It has been twenty years since Michael Lewis’ Moneyball came out, and over four decades since Bill James began writing that the most important thing for a hitter to do was not make outs. The recognition of on-base percentage as a more important metric than batting average has gone from the fringes to mainstream thinking in baseball. Yet the Royals, through both ignorance and lack of resources, have not fielded teams that have been able to get on base on a regular basis. In the last thirty years, the Royals have finished in the top half of the league in on-base percentage just three times (2003, 2011, 2015). And even when they have gotten on base, it was fueled more by batting average than walks - in 2015 they seventh in on-base percentage despite being dead last in walks, thanks to a high contact approach that produced the second-base batting average.
But batting average can be flukey, and a high contact approach is harder than ever in a day where every pitcher throws at least mid-90s with ridiculous movement. The ability to draw walks has been shown to be a more consistent skill than hitting for a high average, and yet the Royals have not finished in the top half of the league in walks drawn since 1989, while finishing among the three bottom teams in the league 22 times since then.
However, the Royals finally seem to be embracing the position that they need patient hitters that can get on base. This seemed evident in their acquisitions of patient hitters like Andrew Benintendi and Carlos Santana, but it has been most obvious in the development of their young hitters. While it is still early in their careers, the young rookies the Royals have called up are showing walk rates rarely seen in the Royals organization.
Royals rookie walk rates
|Bobby Witt Jr.
The Royals have three rookies with significant playing time with a walk rate north of ten percent - MJ Melendez, Vinnie Pasquantino, and Nick Pratto. To give you an example of how rare that is, since Dayton Moore’s first full season in 2007, the Royals have just nine seasons of ANY qualified hitter with a ten percent walk rate in a season.
We will see if Drew Waters can continue his high walk rate after not putting up those kind of numbers in the Braves organization, but he has credited the Royals with helping him simplifying his approach.
“There were a couple of things I was doing mechanically, but honestly, the big thing that I feel like has really changed for me is they’re big on hunting your zone and looking for pitches you can do damage with,”
This approach has been emphasized throughout the organization. Alec Lewis of The Athletic wrote about the philosophy of minor league hitting coaches Drew Saylor, Mike Tosar, and Keoni DeRenne earlier this year.
They also streamlined hitting processes throughout the minor leagues, from game-planning adjustments to pregame practice strategies. All of it emerged from three simple mantras provided by the coaches: (1.) Know thyself (as a hitter), (2.) swing at the pitches you can hit hard and take the ones you can’t and (3.) be elite in your preparation.
That’s a far cry from the approach of “put the ball in play and make something happen” that was emphasized a decade ago. And this change has come from the top. When hitting coach Terry Bradshaw was dismissed, Dayton Moore talked about what he wanted to see from his lineup.
“We need to see nine players in our lineup that are committed to get on base any way possible. That means we cannot chase pitches out of the strike zone. When we do have pitches to hit in the strike zone, we can’t miss them. We’ve got to square them up. We’ve got to drive balls where they’re pitched.”
The effect has not been uniform. Bobby Witt Jr.’s walk rate is the fifth-worst by any qualified hitter in baseball and he has one of the higher chase rates in baseball. But the emergence of several other young players with the ability to draw walks has to be an encouraging sign for the Royals.