Royally Avoiding Strikeouts

There is something about the Kansas City Royals hitting that has been bothering me lately. Well, let’s be honest, there’s something about the Kansas City Royals hitting that has been bothering more or less everybody – that is that they do not score runs. They are tied for 14th in the American League in runs scored, this one year after finishing 11th in the league, this one year after finishing 12th. They have fired hitting coaches and hired legends to be interim hitting coaches and hired other guys to be assistant hitting coaches and fired assistant hitting coaches and asked legends to come back and who knows what else. Everything changes. And nothing changes in Kansas City.

Lately, it has become clearer to me why nothing changes.

When I talked with Oakland’s super-smart Director of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi, he explained in pretty specific terms what the Oakland A’s want. They want hitters who do not strike out substantially more often than they walk. They want hitters in their prime years. They want hitters who have a verifiable skill – that is, they are good against lefties, or they are good against righties, or they can hit home runs with some regularity, or they make pitchers work. These all sound obvious, but … we’ll get to that in a minute.

When I talked with Chicago’s Theo Epstein, he made it even clearer. His overriding philosophy of baseball is this – you must control the strike zone. He believes that is true of pitchers (throw strikes, get ground balls) and hitters (swing at pitches you can drive). The strike zone, in his mind, is like football’s line of scrimmage. Control it, and you win.

Now – what do we know about the Royals philosophy of hitting? Well, if you watch their actions, it’s not clear that they have a philosophy. The Royals fired hitting coach and local favorite Kevin Seitzer because the team wasn’t hitting for power. The Royals then hired two hitting coaches, one named Jack Maloof who not long after said: “There’s just no reward (here at spacious Kauffman Stadium) for us to try and hit home runs.” So he gets fired, and the Royals hire legend George Brett, who takes the job on an interim basis to try and get things kick started. Two months later, Brett fires himself – it was interim, remembered – and the Royals hire Pedro Grifol. A year later – this May, in fact – the Royals fire Grifol and hire Dale Sevum.

So, you could argue, pretty persuasively, that the Royals don’t have any idea what they want in hitters. But as persuasive as the argument may seem, it turns out to be wrong. The Royals know exactly what they want. The Royals have a hitting philosophy. They have an all-encompassing hitting philosophy that they have followed religiously for three years now.
The philosophy can be summed up in five words: Put … the … ball … in … play.

That’s it. That’s the whole thing. The Royals hire and fire hitting coaches, they move players in and out, they switch lineups – but this is the constant: Put the ball in play. Since 2012, the Royals have walked 100 or so fewer times than any team in the American League. And since 2012, the Royals have struck out about 200 fewer times than any team in the American League. For three years running, they have struck out the fewest times in the league. And, not coincidentally, they have been at or near the bottom in walks too. This is not an accident. The Royals are an anti-strikeout baseball team. Period.

In theory, putting the ball in play seems a pretty sound strategy – especially in today’s strikeout-crazy game. In theory, putting more balls in play should give the Royals a better chance of getting hits, as in a higher batting average. And in a way it has: The Royals .263 average since 2012 is fifth in the league behind only Detroit, Los Angeles, Texas and Boston.

But in practice, as you probably know, chasing batting average is not an effective strategy ESPECIALLY when you are chasing empty batting averages filled with lots of singles. And that’s exactly what the Royals batting average is: Empty. Since 2012, they have hit more singles than any team in the American League except Detroit (which, at last check, had one more single than the Royals). But they are dead last in extra base hits. Even more telling, they have hit 50 fewer home runs than the punchless Minnesota Twins and 100 fewer homers than any other team in the American League over those three seasons.
And, like they have been the last three years, the Royals are near the bottom in runs scored.

The Royals startling lack of power has sparked manager Ned Yost to say bizarre things – on Monday he joked that the Royals must have power because they hit a lot of home runs in batting practice. I do think (hope) he was joking, but there’s a point to what he’s saying – the Royals do not have weak players. They have not drafted powerless prospects.

No, they have ACTIVELY CHASED a hitting philosophy that mutes power. This is no coincidence. First baseman Eric Hosmer is 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, he was one of baseball’s best prospects because of his power, he hit 19 home runs and slugged .465 as a rookie. He has not matched either the home run numbers or the slugging percentage since then and this year it seems like the Royals are trying to turn him into Dave Magadan. He’s not even slugging .400.

Mike Moustakas was another huge power prospect. He hit 20 home runs in 2012. He has since cut down on his strikeouts, and his slugging percentage has plummeted 50 points.

Alex Gordon hit 23 homers in 2011 and looked like a potential 30 home run guy. His slugging percentages have gone backward. Billy Butler slugged .510 and hit 29 homers in 2012. He has three home runs this year. The Royals acquired Omar Infante, who doesn’t walk and doesn’t strike out. The Royals acquired Nori Aoki, who doesn’t walk and doesn’t strike out. They Royals are giving a lot of at-bats to speedster Jarrod Dyson, who doesn’t walk and doesn’t strike out. Even their one prospect success story Salvador Perez doesn’t walk and doesn’t strike out.

The Royals have eight games this year with at least 10 hits and three or fewer runs – more than any team in the American League. Needless to say, they lost all eight of those game. The Royals are not a singles-hitting, runner-stranding, offensively challenged team by mistake. They are one by design.

What can the Royals do about it? I’m not entirely sure. The first thing they should do is internally admit that as a team they have been chasing the wrong strategy and that they need to sacrifice a few more strikeouts for more walks and extra-base hits. They have to work more counts. They have to do those seemingly obvious things Oakland does like: Get hitters who can help you in a specific way.
I’m just not sure the Royals are ready to do any of that, but that’s where change begins. And, once they admit that, they have to change the culture in a big way. Sadly, change is just not something they do very well in Kansas City.

48 thoughts on “Royally Avoiding Strikeouts

  1. Brandon H. (@BHIndepMO)

    They think swinging *down* on the ball creates more backspin and loft. And instead swinging down on the ball seems to lead to more groundball outs. In the minors, the Royals are 6th in HRs in AAA (more on that later), 7th of 8 in AA, 7th of 8 in High A, 5th of 14 in Low A, 8 of 8 in the Pioneer League, 3rd of 10 in the Appy league.

    The AAA rank is thanks to three players who weren’t drafted by KC (Francisco Pena, Matt Fields and Peguero). 3 of the 5 Royals to have 10+ homers in their minor league season were not drafted/originally signed by KC. The other two are Lane Adams and Frank Schwindel.

    At some point, coincidences stop being coincidences. This anti-power philosophy is pretty prevalent. It was the case when the currently revered Kevin Seitzer was still in KC and using a net in BP to that guys wouldn’t elevate the ball too much. It’s the case now. They’re playing 70s baseball in a 2010s game.

    Reply
  2. Dark Side of the Mood

    The Cardinals have been struggling w/the same lack of power this year. Matt Adams, in particular, was a punchless singles machine before he went on the DL. Since coming back he looks more like his old self, driving the ball, racking up some RBI. And some of that approach is tied to philosophy; Allen Craig is another guy who’s slugging percentage has dropped and dropped. Of course, in his case everything has flatlined this season.

    Reply
        1. Dark Side of the Mood

          You know, I think Peter Gammons started the “best fans in baseball” nonsense. I’ve never heard a Cardinals fan self describe in that manner. Having lived there (and K.C.) I can tell you that baseball permeates the culture of StL in ways that cannot be the norm in other places. KC used to be like that w/the Chiefs back in the 90s but this has gone on in StL for generations. It’s a pretty cool place to live, if you like baseball.

          Reply
          1. Marty McKee

            Never? I see it on Twitter 50 times a day. 20 of them by fans either excited about going to “Bush” Stadium or calling Pujols a “trader.” Worst Beast Fans in Baseball ever.

  3. Jim

    I think if you look two steps back you will see a big part of the overall problem. They draft, promote, and play at MLB level based on “tools” with little regard for OBP history….mostly high school signs with raw talent (how’s it going with Bubba?) and not enough guys with college experience who have a track record and you know, might actually take a BB or get in a good hitting count, or work the pitcher a little……. who other than Gordon in their everyday lineup would you consider a smart baseball player (maybe Perez and Infante, but they won’t take a BB either)?

    The Royals literally do not understand lineup construction as the A’s and others seem grasp.If you just look up and down this lineup, you can just sense that “it ain’t gonna work!”

    Reply
  4. Marty McKee

    I realize Joe is afraid to trash his buddy in print, but it’s painfully obvious to everyone else that the Royals aren’t going anywhere until they fire Dayton Moore. Anyone can write as many columns as he wants about the Royals doing this and the Royals doing that, but until the team is free of Moore’s antiquated and uneducated method of baseball strategy, it isn’t going to win. Period.

    Reply
    1. Faye Schlift

      Once again Joe has written a column, with great detail, about the actual and philosophical shortcomings/failures of the Royals. What amazes is how he can complete all these blogs without using 2 specific words: dayton and moore.

      I always wonder why this is. What is the fear? What is the hold?

      Who is hiring & firing these hitting coaches? Who is responsible for trades and draft choices? Who hired Ned Yost & the other managers? Who’s responsible for the “put the ball in play” philosophy?

      Looking forward to future blog, “Why I Will Never Take the Name D….. M…. in Vain”.

      Reply
    2. Russell Warren

      …and Yost. He’s lost at least 10 games by not moving runners. It’s funny how this team strives on speed, but when struggling, exactly when have they tried the hit and run or even a squeeze play. I think I have seen three H&R this year, including the one last night.

      Reply
  5. Andrew

    Bring back the artificial turf over a rock-hard surface, and push the walls back. For at least half the games on the schedule, they’ll have a ’70s home for their ’70s offense.

    Reply
  6. Craig Moskowitz

    Interesting post. Not following the ins and outs of specific teams, I’ve wondered why the Royals haven’t made the playoffs in so long. No surprise here: poor, ooutdated philosophy.

    Reply
  7. Michael Green

    But I thought everything was up to date in Kansas City?

    If you think about teams that had long losing streaks, the Mets in the early days were just silly, and Lindsey Nelson, Ralph Kiner, and Bob Murphy just played it for laughs, and the Philadelphia teams were just consistently bad for so long, so By Saam talked about the opposing players. Is it possible that in the past 25 years, Denny Matthews has had to describe more badly played baseball than any other announcer?

    Reply
  8. Marco

    Is “put the ball in play” their strategy because they emphasize that approach, or is because they acquire players like that?

    Reply
  9. KHAZAD

    It is both. Take a look at the established players the Royals have acquired in the Dayton Moore era. The thing they have most in common is the lack of walks.

    Then you have a manager who prefers “manufacturing runs” over power and walks, routinely sees a leadoff double as an opportunity to bunt – even in the first inning, almost never pinch hits and prefers guys who can pinch run on his bench, and seems to prefer productive outs over driving the ball.

    Add hitting coaches the last two seasons who preach hitting down on the ball, not striking out, and putting the ball in play you have your Royals soup.

    It starts at the top, goes through the manager and his puppet hitting coaches who preach his philosophy, and trickles through the entire organization.

    They need to blow it up and start over.

    Reply
    1. Rusty

      This just happened five minutes ago:

      Top of 1st
      Jose Quintana pitching for Chicago
      L Cain hit a ground rule double to deep center.
      O Infante sacrificed to first, L Cain to third.

      Reply
      1. mrpinkfloyd71

        The Royals have really succeeded at making the Astros look like a functional organization that has their crap together.

        I wonder why they don’t get more praise from the pro-old school journalists (Bill Madden, Joe Morgan, the PTI guys, etc).

        Reply
  10. Rick Rodstrom

    The Royals used to have a guy who put the ball in play, a guy who didn’t strike out a lot or walk much, with only moderate home run power. A guy by the name of George Brett. Worked out pretty well for him and for the Royals. Back then, they had the most famous hitting coach in baseball, Charley Lau, whose most distinguished pupil was Brett.

    It seems to me that what the Royals need are better hitters, rather than a better philosophy. Lau’s teachings worked well when applied to George Brett, and not so well when applied to hitters who were not George Brett. Brett himself was not the answer as the hitting coach of the Royals because the players he was coaching were not as talented as he was.

    The latest Royals hitting prospect to suffer a sophomore slump was Wil Myers. After winning the Rookie of the Year Award last year, this year he was posting an 89 OPS+ in 53 games before suffering a grievous wrist injury. Who knows what his future as a hitter will be. The only difference was that Myers had been traded to the Devil Rays, the little can-do organization with a wizard for a manager.

    Hitting is down all over baseball. It takes a lot of good scouting plus a little luck to find it.

    Reply
      1. Rick Rodstrom

        I just think it’s less about organizational philosophy and more about finding the right talent. For years the Angels hitting prospects were the biggest busts this side of Christina Hendricks—Dallas MacPherson, Casey Kotchman and Brandon Wood were all projected stars who never made it (Brandon Wood, the most hyped of them all, was just cut from his Independent League team). It was as if the Angels couldn’t develop a hitter to save their life. Then suddenly Mike Trout appears on the scene and nobody’s complaining any more.

        Reply
    1. Not Jennifer Gibbs

      This may be a bit pedantic and a simple quibble regarding semantics, but I don’t think it accurate to say that George Brett didn’t walk much. He may not have been Barry Bonds, but he had above average walk rates compared to the league average throughout much of his career and even topped 100 once.

      Reply
    2. rbterry

      Actually, Brett walked 9.4% of the time over his career. (He also walked more than he struck out!). If today’s Royals walked at Brett’s rate, they would have over 100 additional walks so far this season (good for 5th in the league) and have 41 more walks than the league average. What Brett would not do….unlike today’s Royals….is consistently swing at pitches out of the strike zone.

      Reply
  11. Frank

    Taking everything into consideration I think the real flaw in the current philosophy is that Ned doesn’t know how to finish the job. Yes I agree hitters need to mature and take more walks, but what I see missing are more hit & run, squeeze plays and the like to make something happen and scratch out a run. The Royals are 10-20 in 1-run games this year. If you have a team with little power, but good speed and decent average you have to play that hand every chance you get.

    Reply
  12. p.d.

    Does it occur to anyone that Dayton Moore is a patsy, obscuring the fact that David Glass doesn’t want to spend the money to field a competitive team. Dayton Moore’s job security is not his ability run a team, but his earnest (but ultimately misguided) belief that he can win with the hand that he’s been dealt.

    Reply
    1. KD_in_KC

      p.d. That sounds good in theory….however can you explain how a team with a salary 16 million LOWER than the Royals 2014 salary total is leading the AL West, AL and MLB in wins? Money can’t buy happiness… Just ask the Yankees or the Rangers. Maybe Dayton Moore thought he would be the next Billy Beane, Maybe he felt it only take’s a few years and a bunch of guys that are slotted high in the draft to be successful. I don’t know, but it’s obviously not working. I still feel another year of Seitzer would have been more beneficial.

      As we’ve seen, Hosmer, Moose Tacos, Butler, Perez and Gordon can drive the ball. But where a hitting coach comes in is charting the pitchers, the metrics. Getting into the hitters heads that they should be looking for X things in each at bat. I think we have a few guys that want to win and are committed to the team (Perez comes to mind) and others that feel they can get by on some natural ability and ‘don’t need a coach to teach me how to hit a goddam baseball’ (Moose / Hosmer).

      Reply
  13. MikeN

    I don’t agree. I think you have to account for the market. Can Kansas City survive if games become four hour walkathons? Putting the ball in play provides excitement that can bring in more fans. It’s one thing if Kansas City can become like the Oakland A’s, and dominate the division. But if all they are gaining is a few wins, I would rather have the steals and hits.

    Reply
    1. mrpinkfloyd71

      So, is it really your contention that losing games in a fun and exciting way will attract more fans than if they win albeit by walking more?

      Rather have the steals and the hits? Seriously? Man, you are certainly and Royals dream of a fan

      Reply
      1. MikeN

        Yes, it is what I think. Baseball is dying. I’ve been watching the Red Sox for 20 years. When I took my son to a game against the Yankees, I made sure to pick the game Lester was pitching against Sabathia, just to try and get a shorter game. I don’t know if Kansas City is doing what I explain there, but I don’t think it is ridiculous to sacrifice wins for a more entertaining game.

        Reply
  14. wjones58

    I don’t know if this is anything or not, but Yost served for several years as the right-hand man of Bobby Cox. The same with Dayton Moore and John Scherholtz. For all the Braves’ successes over the past quarter century, they have had issues, especially in Turner Field, hitting consistently. Now like one poster above said, when there were good hitters it was great, like Chipper, like Sheffield, like J.D. Drew and Teixiera the one year they were there. But there is a pattern of both young players and traded-for/free agent players who have had trouble hitting there. Reggie Sanders. Dan Uggla. B.J. Upton. Nate McLouth. Troy Glaus. Raul Mondesi. B. J. Surhoff. Some other players, from Andruw Jones to Jeff Francoeur to even Brian McCann had some great years, but ended their Braves careers struggling. Maybe other teams have some of this and I just follow the Braves more, but we sure seem to have more of those issues than others. Our saving grace is the continual ability to develop and acquire decent starting staffs and bullpens.

    Reply
    1. bellweather22

      Could you pick a worse list of examples? Surhoff, Glaus and Mondesi were washed up, low budget acquisitions that were high risk and didn’t work out. None did anything afterwards. McLouth was bad for the Braves, after being pretty good for the Pirates, but he has never been much since with several teams. Some think it centered around a concussion he suffered that he never fully returned from. Andruw Jones had many, many good years with the Braves before he got fat and cratered. He continued being awful with the Dodgers and the Yankees in the following years. McCann had several All Star years with the Braves before seemingly the rigors of catching and injuries eroded his skills. Sanders is a reasonable example, since he was awful for the Braves, and productive elsewhere. Uggla is mystifying. He just lost it. He didn’t even change divisions, and it’s not like Miami had a great hitters park. So of your examples, only Uggla and Sanders could reasonably fit the idea that good players can suddenly become bad because of, I guess you were saying, not being able to play at Turner Field.

      Reply
  15. sudarshan hebbar

    Shouldn’t Diane Firstman receive mention in your article on Royals and strikeouts? Seems that her Royals and “Anti-Three True Outcomes” formed the basis for your article. The conclusion you reach, however, is not necessarily correct given that the 70s/80s Royals had a lower strikeout percentage than the league but hit home runs and took walks at same rate as league. It is the walks and home runs that matter as Diane points out.

    http://www.hardballtimes.com/the-royals-and-anti-three-true-outcomes/

    Reply
  16. Donald A. Coffin

    So I wondered how accurate Joe’s rant about the Royals’ offense really is. And I did what I tend to do–I looked at the data myself.

    So far in 2014, across the majors, runs scored average 34.6% of baserunners (H+W+HBP; reaching base on errors is excluded solely because I couldn’t find the relevant data. KC has scored 33.8% of its baserunners. If KC were at the ML average, they would have scored 9 more runs so far (about 9% more–they have scored 396, instead of 405). Not a big deal.

    But, of course, what Joe is arguing is that the Royals are failing because they don’t get as many runners on base to begin with, because of the apparent emphasis on making contact. Well…

    The Royals have averaged 11.83 base runners a game, compared to the MLB average of 11.93 In 99 games (as of yesterday–July 23), that’s a deficit of about 11 baserunners. That accounts for about half of KC’s scoring deficit (the other half is their below-average scoring-once-on-base rate). The baserunner deficit consists of KC having 40 *more* hits than the average team (901 compared to 861), but 57 fewer walks (239, compared to 296). (OK, that’s 17 fewer baserunners, but KC has also played one less game than the average team.)

    (KC has 184 fewer Ks than the average team–586 to 770, and 31 fewer HRs–57 to 88; but 10 more doubles, 182 to 172.)

    So Joe is actually onto something–KC has scored about 9 fewer runs than the average team. About half of that is from having fewer baserunners (and more than all of that deficit comes from the low walk total). The other half comes from a failure to get them home once they are on base. And a lot of that comes from a lack of power–fewer HRs, not offset by a corresponding increase in other power stats. But the effect, frankly, is small. Maybe 2 wins across a season.

    Reply
    1. luke

      two wins to reach league average, correct? which would not quite be the goal. doesn’t that apply to all of your statistics you listed–only adjusting to league average? the goal is to be above league average.

      hitting balls outside of the strike zone seems to have correlation with less power. putting balls in play and not striking out seems to yield the sort of results the royals have had. small sample size though.

      Reply
      1. Donald A. Coffin

        Well, not everyone can be above average, right? (If everyone does everything right, wouldn’t everyone wind up at average?) And getting to average is a beginning, in any case.

        Reply
        1. Rich

          And if an average number of runs scored is paired with above-average run prevention (below-average runs scored) you have a team that can win. You might see that as a lesson of recent Giants success, with due apologies to Posey, Sandoval, and Belt for providing actual offense. Last year and this year, the Royals have been at or near the top of run prevention, but lacking the offensive production to take advantage.

          On the whole, I think the difference in runs scored based on OBP understates Joe’s assumed adverse effect of contact emphasis on slugging–the extreme case being David Ortiz, anonymous as an up-the-middle line drive hitter but pretty spectacular when free to seek loft. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to try modelling the repressive effects of contact emphasis, or to assess whether KC’s younger players are especially susceptible to slug-repression. But I feel like it could be done, to some degree. But maybe it’s the (other) curse of Steve Balboni, no Royal shall be third or better in homers again.

          Reply
      2. Donald A. Coffin

        And I’d suggest that the striking-out less means hitting more balls *in* the strike zone.

        Reply
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  18. Eli

    It is highly interesting how the man behind 99% of the Royals’ incompetence, Dayton Moore, doesn’t even get mentioned in the article.

    Anyway, he’s gotta go. He didn’t deserve a payroll increase at the deadline, and he doesn’t deserve another year.

    Reply
  19. Robert Gregory

    It has occured to me before, and it occured to me again while I read your post, that Putting The Ball In Play may become a more effective strategy in the coming years. My reasoning is as follows:
    The importance of On-base Percentage has become realised by more managers than before.
    Ergo, batsmen are less likely than before to swing at pitches outside the strike zone.
    Ergo, fewer balls are being put into play than before. Walks are up and strikeouts are up.
    Ergo, (1) It is more important than before for pitchers to keep the ball in the strike zone, because if they don’t the batsman won’t swing at it; and (2) fielding has become less important.
    Ergo, (1) Batsmen will have to try to put the ball in play because the pitcher is less likely to walk them; and (2) If they do put the ball in play, they are more likely to get on base than before, because of the reduced defensive efficiency.

    Of course, batsmen will still have to avoid swinging at balls in order to make this state of affairs work for them. If they don’t lay off the bad pitches, they won’t be able to take advantage of the good ones.
    And of course, in the long run, more balls being put into play will result in an increased demand for defensively skilled players, defensive efficiency will go up, and batsmen will respond to this by putting fewer balls in play. Baseball is a self-correcting system, which will always return to an equilibrium.
    Nonetheless, even with these caveats, might this theory go some way towards explaing the Royals’ renaissance this year?

    Reply
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