Photo Adapted from Charles Sollars
I had a hard time deciding whether to title this article what it currently is, or whether to title it “Ned Yost’s Ground Pound”. In the end, I had to go with the slightly legitimate title, even though “Ned Yost’s Ground Pound” really is the best description of what this current Royals team is all about (in addition to being an alliterative, slightly gross-sounding tagline). Forgive me.
You may have noticed, if you are a serious baseball fan, that the Kansas City Royals are having an extremely difficult time hitting the baseball with any power or authority this year. It is easy to simply paint their lack of production to time-honored baseball colloquialisms like “so-and-so is having an off year”, or “they’re just not squaring the ball up”, but those don’t tell us anything. What is the problem with the Royals? Let’s find out.
If you asked Royals fans two years ago how they felt about the future of their franchise, they would have been optimistic: even following the Wil Myers for James Shields trade, which was a very “win-now” trade for the Royals (that is putting it nicely), they had a lot of good young hitting talent like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas (ok, he’s a maybe), Alex Gordon, and Salvador Perez. These guys were the long-term core that the team was to be built on – everyday, middle-of-the-lineup players with prospect pedigree and proven results in the high levels of the minors. Overlay these guys onto some proven veteran talent like Billy “Country Breakfast” Butler, and you have an above average lineup with serious upside that could hopefully make a playoff run in a pretty weak division (Tigers excluded).
But, following an abysmal 2013 hitting campaign, pretty much all of the Royals young players are the same ineffective hitters they were last year. That should be a serious red flag for the current situation in Kansas City given how bad 2013 was at the plate, and should be cause for no small concern to the front office and fanbase.
Let’s get to the large pile of stats to illustrate what’s going on. Here are a few key team hitting ranks for the Royals last year (2013):
- 27th in walk percentage (6.9%)
- 29th in isolated power (.119)
- 24th in slugging (.379)
Pretty anemic all around in terms of power, and a terrible walk percentage. However, here is a strange rank from last year, given the above figures:
- 29th in strikeout percentage (17.2%)
Something strange is going on with these numbers. To sum up last year, the Royals basically didn’t walk or hit for any power, but they also didn’t strike out very much. That’s pretty out of keeping, given the fact that teams that don’t walk a lot normally are attempting to be aggressive at the plate and hit for power, don’t get deep into counts, and see a jump in their strikeout percentage. There was something deeper going on at the plate with the Royals last year.
Jump ahead to this year, and the Royals now have the ignominious distinction of having hit only 20 home runs through 43 games. They’re the first team since the 1993 Red Sox to hit 16 home runs or fewer through 37 games. Again, let’s go to the stats for this year through 43 games:
- 25th in walk percentage (6.9%)
- 30th in isolated power (.106)
- 28th in slugging (.359)
- 30th in strikeout percentage (14.6%)
The number that should strike bitter disappointment into the hearts of Royals fans (as if it could get worse) is the isolated power average of .106, which is a full .005 points below the next closest team and would represent one of the lowest totals in the past twenty years. The Royals haven’t changed since last year – they are still not walking, not striking out, and not hitting for power. So what is going on? How are all of these seemingly-gifted young hitters bereft of all ability to drive the ball?
Here is what is leading to this strange K%/BB% situation, as well as the lack of power: the Royals have hitters with elite contact skills who are swinging at, and softly hitting, tons of junk. If we want to dive into the stats a little further, this year we find the Royals:
- 2nd in ground ball percentage (49.5%)
- 1st in infield fly ball percentage (12.9%)
- 28th in line drive percentage (17.6%)
They hit more ground balls than anyone else except the Padres, they pop more balls up on the infield than anyone else, and they don’t hit line drives. If the Royals were a team made up entirely of Billy Hamiltons, which would be awesome, they might scrape by with this batted-ball profile. However, they are not. Even ranking in the top 10 of stolen bases, they are not a team that should be consciously trying to hit the ball on the ground and use their legs to get hits.
What causes this sort of batted-ball profile? Hitting crappy pitches. I’m not talking about hitting mistake pitches that get too much of the plate – I’m talking about hitting pitches the batter should have no business hitting. This is exactly what the Royals are incredibly good at:
- 1st in O-Contact percentage (65.1%)
O-Contact percentage measures the frequency that a batter swings at a pitch outside of the strikezone and makes contact. Unfortunately, for the Royals, this happens with regularity. Coupled with a team-wide approach that seems aimed at eliminating strikeouts and de-emphasizing walks (which is a contradiction for every team but the Royals) this is a recipe for a truly anemic offense.
Given that we have now gone almost 10 months since the Royals replaced George Brett as their hitting coach, this can only be seen as a pretty huge failure of the coaching staff given the talent the Royals possess. Absolutely nothing has changed since last year in regard to the team’s approach or production – if anything, the Royals have gotten worse, which is pretty difficult given the circumstances.
Because of their lack of elite speed up and down the lineup and this batted-ball profile, they are, simply put, one of the worst hitting teams in baseball. The fact that they are above .500 and in second place in their division with a +3 run differential is testament to how good their pitching staff has been and how relatively bad the AL Central is, but in no way are they signaling a shift out of this power slump. If anything, the numbers above were inflated by Alex Gordon’s two home run game yesterday (5/18) – one of which was a searing line drive with topspin that was hit hard enough to clear the fence.
For better or for worse, this may just be what the Kansas City Royals are under manager Ned Yost and hitting coach Pedro Grifol: a take-no-walks/don’t-strikeout club that hits a lot of junk softly.
As the saying goes, garbage in, garbage out.