The Royals Are Basically the Best Contact Team Ever

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:

2015-relative-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.

10 Lowest Relative Strikeout Rates
Season Team K% Z-Score
2015 Royals 15.5% -2.56
2002 Angels 12.6% -2.44
1982 Indians 9.8% -2.36
1969 Braves 9.2% -2.31
1962 White Sox 9.6% -2.29
2004 Giants 12.5% -2.29
1975 Cardinals 9.0% -2.28
1961 White Sox 8.3% -2.24
1994 White Sox 12.5% -2.23
1986 Red Sox 11.3% -2.20

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:

team-clutch-strikeouts

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.

We hoped you liked reading The Royals Are Basically the Best Contact Team Ever by Jeff Sullivan!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




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.

newest oldest most voted
Alex
Guest
Alex

Jeff — thanks for the interesting article.

One thing I’m curious about (and haven’t the ability to check) is the correlation between strikeout rate and power. More particularly, which teams historically have had the best combination of low strikeout rate and high [home run rate / slugging percentage / iso. / etc.]?

I ask because on the table above, one team that stands out — other than the Royals, of course — is the Blue Jays, who have a K% well below average yet who lead the league in home runs. Perhaps this is not surprising, as (my recollection is that) the Jays’ sluggers (Bautista and EE) have tended to have lower than expected K rates. The rest of the league leaders in homers are mostly clustered towards the other end of the spectrum (the Yankees are slightly below [above?] average in K%). It is one thing to avoid strikeouts at the expense of power. It seems to be another entirely to avoid strikeouts while also hitting home runs.

I add the caveat that perhaps I’m entirely wrong about all of the foregoing, in which case I apologize for wasting everyone’s time.

StroShow
Member

I’d be more interested in knowing how the Jays offense compares to the league offense on a per season basis. They’re so far out in front that it’s bound to be a pretty interesting comparison, maybe more for the modern era than the Ruth times.

Basically, is the Jays offense this season really noteworthy, or just “almost” noteworthy?

Jimmy
Guest
Jimmy

Jays have a team wRc+ of 115 which puts them in top 20 for all team seasons since 1950

Jetsy Extrano
Guest
Jetsy Extrano

Jeff, you like scatterplots with labeled outliers. We all like scatterplots with labeled outliers. Can you just have Fangraphs add a page that picks two random stats and scatterplots them for player-seasons? Reload for two new random stats scatterplotted.