Royals pitchers have not been good this year, there is no getting around that. Collectively, they have issued the second-most walks in all of baseball while throwing the fourth-fewest strikeouts. Despite an emphasis on first-pitch strikes, they are dead last in baseball in the category. When pitchers fall behind in the count, they become much more hittable. Opponents are hitting .294/.415/.478 against Royals pitchers after starting off on a 1-0 count, the second-worst line in baseball in those situations.
But the umpires behind the plate have not helped out, and in fact, have significantly cost Royals pitchers this year. Baseball Savant tracks pitches by zone, and whether they were called a ball or strike. According to the data, Royals pitchers have thrown 467 pitches this year that were in the Gameday Zone, but not called a strike. That represents 2.1 percent of all the pitches they have thrown, most in baseball.
Umpire mistakes can go both ways, with pitchers getting the call on balls off the plate, but it hasn’t evened out for Royals pitchers. They have thrown 415 pitches out of the zone that were called a strike, representing just 1.9 percent of their total pitches. Only the Tigers and Orioles have received the benefit of the doubt less.
The site Ump Scorecard agrees that Royals pitchers have gotten the short end of the stick from umpires. They take pitch data and umpires calls and judge it against their “Estimated Strike Zone.” They compile the data as “Total Pitcher Impact” or “totPI”. According to their data, Royals pitchers have been more negatively affected by home plate umpires than any other team by a significant margin.
Only 2 percent of pitches may not seem like a big deal, but baseball can be a game of inches, and a missed call at the right time can have a huge impact on the game. Ump Scorecard quantifies the calls that had the biggest impact and found the most a team has been hurt in a single game was the Royals in a game against the Diamondbacks on May 23 with Cory Blaser behind the mound, which cost Kansas City 3.2 runs in a game they eventually lost 9-5.
Does every umpire just have it out for the Royals? Well, Royals hitters don’t seem to be getting hosed in the same respect quite as much. Ump Scorecard has their “Total Batter Impact” ranked tenth-worst, which isn’t great, but is better than the big market Giants, Red Sox, and Cubs. Baseball Savant also has Royals hitters near the middle of the league in pitches out of the zone called a strike, and are lower, but not worst in pitches in the zone called a ball.
So what’s going on here? The culprit for Royals pitchers is most likely pitch-framing behind the plate. Salvador Perez and MJ Melendez are two of the worst framing catchers in baseball, according to Baseball Savant. By their metrics, the two backstops have cost Royals pitchers a total of 18 runs due to poor framing. Fangraphs has Royals catchers at -25.3 Framing Runs collectively, by far the worst in baseball.
Salvy has long had a reputation as a poor framer, and has trouble with lower pitches, perhaps due to being such a big-bodied catcher. More troubling is how poorly Melendez ranks with the metrics. The rookie has been lauded for being a terrific defensive catcher in the minors, and does impress with good athleticism and a strong arm. But his framing is among the worst in the league, and it won’t help Royals pitchers to have one poor framer one day replaced by another poor framer.
Someday we won’t have to worry about framing and bad calls behind the plate. The Automated Ball-Strike System was used in the minors this year and will be tested in the Arizona Fall League, laying the groundwork for it to be eventually adopted at the MLB level. But right now poor framing and bad umpire calls seem to be negatively affecting Royals pitchers.