Let’s start from square one. There are a lot of metrics that are important to the game of baseball, but perhaps the single most important metric is on base percentage. That’s because baseball is unique among major sports: there’s no timer. Rather, the game ends when its finite supply of resources–outs–are all gone. Avoid outs for longer and you’ll score more. Force the other team to make outs more often and they score less. It’s that simple.
While there are a lot of results from a plate appearance, pitchers are in control of two of them: walks and strikeouts. Walks are just about the worst thing you can do as a pitcher, as it completely removes the possibility of making an out. Similarly, strikeouts are just about the best thing you can do as a pitcher, because it accrues an out without the ball ending up in play.
This is all super simple stuff: walks bad, strikeouts good. I type this in part to hammer home that this is true no matter what you may hear on TV; a walk is a bad result all of the time, and a strikeout is better for a pitcher than an out hit any other way. I also type this summary because the Royals might legitimately need a reminder here, because the 2022 Royals pitching staff is historically inept at striking people out while also somehow being historically inept at avoiding walks.
Before we get to the historical ineptness, let’s start within the context of this season. The Royals rank 30th in the big leagues in walk rate, and are the only club that walks more than 10% of opposing batters. They also rank 29th in strikeout rate, and are one of only two clubs who strike out less than 19% of opposing batters.
The best metric to compare the two is called K-BB%, and it is pretty much exactly how it sounds; you get it by subtracting the walk rate from the strikeout rate. A perfect K-BB%, one in which you walk no batters whatsoever, is 100%, while negative K-BB% figures are rare but mathematically possible when you walk more batters than you strike out. In any case, the metric does a great job in telling you just how good a pitcher is at the two things he can control, and it closely mirrors both ERA and FIP.
The Royals, as you might guess, are dead last this year in K-BB% among all MLB teams.
The worst 2022 staffs by K-BB%
But remember: I said historically inept. That implies that the Royals aren’t just the worst out of the 30 teams this year, but one of the worst over a long stretch of time. Indeed, looking back at the last decade worth of pitching staffs, the 2022 Royals rank 298th out of 300 team pitching staffs since 2013 in K-BB%.
Worst MLB teams by K-BB% since 2013
That’s pretty inept, as there were a lot of bad teams and a lot of bad pitching staffs then! Still not quite historically inept, as one decade is one decade.
However, to reasonably and honestly evaluate the ineptness of this pitching staff, we need slightly different metrics. Every season’s offensive environment is different, and just over the past quarter century we’ve seen the steroid era, the Moneyball era, the new deadball era, the happy ball era, and what could be reasonably termed the post-Moneyball era that’s happening right now.
As a result, we’ll turn to our old pals, adjusted stats. Thanks to Fangraphs, we’ll use K%+ and BB%+. These stats look fancier than they are–all they do is take the raw K% and BB% figures and display them compared to the league average figures for that year. Each point above or below 100 is one percentage point better or worse than league average.
We don’t have an adjusted stat readily available for K-BB%, but we can simply average K%+ and BB%+ to get an approximation. And it’s here where you see that this year’s Royals squad is truly, historically inept: since 1995, the 2022 Royals rank 834th out of 834 teams when looking at their adjusted strikeout and walk rates. There are literally no worse teams than this year’s Royals.
The worst staffs by K% and BB% since 1995
*I know what you’re thinking: who are the best two teams by your adjusted stat cocktail here? The second-best squad is the 2017 Cleveland baseball team, a pitching juggernaut that featured Cy Young winner Corey Kluber as well as excellent performances by Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Andrew Miller, and Danny Salazar. The best team is the 2002 Arizona Diamondbacks, who rode Cy Young winner Randy Johnson and Cy Young runner-up Curt Schilling to the tune of 520 combined innings of complete dominance.
Who bears the blame, here? While you can certainly and rightfully blame the Royals drafting & minor league development, pitching coach Cal Eldred is also responsible. That’s because the 2018, 2019, and 2021 Royals squads also rank as three of the worst 101 teams since 1995 when it comes to their adjusted strikeout rate and walk rate performance. Eldred was named pitching coach before the 2018 season.
In any case, what your eyes are telling you is true: the Royals walk a bunch of people and can’t strike anybody out. If the Royals were merely and simply bad at those rather important parts of pitching, we could chalk it up to youth and pitching attrition. Unfortunately, the numbers bear out that the 2022 Royals pitching staff is not bad; it is the worst staff, objectively, over more than a quarter century.
You don’t get this bad by accident, and the Royals regime has been in power for long enough to have handpicked coaches, handpicked players, and an ingrained philosophy throughout the organization. They’ve got no one else to blame but themselves, and the worrying part is that I’m not sure the Royals fully realize how far behind they really are when it comes to pitching–even though the results are there on the field every night for everyone to see.