The KC Royals have restructured their hitting development department. What should we look for during spring training and the season in regards to player progression?
The Kansas City Royals decided during the 2019 season to commit to a restructuring of their hitting development department. General Manager Dayton Moore and Assistant General Manager J.J. Picollo brought in new minor league hitting coordinator Drew Saylor, assistant hitting coordinator Keoni DeRenne, and newly named hitting performance and player development Alec Zumwalt to tackle the task.
The group began to dive into their work immediately to completing the fall instructional league in Arizona. Utilizing technology such as TrackMan (data tracking) and Hawk-Eye (video system) to allow for the utilizing of player specific hitting plans. The technology based evaluations, technique, and player specific hitting plans have bleed into spring training camp with players being excited and accepting of the changes in approach.
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David Laurila at fangraphs.com discusses the impact Drew Saylor had with the work he did with Seuly Matias. Work focused on not only Matias’ swing mechanics and approach, but also his mindset at the plate. Adjustments to Matias’ swing, plate approach, and strategy could allow the slugger to tap into his overwhelming power more consistently and cut down on his swing-and-miss problems.
Lynn Worthy at The Kansas City Star highlighted the work hitting performance and player development Alec Zumwalt and special assignment hitting coach Mike Tosar did this offseason with M.J. Melendez.
The gold glove caliber catching prospect Melendez had significant struggles at the plate in 2019 and generally looked lost in his approach. Tosar and Zumwalt were able to convince Melendez of adjustments to his batting stance to allow him to have better vision and pitch recognition. Melendez improved adjustments to his swing caused Royals manager Mike Matheny to take notice of during spring training camp:
“Royals manager Mike Matheny watched many of Melendez’s minor-league games last season, and he noticed the difference in Melendez early in camp. Matheny has seen a swing that’s less rotational with a shortened leg kick.”
Nick Pratto and Khalil Lee have also taken to new methods of evaluation and instruction. Both struggled with swing-and-miss concerns in 2019. Each are exceptionally talented and projected to have an upper minor league system placement for the upcoming 2020 season. New individual based plans of attack for each player could unlock their power potential during the 2020 season.
Pratto has gold glove caliber defense and exceptional base running instincts and really needs to develop his bat (possible 2020 assignment to AA Northwest Arkansas).
Lee showed unbelievable potential on the base paths last season with 53 stolen bases with AA Northwest Arkansas. Lee has the potential to have above average power to go along with his above average defense and plate discipline. He’s currently a non-roster invitee to spring training and has gone 2 for 4 with one stolen base early on in spring training games.
The evaluation and player specific plans will be important to observe during spring training with players hoping to rebound from poor 2019 performances. Maikel Franco, Brett Phillips, Bubba Starling, and Meibrys Viloria will all benefit from better pitch recognition.
Franco and Viloria should be able to work with Royals hitting coach Terry Bradshaw and the new hitting coordinating group to find better balance in their plate approach. Too often in 2019, Franco and Viloria had their timing disrupted and found themselves making off balance swings.
Franco should have better pitch recognition and find himself laying off more pitches below the zone. Viloria should have a shortened leg kick and be more balanced in his approach, allowing him to drive the ball to all fields more consistently.
Ryan O’Hearn and Nicky Lopez are another couple more players set to benefit from the new strategical hitting approach. O’Hearn was plagued by bad luck in 2019 and will need to show an ability to put more lift on the ball and drive the ball to the opposite field to overcome the defensive shift. He showed promise in game one of spring training with an opposite field home run.
Nicky Lopez has put in a tremendous amount of offseason work in transforming his body with 18 pounds of added muscle. The extra strength will hopefully allow Lopez to hit more balls into the gap and over the fence. Better pitch recognition and approach could lead Lopez to more power potential at the plate allowing him to improve upon his .276 OBP and .325 SLG in 2019.
What to watch for:
With the new instructors and player specific plans in place, fans should be watching for hitters to have more confident at-bats this spring with the hope of carryover into the season.
An observer can take note of a successfully executed plan if the hitter looks balanced in his swings, confident in his swing selection, driving the ball with authority (regardless of outcome), and hitting the ball to the opposite field (not over-swinging on outside pitching).
Infield pop-ups, balls hit off the end of the bat, pitches chased in the dirt show the hitter may have been fooled. These things happen, but there is a lot of potential the 2020 Royals hitters will adapt to their new plate strategies and find consistent success.