The Kansas City Royals have embraced change recently with their hitting development process.
Yet with Monday’s announcement that they had fired hitting coach Terry Bradshaw, they also signified that some recent mild progress from those steps has not been enough.
Royals general manager J.J. Picollo said moving Alec Zumwalt, the director for player development and hitting performance, to the Major League dugout was partly a bet that he’d be able to create the type of process that led to positive results for younger players like MJ Melendez, Bobby Witt Jr. and Nick Pratto before they reached the majors.
Two years ago, Zumwalt was the centerpiece of the Royals trying to reorganize how they went about hitter development. He would oversee the team’s hitting processes, with an effort to have an organization-wide approach that would collaboratively nurture players from the lowest minor-league level to the majors.
While that helped the organization produce some success stories, it wasn’t enough to help the major-league team fully in 2022. The Royals entered Monday with a 12-20 record and ranked 27th in OPS and 28th in on-base percentage.
“I think at the end of the day, we just felt like we needed more urgency,” Royals president of baseball operations Dayton Moore said. “And we needed to be more focused on a few of the main things that we feel prepare hitters on a daily basis to go out and attack a major-league pitcher, a major-league bullpen and all the matchups that exists today.”
So the Royals now will look to double down on the talents of Zumwalt, whose wide-ranging skillset means he may only stay in this hitting coach role for the rest of the season; Picollo said the team would re-evaluate where he best fits after the year is over. The Royals also announced Monday that assistant hitting coach Keoni DeRenne and special assignment hitting coach Mike Tosar will retain their roles, and Tosar will now be in uniform with the big-league team for at least a month and perhaps longer.
In the short term, Zumwalt will look to help the Royals hitters with their process while helping them prepare with gameplans for the pitchers they’re facing each night.
Manager Mike Matheny believed his team was making strides in the right direction in that particular area, and he also said Monday that it was a facet “we have to get better at.”
“That’s what we’re counting on from this new group is to come in with that positive energy to allow us to use the things they’ve had success doing,” Matheny said. “Hopefully that translates here.”
Picollo said discussions about replacing Bradshaw began nearly two weeks earlier, especially when front-office members spoke about where the offense was compared to their expectations.
“I think whenever you make a change, you hope it has some effect on things,” Picollo said. “I think we’re looking at some track record of things we’ve been able to do. Our personnel is familiar with some of the guys now on the staff. That’s not a knock on Terry.”
But it also is a statement in Picollo’s belief that the 41-year-old Zumwalt’s way of connecting with hitters is best served now while in uniform at Kauffman Stadium.
Zumwalt is in his 12th year with the Royals organization and has spent the last three seasons with his current title. Picollo described him Monday as “high character” while also saying he’d added to the Royals’ minor-league hitting culture thanks to his energy alone.
The move still came as a surprise to some on the Royals, given its early timing less than one-fifth through the season. Hunter Dozier, for example, said he’d known Bradshaw since he was drafted in 2013 and considered him “more than a coach to me.”
Picollo himself said it was a “tough day” to have to move on from Bradshaw in his current role, especially considering he’s been working with the organization since 2000.
Still, Picollo says KC has young hitters who need to continue to improve every night, and Moore reiterated that the Royals weren’t in a spot to settle for modest improvements with their player development.
It was time to continue to “intensify” their call for hitting absolutes in the organization they want their players to demonstrate to the major-league level.
“Do I think we were getting there? I do,” Moore said. “But at the end of the day, just not fast enough.”