Why Challenge The Royals, When They’ll Just Help You Out?

The Royals, as you most likely know, are something far from a powerful team. It took them until April 9 to hit their first homer of the year, an Alex Gordon shot that likely wouldn’t have made it out of any ballpark in the big leagues had it not been wind-aided. It took them until April 15 to hit their second. Even now, 24 games into the season, they have only 10, four coming in the span of a week from Mike Moustakas, who has just 13 total hits — and a .159/.213/.354 line — all year. They have as many homers as a team as Jose Abreu does on his own. Their isolated power is .001 better than that of the Mets, and is in shouting distance of the worst mark we’ve seen in decades. They’re on pace for 67 homers. No one has hit fewer than 70 since the 1991 St. Louis Cardinals, who had only Todd Zeile break into double-digits with 11.

This isn’t a surprise. The Royals hit the fewest homers in the American League last year, and they tied with Minnesota for the fewest in 2012. This wasn’t built to be a powerful team, and it’s not.

This is a surprise, at least it was when I first saw it: Pitchers aren’t challenging the Royals hitters in the way that you’d think. Kansas City’s Zone% is 44.7. That’s the lowest in baseball. Every other team in the game sees a higher percentage of their pitches in the strike zone. Not the Royals. It’s almost as though pitchers are afraid of them. Rather than being pitched like Marco Scutaro, Zack Cozart or Darwin Barney (all among the 10 leaders in Zone% last year), they’re being avoided like they’re Prince Fielder, Giancarlo Stanton or Josh Hamilton (among the 10 trailers).

That is, of course, beyond counter-intuitive. The Royals as a whole are hitting something like 2012 Barney, when it comes to power. (He had a .100 ISO and a .354 SLG; the Royals are at .101 and .361.) This is not something to aspire to. One would think that with offense like that, with so little chance of being burned by a homer or even an extra-base hit, pitchers would do almost nothing but throw strikes. Why not?

Well, there’s this: They don’t need to.


That’s a visual representation of the current O-Contact% numbers, which shows you how often a team makes contact on a pitch outside the zone. Needless to say, the Royals are the only team over 70%, all the way up at 74.5%. This isn’t exactly a new thing, either. Since 2010, 10 teams have had an O-Contact% north of 70%. The 2014 Royals sit atop that list too, but they’re also joined by the 2010 Royals… and the 2011 Royals… and the 2012 Royals… and the 2013 Royals. Whether it’s organizational mandate or the players they’ve collected — likely a bit of both — these Royals love to swing outside the zone, and they’re good at making contact with those pitches. They’re so good at it, in fact, that no team since 2002, when this data goes back to, tops them. (The only one that comes close: the 2011 Royals. Of course.)

Usually making contact is good, but suddenly, you understand why pitchers don’t necessarily feel the need to throw strikes to the Royals. Why give them something worth hitting, when they’ll go out of their way to hit balls out of the zone? It’s not that the Royals swing at pitches outside the zone at a fantastically high rate — 30.4 percent, seventh in the bigs and above the 28.8 percent league average — but they do make contact, overall, at a much above-average rate. Right now, the Royals have a 6.9% swinging-strike percentage. It’s not only the lowest in the bigs, it’s one of just eight team seasons since 2002 to be less than seven percent — and remember, as the game continues to strike out more and more, that’s a lot more impressive than it was when the 2007 Yankees had a 6.8% mark. (Unsurprisingly, the 2014 Royals have the sixth-best contact rate since 2002.)

So what the Royals have managed to come up with is a team that rarely swings and misses, also likes to swing at pitches outside the zone, and, understandably, makes more contact outside the zone. This is, of course, the problem: unless you’re Vladimir Guerrero, those are very rarely the kinds of pitches you want to be making contact with. Sure, you can hit them, but can you really hit them? It’s the kind of thing that seems so obvious that you shouldn’t need the numbers, but here are the numbers:

Hits on pitches marked as balls by PITCHf/x
2014 — 1.84 percent
2008-14 — 2.00 percent

Hits on pitches marked as strikes by PITCHf/x
2014 — 4.39 percent
2008-14 — 4.47 percent

You’re more likely to get a hit on a ball in the zone than not. Obviously. And now looking at just hits as a percentage of swings, not all pitches:

Hits on swings marked as balls by PITCHf/x
2014 — 10.0 percent
2008-14 — 10.4 percent

Hits on swings marked as strikes by PITCHf/x
2014 –17.0 percent
2008-14 — 17.3 percent

Sometimes, the thing that seems really obvious and the numbers work in concert. There doesn’t always have to be a disagreement between the old and the new. When you swing at a pitch outside the zone, you’re absolutely less likely to see a positive outcome. That’s one of the reasons the best pitchers are the best; just look at the names on the top of the O-Swing% list.  You see Masahiro Tanaka, you see Zack Greinke, and Felix Hernandez, and Stephen Strasburg, and Jose Fernandez. (And, for some reason, Phil Hughes.) This isn’t really an accident. If you’re a pitcher, and you can get a hitter to swing at your pitch, then you’ve done your job. Even if the batter gets wood on it, he’s not likely to be in position to do anything particularly valuable with it.

A few days ago, Dave Cameron looked at how the Twins, a team pretty devoid of elite offensive talent outside of Joe Mauer, have managed to score runs and win games by swinging less, increasing their walk rate — and their runners on base, of course — and decreasing their swing rate outside the zone. The Royals have managed to do the exact opposite. They’re not patient. They’re not powerful. They’re not swinging at the right pitches. And they’re sitting at .500, despite a pitching staff that really has been very good.

For opposing pitchers, it’s a win/win. The Royals won’t make you pay if you come into the zone, and they won’t lay off the bad pitch if you don’t. That’s a great combination if you’re going against them. It’s not if you’re a Kansas City fan.

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not.

Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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Robert Hombre
Robert Hombre

I’m curious and have been so: is the gap in hit rate just as a result of whiffs and foul contact, or are fair-hit balls also less likely to go for hits? It’s intuitive that the latter WOULD be true, but I’ve never seen anything one way or another.