Back in the spring, our Mike Axisa wrote in reference to the Kansas City Royals that “a case can be made no team is worse off long-term.” Axisa’s reasoning was sound: the Royals had a bare-bones big-league roster following a mass exodus over the winter, and their farm system lacked blue-chip prospects.
Sure enough, the Royals have been awful this season. They’ve lost 102 games already, third-most in franchise history, and it’s at least possible they set a new high-water mark for futility by dropping 107 games. To make matters worse, the Royals won’t even pick No. 1 in next June’s draft thanks to the Baltimore Orioles‘ miserable summer.
Let’s examine each of the three and try to guess what the future may hold.
The elevator pitch on Mondesi makes him sound like a flowering superstar. He’s a 23-year-old switch-hitter who entered Tuesday batting .287/.310/.498 with 12 homers in less than 300 at-bats — oh, and he passes the eye test at shortstop and runs really, really quickly. Factor in his pedigree (he was a top-50 prospect three years running) and all that’s left is the coronation.
Predictably, Mondesi has shown ample signs of growth this year. He’s set a new career-best in home runs for a second consecutive season, and has improved upon his exit velocity, launch angle, and chase rate. The last part is sneakily important because his plate discipline remains his biggest hurdle to clear, with his tendency to swing (and miss) putting him in rare company.
According to Baseball Prospectus, Mondesi has the 28th-highest swing rate in baseball among batters with at least 800 pitches seen. Here’s where it gets interesting: only one of those hitters (Jorge Alfaro) is more likely to whiff. In fact, Mondesi is swinging and missing at similar rates as muscle-bound sluggers like Giancarlo Stanton, Daniel Palka, Chris Davis, and Aaron Judge. No middle infielder (Ian Happ doesn’t count) produces a higher rate of empty swings than Mondesi.
The good news for Mondesi is his age and secondary skills provide him a wide berth — he doesn’t have to hit this well to be worth starting — and that there’s an obvious comparison to be made to Javier Baez, who deserves MVP consideration despite a similar profile. Whether or not Mondesi can master the formula like Baez has is anyone’s guess — the answer is probably no, just because Baez seems to be a truly special talent — but again, that shouldn’t break him.
Mondesi’s bat doesn’t define him because he has a secondary skills. O’Hearn, a 25-year-old first baseman, doesn’t have the same luxury. Fortunately, the definition reads well thus far.
O’Hearn is hitting .264/.362/.612 with 11 homers over his first 149 plate appearances — remarkable production made more impressive (and surprising) by his track record. He’d homered just 11 times in 100 Triple-A games, and hadn’t posted a full-season OPS over .800 at a level since High-A. There was no reason to expect … well, any of this.
Dreamers will compare O’Hearn to Rhys Hoskins, another bat-only type who exploded onto the scene last year and has since settled in as a quality hitter. Hoskins had a superior minor-league track record, however, and seems more skilled in general. O’Hearn’s most-likely path likely resembles something along the lines of former Royals Brandon Moss and Lucas Duda.
It’s not fair to write that walking and bopping form the foundation of O’Hearn’s game because they more or less form the entirety of it. He whiffs a lot due to the leverage in his bat and left-handed pitchers have dominated him in a small sample. He’s not going to add much on defense, and there’s no reason for the Royals to toy with him in the outfield anymore.
O’Hearn should enter next season either as the Royals first baseman or DH, whichever makes more sense given the complexion of the roster. He has a chance to carve out a career thanks to his strength and eye — but there’s also a good chance this is the best he has to offer.
The Royals plucked Keller in last winter’s Rule 5 draft from the Arizona Diamondbacks. He was coming off a disappointing first season in Double-A and wasn’t a certainty to stick in the majors.
Keller has since appeared in 41 games, starting 20 times, and has accumulated a 3.08 ERA (139 ERA+). According to Baseball-Reference, he has the fourth-most WAR among Royals rookie starters with 100-plus innings, behind Kevin Appier, Bob Johnson (27 at the time), and Zack Greinke. Still, Keller’s year — or his future, more likely — will engender debate this winter.
Compare Keller to his contemporaries, and the cause for concern becomes more clear. He leads the 12 rookies with more than 100 innings in WAR and is third in ERA+, but he’s a distant last in strikeout rate — more than two percentage points worse than anyone else. Extend the query to all pitchers with more than 100 innings, and Keller’s strikeout rate leaves him sandwiched between Sean Manaea and Sal Romano. Alas, his walk rate is closer to Romano’s.
Keller’s age buys him some leash, and Statcast metrics validate the belief he’s excelled at limiting quality of contact. Can he continue to do so, generating weak grounder after weak grounder without missing bats or throwing an absurd amount of strikes? That’s the question here — as if the Royals didn’t have enough of them to ponder.
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