A Healthy Vinnie Pasquantino is Crucial to Royals’ 2024 Success

Coming off a shoulder injury, the Kanas City Royals are counting on Vinnie Pasquantino to be a big run producer in the heart of their lineup.

Vinnie Pasquantino
KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - SEPTEMBER 25: Vinnie Pasquantino #9 of the Kansas City Royals bats against the Seattle Mariners at Kauffman Stadium on September 25, 2022 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

Baseball is packed with often-injured players desperately needing to avoid the IL this season, none more so than Kansas City Royals first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino.

The 26-year-old slugger is coming off consecutive injury-riddled seasons, limiting him to 133 combined games over his first two years in the majors. He missed the majority of last season after undergoing season-ending surgery in June to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder.

Pasquantino has shown flashes of his potential as a viable middle-of-the-order threat across his young professional career, especially as a rookie in 2022. However, those efforts have been thwarted by repeated shoulder concerns each time. But now that he’s fully recovered, Kansas City’s left-handed power bat is determined to make up for lost time.

Following several losing seasons, the Royals – who haven’t made the playoffs since winning the 2015 World Series – decided it was time to start investing in this team once again. So, that’s precisely what the front office did over the offseason.

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Most of the additions occurred on the pitching front, designed to shore up a starting rotation and bullpen that lacked quality and depth a season ago. The offense, too, gained a few new members, with Hunter Renfroe the most notable entry, a veteran power hitter that should lengthen this lineup while protecting players like Pasquantino.

That will be key, of course, as Kansas City’s offensive production relies heavily on the backs of Bobby Witt Jr. and Pasquantino, a duo with franchise cornerstone potential. Other factors will also be involved, such as the performances from MJ Melendez – the club’s projected leadoff hitter – and veteran backstop Salvador Perez.

In the end, though, the lineup will go as far as Witt and Pasquantino can take it.

The latter of that one-two punch has to stay on the field for this franchise to enter the next chapter of its rebuilding phase. Whether or not he can accomplish that feat will undoubtedly have massive implications for the club’s success in 2024.

There’s little doubt about Pasquantino’s skill-set as an impact performer.

We witnessed it when he first exploded onto the scene two seasons ago when he clubbed 10 home runs, drove in 26 and slashed .295/.383/.450 with an eye-popping 136 wRC+ in his first 72 games, accounting for 1.5 fWAR.

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In fairness, the 6-foot-4 lefty’s overall results suggest he took a step back last season, based on his less-than-impressive .247/.324/.437 slash line and 103 wRC+.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story, as his torn labrum was almost certainly impacting his production long before his final contest on June 9.

Consider this: Pasquantino picked up where he left off during his rookie campaign out of the gate, posting six home runs, 14 RBIs and a .292/.380/.549 clip over his first 31 games of the 2023 season. His advanced metrics were also remarkable, as you can see by his .391 wOBA, .257 ISO and 148 wRC+.

Few big-league hitters racked up more hard-hit balls than Pasquantino to begin 2023, with his 52 percent rate falling inside the top 20 of the majors among 161 qualified players (min. 100 plate appearances) from Opening Day to May 3.

And then everything went downhill.

Pasquantino’s production fell off significantly after crossing the 30-game mark, leading to a miserable .203/.269/.331 slash line and 60 wRC+ over his final 30 contests. Those struggles also bled over into his outstanding plate discipline, as his strikeout rate (11.5 percent) was nearly four percent higher than his walk rate (7.7 percent) after maintaining a difference below one percent during his previous 31-game stretch.

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Most notably, there was a direct correlation between the declines involving his on-field play and hard-contact output, which dropped from a top-20 position to producing a 28.8 percent clip tied for the 10th-lowest in the majors.

Source: FanGraphs

As someone who, had he logged enough reps to qualify, would’ve ranked in the top third percentile of the sport in hard-hit rate, average exit velocity, xAVG, xSLG and xwOBA as a rookie in 2022, his quality-of-contact metrics shouldn’t have fallen that dramatically unless he was injured – which we can probably assume he was.

There is no other way to explain such a sudden and sharp decline. Sure, pitchers started attacking him with more low-and-away changeups, an offering he’s earned a minus-five run value against since his MLB debut. But that alone couldn’t have been the sole cause.

Typically, when a player battles through an ailment, a few things tend to happen: the injury hinders his mechanics or leads to an overcompensation of one’s comfort zone, or it’s a mixture of both. And that’s likely what unfolded for Pasquantino.

The 11th-round selection from 2019 has historically featured a fairly level bat path, as evidenced by his career 14.6-degree average launch angle, a few ticks above the major-league average of 12.2. Last season, however, his figure climbed to 17.4 degrees, five higher than his rookie campaign.

Everything was status quo early on, as Pasquantino’s average LA came in at 13.6 degrees pre-May 3 before rising to 20.9 degrees the rest of the way. As a result, his line-drive and fly-ball rates trended in opposite paths, with the latter overpowering the former beyond that point.

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That was a less-than-ideal scenario, considering Pasquantino produced far more hard contact on line drives (59.3 percent) versus fly balls (33.3 percent).

Source: FanGraphs

Perhaps Pasquantino was dropping his front shoulder because of the pain caused by the tear inside it. Or maybe he was striving to lift balls using an upper-cut swing to combat the reduced power on his right side. Or perhaps both elements played a factor. Either way, Pasquantino wasn’t the same hitter over his final month of 2023.

When healthy, Pasquantino’s power-hitting, walk-oriented approach stacks up better than most other hitters. The Royals aren’t the only organization that values those unique abilities; other front offices have taken notice, too, as several clubs reportedly inquired about his trade availability over the winter, according to MLB.com’s Paul Casella.

Those phone calls will continue to pile up if the talented young lefty can stay on the field this season. While general manager J. J. Picollo will probably be inclined to listen, there shouldn’t be any interest in trading his everyday first baseman right now.

There’s the potential for Pasquantino – an honorable mention in Just Baseball’s 2024 Top 10 first basemen ranking but was listed among the 10 best players in the AL Central – to emerge into the elite first baseman conversation if he remains healthy.

FanGraphs’ ZIPS projection isn’t as high on his overall value as other models, listing him at 1.5 fWAR, whereas Steamer projects his worth at 2.6 – ninth-highest at his position. Their model believes his offensive contributions will be closer to his breakout rookie season, as opposed to ZIPS’ suggesting he’ll settle on a midway point between the previous two years.

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Locating Pasquantino’s offensive ceiling is difficult, given he hasn’t played more than half a season each year since debuting with the Royals. We know who he is defensively, and that’s why he’ll likely spend a decent amount of games at DH this season. But questions still linger about where his production as a hitter will lie over a 162-game schedule.

If that answer ends up closer to his limited sample sizes in 2022 and ’23 (pre-injury), run creation shouldn’t be as much of a concern for Kansas City during Pasquantino’s third major league season.