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.