The Royals’ broadcast over the past few weeks has been raving about the team’s newest approach to hitting baseballs. And well they might! In a variety of small sample sizes, the team has nine different players, either active or on the IL - and most of them rookies, hitting at least league average according to the wRC+ stat. Five of them have a walk rate of 10% or above, with Nick Pratto coming in just outside the range with a 9.9% walk rate. Despite the stretches the Royals have gone through where they had difficulty scoring any runs, the future seems very bright for the Royals’ hitters.
It seems much of this good news stems from a new systemic approach to hitting brought on by Alec Zumwalt, Mike Tosar, and others. As the broadcast recently described it, the Royals are focused on looking for pitches with which to do damage and taking everything else. This actually makes a ton of sense and seems very different from whatever approach the team was using before.
Based on broadcast snippets, I think it’s reasonable to say that the approach used to be more along the lines of, “Don’t swing at balls you can’t hit.” This might sound very similar to the above approach, but it is actually quite different. For example, a hitter faced with a 1-1 count would still only swing at a pitch they thought they could serious damage to in the new approach; in the old approach, a hitter would simply swing as long as they identified the pitch as a strike or close enough to the strike zone. The Royals hitters, even during the good years of ‘13-’15, were known as free-swingers who didn’t strike out much but also never walked and didn’t necessarily hit the ball with authority. The 2014 Royals famously had the fewest home runs in baseball that season, and no individual hit so many as 20, with Alex Gordon’s 19 bombs leading the team.
This new approach, however, is paying dividends both in more walks and in harder-hit balls. It isn’t punishing them overly much in strikeouts, either, as they’re still an above-average team in that category thanks to players like Nicky Lopez and Vinnie Pasquantino who both seem absolutely allergic to striking out.
Speaking of Pasquantino, the broadcast described his personal approach at the plate during a game last month. They indicated that he viewed the first two strikes as “his” and the last strike as the “team’s.” This is another way of describing the team’s approach, I think. Until a player has two strikes, they should focus on a particular pitch and/or area and if the pitch isn’t there, let it go. Once you have two strikes, of course, you have to be more willing to take whatever you can get and hope to get a bit lucky lest you completely give up any hope of winning the at-bat with a strikeout.
In a recent release of the video game MLB The Show they implemented a mechanic which allowed a player to guess where and what kind of pitch would be thrown. If you guessed right, the game would make it easier to hit the ball and easier to hit it harder. If you guessed wrong, the opposite would occur. It makes sense to expect this to happen in real life, where players have fractions of a second to decide whether to swing at a pitch or not. Those circumstances also make it a high-reward endeavor to only swing at the pitch you really, really want until you don’t have any choice. Aggressively seeking only certain pitches in only certain areas also makes a hitter faster and more efficient. When you’re dealing with major league pitches, even hundredths of a second shaved off your pitch identification and swing decision processes can be the difference between a whiff and a home run.
When Alec Zumwalt was first named hitting coach it was made clear that this may not be a long stop for him. However, even if he moves on the Royals need to make sure that the next major league hitting coach - and every hitting coach in the organization - buys into this philosophy. It has already paid huge dividends and the Royals need to take every advantage they can get.