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The shift, Soler powers to his 40th, and more

The Royals are moving away from the shift, Soler makes his 40th visit to Dong Town and more notes of interest.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Remember when the Royals were on the cutting edge of defensive positioning and employing the shift at an enormously high rate? They’re not doing that so much anymore.

That’s not to say they’ve completely shelved the shift as a strategy. It’s that they’re not deploying it as frequently as they once were. For the year, they are employing the shift in 18.6 percent of all plate appearances with the bases empty. That’s still a high rate, but well below the league average of 25.2 percent. According to data collected by Baseball Savant through Tuesday, the Royals shift at a rate that ranks them 19th out of the 30 clubs.

What makes that notable is it’s a shift (I make no apologies) from the way they approached their infield defense last year. In 2018 the Royals ranked fifth among all teams in shift percentage at 27.4 percent. It turns out that was an outlier.

The Royals and the shift

Year Royals Shift % Rank League Avg Shift %
Year Royals Shift % Rank League Avg Shift %
2016 5.5% 28 13.8%
2017 6.5% 25 12.1%
2018 27.4% 5 17.4%
2019 18.6% 19 25.2%

Last year when the Royals were all-in on the shift, their pitchers allowed a .297 BABIP when the shift was deployed. That was the fifth highest BABIP when shifting and would lead one to believe that the Royals didn’t realize an especially large net benefit by placing three infielders to one side of second base. Conversely, their BABIP when not shifting last summer was a still-elevated .316. According to Baseball Info Solutions, the Royals realized 17 Team Runs Saved when shifting which ranked them sixth in the AL. The shift, it would appear, worked for the Royals in 2018.

This season the Royals’ collective BABIP has seen an increase when shifting. Through 139 games they currently have a .307 BABIP when positioning three infielders to one side of second base, which again is the fifth highest rate in baseball. While their team BABIP when not shifting has slightly decreased to .313, they definitely haven’t seen a benefit as reflected by the metrics. So far the Royals are only at a +1 on Team Runs Saved while shifting. It’s not unsurprising to see them back away from the shift in this instance.

While it’s been unfair to paint the Royals as an organization as anti-analytics, they can most certainly be criticized for how they handle the information at hand and translate that to games. It seem the shift has fallen out of favor at The K and while part of that could certainly well be Ned Yost’s on the record disdain for it, it seems a large measure is because the club simply hasn’t realized the potential benefits.

Jorge Soler’s 40th home run was the coolest thing I’ve seen this year at The K. It feels like the Royals have finally caught up with the rest of the game when it comes to power.

And Soler’s 40th was vaporized. According to Sarah Langs on Twitter, at 115.7 mph it was the hardest-hit home run by a Royal. The baseball is traveling further than ever and it’s landing in parts of Kauffman I didn’t know we’re reachable. In another 100 loss season, it’s always possible to find one or two things to elevate your experience at the game. For me, this season is all about Jorge Soler.

Ryan McBroom has played all of two games for the Royals and he’s already one of my favorites simply because he’s a left-handed thrower who bats from the right side. Plus, he’s also a fan of Soler’s power show. “He’s a big boy. He can swing it. When he gets a pitch over the plate it can go really far,” McBroom said after Wednesday’s victory against the Tigers. “It’s been fun to watch. It’s my second game and he’s hit two already.”

According to an interview by David Laurila at FanGraphs, McBroom made strides when he started keeping both hands on the bat during his follow-through and once he was able to relax and slow things down at the plate. Indeed he doubled his walk rate this season while slicing nearly seven percent off his whiff rate at Triple-A.

As mentioned in this space, first base is an area where the Royals need to find an upgrade. The Royals have liked McBroom for a while, originally selecting him in the 36th round of the 2013 draft. He returned to West Virginia and was drafted the following year by the Blue Jays before being traded to the Yankees. The Royals had space on the 40-man and the Yankees have a roster crunch ahead. It’s worth it just to see what he can provide, even in September.

As we roll into September and the final season of mass roster expansion, it’s a good time to take stock of how the Royals have used their bench so far in 2019. No surprise, Yost continues to pinch hit less than any of his American League counterparts.

On Tuesday, Ryan O’Hearn represented just the 37th plate appearance by a Royals pinch hitter in 2019. They collectively have five hits and now two home runs. Their average Leverage Index according to Baseball-Reference is just 1.31 (where 1 is “average pressure” according to B-Ref), also last in the AL.

Since 2014, Yost has summoned generally anywhere from 48 to 51 pinch hitters in a season. The low mark came in 2015 when he used just 40 pinch hitters.

You didn’t know you craved this info about pinch hitters, but now you’re damn glad you clicked the link.