A funny thing about doing a job like this is that you’re expected to write all the time. Which means you’re expected to write early in seasons, and you’re expected to write analytically, and when you write analytically early in seasons, you can end up looking like a moron. Earlier this season, for example, I remember writing reasonably positive things about Carlos Peguero. And early last year, over at JABO, I wrote about how the Rockies weren’t striking out anymore. You can guess what happened to Peguero. And you can guess what happened with the Rockies. The Rockies resumed striking out. They lost lots of games.
So, this isn’t anything new, but early information can mislead. We’re always just trying to separate what’s real from what’s fake, and we tend to be too impatient about that. But every so often, you can spot something legitimate. Several months ago, also at JABO, I observed that the Royals were barely ever striking out. They were on a potentially historic pace, and it was definitely something to stay aware of. To be honest, I at some point stopped being aware of it, but then I noticed again. The season’s about over, now. The Royals are thinking about the playoffs. They’ll be taking with them one hell of a group of contact hitters.
In the first half this year, the Royals, as a team, posted the lowest strikeout rate in baseball. Then they got to the All-Star break, and since that point, the Royals have again posted the lowest strikeout rate in baseball. This isn’t a huge shock, because the Royals didn’t strike out very much a year ago, so this definitely didn’t come out of nowhere. Still, it’s about the magnitude of what we can see.
There’s a graph right below this. To put AL and NL teams on a similar scale, I looked at team strikeout rates by non-pitchers. Then, for the whole group of teams, I calculated the average and the standard deviation, so then I could assign for each team a z-score, reflecting relative strikeout rate. In case you’re not familiar with z-scores, a rating of 1.0 would mean that team’s stat was one standard deviation higher than the average. Same idea goes for negative numbers. Now, here are the relative team strikeout rates:
The Cubs have the highest relative team strikeout rate, north of average by more than two standard deviations. At the other end, we see the Braves, striking out far less than the average team. But then the Royals are practically there on their own. The Braves’ team z-score is -1.43. The Royals’ team z-score is -2.56. Put another way: the difference between the Royals and the next-closest team, in terms of not striking out, is greater than a full standard deviation. The Royals are an outlier, constantly putting balls in play when so many other teams have been willing to come to terms with whiffs.
The style is more or less team-wide. At this point, 13 Royals this year have batted at least 100 times. Only one of them has a strikeout rate that’s higher than the average. That one is star outfielder Alex Gordon, and his strikeout rate is higher than average by less than two points. The Royals haven’t made contact with swings any more than, say, the A’s, but they’ve put almost a third of all strikes in play. They lead baseball, by almost two percentage points. They like to swing, and they like to hit the ball fair.
I got curious about that giant z-score, so I dug into history. I went all the way back to 1950, and for every team, I calculated a z-score for that season. In this table, you’ll find the lowest relative team strikeout rates, excluding pitchers to keep the leagues even. I know there was baseball before 1950, but the further back you go, the less recognizable the game. So this’ll suffice.
The Royals don’t have the lowest raw strikeout rate ever, but doing that would be almost impossible, given the changes in eras. Strikeouts, as you know, have gone up, so once you take that into account, then this year’s Royals really emerge. Relative to the rest of baseball, no team has struck out less often than this year’s Royals, beneath the average by more than two and a half standard deviations. Behind them you get the 2002 Angels, and it’s somewhat encouraging to know that team won the World Series. If you’re curious, last year’s Royals are four slots away from the table, with a z-score of -2.10. Those Royals seldom struck out. These Royals kicked that up a notch. Or down. I don’t know.
Something else to observe about the Royals — though their bullpen has gotten so much attention, last year their hitters led baseball in Clutch score. And this year, again, their hitters lead baseball in Clutch score, by a big margin over the Twins. Clutch hitting has been a big part of the Royals’ success, and it’s only natural to wonder if there’s a relationship between clutch team batting performance and contact ability. Here’s a plot of batting Clutch against those strikeout-rate z-scores, going back to 1974:
Would’ve been nice to find something, but nothing has been found, here. If you just look at the line, then you see a very slight relationship, but the r-squared number is pathetically small. There’s not much to indicate a link. Certainly nothing that would explain the magnitude of the Royals’ recent offensive clutch-ness. Contact hitting has worked for them, but it’s not a recipe, necessarily, for other teams to follow.
And make no mistake, there are several ways to put together a quality offense. This year the Cubs have the highest relative strikeout rate, and the Royals have the lowest, but Cubs non-pitchers have a 105 wRC+, against the Royals’ 101. The Royals very rarely strike out, but they’re also last in baseball in walks drawn, and the power is right around average. You know that the Royals aren’t an offensive juggernaut. This is more of a description of style.
But it stands to reason it’s the style preferred by Dayton Moore. For better or worse, this is what we have, and the team he’s built stands out from the pack. With the season about over, the 2015 Royals are on the verge of posting the lowest relative team strikeout rate since at least 1950. That’s not the kind of thing that happens by accident, and the Royals aren’t successful accidentally.
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