The Twins travel to Kansas City for a three-game weekend set with the Royals, the first of three series between the two clubs in the next two plus weeks. In one of the oddities of the condensed 2020 schedule, ten of the Twins’ next 16 games are against KC. The Twins come into the series having taken three of four from Pittsburgh, while the Royals lost five in a row to the two Chicago teams before snapping the skid yesterday.
The Royals are off to a slow 4-10 start in manager Mike Matheny’s first year with the team. This first series with the Twins completes Kansas City’s first cycle through the AL Central as the Royals have lost three game sets with Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago. This is a re-building club that is hoping to see growth and development from a group of young players mostly developed from within or acquired in sellers’ trades in recent years. Some of those young players – slugger Jorge Soler, shortstop Adalberto Mondesi, third baseman Hunter Dozier; and pitchers Jakob Junis and Brad Keller – got extended tastes of the majors in 2018 and 2019, and many more (especially on the mound) will get that experience in 2020.
Just three veterans remain from the Royals’ World Series teams last decade – stalwart catcher Salvador Perez (age 30), left fielder Alex Gordon (age 36), and left-hander Danny Duffy (age (31). In addition, valuable 2nd baseman/utility man Whit Merrifield returns as well. There is optimism for the future that is driven from the pitcher’s mound as this should be the year Kansas City starts to see dividends from their college pitcher heavy draft approach in 2018. Highly regarded 1st round draft choices, right handers Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar and left handers Kris Bubic and Daniel Lynch are all expected to break onto the big club in 2020. GM Dayton Moore returned to that well this past June when Texas A&M left-hander (and potential #1 overall pick) Asa Lacy fell into his lap at #4. Lacy probably won’t be in the majors this season, but he’s also expected to be a fast-mover and should join this stable of arms in next couple of years.
Beyond the homegrown big leaguers and coming prospects, Moore also has been wise in pursuing low-cost, change of scenery types with untapped upside in third basemen Maikel Franco, outfielder/DH Franchy Cordero, and outfielder Brett Phillips. Each was a highly regarded prospect for other organizations in recent years, but never quite broke through and stuck in the majors. The Royals can afford to give them opportunities and will in hopes of finding a diamond in the rough for their next competitive club.
The bullpen is headed by three long-time major leaguers with closing experience, Greg Holland, Trevor Rosenthal, and Ian Kennedy who will likely close by committee. The rest is made up primarily of young Kansas City drafted and developed arms with little big-league experience. Overall the situation is much like the the Twins’ last opponent (Pittsburgh) and 2020 will be an evaluation and test year for the Royals franchise.
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1. Moneyball, this is not
Through games played on August 6, the 2020 Royals hitters have baseball’s lowest walk rate at just 4.6%. The next closest team is Boston, at 6.2%. Not surprisingly for a club with that distinction, the Royals swing at nearly half the pitches thrown their way (49.1%, 2nd most). What is somewhat unique is that these Royals tend to make contact (75.7%, tied with Twins for 13th most). Often, the story we can weave for teams that are very aggressive in swinging is that they swing and miss a lot, but that isn’t the case here. Kansas City’s whiff rate thus far is an above average 26.7%. However, we can’t say this is a case of a team with great plate discipline either, as that swing aggressiveness also applied to pitches out of the zone (33.6% O-Swing%, 30.1% chase rate; 3rd and 4th most respectively). It’s an interesting mix that so far has yielded pretty decent results – the team has baseball third highest expected batting average (xBA .270), is seventh best in barrel % (8.4%), and sixth best in expected weighted on base average on contact (xwOBAcon .403).
What to look for:
Catcher Perez (60.7% swing rate), shortstop Mondesi (55.4%), third basemen Franco (53.9%), and outfielders Cordero (53.8%) and Gordon (52.8%) lead the way for this group in this area. The first three names on that list also sport well above average chase rates. For the Twins pitchers, a key will be precision location, especially with breaking balls and off-speed pitches early in the counts. I expect to see Minnesota frequently pitch backwards to these hitters, throwing breaking balls and changeups in 0-0 counts and when behind in the count to counter this swing aggressiveness.
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2. The Patient Slugger
Little of the above section applies to 28-year-old slugger Jorge Soler, who ranks among baseball’s most dangerous hitters, while also being quite patient. Last season Soler had his long-expected breakout, hammering 48 homeruns and 33 doubles. Those results were backed up by the batted ball data. His barrel % was 3rd best in all of baseball (16.9%), trailing only Nelson Cruz and Superman (Mike Trout), his hard hit % was 50.1% (6th), and his average exit velocity was 9th highest, 92.6 mph. Beyond those figures Soler proved to be selective, swinging only 44.1% of the time (109th of 135 qualified hitters) and chasing out the zone only 24.1% (108th). That patient approach yielded 73 walks and an AL leading 178 strikeouts in addition to the power numbers.
What to look for:
Soler is the biggest threat in the Royals lineup, no question. There aren’t great options in terms of attacking Soler, as he will be patient and selective looking for a pitch he can do damage with. If we look at Statcast’s 2019 zone breakdowns, we can see that there are a few locations that Twins pitchers might be able to find refuge:
Like many power hitters, low and away looks like an area that can be targeted. Interestingly, though, Soler covers the up and in zones very well. Often, for big sluggers, that is an area that can be attacked. Not for Soler. From this data, it looks like the best approach for the Twins would be to stay away and attack the outer part of the plate up and down. One thing is clear from this – if you miss middle-in to Soler, he will frequently make you pay.
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3. Young Horses On the Way
Kansas City has gone all in on a draft and develop strategy for college pitchers, using early draft picks in 2018 to refill their stable of young pitching. Many of those top draft picks will appear in the majors for the first time in 2020. All of the names here project as starting pitchers, with good control in addition to well-regarded stuff. Here’s some brief scouting reports on what you will see from them now and in the future:
RHP – Brady Singer – 6’5, 210
Singer moved quickly through high-A and double-A last year before jumping to the majors this season. He works from a low three-quarters arm slot that drives a low-90s sinker and slider combination that are very difficult on right-handed batters. Singer can elevate a four-seamer into the mid-90s and is still developing a changeup to attack left-handed batters. In three major league games so far, he’s struck out 18 in 15 innings, and allowed just a .236 batting average.
LHP – Kris Bubic – 6’3, 220
A competitive balance choice out of Stanford, Bubic spent 2019 at two A-ball levels before jumping straight to the majors this season. His raw stuff isn’t as good as the others on this list, but he uses a deceptive delivery that hides his fastball-changeup combination well. The fastball is average-ish at 91-93 mph, but the changeup can be plus. He also offers a curveball that is developing and will likely be the determining factor in how high his ceiling can be.
RHP – Jackson Kowar - 6’5, 180
Possessing perhaps the best pure stuff of the bunch, Kowar remains in Kansas City’s alternate training site. A teammate of Singer’s at Florida, Kowar made thirteen starts in double-A last season. When Kowar arrives, you’ll see an above average fastball that can touch 97 mph, and an excellent changeup that he can use as a swing and miss weapon against both right- and and left-handed batters.
LHP – Daniel Lynch – 6’6, 190
Lynch may have the highest future ceiling of the group because of his feel for pitch sequences. He has gained velocity in pro ball while maintaining a plus slider and a sometimes plus changeup. Lynch has been in the upper 90s in short stints, but sits more 93-96 as a starter. A minor arm injury has slowed his rise through KC’s system relative to his peers, but he’s posted just a 2.50 ERA across 3 levels the past two years and there is a chance he’ll debut with the big club at some point this year.
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4. Veteran Leadership – Sal’s Return
Workhorse catcher Salvador Perez missed all last season for Tommy John surgery but is back healthy in 2020 and returned to his rightful place as the club’s primary catcher. As the stable of young arms detailed above grows and develops, Perez will play a hugely important role in their learning. Beyond that, Perez is sure to offer an improvement in production behind the plate for Kansas City. In 2019, the Royals were one of seven teams to get below replacement level value from their catching corps (-0.2 fWAR). Collectively, Royals backstops slashed just .222 / .286 / .345; good for a wRC+ of 65 that was just 25th in the MLB. While Perez isn’t the player he once was, he’s almost certain to be an improvement over that.
What to look for:
As Perez has aged his aggressiveness at the plate has increased as he’s sold out for more power and willingly sacrificed his ability to make contact. This approach led to career high 27 homers in both 2017 and 2018. Never a patient hitter (career 3.5% walk rate), Sal is decidedly up there to swing the bat. So far in 2020 that has been even more true, with a career-high swing rate (60.7%). Behind the plate, we don’t yet know how the arm injury has impacted Perez’ throwing. There has only been one stolen base attempt against him in 2020. For what it’s worth, he was successful in throwing that runner out, and Statcast measured his glove to hand exchange at 0.65 seconds, in line with his career numbers. It will be interesting to see if the Twins choose to test Perez on the bases in the next couple of week.
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John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher.