The Royals Aren’t Making Elite Contact Anymore

We’d like to welcome Ryan Pollack to the staff as the newest contributor to FanGraphs. Ryan has written for Camden Chat and Camden Depot in the past, and yes, we hired him just so Orioles fans would stop yelling at us about our projections. Please give Ryan a warm welcome.

The Kansas City Royals have been a high-contact, low-strikeout team for several years. Very few people saw this approach when the team was bad. But during their 2014-15 run, many noticed the team hardly ever struck out.

This bat-to-ball philosophy made great headlines because it opposed the trend of rising strikeouts. That the Royals succeeded in winning games made the contrast even greater. We remember Salvador Perez’s single past a diving Josh Donaldson that won the 2014 AL Wild Card game. We remember Alcides Escobar’s first-inning, first-pitch inside-the-park home run in Game 1 of the 2015 World Series. And we remember Eric Hosmer scoring the tying run of Game 5 on a weak Perez grounder to David Wright.

Put the ball in play, they said, and good things will happen.

That’s advice the 2016 Royals could use. Despite returning several members of the 2014-15 teams, this year’s iteration doesn’t avoid strikeouts well.

This year’s team is merely average:

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 9.51.19 PM

That 18% increase from 2015-16 not only sticks out, it’s the worst in the majors:

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 9.54.21 PM

To add insult to injury, it’s also the second-largest year-to-year increase in the past six years:

Team Strikeout Rate Changes, 2010-2016
Team Seasons Strikeout Rate Change (% Relative to Lg. Avg)
Twins 2012-2013 +29%
Athletics 2011-2012 +18%
Rays 2014-2015 +18%
Royals 2015-2016 +18%
Cubs 2013-2014 +17%
Indians 2012-2013 +17%
Blue Jays 2015-2016 +16%
Astros 2011-2012 +14%
Astros 2012-2013 +14%
Brewers 2015-2016 +14%
White Sox 2011-2012 +14%

Who’s to blame? Jeff Sullivan wrote recently about Alex Gordon’s contact struggles, and indeed his K rate is way up. But he isn’t hurting the team the most. That honor belongs to the keystone collective:

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 9.40.11 PM

In 2015, Omar Infante played the most at second base before Ben Zobrist joined the team. Infante didn’t provide much offense but at least he put the ball in play; his strikeout rate was only 15.2%. After the trade deadline, Ben Zobrist continued this trend with his 11.4% strikeout rate.

Infante got some playing time this year before he was cut. Since then, Whit Merrifield has provided 220 PA with a 22.7% strikeout rate and Raul Mondesi is contributing a terrible 32.3% strikeout rate. Christian Colon and his 18.9% K rate round out the pack.

In 2015, Salvador Perez held down the catcher’s spot for most of the season and whiffed at a 14.8% clip. He’s still on board in 2016 but has seemingly altered his approach, resulting in a 22.8% strikeout rate but also a reasonable increase in power.

Mike Moustakas and his 12.4% K rate starred at third base last year. This year he’s out with a torn ACL, so Cheslor Cuthbert‘s 20% strikeout rate plays every day. As for left field, in addition to Gordon, Brett Eibner’s 24.6% strikeout rate isn’t helping matters.

You could forgive the increase in strikeouts if it brought more power. But it hasn’t: the team’s ISO has dropped from .144 to .135. Taking the league-wide power surge into account, that’s a 13% drop, third-largest in baseball:

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 10.09.38 PM

The Royals have the worst of both worlds. Striking out more while hitting for less power will choke any offense. No wonder the team’s wRC+ has dropped from 98 to 87.

You could blame Dayton Moore for this situation if you wanted to. It’s his job to fill the system with talent. Having only Cuthbert to replace Moustakas, and having only Merrifield, Mondesi, and Colon at second base could be laid at his feet. Gordon’s and Perez’s contact issues aren’t his fault, though. Neither are those of Hosmer or Kendrys Morales. And good luck getting Moore on the hot seat after back-to-back World Series appearances and a championship.

You could also blame the team’s hitting coach, Dale Sveum. It’s not like only one hitter caught the strikeout bug. But Sveum’s been the hitting coach for over two seasons, and the Royals have succeeded under his watch by avoiding strikeouts. I can’t imagine he’d ask everyone to flip on the power switch.

We could still see Kansas City baseball this October. Thanks to a recent streak of excellent run prevention, they’re contending for an AL Wild Card spot. But their offense is decidedly hurting. And even if the team plays while the leaves change colors, don’t expect as many thrilling bat-on-ball plays as in years past. This year’s Royals seem to have lost that skill.

We hoped you liked reading The Royals Aren’t Making Elite Contact Anymore by Ryan Pollack!

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Eibner has been traded to Oakland.