How the Royals Fare Against Power Pitching

Allow me to oversimplify the upcoming World Series: earlier in games, the Mets are going to send out pitcher after pitcher armed with a shoulder bazooka. The Royals will try to deflect their attacks by swatting the shells away, which they’re particularly good at doing. If the Royals do well enough swatting, then they’ll take the advantageous position, trotting out their own bazookas. And the Mets won’t have much defense against that. In case this oversimplification failed to make anything clearer, the Royals just want to get leads to their bullpen. Which means a critical match-up will be the Royals’ famously contact-heavy bats against the Mets’ famously velocity-heavy arms.

Sometimes, when you’re looking for keys and distinguishing characteristics, you really have to dig and get at the subtleties. This one is super obvious. The Mets are driven by their hard-throwing starters. The Royals are driven at least in part by their aggressive, ball-in-play lineup. The Mets’ rotation is historically powerful. The Royals’ lineup is historically good at touching the baseball. It’s something that’s just begging to be analyzed. And, it has been analyzed already. I’ve just decided to go about it a different way.

The core question: what to expect from the Royals offense against a bunch of hard-throwers? There’s some evidence that contact-hitting teams enjoy a slight postseason edge. Ben Lindbergh looked at contact- and non-contact-hitting players against strikeout and non-strikeout pitchers. The Royals, this very season, were one of the top-hitting teams in baseball against high-velocity fastballs. But I want to do here what I did with the Cubs. I don’t want to split pitchers by strikeout ability. I’m mostly concerned with velocity. And I don’t want to look only at the pitches with high velocities, because hard-throwing pitchers throw softer stuff, too. I want to see what the Royals did against different groups of pitchers, broken down by top speed.

I collected data for every pitcher who faced the Royals during the regular season. I could’ve folded in the playoffs, but that would’ve introduced another level of annoyance, and I don’t think it would change the results too much. Once I had those numbers, I added each pitcher’s average fastball velocity. Then I sorted in descending order of that, and I split the whole pool into thirds — the hardest-throwing third, the medium-throwing third, and the softest-throwing third.

In the table below, you’ll see how the Royals did against each group, by OPS and strikeout rate. Also included: the weighted averages for each group, against non-Royals opponents. Those are the references.

Royals vs. Pitchers Grouped By Velocity, 2015
Velocity Group Average FA (mph) Royals OPS Royals K% non-Royals OPS non-Royals K%
Highest 94.7 0.722 17% 0.704 23%
Middle 92.1 0.748 16% 0.722 20%
Lowest 88.9 0.725 15% 0.747 19%
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs

By this data, the Royals were at their best against the middle group — their OPS was 4% better than you would’ve expected, based on the league. But I think people are mostly interested in the first and third groups. And here, the results are the opposite of what we found with the Cubs, who have a very different offense. It’s in keeping with what Lindbergh found, when he grouped pitchers differently. Against the hardest-throwing opponents, the Royals hit better than the rest of the league did. Against the softest-throwing opponents, the Royals hit worse than the rest of the league did. Against the hardest-throwing opponents, the Royals’ strikeout rate was 73% of the average. Against the softest-throwing opponents, the Royals’ strikeout rate was 80% of the average.

As before, I have to note two potential issues — there’s the issue of sample size, and there’s the issue of non-uniform hitter distribution between groups. But the smallest of the three samples is just shy of 1,600 plate appearances, and the hitter distribution should be pretty even. So this functions all right, I suspect. The results shouldn’t be all that surprising.

We’re not looking at an enormous effect, here. The lineup doesn’t behave completely differently against different pitchers. But it does seem like the Royals have a slight edge against power opponents, and then that gets balanced out by a relative weakness against the finesse types. If you want to personify the groups, the Royals made some solid contact last week against David Price, but they had bigger problems with Marco Estrada. This would confirm the theory that the Royals have an okay match-up against the Mets. Not that the Royals have the best offense in baseball, and not like anyone wants to face the Mets’ starters, but the Royals should do better than an equivalent offense with more power and strikeouts. The contact should work in their favor, somewhat.

Why might that be? Here’s how I’m currently thinking about it. As has been demonstrated, groundball pitchers have an edge against groundball hitters, and fly-ball pitchers have an edge against fly-ball hitters. When you reverse the types, though, then the hitter has a sort of platoon advantage. I think this could work similarly. This is another oversimplification, but powerful pitchers are accustomed to getting a lot of their outs with strikeouts. Weaker pitchers are more likely to traffic in command and soft contact. So for a given finesse pitcher, a contact-heavy lineup plays right into his hands. It’s the opposite for a power pitcher. I might be wrong on this, but it’s the best explanation I have. The Royals lineup is excellent at doing the opposite of what the Mets rotation is excellent at, and I think that’s a real factor.

Probably not a huge factor. Probably not a series-deciding factor. But, I guess anything can decide a series. To this point in the playoffs, Mets starters have struck out 31% of the batters they’ve faced. Royals hitters have struck out in 17% of their trips to the plate. It’s possible the Royals will just get overwhelmed by the pitching they see, but if they go as they’ve gone, those Mets pitchers are going to see more balls in play than they’re used to. And that’s when the bad things can happen.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Shirtless Bartolo Colon
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Shirtless Bartolo Colon

My gut tells me the Mets need a crafty veteran throwing high 80s heat to start Game 4, to break up all the cheese throwers in the rotation.

francis
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francis

Maybe they should throw underhand.