Down on the Farm - 7/21/22
A conversation with Drew Saylor on the Royals hitting philosophy, Vinnie Pasquantino, Nick Pratto, Michael Massey and more...
Down on the Farm is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
An Interview with Drew Saylor of the Royals
It’s been a difficult season for the Kansas City Royals at the big league level, the club is currently in last place in the American League Central and 13.5 games back in the wild card race. If there’s been a silver lining to this season it’s the continuing development of their young hitters at both the big league level and within their farm system. Bobby Witt Jr. has taken on a full-time role and has started to emerge as the player the Royals envisioned when they selected him with the 2nd overall pick in the 2019 draft. They’ve also promoted several of their position player prospects to the big leagues, including Vinnie Pasquantino, MJ Melendez, and Kyle Isbel. In the minor leagues they’ve seen several of their top hitting prospects take a step forward this season, a group that includes players such as Michael Massey, Nick Pratto, and Tyler Gentry.
All of these hitters at one point were touched by the Royals hitting development program — a program that has been overhauled in recent years to meet the vision of the Royals front office. Among those tasked with building this program is Drew Saylor, who joined the organization in late 2019 after a season with the Pirates as their assistant hitting coordinator. Saylor has spent time in his professional career in a number of roles with the Rockies, Dodgers, Pirates, and Royals. He’s been a hitting coach, manager, assistant hitting coordinator, and is now the hitting coordinator for the Royals. Last week, he talked with Down on the Farm about the Royals’ progress this season and his thoughts on some of their young hitters.
Down on the Farm: Can you talk about the role of the hitting coordinator and how it’s different from a hitting coach?
Drew Saylor: Instead of focusing on the 12 or 13 guys you have at an affiliate, the coordinator is responsible for all the hitters across the entire system. You have to be able to think across a number of different levels. Whereas when you’re a hitting coach, you get a plan or strategy from your coordinator — for example, we need this player to reduce his swing and miss 10% on breaking balls and here is how we’re going to do that — and then you’re in the fire, grinding every day, and working through the process with the player. Helping them understand how they approach their at-bats. When you’re a coordinator, all those things are important, but you’re building more systems and strategies. You have to think more longitudinally about development. You have to be able to know where a player was, where he is now, and where you want him to go. When you’re a hitting coach, you’re on the ground floor, you’re at sea level. When you’re a coordinator you have to be able to be at that level, but also get up to the 10,000 foot level to understand the bigger picture — this is the strategy for this hitter today, if it works, we feel this guy can be here in six months, a year, two years. In addition, you have to be able to conduct continuing education with your coaches and stay up to speed with the industry trends and processes.
Down on the Farm: When you go to an affiliate, do you have a specific goal in mind? What are you trying to accomplish?
Drew Saylor: There are usually a few different hot spots you are trying to address. Maybe it’s making sure you nail a conversation with a certain player. You always have a goal when you’re there, but when you go into town you want to be available for people to have those 1-1 conversations, whether it’s with players or staff. There’s a lot that can be gained when going to an affiliate, but there’s also points too where if a player has questions or disagreements, we can spend the necessary time to comb through the issue. We can work through all the information we have at our disposal to be able to help them be more convicted or re-commit to the process. There is a lot of value from those visits. I think the old school thought was — the coordinator comes in, he’s going to fix this player’s swing, he’s the swing guy. It’s not that we don’t do that from time to time, but that’s not necessarily the most useful allocation of your time as the coordinator. If you educate your coaches, have the right systems in place, and the lines of communication are open, I can do that from any place. You can find the gaps in development and then apply the strategy through your coaches.
One of the things that people are recognizing in the game is that the rate of development is the gap, it’s not necessarily a question of if you develop. I think that’s one of the things that we are doing well here in Kansas City, consolidating those developmental timelines for our players.
Down on the Farm: Different organizations prioritize different areas when it comes to hitting development. Do the Royals have a hitting philosophy they follow?
Drew Saylor: Our three mantras are, know thyself, swing at stuff you can hit hard, take stuff you can’t, and be elite in your preparation. Those are our foundational mantras. Our vision, when myself, Alex Zumwalt, Keoni De Renne, and Mike Tosar, had the chance to re-vamp this department, we wanted to make sure those ideas were getting through to our players and coaches, so that if you come and watch any of our affiliates those three ideas are visible and being communicated without talking to any one of us. If we do those things well, then we are going to be able to develop players consistently.
Down on the Farm: You mentioned a change in vision with that group of coaches, can you talk about what’s changed since you started in Kansas City? What has been implemented that wasn’t there before?
Drew Saylor: The first thing is implementing a player-centric model. We want to make sure that every rep our guys are taking is helping them move forward in their careers. It’s a daunting task, but that’s the way you are able to accelerate developmental timelines. The tough part is the preparation piece to prepare for those reps. I think John Wooden was way ahead of his time in that process — taking the necessary time to prepare to practice. Understanding what the practice plan is for that day. I think that’s one of the things we’ve been able to do here fairly consistently, we’ve over emphasized being prepared for that hour and 15 minute cage routine. We want to make sure that 45 minutes to an hour of batting practice is preparing us for the game that night. For us that’s where it all really starts. From there, it’s using all the information, taking an individual approach with all of our players, and then being able to put that all back together in a team environment.
Down on the Farm: What’s the toughest part for a hitter when moving up to the big leagues?
Drew Saylor: That’s always the toughest step. We are continuing to trend up as an organization, which is what we want. We want to be able to show growth and development, which we are. That’s the toughest level. It’s the pinnacle of the sport, and it’s incredibly difficult. But that’s our goal, we want to develop players that are ready to go up there and have an impact on our major league team and help us win more baseball games.
Some of it depends on the individual. It’s the elite of the elite throwing up in the big leagues. The way pitching development has been the last 10 years, it’s ahead of the curve to where hitting is at in terms of development. I do think that it’s become more accepted to train at velocity, to train off machines. Even a few years ago, there was a negative view on using machines and velocity to train. We need to do everything possible to prepare our hitters to compete at the next level. Exposing them to more information and making sure they are prepared to face the best pitchers in the world.
Down on the Farm: I want to ask about a few specific hitters in the Royals organization. Vinnie Pasquantino has had an incredible season, what’s something that most people don’t know about him as a hitter?
Drew Saylor: He’s an elite decision maker. Really strong bat to ball skills, and then he has the God given talent that when he hits the ball, he hits it extremely hard. He’s a guy last year that had more extra base hits than strike outs. I think what people don’t realize is that Vinnie is a master craftsman. He’s constantly thinking about hitting, his game, and how he can help his teammates. He’s always looking for a way to win. We talk about trying to find value at the margins in our department, and I think Vinnie embodies that across the board. Most people don’t realize just how much of a student of the game he is, and how much time he spends on his craft. Obviously, we are incredibly excited to see him graduate to the big leagues and help our team win more games up there.
Down on the Farm: It seems like Michael Massey has taken another step forward this season. He’s also hit for a lot more power as a professional than as an amateur. Can you talk about the progress he’s made as a professional hitter?
Drew Saylor: Mass has an incredible skill that when he swings, the bat and ball tend to make more contact that most other players. The biggest change we’ve made with Michael is focusing on having the mindset of working your at-bat, but also understanding that you need to wait for the pitcher to put the ball in a place where you can drive the baseball. Getting him to trust that process has allowed him to drive the baseball more often. Just like Vinnie, he’s a student of the game. He thinks pretty analytically and critically about the game. I also think that cleaning up some of the mechanical stuff with regard to his turn, he was a pretty handsy hitter, and I think his hands tended to jump his turn a bit. Really, we just had him learn to trust that his hands would end up going where they needed to go and it’s allowed him to make better contact more often.
Down on the Farm: Nick Pratto is having another strong season, what stands out when you watch him?
Drew Saylor: Again, I’m going to sound redundant here, but Nick is another guy that’s a master craftsman. Nick is a guy who understands how to game-plan, he understands his swing really well, and thinks at a level that I really haven’t experienced in my career as a player or a coach. Someone who is always thinking about optimizing his process. I don’t have enough adjectives to describe Nick Pratto, but he’s an elite decision maker, he has really good hand-eye coordination, and obviously the power is there. There’s a reason he was the 14th overall pick in the draft.
Down on the Farm: Drew Waters just entered the organization. First question, what is the process for onboarding a new player into the organization? Second question, have you had a chance to see him yet and what have you noticed?
Drew Saylor: I’m in Rochester right now, so the first day Drew was here I was able to introduce myself in-person and shake his hand. Really the first step in any process is getting to know the person, getting to know their journey, understanding their path in the game and their background, their family dynamic. Giving them a chance to share with us what their perception is of themselves as a human, then as an athlete, and then the last step is as a hitter. That process has gone really well so far with Drew, I think he’s a bright, intelligent, baseball player and person. In terms of other stuff with onboarding with respect to hitting, it’s the usual stuff — what’s your routine, what do you like to do? Then introducing our three mantras and our general process as an organization. Reinforcing that we are developing you as a player and as a person. Everything we take into consideration is going to be centered around you. It’s a very player-centric model that we have here in Kansas City. Those are critical moments when a player comes into an organization.
Down on the Farm: Who is a player in the Royals system who hasn’t had a huge year statistically, but you feel has had a great year in terms of their development as a hitter?
Drew Saylor: I think Carter Jensen is that guy. He’s a guy who’s had a very low batting average on balls-in-play for half a season, but he’s been making really good swing decisions. His walk rate is almost double what the league average is, his strikeout rate is about average. He has really strong offensive weapons and makes good decisions. He was a 3rd round pick out of high school, only 18-years-old playing in the Carolina League — not only that, he’s also playing behind the dish as a catcher. I think the development curve for a guy who makes that type of jump is always steep, but I’ve been really proud of the maturity, the curiosity, that Carter has displayed. I just saw him last week — I was really excited to continue watching him develop and grow. A lot of that is a testament to Carter, but also to our coaches and staff.
Down on the Farm: You’ve mentioned swing decisions a few times, do you think swing decisions and plate discipline can be taught and developed?
Drew Saylor: I think it’s a complex question. I think we’re still trying to figure it out. Most organizations are looking for a way to decrease the swing and miss and make quality contact, but swing decisions are the start. When you start to look at the decisions you can see what the product of those decisions are, but we need to figure out how we can change the process to help us improve the end product. You’re always at the mercy of what you do and don’t swing at, and a by product of that is when you choose the right pitches to swing at, you put yourself in the best position to leverage the bat-to-ball quality of contact.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Drew! 💪
Down on the Farm is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.