The Kansas City Royals have struggled to score runs all year, and they have continued to struggle to score runs lately. After being swept by a significantly better New York Yankees team, they have won exactly two of their last ten games. Over those ten games, they’ve scored only 32 runs, and scored three or fewer runs in five of them—all losses.
For good or ill, this is not a complicated issue. As we’ve covered just last week, the core problem to the Royals’ scoring woes is that they have too many bad hitters. Of course, that’s not a particularly satisfying response; while it answers why the Royals have struggled to score, it does not explain how the Royals have struggled to score.
But again, for good or ill, there’s one number that is a huge contributor to Kansas City’s lack of early season offense: their batting average at .209 is the third-lowest figure in baseball. They ain’t getting hits.
Ok, ok, but...why? Let’s pull back a little bit. the Royals have the fourth lowest batting average on balls in play (BABIP) at .250. This would usually point to some bad luck, as the vast majority of teams nowadays end the season with a BABIP of between .280 and .300. And while there might be a little unusually bad luck going on, the BABIP is the symptom to a larger problem—which is that the Royals have simply not been hitting line drives, and they are hitting an awful lot of fly balls.
A batted ball is considered to be a line drive if it has a launch angle between 10 and 25 degrees and a fly ball if it is hit at 26 degrees or more (with popups set at 50 degrees or more). But independent of exit velocity, not all batted balls are the same. You can’t hit for extra bases on the vast majority of ground balls, for instance. Likewise, you can hit home runs on fly balls, but because of their hangtime, more fly balls turn into outs than grounders. Line drives are therefore the ideal result because they turn into hits often and can go for extra bases.
The data bears this out. In 2020, the only other year in recent history when pitchers didn’t hit, the results on batted ball types were as follows:
- Ground balls: .234 average, .023 ISO
- Line drives: .643 average, .473 ISO
- Fly balls: .166 average, .329 ISO
As you can see, line drives had by far the highest batting average and also the highest power figures. While fly balls result in more home runs, four times as many doubles were hit from line drives as opposed to fly balls.
Kansas City’s core problem stems from an ugly, ugly mix of batted ball combinations. They have the worst line drive rate in the league at 13.4%, the worst figure in baseball and a full seven percent lower than the median rate of 20.5%. Additionally, they are hitting more fly balls than any other team with a 43.6% fly ball rate. However, they are terrible at hitting fly balls hard enough to become home runs, and have the second lowest home run per fly ball rate at a measly 5.3%. Basically, the Royals’ launch angles are all screwed up, and the on-field result is not pretty.
KC’s ugly batted ball data
The two biggest contributors to the lack of line drives and abundance of fly balls are Carlos Santana and Salvador Perez. Santana has a 10.4% line drive rate and a 47.9% fly ball rate this season, while Perez has a 8.0% line drive rate and a 54% fly ball rate. Perez will likely come out of it—his line drive rate was over 22% last year and is over 21% for his career. Santana, unfortunately, is unlikely to be turn it around. Outside his 2019 rebound year, Santana’s power peaked in his age-30 season in 2016 and has been in a slow and steady decline ever since.
But if you want a simple explanation for why the Royals aren’t hitting, you’ve got your answer: they just aren’t making optimal contact with the ball. No line drives. Too many fly balls. Not enough hard hit fly balls. The new ball certainly doesn’t help, but then again, having five 30-year-olds in your lineup on the plateau or decline phase doesn’t help, either. The kids may struggle, but they’ll also bring some much-needed upside to the team—and hopefully a few more line drives.