A lot of ink has been spilled on this website and many others about the problems with the Kansas City Royals offense. It's still early in the season, but the Royals difficulties with scoring are not new or completely unexpected, making the current struggles look more like a continuation of previous problems than a small sample size blip.
Rany Jazayerli outlined the Royals offensive decline in his latest post, writing:
three years ago, the Royals finished 6th in the AL in runs scored, fifth in OBP, and fifth in slugging average...The next year, they finished a disappointing 12th in runs scored, 8th in OBP, and 10th in slugging, and Seitzer got fired. Last year they finished 11th in runs, 9th in OBP, and 12th in slugging. So far this year, they're 14th in runs, 13th in OBP, and 15th in slugging....Their league ranks in OBP and slugging average have declined three straight years.
Mr. Jazayerli wants to suggest that the firing of hitting coach Kevin Seitzer may have something to do with the team's problems, or at the very least didn't help. I don't have a strong opinion on Seitzer, or on hitting coaches in general, but the fact remains that the Royals offense has gotten worse despite having a number of young players who were expected to improve during that time frame.
The lack of home runs is definitely a problem that we have harped on, but the team's issues are bigger than the long ball. You can live without a lot of homers if you have four players hit at least 44 doubles, like the 2011 team did. It also helps if five of the six players who received the most plate appearances posted an above-average OBP (even Jeff Francoeur).
Right now the Royals aren't hitting for any sort of power or reaching base at an above-average clip, and Mike Petriello of Fangraphs has identified a major reason why; the team hits too many pitches outside of the strike zone.
This shouldn't be a revelation to anyone who has watched the Royals over the past few seasons, but Petriello does a great job of putting the Royals problems into perspective. You should really read his entire article, but I'm going to include a couple of snippets here. He first notes that the Royals have seen the lowest percentage of pitches inside the strike zone this season at 44.7%. This fact is counter-intuitive; pitchers normally pound the strike zone against teams and players who have little power, not avoid it.
Petriello then created a chart of each MLB's team's O-Contact%, or how often a team makes contact on pitches outside the strike zone. Petriello writes:
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.
The Royals also swing at an above-average number of pitches outside of the strike zone, making a ton of contact on those pitches. Pitchers have realized that they don't need to throw the Royals strikes, since they will make contact on pitches outside the strike zone. This is not what you want from your offense, since batters are more likely to get a hit on a pitch inside the strike zone. Petriello included that data in his post as well:
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
I love when research helps reinforce assumed truths about baseball, like swinging at balls is bad and swinging at strikes is good. Petriello's point is quite clear: the Royals are hurting themselves by swinging and making contact on pitches outside the strike zone.
You could argue that it's better that the team makes contact on these pitches instead of missing them, but it would be ideal if the Royals cut down on the pitches they swung at outside the strike zone. Of course, I don't expect the hitters to magically fix the problem and start using a more productive plate approach. The team has paid lip service to key offensive pillars like getting on base, hitting for power and using a good approach at the plate, but the past three seasons of data show that they aren't fixing any of the problems.
One of the most frustrating parts about reading the Fangraphs article is how blindingly obvious it seems. "Don't swing at a pitcher's pitch" is not some newfangled idea born on a spreadsheet in my mother's basement, but the Royals seem to be ignoring this idea just as well as they ignore any post-1980 ideas on how to score runs. If the team wanted players to swing at less pitches outside of the strike zone, they could have coached them to do so over the past three years or acquired players who excel at pitch selection. Instead, they appear to have done the opposite.
Sometimes being a Royals fan feels like we exist in a time loop, stumbling through each season as Phil Connors in Groundhog Day. You watch the games, point out that this offense doesn't hit for enough power/take enough walks/properly evaluate the strike zone. You hope that things improve during the season or over the offseason, but find yourself offering the same criticisms of the team next season.
It's aggravating to see the same problems pop up, see nothing being done about the problems are realizing that you as a fan cannot do anything about the problem either. Our fearless leader touched on this issue towards the end of his piece yesterday. The Royals can keep denying the obvious and continue attempting to hit pitches outside the strike zone. All we can do is complain about the decision and hope that the team wins in spite of their plate approach.