KANSAS CITY — If Royals fans have paid attention to the organization’s farm system the past couple of years, they’ve no doubt heard the name Alec Zumwalt.
Zumwalt, the club’s director of player development and hitting performance, was a major factor in the overhaul of the Minor League hitting department the last two years — one that has seen significant improvement with hitters at all levels of the system in their offensive approach and production.
Now, he’s the Royals’ new hitting coach.
Kansas City fired Terry Bradshaw before Monday night’s 5-3 loss in 10 innings to the White Sox and tasked Zumwalt with overseeing all hitting efforts. Assistant hitting coach Keoni DeRenne remains on the staff after the Royals promoted him this offseason; he was another integral part of the improvements seen across the Minors in 2021. Major League coach John Mabry, who works closely with hitters, also remains, and special assignment hitting coach Mike Tosar will also be in uniform.
“We’ve felt for a while that we need to address, whether it’s on-base percentage, hard hit rates, chase rates,” general manager J.J. Picollo said. “And Alec, Mike Tosar, John Mabry, they’ve all worked together and will continue to work together to make some improvements every day.”
Zumwalt, 41, played 10 years in the Minors as both an outfielder and reliever. The Braves selected him in the fourth round of the 1999 MLB Draft, a year when both Picollo and Royals president of baseball operations Dayton Moore were front-office executives with Atlanta.
Moore hired Zumwalt as a scout in 2011, and he earned the Art Stewart Scout of the Year Award for his efforts during the 2015 World Series season — including the advanced scouting for every series during the club’s 2014-15 postseason runs.
The Royals see value in having Zumwalt as part of the front office, but also on the ground with players, evidenced by the improvements seen with prospects like Nick Pratto, MJ Melendez, Vinnie Pasquantino, Michael Massey and plenty more in the system.
And Zumwalt could go back to that role at the end of the season. Picollo said the Royals will re-evaluate at the end of the season whether he’ll go back to overseeing the hitting department or continue as a big league coach.
“Alec is a valued member of our staff,” Picollo said. “It’s not an audition for him. When you make a change in the middle of the season, you have to take a lot of things into consideration. And camaraderie and compatibility is a big part of it. [Manager] Mike [Matheny] has a ton of respect for Alec, and they’ll work well together, so at this moment, it’s the best person for the job.”
The Royals would like to see the game planning and approach that Zumwalt and others implemented in the Minors at the Major League level, which is why they created Zumwalt’s hitting performance role in 2020: Alignment among all levels. That’s especially true now that Kansas City is seeing more young hitters transition to the Major Leagues.
Bobby Witt Jr., baseball’s No. 1 prospect per MLB Pipeline, made his debut on Opening Day and he has missed just one game this season, Melendez is with the big league club now, and the Royals anticipate Pratto and Pasquantino making their debuts at some point in 2022.
“We’re not worried about Salvador Perez [who is hitting .203],” Picollo said. “Not worried about Whit Merrifield. It’s really more worried about, how do we get some of these other guys, some of the younger guys, on the right track, stay on the right track. We felt like they were in a pretty good spot when they got here. And then transition that into the future. The goal is not to come in here and blow everything up, and Alec understands that.”
Changes won’t happen overnight, nor will a total revamp of offensive philosophy in the middle of a season. But the Royals do hope the offense gets back on track with Zumwalt in charge.
“You don’t implant a philosophy,” Matheny said. “It’s slowly working: Here’s some things to consider. It’s truly as much about the processes as anything else, some of the different drills. And I think we’ve all experienced, too, that the same message shared different ways is sometimes perceived differently. So there’s a different vocabulary, different focus sometimes when you bring other people in here.”
Zumwalt is highly regarded in the Royals’ organization — by executives and players. Several prospects said on Monday how excited they were for Zumwalt to get a big league opportunity. Hitters rave about his energy and knowledge, and executives have seen the way players respond to Zumwalt when working in a group or individually.
The challenge will be to create those same relationships with veteran players.
“High energy, high character guy,” Picollo said. “Players enjoy engaging with him, enjoy being around him. When I look at our hitting culture in the Minor Leagues, I think his energy and positivity is adding as much to that environment as it is with what he does with his knowledge on hitting.”