The Royals, Alex Rios, and Hitting Everything in Sight

You might expect the Kansas City Royals to have a big offseason after their fabled run to the World Series that reignited a love of baseball in the entire region of Missouri which doesn’t root for the Cardinals. Maybe they would sign someone to fill the offensive power void and boost run production, or try to extend James Shields, who was hitting free agency. That didn’t happen. Instead, their offseason can be summed up by the front office giving 17 million dollars to Kendrys Morales, which is still a surprisingly strange sentence to type, even a few months after the deal.

Jeff went into the Royal’s offseason moves in depth in December, so I’ll just give us the necessary information to frame the issue we’re addressing today: in addition to Morales, Alex Rios joined the offensive party, and Dayton Moore signed Eric Hosmer to a two-year deal to avoid arbitration. There were a few other minor deals — Joe Blanton comes to mind, because Joe Blanton — but all in all, it was a fairly pedestrian offseason filled with signing replacement level players with bounce-back ability. What we’re going to look at today is how those offensive signings fit into a Royal’s offensive approach that was nothing short of exceptionally unique in 2014.

The Royals are an unorthodox team in their current incarnation. I could throw out any number of Yostisms related to grit and bunting here, but I did some of that last year and I’m still removing my foot from my mouth. Instead, I will say simply what most of us know: they are constructed defensively and try to put the ball in play when at the plate. However, when you think of “put the ball in play”, you really aren’t capturing the level of the Royals’ desire to do so. Let’s look at this plot, which graphs strikeout rate and walk rate for all major league teams in 2014 (hover over specific data points for exact stats):

Hello down there!

The Royals basically didn’t strikeout or walk in 2014. Only one thing can drive this offensive approach, and that is a ton of contact – all kinds of contact, good and bad. They had that covered, and, as the following graph shows, swinging at and hitting pitches outside of the strike zone is generally not a great way to generate a lot of power. Look at the strong inverse correlation between O-Contact% and ISO:

The 2014 Royals posted the fifth-lowest ISO and 10th highest O-Contact% in the majors since the year 2000. What might be surprising is that this is not a new phenomenon for Kansas City. It is, in fact, completely standard for them recently. Take a look at the top 10 teams for O-Contact% since 2002, when data started to be available:

Team O-Contact%
2011 Royals 74.0%
2011 Mets 72.9%
2012 Royals 72.4%
2012 Twins 72.0%
2011 Red Sox 71.9%
2010 Royals 71.9%
2011 White Sox 71.8%
2010 Twins 71.2%
2014 Royals 71.2%
2014 Yankees 71.2%

We can infer the 2014 approach wasn’t a fluke, given the recent track record above. So, with that in mind, how do the new signings of Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios impact that approach? Are Morales and Rios going to provide a different look to the Royal’s offense, or is the team going to continue to hit everything possible with them in the lineup?

At first glance, Rios appears to be the model player for the current Kansas City Royals: he had diminished power this past year, an average to below-average strikeout rate, low walk rate, and great contact skills (especially outside the strikezone). After two great years for the White Sox and Rangers in 2012 and 2013, during which he stole a combined 65 bases with 43 home runs, his power output completely dropped off the table last year due mainly to a 2.9% HR/FB rate (with no statistically significant drop off in batted ball distance from the previous year). The Royals, as said before, are hoping for a bounce back from him, and they certainly might get it — his line drive rate was a career-best 23.5% last year, and his other peripherals were right in line with his career norms.

Morales, on the other hand, is very much a wildcard. With a full spring training under his belt to start the season instead of a Boras-infused hold out, it’s conceivable that he could be an above-average hitter with the Royals. Further, he has the power potential that they sorely need, and his middling strikeout and walk rates might be an improvement over Kansas City’s current marks. It’s anyone’s guess what to expect out of Morales, but he was a good hitter until last year, and the hold out didn’t do him any favors. Now let’s take a look at the O-Contact% of both Rios and Morales in comparison to the league average since 2006. Keep in mind that Morales missed 2011 with the broken leg:

It looks like Rios will fit in very nicely with the Royal’s plan to hit the ball at all costs, which might have been part of the plan all along. Morales is a bit of a departure from that approach, but who knows — his new teammates might teach him a thing or two about it. Just out of curiosity, I’ve tried to find interviews with coaches and players from Kansas City specifically talking about this approach at the plate, but haven’t yet been able to find anything of real substance. Perhaps it’s a yet uncovered Yostism, waiting for us to discover. Or, maybe, the Royals are just really good at hitting everything in sight.

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Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.

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This was awesome.