The Royals came into last off-season looking to increase their power. The acquisitions of Jorge Soler and Brandon Moss were part of a recognition that the game was changing. The pop-gun Royals offense of 2014, where they won a pennant despite finishing dead last in the league in home runs, was no longer going to cut it. Home runs were on the rise, and the Royals were going to have to get on the dinger train, or be left in the dust.
To their credit, they jumped aboard with full gusto, and it worked. Home runs are way up with the Royals. Even though Soler was a bust this year, and Moss had many struggles, the Royals have hit 161 home runs this year, and are easily on pace to set the franchise record of 168, set in 1987. Even though home run rates rose 9% this year across MLB, the Royals have enjoyed a greater increase, by 12%, over their home run pace last year. They are still not a great home-run hitting team, but they have gone from being dead last in homers in 2016, to tenth this year, just a bit below the league-average.
Despite this, the Royals offense has continued to sputter. The team had a historically awful April, then set a franchise record for most consecutive scoreless innings in August. The Royals have scored the third-fewest runs-per-game in the American League, just nine total runs better than the worst team, Toronto.
The whiff rate has something to do with it. The Royals had a historically-high contact rate in 2015, striking out just 15.9% of the time. They are still among the best teams in putting the ball in play, but are much more pedestrian, striking out 19.9% of the time, fifth-best in the American League. The Royals have also been a bit unlucky on balls put in play this year, with a BABIP of .292, compared to .301 in 2015.
Lee Judge made an interesting point in a recent column, suggesting pitchers are using the Royals’ over-aggression against them.
Other teams are paying attention and the Tampa Bay Rays clearly had a plan for throwing that first pitch.
Monday night the Rays threw 31 first pitches and 14 of them were off-speed. If the Rays pitchers threw a first-pitch fastball, they either threw it off the plate for a ball or, if they threw it for a strike, tried to throw it on the outside corner.
The Royals are second in the American League in swinging at pitches out of the strike zone, according to Fangraphs. So even though they are the best team in the league at making contact at pitches IN the strike zone, their lack of selectivity is costing them. Swinging at pitches out of the strike zone leads to whiffs and poor contact.
So they are putting fewer balls in play, and more balls in play are leading to more outs. When the Royals do put the ball over the fence, they are finding fewer baserunners to drive home than other teams. For the Royals, 62% of their home runs have been solo shots, compared to 59% for all of baseball. The Royals are dead last in on-base percentage and walks in the American League this year.
The Royals are also much worse in “clutch” hitting this year as opposed to 2015. They are hitting .262/.331/.401 with runners in scoring position compared to .281/.347/.426 in 2015. The higher strikeout rate could have a lot to do with that, as well as the volatility in “clutch” hitting stats on a year-to-year basis. The 2015 Royals were probably a bit lucky, this year’s team doesn’t have a horseshoe or even a lucky mantis.
As for walks, this team has never walked much. Their walk rate is actually up slightly (6.5%) from 2015 (6.3%). But the lack of walks - a rate that is typically more stable over time than batting average - makes the Royals much more reliant on putting the ball in play, which is problematic.
The problem is put very well in 140 characters here.
I'm a broken record by now-Royals seldom walk, swing @ everything-that approach->wild swings in BABIP, slumps worse due to fewer baserunners— thelaundry (@thelaundrykcstl) August 29, 2017
It is tempting to use Kauffman Stadium as an excuse for why the Royals struggle to score runs, but while the stadium suppresses home runs, it is actually neutral to run-scoring, due to its deep alleys and comfortable hitting environment. And the Royals have had a top run-scoring offense before. In the 1970s, the team was consistently in the top five in runs scored. They also drew walks back then, leading the league in 1972.
It is hard to get a cat to change its stripes, but if the Royals ever want to truly have a dynamic offense, they will probably have to get hitters that can get on base. Either that will have to be through extreme high-contact hitters, or players that get on base via walk, or both. Kudos to Dayton Moore for recognizing the club needed more power, but the Royals are still lacking players to drive home.