The Royals have been on a downtrend since winning the 2015 World Series. He went 81-81 in 2016 and has been under .500 in the five seasons since. After rebuilding the farm for a number of years, the club have tried to get back into competition in the last couple of seasons, awarding some aggressive deals, at least by their modest standards. It didn’t work out, in the last two seasons there was a fourth and a fifth place in the weak AL Central.
A major factor in the club’s results was that many of their top promotional contenders struggled in the majors. Brady Singer seems to be at the top of the pack now, despite posting a 4.91 ERA in 2021 and being demoted to the bullpen early in 2022. He ended up back in the rotation and finished the season with a 3.23 ERA. Daniel Lynch was a 34th overall pick in 2019, but so far he has a 5.32 ERA in 199 2/3 innings in the major leagues. Kris Bubic finished 40th overall in 2018, but so far has a 4.89 ERA in 300 MLB innings. Jackson Kowar was selected 33rd overall in 2018 but has only received 46 active innings so far in which he has a 10.76 ERA. These are just a few examples out of many.
For a team that doesn’t typically spend monies on marquee-free agents, developing their own prospects into useful major leagues is critical to their success, and it’s something they need to get to the bottom of. Finding an explanation for all of this is unlikely to lead to an easy answer. It’s possible that it had something to do with the scouting that led to these players being drafted in the first place, although the public interest raters were quite fond of each of these players. Maybe it is related to the coaching or the development in the minors. But it’s also possible the club’s catch in the major leagues plays a part.
Salvador Perez has been the club’s catcher for over a decade, having debuted in 2011 and firmly securing the job in 2013. He was the main backbone as the club went to the World Series in consecutive years, winning the second trip in 2015. So much of that championship core moved on, he remained the face of the franchise and unofficial captain. While he’s been above average at the plate in each of the last three seasons, his defense is another matter.
Defensive Runs Saved put Perez at -5 in 2021 and -4 in 2022. Baseball Prospectus’ Catcher Defensive Adjustment gave him a -14.8 last year, which was bottom in the majors, and -14.1 this year, which was third from bottom. Although Perez has successfully knocked out baserunners in his career, Statcast ranked his pop time 50th out of 83 catchers that year.
In terms of framing, the problem seems to be more chronic. FanGraphs has only given him a positive note in this department once, during the abridged 2020 season. He has scored -19.6 and -12.6 in the last two campaigns, bringing his career record to -106.5. This is the last in the majors among all catchers from 2011 to date. Baseball Prospectus is quite similar, as Perez has been tagged with a negative number every season except 2013 and 2020, with -14.3 and -14.2 over the past two years. Statcast framework data only goes back to 2015, but they don’t like his work either. Aside from an even zero in 2020, he’s got all the negative numbers there, including a -8 this year, fifth worst in the league, and a -18 last year, the most recent dead.
All of this is not to say that Perez is solely to blame for the club’s pitching woes. As previously mentioned, baseball teams have dozens of coaches and analysts, all of whom play a role in the results. But those numbers are certainly not ideal when trying to mold a range of pitching prospects into effective major leagues. It’s also possible that health plays a role as Perez underwent surgery on his left thumb in 2022. He was due to be out for eight weeks but returned after just over a month and may not have been 100%. If better health translates into better results in 2023, that would be fantastic for KC. But if this is not the case and the problem persists, finding a solution will present several challenges.
For one, Perez, who turns 33 in May, has at least three more seasons left under contract. As part of an extension he and the club agreed to in 2021, he will receive $20 million in 2023 and 2024, $22 million in 2025, and then a $13.5 million club option -Dollar for 2026 with a $2 million buyout. For a low-spending team like the Royals, he’s easily the highest-paid player.
That has resulted in Perez having the catching position on lockdown MJ Melendez play somewhere else. Melendez was a highly touted capture candidate as he rose through the minor league ranks, but he also played some third base and corner court spots in the minors to open up new avenues for entry into the lineup. He made it into the big leagues this year, making 65 starts from behind plate and 37 in outfield.
The results have been mixed, to put it politely. On the plate, Melendez finished the season with a 99 wRC+. That’s just a hair below league average overall, but slightly above average for a catcher. Defensively, all the advanced metrics gave him low marks for his work on the turf, which isn’t very surprising since he’s effectively learning on the side out there. But his numbers behind the plate are also pretty meager. DRS gave him a -18 in 2022, their worst in the majors. FanGraph’s framing gave him a -15.7, also dead last. CDA at BP gave him a -18.6, also dead last. Her BlkR, a measure of a catcher’s blocking ability, again gave him a -1.1, dead last. Statcast’s framing metric had him at -12, the second worst in the league.
To be fair to Melendez, he was given sporadic playtime in his first taste of the majors while simultaneously attempting to learn other positions. Becoming a successful major league catcher is challenging enough without these additional factors. He’s also quite young, turning 24 at the end of this month. Ideally, he’d get a full-time job as a catcher and have some time to hone his game and see if he can hack it in the majors, but it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen in Kansas City as long as Perez is there.
There is nothing to suggest that the club are considering replacing Perez as a day-to-day catcher, but even if they did, that path would have its own set of challenges. The Royals currently have an overloaded mix of first base and designated hitters Vinnie Pasquantino, Nick Prato, Ryan O’Hearn and Hunter Dozier all candidates for at-bats in these slots. Some of these guys are candidates to move to the outfield corners, although defensively that’s less than ideal and could also squeeze guys like that Drew Waters, Edward Olivares or Kyle Isbel.
All in all, it’s hard to figure out how to combine these ingredients to create something appetizing. With Perez behind the plate, Melendez likely serves as a part-time catcher and outfielder who isn’t great at either spot. Giving Melendez the job displaces the 1B/DH picture and doesn’t even necessarily lead to better work behind the plate. It is possible that both arrangements will leave roadblocks in front of the young pitchers in the system.
The club are clearly frustrated with the ongoing defeats and have decided a restructuring is in order. They recently fired their longtime head of baseball operations, Dayton Moore, and general manager JJ Picollo is now in charge of baseball operations. They also changed the manager’s seat, firing Mike Matheny and replacing him with former Rays bench coach Matt Quatraro. You are tasked with turning a 65-win team into a contender. You’re looking at a Cleveland team that has just risen to the top and is poised to remain strong for years to come. The White Sox and Twins had disappointing seasons in 2022 but will look to reload in 2022. There’s also a Tigers team who, while currently in a downturn, are looking to overhaul their analytics systems and will certainly spend money aggressively when they do. The royals have plenty of work ahead of them on the road ahead, but they may need to start looking inward.