Alex Rios has a thumb injury.

<Insert “thumbs down” emoji here.>

This is a problem. An issue. The Royals, you see, signed Rios to a one-year deal to replace Nori Aoki in right field and to provide some “pop” to a lineup that is very much without “pop.” The signing represented a gamble of sorts for the Royals since Rios slugged .398 last summer and finished with a .118 ISO, his lowest Isolated Power mark since his rookie campaign in 2004. The culprit behind this poor production… The thumb.

This is pretty good, so follow along: The theory is, after Rios suffered a slight right ankle sprain immediately following the All-Star Break, he changed the mechanics of his swing. Because he couldn’t rotate his back foot properly, he allowed pitches to get too far inside on his hands, which caused a thumb contusion. (Hey, don’t kill the messenger. That’s not my theory. It belongs to Rios.) With the entire Ranger team seemingly on the DL last year, Rios played through the pain. The Rangers loved the example he set for young players. The back of his baseball card carries the scar of trying to play through that pain.

Rios in the first half of 2014:
.305/.333/.405 with 4 HR and a 109 wRC+.

Rios in the second half of 2014:
.246/.281/.281 with 0 HR and a 41 wRC+.

The first half was nice enough, but was nowhere near strong enough to withstand the horrid second half Rios put up with his bum thumb.

And now, from McCullough, comes this:

Alex Rios does not expect the occasional discomfort in his right thumb to disappear for good. He played with this condition for the second half of 2014. He has grown used to the pain he experiences on mis-hit balls and ill-timed swings. He described protecting his thumb as a “matter of management from now on” as he begins his first season as a Royal.

Yeah. That’s not good. Especially given his modus operandi from last season of doing everything he could to play through the pain. If the thumb was truly the reason for his second half struggles, this does not bode well for the forthcoming season.

Rios returned to the lineup on Sunday and walked and hit a fly ball to center. In those two plate appearances, he swung the bat twice. We will see how he rebounds on Monday. And Tuesday. And for the rest of the week leading to Opening Day.

For his part, Rios is optimistic about the coming season. (Warning, the link in the previous sentence takes you to a typical spring training puff-piece where we learn that Rios is smiling more this March.) The thumb isn’t going to bother him and he’s going to rebound.

<Insert thumbs up emoji here.>

Rios has had a decent spring. Through Sunday he posted a .333 batting average and clubbed three home runs to go along with three doubles. Easy math says that’s just one less home run than he hit in all of 2014. So maybe it won’t be a rerun of the offensive horror show of last year in Texas. Maybe he has learned how to cope with the pain and maybe it doesn’t affect his power. Maybe the smiles do matter. Dunno. That feels like a rather sunny assessment from a guy who doesn’t want to use injury as an excuse for a decline in production.

Missing a couple of spring training games isn’t exactly a cause for concern and if you, like Rios, are feeling pretty damn good about the Royals and Rios this season, I certainly wouldn’t say you should thumb your nose at your positive feelings. However, I would say this is something that bears watching in the early going. My guess is it’s something that will be apparent almost immediately. I wonder if the Royals knew this issue was going to continue to bother Rios. My guess would be no, otherwise they wouldn’t have committed that kind of money, even if is just for one year.

I decided to dig a little deeper at Rios’s 2014 season and how it related to his overall recent offensive performance. From Jeff Zimmerman’s Baseball Heat Maps site, here is the average distance of Rios’s fly balls from the last five seasons.

2014 – 266.48
2013 – 268.86
2012 – 284.31
2011 – 263.51
2010 – 283.20

Compare how his fly ball distances above correlates to his overall offensive production:

Year Age Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
2010 29 CHW 147 617 567 89 161 29 3 21 88 34 14 38 93 .284 .334 .457 .791 111
2011 30 CHW 145 570 537 64 122 22 2 13 44 11 6 27 68 .227 .265 .348 .613 63
2012 31 CHW 157 640 605 93 184 37 8 25 91 23 6 26 92 .304 .334 .516 .850 126
2013 32 TOT 156 662 616 83 171 33 4 18 81 42 7 41 108 .278 .324 .432 .756 104
2013 32 CHW 109 465 430 57 119 22 2 12 55 26 6 32 78 .277 .328 .421 .749 102
2013 32 TEX 47 197 186 26 52 11 2 6 26 16 1 9 30 .280 .315 .457 .772 108
2014 33 TEX 131 521 492 54 138 30 8 4 54 17 9 23 93 .280 .311 .398 .709 99
11 Yrs 1586 6518 6034 845 1680 352 61 165 762 244 77 385 1050 .278 .323 .439 .762 102
162 Game Avg. 162 666 616 86 172 36 6 17 78 25 8 39 107 .278 .323 .439 .762 102
TOR (6 yrs) 809 3354 3071 451 875 195 36 81 395 112 33 224 567 .285 .335 .451 .786 105
CHW (5 yrs) 599 2446 2285 314 615 116 15 74 287 99 34 129 360 .269 .310 .430 .740 97
TEX (2 yrs) 178 718 678 80 190 41 10 10 80 33 10 32 123 .280 .312 .414 .726 102
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/29/2015.

Not really surprising. Of the previous five seasons, Rios’s best two were the same seasons he had his best fly ball distances. And what’s interesting is the ankle and thumb injury from the second half didn’t really sap his distance compared to his 2011 and 2013 seasons. It would be nice if the 2014 distance was really out of whack so we could point at his thumb and surmise that is the reason for the poor production. Except based on his recent history, we can’t really do that. Who knows how much the thumb injury caused his power outage? We do know his power production was down before he hurt his thumb. While the injury certainly didn’t help matters, to point to it as the lone reason ignores other signs (and raw numbers) that his power was pulling a disappearing act.

Really, Rios has been so inconsistent over his last five or six seasons, anyone who says with certainty they know what the right fielder will bring to the lineup, they are fooling only themselves. Steamer has Rios at .264/.302/.395 with a 94 wRC+. ZiPS checks in with a line of .281/.313/.419 and a 104 wRC+. PECOTA projects .268/.303/.400. All of those projections are really off of what the Royals would be expecting given the contract they awarded him last winter. But given Rios’s track record of being literally all over the place with his offense, I’m fairly certain he has outperformed projections once or twice in his career.

The Royals are paying Rios $9.5 million for this season and it comes with a $1.5 million buyout on a mutual option for 2016. That’s a hefty price for a guy with a bad thumb who you expect to hit in the middle of your lineup. I won’t go so far as to call Rios a “key to the season” because we’ve all seen strange things happen, and it feels like after what we saw last year this team could potentially absorb an extended absence or a general offensive walkabout. But it’s clear the Royals and Dayton Moore are bouncing on yet another bounce back season from their new right fielder.

Would it surprise me if Rios was better than last year and better than the projections? No, it wouldn’t.

Would it surprise me if Rios fared worse than his horrible 2014 season? No, it wouldn’t.

Basically, I can’t decide if this is worth a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down.”