Royals Offense Postmortem: Dissecting 2021

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With the 2021 postseason underway and the memories of what the non-contenders did firmly fading into the darkness of winter, it’s easy to forget anything the Royals did this offseason. But, earlier this week we looked at the good and the bad from the Royals pitching staff this season.

As promised, here is the offensive side of the card, where we look at Salvador Perez what went well, what didn’t, and where the Royals might look to shake things up in 2022 after a 74-88 mark this season.

What Happened

Going into 2021, it was tough to say what the Royals could reasonably expect from the offense. The Royals outfield had a brutal 2020 that was salvaged somewhat only by the fact that Whit Merrifield was primarily in right field. They addressed that (as they should have) by signing Michael A. Taylor to a one-year deal to man center field, then buying low on Andrew Benintendi in a trade with Boston.

Additionally, the Royals went and found a middle-of-the-order bat in Carlos Santana, finally plugging a hole at first base that had existed since Eric Hosmer left following the 2017 season. They also signed Hanser Alberto to serve in a utility infielder role, more or less replacing Maikel Franco.

With that, plus hope that Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler would return to their 2019 form, plus a strong finish to 2020 providing hope for the long-awaited Adalberto Mondesi breakout, there was a reasonable hope of meaningful improvement after finishing 13th in the American League in runs scored in 2020.

That didn’t quite happen.

The Royals led the league in steals (124) and struck out the third-fewest times in the circuit…but they also finished dead last in homers, finished 13th in slugging and OPS, 11th in on-base percentage, and—just like 2020—13th in the AL in runs scored. So how did we get right back to square one?

What Went Right

Salvador Perez.

Okay, that’s not the whole list, but that’s the obvious number one. The heart and soul of the Royals was an unqualified success. After a 37-game sample in 2020 where he hit .333 with 11 homers, the Royals wondered what they would get in a full season after he missed all of 2019 with Tommy John surgery.

Well, they got 48 homers and 121 RBI (both of which led Major League Baseball) and career highs in nearly every offensive category, shattered team and MLB records, and one jaw-dropping moment after another. Even more mind-boggling, Perez played in 161 games (though he DH-ed 40 of them) and was considerably better in the second half, instead of his infamous second-half swoons. Everything you expect from a 31-year-old catcher with serious mileage, he defied and then some.

Of course, there was another unqualified success, and that would be Nicky Lopez. In 159 career games entering 2021, Lopez sported a ghastly .229/.279/.307 slash line (56 OPS+) with one stolen base in seven attempts. On May 7, he was in the throws of a 1-for-29 skid and was lugging a .200/.310/.271 line when I made this seemingly obvious decree:

A funny thing happened right after I hit send. Nicky Lopez hit .320 the rest of the way. If you use June 15 as the starting point (where he really began to figure things out), Lopez slashed .334/.386/.400 while going 16-for-17 on the basepaths. With Mondesi hurt, the Royals stuck him at shortstop and he played at a Gold Glove level.

When the dust settled, Lopez was a .300 hitter (the first Royals shortstop to ever pull that off) and he was worth an impressive 4.2 WAR. He finished fifth in the AL batting race, was tenth in on-base percentage (.365), and was the fifth-hardest player in the league to strikeout. The kind of line the Chicago White Sox thought they were getting from former first-rounder Nick Madrigal is what the Royals got from Lopez.

I admit it, Nicky. I was wrong. You have earned your spot as a legitimate contender for “long-term answer.”

Not Much Else

After that, the positives drop off. Whit Merrifield had his worst full season (.711 OPS, 91 OPS+), but still played in every game, led the AL with 40 steals and 42 doubles, and finished third in hits while making his second All-Star Game and having his best defensive season to date (1.5 defensive WAR) playing second base opposite Lopez. Not too bad for a down year.

Benintendi battled broken ribs and up-and-down production, but a huge September/October (.342, 29 RBI) gave him a respectable .276/.324/.442 line with 17 homers, the best production by a Royals left fielder since Alex Gordon was in his prime. Given the seasons had by the players the Royals gave up for him, I don’t think the Royals are too upset.

Taylor is hard to put in one box or another because he’s rarely hit well, but this year he managed to accumulate 2.5 WAR (nearly all of it on defense) and posted the second-highest defensive WAR in the American League, restoring the defensive excellence the Royals had in center field during Lorenzo Cain‘s prime. It would be nice if he hit more, but the Royals liked him enough to give him a two-year extension that I really don’t oppose, so I’d say that’s a success, especially on a one-year, $1.75 million deal.

What Went Wrong

In the last section, there was an obvious person to lead off the list, and here, there is also an obvious front-liner: Hunter Dozier. Now, less than a month ago, I said that it was probably time for Dozier to go. A lot of you agreed. A lot of you most definitely did not.

Well, coincidence or not, Dozier slashed .286/.338/.635 with five homers in the final 19 games of the season after that article went live (damn it, maybe I should’ve written that five months earlier!) and spared him of the worst season by WAR in Royals history (held by Lou Piniella‘s -3.1 WAR campaign in 1973). However, he still slashed an ugly .216/.285/.394 (good for 81 OPS+) in 144 games. He posted a -2.6 WAR, the worst in the major leagues.

What definitely did not help is his less-than-stellar defensive work, as Dozier was especially atrocious on that side of the ball. Whether it be left field, right field, first base, or third, it didn’t matter, Dozier struggled, finishing with a -2.5 defensive WAR (also worst in the majors). On the wrong side of 30 with three more years left on a four-year extension that already looks like a mistake, Dozier is shaping up to be a problem going forward for the Royals.

That’s not to say he was the only problem.

The Former Slugger

As stated earlier, Carlos Santana certainly fit the bill as a signing to address a legitimate hole short-term. Yes, he turned 35 in April, but he possessed an excellent eye, power, and was extremely durable. Well, he played in 158 games and walked 86 times, the most by any Royal since 1998 (would you believe me if I said that player was Jose Offerman?).

At the All-Star break, Santana was firmly on the good side, with a .246/.368/.421, 15 homers, more walks that strikeouts, and a robust 121 OPS+. The second half, though, was a disaster: a .176/.254/.246 line with just four homers and an ugly 38 OPS+. All told, a player with a career OPS+ of 120 entering 2021 finished with a 79 OPS+ and a career-low .319 on-base percentage. Couple that with his typically “meh” defense and Santana finished with a career-worse -0.1 WAR. At least he only has one (cheaper) season left on his deal.

In the last column, Nicky Lopez was an undisputed success, and he can thank Adalberto Mondesi’s frustrating season for that. While injuries aren’t new for Mondesi (career-high in games: 102), he played 59 of the 60 contests in 2020, which was a very promising sign. It turned out to be a mirage.

The Former Future Stars

Mondesi tweaked his oblique at the end of the spring training, sidelining him for 45 games. After seven exhilarating contests, a hamstring strain put him back on the shelf for 14 more games. After three more games (which netted two homers and two doubles), a strain of the other oblique sidelined him for 61 games, all the way until September.

Mondesi was able to stay healthy enough to play 25 of the last 31 games (almost exclusively at third base), but he batted just .178 down the stretch, resulting in a .230/.271/.452 line with six homers in just 35 games for the entire season. It was a lost year in every sense of the word.

Other than that, Jorge Soler batted .192 with -1.4 WAR in 94 games before being dealt to Atlanta at the deadline (where he found his groove and will probably be leading off in the NLDS tonight). Third base was a persistent problem, as Hanser Alberto was okay at best (.270/.291/.402 with an 85 OPS+) in part-time duty, and a collection of Dozier, Mondesi, Kelvin Gutierrez (now a Baltimore Oriole), and Emmanuel Rivera did little collectively.

Ryan O’Hearn was gifted an opportunity to play every day as Soler’s replacement in right field and at DH for much of the last two months, but couldn’t recapture the promise of his 2018 debut, stumbling to a .225 mark with nine homers in 84 games and a 70 OPS+, a marginal improvement off consecutive .195 campaigns.

What to Address for 2022

Like the pitching staff, the offense has plenty of room for growth. However, the pitchers (and especially the bullpen) displayed clear and noticeable improvement in the second half while the offense really didn’t (692 to .714 OPS, or about a three percent improvement).

Also, you could reasonably argue that the pitching staff is rather close to a finished product and that young pitchers just need to settle in and make adjustments at the MLB level. However, the offense is much more experienced and five of the nine projected starters will be over 30 years old.

The Mondesi issue is one the Royals need to make a choice once and for all. Does he play short or third? Do they count on him as a starter or use him in a utility role? For that matter, there are serious reinforcements coming fast, and it’s likely that top prospect Bobby Witt Jr. will open in 2022 in the majors, with MJ Melendez and Nick Pratto right behind him.

With those three coming very soon, plus likely a full MLB season from Kyle Isbel, the Royals will have a lot of bodies for not a lot of spots, especially in the infield. Tough decisions may need to be made on Dozier and Santana. With his path behind the plate blocked, what do the Royals do with Melendez, the minor league home run champion? Are O’Hearn and Rivera squeezed out entirely? Does Alberto come back in arbitration?

This may be the time for the Royals to salvage whatever they can for Santana in order to clear space there. Of course, the Whit Merrifield rumor mill will likely be busy as usual. Nicky Lopez will be the focus of a lot of phone calls this winter and the Royals could choose to sell high on him.

This winter is expected to yield a huge free-agent class, especially offensively (though mainly in the infield). With the number of bats on the market, plus the uncertainty of a potential labor stoppage, Dayton Moore and JJ Picollo may be able to surprise the baseball world and strike with a shrewd below-market deal if other teams are hesitant.

Regardless of what path the Royals follow, there is ample room for improvement on the offensive side, though fortunately, there are plenty of attainable potential answers to what ailed the Royal bats in 2021.

Please be sure to follow me on Twitter (@BrennanMense) for more of my content. Don’t forget to listen to our baseball podcast, Cheap Seats Chatter! We’ll see ya there!

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