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Are the Royals already raiding the zone?

Early returns in spring are looking pretty good as a team

Kansas City Royals v Oakland Athletics Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

Everyone who pays a lot of attention knows to ignore spring training statistics for individuals. Arizona inflates offense a lot, and the Royals have made a habit of winning the Cactus League en rout to a 100 loss season. Still, I think the main thing to be paying attention to might be possible even with limited sample sizes in less than ideal conditions. One would be whether the new team philosophy is being followed by the pitchers.

The Royals have stated that they would like to “raid the zone” this year. And they had better. In 2022 the Royals walked 3.74 batters per nine innings. Only the Cincinati Reds meted out more free passes at 3.87 per nine, and the 3.1 league average was a long ways off. You can get away with an elevated walk rate, to some extent, if you strike a lot of batters out, but the 2022 team did not do that well either ranking 28th in the league at 7.57 per nine.

So far this spring, the team is looking much better in both metrics, but one year can always be an aberration, so here are the Royals’ spring training walk and strike out rates going back a few years:

Team Spring Training

Year K/9 BB/9
Year K/9 BB/9
2017 8.15 2.78
2018 8.4 3.52
2019 8.02 3.59
2021 9.54 3.86
2022 8.09 4.29
2023 10.33 3.17

The strike out rate this spring really jumps out at you. It is almost a full strike out per nine higher than anything we have seen recently. Only the Twins and Red Sox have higher rates too, so it is not just a spike in strike outs league wide this spring. The walk rate is also much, much better than last season, ranking seventh right now, so also well within the top half of the league in early spring.

I did want to make sure it was not a bunch of guys slated for Double and Triple A carrying these stats, so I pulled last year versus this year for all of the returning pitchers from the big leagues last season. The small samples do make this hard to look at so I will try to summarize, and if you want to even skip that the answer is that a lot of the improvement is where you would want it to be. Consider me much more optimistic than I was yesterday.

The main takeaway was that nine pitchers have struck out more batters while walking fewer than last spring. Those pitchers in no particular order are Brady Singer, Josh Staumont, Carlos Hernandez, Jackson Kowar, Jose Cuas, Zack Greinke, Jonathan Heasley, Collin Snider, and Kris Bubic. Two pitchers are striking out more, but have higher walk rates than last spring, and they are Brad Keller and Daniel Lynch. One pitcher, Dylan Coleman, has not walked as many, but has struck out fewer. Finally, only Amir Garrett has been worse in both metrics.

With all appropriate spring training, small sample, and other various and sundry caveats that apply, there seems to be something positive happening with Royals pitching. If it was out of the blue, I would probably dismiss it, but it comes on the back of major changes to the leadership on the pitching side of the organization. That makes me think the new philosophy and the data driven approach are already starting to pay some dividends. Especially when you hear scouts raving about Brad Keller of all people. Is it dangerous to get optimistic about the Royals, absolutely, we’ve all been burned before. Still, if you can’t be optimistic during spring training, when can you be?