The Royals cleaned house a bit that offseason, brought in Drew Saylor from the Dodgers organization, had to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic in his first year, and they have never looked back.
So, I’m obviously giving a ton of credit to Drew Saylor here, I get that, but what I imagine a lot of folks want to know is what specifically has changed that has made some of these guys so successful. I’m glad you asked (you didn’t) and I pulled a few numbers from a few players specifically to show you before we dive in to the group as a whole.
I posted this on Twitter last night, but here are the numbers again really quick…
Garcia’s line drive rates by year:
– 2017: 13.0%
– 2018: 13.9%
– 2019: 18.8%
– 2021: 24.0%
– 2022: 23.0%
If there was easily accessible video of Garcia’s swing before 2021, I’d show it to you. I remember watching him play a bit back with Burlington in rookie ball, but I can’t find any of the video from 2019. I will say that if there is any change I can readily identify in Garcia’s swing, it’s an intentional effort to life the baseball. This doesn’t appear to be rocket science. I remember we had Coach Saylor on the podcast this offseason and he recalled a conversation last year when Michael Massey asked him if it was okay to try to hit home runs. His response: “Of course.”
Mind you, Garcia’s SwStr% this year is currently 5.5%. This new approach to drive the ball into the air a bit more often to hit more line drives and thus rack up more base hits hasn’t affected his ability to make consistent contact with the baseball not one iota. This new approach from Garcia will almost certainly be the difference between him having a meaningful big league career and being just another bench bat/utility infielder the Royals rotate through occasionally.
Nate Eaton follows a similar trajectory as Garcia in that his LD% has gotten significantly better in 2022 and as a result, Eaton finds himself raking in AAA, just one call away from the big leagues. Coming into 2022, Nate Eaton’s career-high for home runs in a season was six. After bopping two yesterday for Omaha he now has 13 on the season and nine of those have come since his promotion to AAA. Here are Eaton’s LD% by season:
– 2018: 23.0%
– 2019: 19.8%
– 2021: 15.3%
– 2022: 21.9%
Eaton was hurt for a good bit of 2021 and never really got into a groove until he got to the Arizona Fall League, but he’s certainly elevating the baseball now and he’s having what is by far a career year as a result. He’s also seen his strikeout rate come down a bit this season, and while his walk rate has come down with it, Eaton’s newfound power stroke should be the difference between him having a future in the big leagues and being a career AAAA type of player.
Loftin is actually kind of a funny case on the surface. Last year as a 22-year old in High-A, Loftin hit 10 HR in 410 PA. This year as a 23-year old in AA, he has 10 HR in 319 PA. Yet if you just look at his balls in play, it’s *almost* a perfectly equal distribution as last season. His LD%, GB%, FB%, Pull%, Middle%, and Oppo% have literally not changed more than 2.3%. The only batted ball profile that’s changed at all? His infield flyball rate (IFFB%). That number is down over 10% from 2021 and, as a result, more of his fly balls are leaving the yard thanks to what appears to be a more optimized launch angle. Again, if you hit the ball at the right angle, good things will happen.
I was going back and looking at the organization as a whole, and noticed that only two of the aforementioned 30 hitting prospects in the system with at least 200 plate appearances have a ground ball rate over 50% right now. They also happen to be the two fastest guys in the system, Diego Hernandez and Tyler Tolbert, so that makes some sense. Back in 2019, there were nine hitters with ground ball rates over 50%. Hitting the ball in the air is important, but so is hitting it at an efficient angle like we saw with Loftin. Still, this isn’t the only noticeable change you can find in the system.
Back in 2019, the Royals only had 10 players in the system with a BB% over 10%. This year they have 19 players that meet that mark and another three that could be there by the end of the month. The approaches we’ve seen MJ Melendez and Vinnie Pasquantino bring with them from the minor leagues have been a breath of fresh air compared to what we’re used to seeing from the big league club. Hell, even Bobby Witt Jr. is walking nearly 8% of the time since they brought in Alec Zumwalt to be the big league hitting coach. Swinging at pitches that you can do damage with, not just everything that crosses the plate, has been an equally important piece of this offensive turnaround. You can only hit certain pitches in the air effectively. Identifying which pitches you can drive and knowing when it’s best to just take a strike have been massive for the Royals player development team.
Here’s a quick update on some other guys on the farm that are either having a ton of success or have made drastic improvements during the season:
- Tyler Gentry
- Increased his BB/K .2 points after being promoted to AA
- Lowered his GB% 14% since being promoted to AA
- Has had a wRC+ over 160 at both A+ and AA
- Carter Jensen
- Lowered his K% 5% from rookie ball to Low-A
- Increased his ISO .60 points from rookie to A-
- One of just three 18-year olds in A- with 9+ HR
- After a 116 PA stretch in which he had a 31 wRC+, Jensen posted a 145 wRC+ over his next 114 PA
- Michael Massey
- Increased his ISO .90 points after being promoted to AAA
- LD% is up 6% since his rookie debut in 2019
- GB% is down 10% since 2019
- Diego Hernandez
- Increased his ISO .90 points from Low-A in 2021 to High-A in 2022
- Had never hit more than one home run in a professional season, has five this year already
- Decreased his IFFB% over 11% since last year
- Is pulling the ball 15% more than last year = more productivity on balls in the air
- John Rave
- Decreased his K% 6% since last year (made jump from A+ to AA)
- Increased his BB% 3% since last year
- After hitting .215 in April with an 89 wRC+, is hitting .264 since with a 104 wRC+
To be sure, not every hitter in the organization is having a career year. Erick Pena’s 2022 season has been an unmitigated disaster. I’m by NO means ready to give up on him or anything, he’s just struggled. Darryl Collins has his BB/K over 1.00 again, but he has hit for little-to-no power and has zero home runs. He was recently placed on the Developmental List to iron some things out in Arizona. It’s not perfect, but having 23 of 30 hitters in your organization (min. 200 PA) with a league average or better wRC+ is absolutely insane. The turnaround from the 2019 season is remarkable, at worst, and probably wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts of Alec Zumwalt, Drew Saylor, and company.