Since winning the 2015 World Series, the Royals have been on a downward trajectory. The went 81-81 in 2016 and have been below .500 in the five seasons after that. After rebuilding the farm for a few years, the club has been trying to return to contention over the past couple of seasons by giving out some aggressive contracts, at least by their modest standards. It hasn’t worked out, with the past two seasons resulting in a fourth and fifth place finish in the weak AL Central.
A significant factor in the club’s results has been that many of their top pitching prospects have struggled in the majors. Brady Singer seems to be front of the pack now, despite posting a 4.91 ERA in 2021 and getting demoted to the bullpen to start 2022. He wound up back in the rotation and finished the season with a 3.23 ERA. Daniel Lynch was a 34th overall pick in 2019 but he has a 5.32 ERA in 199 2/3 innings thus far in the big leagues. Kris Bubic was taken 40th overall in 2018 but has a 4.89 ERA in over 300 MLB innings thus far. Jackson Kowar was selected 33rd overall in 2018 but has only been given 46 innings of action so far, in which he has a 10.76 ERA. Those are just a few examples of many.
For a team that doesn’t usually spend on marquee free agents, developing their own prospects into useful major leaguers is essential to their success and this is something they will need to get to the bottom of. Finding an explanation for all this likely won’t lead to a simple answer. It’s possible it has something to do with the scouting that led to those players being drafted in the first place, although public prospect evaluators have liked each of those players quite a bit. Perhaps it’s related to coaching or development in the minors. But it’s also possible the club’s major league catching is playing a role.
Salvador Perez has been the club’s catcher for over a decade now, having debuted in 2011 and firmly securing the job in 2013. He was the primary backstop as the club went to the World Series in consecutive years, winning the second trip in 2015. As much of that championship core moved on, he remained as the face of the franchise and unofficial captain. While he’s been above-average at the plate in each of the past three seasons, his defense is another matter.
Defensive Runs Saved has placed Perez at -5 in 2021 and -4 in 2022. Baseball Prospectus’ Catcher Defensive Adjustment gave him a -14.8 last year, which was last in the majors, and -14.1 this year, which was third-last. Though Perez has had success throwing out baserunners in his career, his pop time was ranked by Statcast as 50th out of 83 catchers this year.
In terms of framing, the problem appears to be more chronic. FanGraphs has only given him a positive grade in that department once, which was the shortened 2020 season. He posted a -19.6 and -12.6 over the past two campaigns, bringing his career tally to -106.5. That’s last in the majors among all catchers from 2011 to the present. Baseball Prospectus is fairly similar, as Perez has been tagged with a negative number in each season except for 2013 and 2020, with a -14.3 and -14.2 in the past two years. Statcast framing data only goes back to 2015, but it also isn’t fond of his work. Apart from an even zero in 2020, he has all negative numbers there, including a -8 this year, fifth-worst in the league, and a -18 last year, which was dead last.
All of this isn’t to say that Perez is solely responsible for the club’s pitching woes. As mentioned, baseball teams have dozens of coaches and analysts who all play a role in the results. But these numbers surely aren’t ideal when trying to mold a batch of pitching prospects into effective major leaguers. It’s also possible that health is playing a role, since Perez underwent left thumb surgery in 2022. He was supposed to be out of action eight weeks but returned after just over a month and maybe wasn’t 100%. If better health in 2023 leads to better outcomes, that would be fantastic for KC. But if it doesn’t and the problem persists, finding a solution will have multiple challenges.
For one thing, there’s the fact that Perez, who turns 33 in May, is still under contract for at least three more seasons. As part of an extension he and the club agreed to in 2021, he’ll get $20MM in 2023 and 2024, $22MM in 2025, and then a $13.5MM club option for 2026 with a $2MM buyout. For a low-spending team like the Royals, he’s easily their highest-paid player.
Due to Perez having the catching position on lockdown, that’s led to MJ Melendez playing elsewhere. Melendez was a highly-touted catching prospect when coming up through the minor league ranks, but he also played some third base and the corner outfield spots in the minors in order to open up new paths of getting into the lineup. He made it to the big leagues this year, making 65 starts behind the plate and 37 in the outfield.
The results of this have been mixed, to put it politely. At 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 of the advanced metrics gave him poor grades for his work on the grass, which isn’t terribly surprising since he’s effectively learning on the fly out there. But his numbers behind the plate are also quite poor. DRS gave him a -18 in 2022, the worst in the majors. FanGraphs framing gave him a -15.7, also dead last. CDA at BP gave him a -18.6, also dead last. Their BlkR, a measure of a catcher’s blocking ability, gave him a -1.1, again, dead last. Statcast’s framing metric had him at -12, second-worst in the league.
To be fair to Melendez, he has been given sporadic playing time in his first taste of the majors, while also trying to learn other positions. Becoming a successful major league catcher is already challenging enough without those extra factors thrown in. He’s also still quite young, turning 24 years old later this month. Ideally, he’d be given a full-time catching job and have some time to refine his game and see if he can hack it in the majors, but it doesn’t seem like that will happen in Kansas City as long as Perez is there.
There’s been nothing to indicate the club is considering supplanting Perez as the everyday catcher, but even if they did, that path would have its own challenges. The Royals have a cluttered first base/designated hitter mix at the moment, with Vinnie Pasquantino, Nick Pratto, Ryan O’Hearn and Hunter Dozier all candidates for at-bats in those slots. Some of those guys are candidates to move to the outfield corners, though that’s less than ideal defensively and also could squeeze out guys like Drew Waters, Edward Olivares or Kyle Isbel.
Taken all together, it’s hard to figure out how to put these ingredients together in a way that leads to something appetizing. With Perez behind the plate, Melendez is likely serving as a part-time catcher and outfielder who isn’t great at either spot. Giving the job to Melendez crowds out the 1B/DH picture and doesn’t even necessarily lead to better work behind the plate. It’s possible that either arrangement leaves roadblocks in front of the young pitchers in the system.
Clearly frustrated by the continued losing, the club has decided a shakeup is in order. They recently fired their long-time baseball ops leader Dayton Moore, with general manager J.J. Picollo now in charge of baseball operations. They also made a change in the manager’s seat, firing Mike Matheny and replacing him with former Rays bench coach Matt Quatraro. They will be tasked with trying to turn a 65-win team into a contender. They’re looking up at a Cleveland team that just surged to the top and is built to stay strong for years to come. The White Sox and Twins had disappointing seasons in 2022 but will be looking to reload in 2022. There’s also a Tigers team that, though currently in a down cycle, is trying to overhaul its analytical systems and will surely spend aggressively once it does. The Royals have lots to deal with in the road ahead, but they might have to start by looking within.