Grading the 2023 KC Royals: Outfielder Drew Waters

The centerfielder made his case for the KC Royals core.

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Welcome back to our Kings of Kauffman offseason series analyzing the 2023 performances of various KC Royals players. Up today is outfielder Drew Waters.

KC Royals general manager J.J. Picollo listed the outfield in general as one of the team's weakest units entering this offseason. It is hard to disagree with that assessment. There is no well-rounded member of the Royals' outfield, and that greatly hinders the unit's ceiling. Drew Waters arguably has the highest ceiling amongst his outfield peers in Kansas City, but his 2023 left some things to be desired.

Drew Waters started this season late, but had his moments for the KC Royals.

Waters did not make his 2023 debut until late May, missing nearly two months with a strained left oblique injury. He sustained the injury early in spring training, which made him miss most of the season's ramp-up as well. The rust took awhile to knock off, but the Royals needed Waters back in a bad way.

Waters was not an immediate boost to the struggling Royals, however. He had a 36.1% strikeout rate and a lowly 76 wRC+ through the month of June. Waters' plate approach has always been an issue, ever since his days in the Atlanta Braves system. It was one of his 32 games in 2023, where he finished with a 36.7% strikeout rate but a 124 wRC+ thanks to some hot hitting.

The Royals persisted in playing Waters in centerfield. The 24-year-old showed the organization what he could do, and his 2023 season would likely decide his spot in the team's pecking order in 2024 and beyond.

The months of July and August proved to be kinder for the Georgia native. He looked healthy on the field and had five homers and 19 RBIs across 45 games. It amounted to a 90 wRC+, which is still below league average. But the progress at the plate was coupled with more defensive effectiveness across right and center field. The Royals deployed their best defensive outfield, with Waters and Kyle Isbel playing alongside each other, usually with Waters ceding center to Isbel.

The Royals may look at 2023 as a reason for playing Waters more on the right field. His arm strength ranked in the 93rd percentile, according to Baseball Savant. That greatly contributed to his five outs above average; he ranked among the league's best right fielders in assists and defensive runs saved. Fans' optimal outcome was Waters pushing Isbel out of centerfield, but Waters has all the right tools to succeed in right field too.

The Waters roller coaster continued into September, then came to a crashing halt. He struggled across 74 plate appearances, with a 70 wRC+ and.077 ISO. He was still playing excellent defense and trying to distribute his hits across the field more. In those September plate appearances, he hit 32.6% of the time to the opposite field. That is nearly 10 points higher than his career average of 24.8%. Waters and the Royals coaches may have been tinkering with his approach and swing, contributing to the differing metrics and lower production.

Waters' 2023 season came to a premature end on Sept. 30 against the New York Yankees. He exited the game with quad tightness after logging three innings in center field. This is how Waters' stats at the plate shook out in his MLB season:

98 G, 337 PA, .228/.300/.377, 8 HR, 32 RBI, 16 SB, .677 OPS

Advanced numbers to know:

31.8% strikeout rate, 8.0% walk rate, 82 wRC+, .989 RF fielding percentage.

What season grade should Drew Waters get?

The early-season injury really held Waters back and contributed to the down year. His ZiPS projection was for a 1.8 fWAR player, and Waters recorded .8 fWAR. The defense was great, the bat showed promise, and the Royals are still molding the 24-year-old outfielder. His 2023 performance deserves a C, simply for him still being an above-replacement player.

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