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Those free swingin’ Royals

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They never saw a pitch they didn't like.

Kansas City Royals v Boston Red Sox Photo by Rich Gagnon/Getty Images

The Royals offense is on life support right now. Aside from 2015, it has never been a strong, healthy lineup capable of hanging a crooked number at any time. Since George Brett retired in 1993, the Royals have finished in the top half of the league in runs scored just five times in 23 seasons. This year, they are dead last.

One of the big problems has been plate discipline. The Royals have not finished in the top half of the league in walks drawn since 1989. The Royals have finished dead last in the league in walks in each of the last three seasons. Typically, they have tried to overcome their lack of walks by keeping down the number of strikeouts, leading to a high-contact approach. In 2015, that approach worked and the Royals were perhaps the best contact team in modern baseball history.

But this year, the whiffs have significantly increased. Royals hitters whiff at more pitches than any other team than the Rays, swinging and missing 12.2% of all of the pitches they saw, according to Fangraphs. In 2015, they missed just 8.6% of the time.

Part of the problem is chasing pitches out of the zone. Even Ned Yost recognizes the problem.

Sean Thornton at Bleeding Royal Blue touched upon some of the numbers.

There is no bigger factor than looking at what pitches the Royals are swinging at. So far this year, the batters are swinging at 34.3% of pitches outside the strike zone, leading the AL. Fascinating enough, the team is also swinging at 70.2% of pitches within the strike zone (tops in the AL), which means this team is swinging at almost everything being tossed up there. The sad part is that they are only making contact 75% of the time, which earns them 2nd worst in the American League behind only Tampa Bay. The Royals are swinging and missing at pitches 12.5% of the time, the 2nd highest in the AL as well.

No team swings at more pitches outside the strike zone than the Royals. This was true last year, when they topped the league at 33.4%. In 2015, they were fifth at 32.5%. So they have had a history of swinging at pitches outside the zone. The difference is that now they are missing. In 2015, they were second in the league at making contact at pitches out of the strike zone at 68.8%. Last year that fell to 62.7%. This year it is at 61.9% - only eight clubs are worse.

The culprits are fairly obvious. Salvador Perez is fifth in baseball at swinging at pitches out of the zone at 43.1%. Paulo Orlando, Alcides Escobar and Mike Moustakas are all  in the top 25. Mondesi and Orlando were two of the worst hitters at making contact at pitches out of the zone. Orlando, Mondesi, and Brandon Moss are all in the top 15 among players in swings and misses of total pitches seen.

While the Royals have always been free swingers, they are much worse now. Salvador Perez was the only Royals hitter in the top 30 of hitters in baseball at swinging at pitches out of the zone in 2015. No Royals were in the top 30 of swings and misses of total pitches seen.

This could be just a small sample size slump. But this isn't exactly the same team as in 2015 either. Omar Infante, for all his flaws, was a decent contact hitter, especially in comparison to this year's starting second baseman Raul Mondesi. Same for Alex Rios in comparison to Paulo Orlando. Kendrys Morales was certainly an upgrade over Brandon Moss.

As for the rest of the hitters, well they are two years older. The rise of strikeouts across the league may be difficult for them to adjust to. Some may be pressing as free agency nears. The following table compares the percentage of pitches swung at outside the zone in 2015 and 2017, then the percentage of contact made on swings in 2015 and 2017.

2015 O-Swing% 2017 O-Swing% 2015 Contact% 2017 Contact%
Lorenzo Cain 35.1 27.9 82.9 80.4
Alcides Escobar 35.4 39.8 83.8 77.3
Alex Gordon 22.5 28.0 78.3 81.4
Eric Hosmer 32.2 27.8 80.7 75.6
Mike Moustakas 33.0 38.9 85.0 78.0
Salvador Perez 42.5 43.1 83.2 79.7

The Royals have always been a free-swinging approach, and in 2015, that approach worked out for them. But it also reinforced the philosophy of that approach, and now they are finding that it may not work in a changing game. The offense will improve, and perhaps the Royals plate discipline will improve slightly this season. But this has been an underlying problem with Royals lineups for decades, and unless there is a philosophical shift in mindset from hacking away at the plate, the Royals will likely continue to struggle on offense.