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Royals hitters are as free-swinging as ever

Alec Zumwalt’s philosophy has not gotten to Royals hitters yet.

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Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

The Royals have never been a franchise willing to take a pitch. Since their inception in 1969, they have been dead last in baseball in walk rate. They have not finished in the top half of the league in walks drawn since 1989, and have finished dead last in the category ten times since then.

The team exemplified that free-swinging approach under Dayton Moore, but there was hope that with J.J. Picollo at the helm, the team philosophy on hitting would evolve to a more patient approach at the plate. With the promotion of Alec Zumwalt to hitting coach last spring, there was a lot of talk about being able to take pitches that weren’t in the zone and waiting for the right pitch to do damage.

There seemed to be some improvement in plate discipline among young Royals hitters in under Zumwalt last year. But through the first month of this season, they are back to being just as free-swinging as ever. The Royals as a team have a walk rate of 6.2 percent - only the Arizona Diamondbacks walk less. No team in baseball swings at more pitches than Royals hitters - they are the only team that has swings over 50 percent of the time. Only the Chicago White Sox swing at more pitches outside the strike zone.

With all that swinging, you might think the Royals are just putting the ball in play and making things happen as the 2014-15 Royals did. But only seven teams in baseball strike out more than the Royals. They have the fourth-worst contact rate in baseball. and more swinging strikes than any team.

It is difficult to change an entrenched approach overnight. Salvador Perez has swung at more pitches than anyone in baseball, but no one expects Zumwalt to get him to change his approach - Salvy is what he is. However the early results from young, impressionable Royals hitters has been a bit discouraging. Michael Massey has now gone 124 consecutive plate appearances without a walk, dating back to last year. Kyle Isbel has a lower rate rate (2.7%) than Salvy. Edward Olivares has seen his low walk rate dip even further to 3.9 percent. Bobby Witt Jr. has improved his walk rate a bit, but at 5.7 percent it is still far below average.

The Royals are trying to be more data-driven, but the data shows that leaving the bat on your shoulder is the right call more often than not.

“Hitters should not swing,” said Kyle Boddy, proprietor of Driveline Baseball, an independent player development lab in Washington. His analysts even looked at the value of swinging at more strikes… and found it was negatively correlated with outcomes.

The best hitters and teams swing less.

This year, the team that swings the least is the Dodgers, who are averaging 5.2 runs per game. The highest-scoring team so far is Dayton Moore’s Rangers, who have the third-lowest swing rate.

But getting hitters to take a more patient approach is more difficult than just telling hitters not to swing.

There are some encouraging signs. MJ Melendez and Vinnie Pasquantino continue to be patient hitters, and Nicky Lopez has a higher walk rate than either. It could be, as has commonly been thought - that plate discipline cannot be significantly improved at the Major League level, that development begins much earlier on. The results in the minors have been much more mixed, with Royals affiliates in the middle of their respective league in walk rate.

The Royals have struggled to score runs, and much of it stems from their lack of baserunners. They have the lowest on-base percentage in baseball, and while they haven’t hit well with runners on base, they’ve also deprived themselves of RBI opportunities. Zumwalt has only been on the job for a short time, but the clock is ticking on developing these young hitters, and the Royals need to do a better job of getting on base.