I don’t know about you guys, but I’m beginning to think that the Royals might not grab that second wild card spot this year. Or have a winning record. Or avoid the franchise record for losses. Things aren’t looking good. There are certainly interesting things about this team – which is more than I would have said about them at this point last year – but interesting only goes so far. Bees are interesting; being stung still sucks.
Still, interesting is better than not-interesting, and there’s reason to be hopeful for the future. If we can’t focus on winning (sorry, we can’t), we at least have some silver linings to explore. This year’s team is not anyone’s idea of a finished product, but I see lots of improvement, and if I blur my eyes, I can maybe see where things are headed. With that in mind, I present to you a kind of sad, but maybe hopeful thing that is totally possible.
The Royals could take 500 walks this year
Actually, they probably won’t, but they might come close. For some context, breaking the 500-walk mark is not a great feat. Two thirds of the teams in baseball took 500 or more walks last year. The Dodgers led them all with 647.
No, taking 500 walks is only notable if the Royals are doing it. That’s because they haven’t taken 500+ walks since 2002. And since the league expanded to 30 teams in 1998, the Royals have never posted a season with an above-average walk rate, though they came really close in that magical 2002 season.
During that same time period, they’ve taken the fewest walks of any franchise – and it’s not even close. When I first pulled the data for this, I accidentally went back two years too far. Even with that data set, the Rays and Diamondbacks had still taken more walks than the Royals, and those teams didn’t even exist in ’96 and’97! The Royals totally existed! And even at this year’s blistering pace, the Royals are going to have to make up some ground if they want to regain entry into the half-millennium club (they’re only on pace for 476). See, I told you this would be kind of sad.
But it’s not all sadness. The “spike” in walks might just be a fluke, but it might also represent a change in the organization’s philosophy. I’m not saying that’s the case, only that it might be -- it would certainly be interesting if it was. And there’s reason to believe that it could be true.
Since Terry Bradshaw’s promotion to hitting coach, the Royals have steadily increased their walk rate and have swung at fewer pitches outside the zone; their current O-Swing% of just over 30% would be the lowest of any season in nearly a decade. 30% isn’t elite by any stretch (they rank 16th in baseball – middle of the pack) but we’re talking about a team that hasn’t had a 500-walk season in nearly two decades. Being even middle of the pack at anything plate discipline related is pretty incredible by Royals standards.
It also seems to me like the Royals’ tone regarding plate discipline has changed. Anecdotally, I feel like I hear less “just gotta be aggressive” and more “being patient and looking for my pitch” in interviews with players and coaches. Hunter Dozier has credited much of his breakout campaign to being more selective at the plate. Alex Gordon’s bounce-back has come as a result of a refined approach. Ryan O’Hearn may not be hitting like he did last year, but he’s sporting a healthy walk rate, and though he’s scuffling in the bigs, Nicky Lopez had more walks than strikeouts in AAA.
With the exception of Gordon, who has always had a good eye (what a rebel), I’m not sure that this would have happened a few years ago -- remember, Lorenzo Cain increased his walk rate considerably once he signed with Milwaukee and chalked it up to simply “trying to be more of an on-base guy now.” Also of note, the free-agent regulars signed this off-season -- Billy Hamilton and Martín Maldonado -- are walking well above their career average rates. That’s very un-Royal.
Of course, the Royals are missing franchise staple Salvador Perez and his career 3.5% walk rate right now, and they stand to have Adalberto Mondesi (5.4% on the season) in the lineup for years to come. It’s hard to know what’s coming with the next wave of talent, too, though Khalil Lee has exhibited a good eye and Nick Pratto has received some dubious Joey Votto comps. Who knows if the Royals will continue to develop their discipline – or if they’ll become major league players at all.
For what it’s worth, the Royals’ first round pick, Bobby Witt Jr., has a career 14% walk rate, though that’s in high school (I had a ponytail in high school, just sayin’). He also batted a ludicrous .506 against the same pitching, so it’s hard to predict what he’ll become as he faces stiffer competition. Overall, it appears as though there’s quite a bit plate discipline in the scouting reports of the newly drafted hitting class. That’s good because, if the Royals actually are preaching patience at the plate, they’re going to need to draft for it. As Billy Beane said about teaching plate discipline in Moneyball, “it can be done, but we’d have to take guys in diapers to do it.”
I keep thinking about a quote from Ned Yost in Sam Mellinger’s article about The Process 2.0.
There’s a lot of things we gotta do. Speed ain’t worth a damn if you don’t get on base.
When I first read that, I thought it was just another cantankerous musing from Ned (he elevates stating the obvious to an art form). It was, after all, a quote from an article about the organization being rebuilt around speed (definitely not OBP). Now I’m beginning to wonder if there’s more to it than that. Could the Royals actually be trying to walk more? If so, more power to them. The war on walks has gone on long enough.