FanPost

Fatal Flaws: Walks

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

You heard the statistic over and over again: The Royals were last in the league in home runs and last in the league in walks, and yet still managed to make the playoffs. It’s a weird statistical anomaly, and the Royals have half-heartedly tried to fix one part of it by replacing Nori Aoki with Alex Rios and Billy Butler with Kendrys Morales. But the second part – the walks – are still in need of some attention.

The Royals performed far better than anyone expected last year, and to even have a shot at the postseason this year, they’ll have to outperform their projections once again. One small problem: Many of the things that they did on the way to the World Series last year are going to be very difficult to replicate.

Why it worked last year

Walks are so unfamiliar to this team that their pitchers don’t quite understand the concept.

This team swings a lot. They’re among the top 10 teams in the league in percentage of pitches swung at. And when the Royals swing, they make contact. They made contact on 81.3% of their swings last year, second only to the Yankees.

Thanks to their speed, the Royals were able to make things happen when they put the ball in play. Their entire offensive strategy was predicated on putting the ball in play – and that’s probably a good strategy when home runs are out of the question. Because of their aggressive demeanor at the plate, the Royals managed to draw the minimal amount of walks necessary to make a postseason run.

Why it won’t work this year

First of all, because the Royals actually lost a good amount of their walks to free agency.

The only regular starter left on the roster who drew more than 35 walks last year is Alex Gordon. Not coincidentally, Gordon led the team in OBP and OPS despite batting just .266. Crazy how that works.

But the troubling part about that stat is that it means the Royals only have one player in the top 140 in the league in drawing walks. At least 140 other MLB players drew more walks in 2014 than every current Royals player not named "Alex Gordon". For a player named "Salvador Perez" that number jumps to around 250.

Billy Butler and Nori Aoki drew over 40 walks last year, which, while not record-breaking, accounted for a fair amount of the Royals’ walks. How did the Royals replace those missing walks? Butler was replaced by Morales, who will probably register around the same number of walks if he manages to play a full season.

But Aoki was replaced with Rios, who only had one more walk last year than Salvador Perez. Yes, that Salvador Perez, who is worse than 250 major leaguers at drawing walks. Alex Rios is one of those 250, but he’s not anywhere close to the top end.

But enough about the players. What’s the real reason the Royals don’t walk?

Obviously, their free-swinging ways play into the situation. But one would think the Royals might be better off if they stopped swinging at 3-0 pitches.

Despite seeing almost exactly a league-average number of 3-0 pitches, the Royals still managed to draw a ridiculously low number of walks. Your suspicions are correct: the Royals swung at more 3-0 pitches than every team in baseball except the Brewers.

A good chunk of that comes from Billy Butler, who is no longer with the team. Kendrys Morales, his replacement, did not swing at a single 3-0 pitch last year. That’s a good sign.

The Royals only saw 3.74 pitches per plate appearance last year, which puts them among the five teams that work fastest at the plate. A little bit of extra patience at the plate would drive pitch counts up, and could be rewarded with a few extra walks.

The Royals don’t need a lot of extra walks. Their offensive style allows them to scrape by with minimal walks. But like most factors from last year’s magical run, it’s going to be tough to replicate that success.

If the Royals can pick up an extra walk once every two games, they’ll be right around league average in walks. I don’t think they even need that many. An extra fifty (they drew 380 last year) could result in just enough precious runs getting manufactured.

How the Royals can save the season

Let’s start at the very beginning – it’s a very good place to start. And most Royals games will begin with Alcides Escobar batting leadoff.

Escobar played in all 162 games last year, but only drew 23 walks. Like Rios, that’s only one more walk than Salvador Perez… but Escobar played in 12 more games. In 2013, Escobar only drew 19 walks. He had an OBP of .259 that year. Not exactly leadoff material.

Here is the only example of Alcides Escobar taking a walk that I was able to find in a search through MLB video:

But it sounds like Ned Yost trusts Escobar, and that means that Esky will lead off for at least the first few months of the season. It is absolutely essential for Escobar to display more patience at the plate.

The rest of the Royals need to be more patient too, perhaps none more so than Perez. Perez saw 3.34 pitches per plate appearance in 2014, half a pitch worse than the league average. We all saw the disaster that occurred at the end of October when pitchers preyed upon his free-swinging ways. If Dale Sveum isn’t working with Perez on being more patient at the plate, then we may need another hitting coach. Again.

A reassuring note on strikeouts: Being more patient at the plate would likely lead to more strikeouts in addition to the walks. But as bad as the Royals were at drawing walks, they were ridiculously good at avoiding strikeouts. They made contact a lot, including foul balls to keep at-bats alive.

The 985 strikeouts the Royals recorded were far and away the lowest total in the majors. The next closest team had over 1,100. If their walk rate improves, the Royals can afford to take more strikeouts -- and as I write that, I know that it's wrong, because no team can really afford to take strikeouts, especially a team with this offense. But the Royals should be able to take more walks while still limiting their number of strikeouts.

This FanPost was written by a member of the Royals Review community. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors and writers of this site.