KC Royals fans are familiar with the team's woes at the plate in 2022. The team ranked below-average in nearly every single offensive metric, including runs per game, home runs, and OPS+. Unlike the small ball era of Royals baseball, the team struggled to simply get on base and struggled even more to bring those runners around. True, the team's batting average was .001 higher than the league average, but that's hardly reason to rejoice. Fans can find comfort that the Royals fielded the league's seventh-youngest batting lineup, with an average age of 27.1
The Royals' offense is off to a good start in spring training, though. They have scored 40 runs in five games, good for second in the MLB. However, it is difficult to be overly optimistic, as pitcher meltdowns occur every game in the spring and total runs per game are increasing across the league. There is one change that could have a lasting impact on the 2023 Royals. That is the move away from the traditional shift, and some batters will benefit greatly from the move.
The KC Royals stand to be benefactors of rules limiting shifts debuting in 2023.
The shift rules have gone into effect alongside the new pitch clock, but fans have hardly voiced the defensive loss. Shifting tactics have increased exponentially in recent years, with defenses shifting 16 times more frequently against right-handed batters since 2015. Shifting against lefties is common practice too, being used more than 50% of the time since 2020. The shift was not commonplace 20 years ago, but became a defensive staple as of late.
The new rules will require teams to have all four infielders within the infield's outer boundary, with at least two on either side of second base. There are few restrictions on where outfielders can and cannot play, but the days of having six outfielders or six defenders on one half of the diamond are over. The Royals pitchers may miss the shift, but there are some batters who stand benefit greatly with the traditional shift gone.
But first, what is wOBA?
Now, Baseball Savant quantifies shift vs. non-shift stats using Weighted On-base Average, or wOBA, a foreign stat if you are not a Sabrhead. The MLB Glossary describes wOBA as this:
""wOBA is a version of on-base percentage that accounts for how a player reached base -- instead of simply considering whether a player reached base. The value for each method of reaching base is determined by how much that event is worth in relation to projected runs scored (example: a double is worth more than a single).""- MLB, Weighted On-base Average (wOBA)
In 2022, the MLB league average wOBA was.310, with New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge leading the league among qualified players with a.458 wOBA. Setting the bar for how good these batters can be without a shift.
First baseman Vinnie Pasquantino
First baseman Vinnie Pasquantino is one of the faces of the Royals' young player corps. His infectious energy, humble roots, and performance on the diamond make him a fan favorite. While he and teammate Nicky Lopez are playing for Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic, Pasquantino will return to the Royals and look to continue the Italian Nightmare in the MLB.
Baseball Savant's player similarity tool compares Pasquantino to multiple All-Star players, like Freddy Freeman and Jose Abreu. The scary thing is that Pasquantino can get even better in 2023. He already walked more than he struck out after his debut in 2022, but the shift's departure opens a new door for the slugger.
When the defense did not shift in 2022, Pasquantino's .422 had the highest wOBA of any Royals player. Now, that number comes from a small sample size of 20 plate appearances. That is because Pasquantino was shredding defenses even when they shifted for his other 276 plate appearances! Opposing teams needed that shift against Pasquantino and quickly adjusted to his game. Now that defensive tool is gone, and Pasquantino could be the team's best bat without the shift.
Catcher Salvador Perez
The bubble gum, the splash, and a lot of the current Royals culture trace back to catcher Salvador Perez. He could retire today and be the franchise's best catcher ever. His 32.3 career WAR ranks ninth in Kansas City history. He could easily pass Alex Gordon and Frank White on the team's WAR leaderboard if he has a good 2023 season. After a disappointing 2022 showing, Royals fans young and old want to see the best from Salvy this year.
Perez did not have a terrible year in 2022, just a letdown after his historic 2021 season. That year, Perez hit 48 home runs, tying Jorge Soler for the Royals record, and posted 3.3 WAR too. In 2022, Perez was injured on multiple occasions and only played in 114 games. That is the fewest games he has played since the 2012 season, outside of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. He still hit 23 home runs with 76 RBIs, but fans wanted another amazing season from the catcher. That wait might be over if Perez's performance without a shift holds up.
If the defense does not change in 2022, Perez's wOBA will rise from .308 to .375. That takes him from a slightly below-average hitter to nearly elite territory without the shift. For comparison, Salvy's overall wOBA in 2021 was .359, when he had a 126 wRC+ and 128 OPS+. His past amazing seasons would have been even better without the shift, but better late than never for the Venezuelan. Perez will still be 32 years old on Opening Day this year and still has plenty of time for memorable batting seasons without the shift. Hopefully, 2023 is the first chapter of a new Perez.
Outfielder Drew Waters
He may not be as popular as Pasquantino or Perez, but outfielder Drew Waters is primed for a career year in powder blue. The Atlanta Braves traded Waters to Kansas City last summer, after surplus talent and a dwindling prospect profile made Waters expendable for the Braves. Waters quickly outplayed his AAA competition and made his MLB debut on August 22, 2022. His performance was great in limited action, but Waters could take that next step after returning from injury in 2023.
Waters recorded 23 hits and five home runs in his 96 at-bats in the 2022 season, posting a 124 OPS+ and .3 WAR. All pretty good things for a player after making his debut with a 32-game sample size. His arm strength ranks in the 98th percentile according to Baseball Savant, making Waters a prospective impact player in the field and at the plate. A a left oblique strain could make him miss Opening Day, but fans are rightfully bullish on the Georgia native.
Water's performance without the shift is two-fold, because he bats both left and right. Against left-handed Waters, defenses correctly shifted 54.3% of the time, limiting him to a .302 wOBA. However, when hitting left and the shift was not present, Waters posted an incredible .420 wOBA. That is second only to Pasquantino in that situation. No-shift Waters is among the league's best hitters, according to the stats. Now, Waters has the chance to prove his prowess in 2022 wasn't just a fluke.