Chris Young

Home Runs Are Back; Royals Pitchers Suffer

Offense, and the home run, probably saved baseball. After the strike in 1994, a few things allowed baseball to come back and eventually thrive. Cal Ripken, Jr. breaking the consecutive games streak was the first, but the biggest was undoubtedly offense. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chasing the home run record previously held by Roger Maris was something that brought people back to watching night in and night out. Eventually, that much offense led to questions, which led to PED reports, which led to testing for PEDs, which led to the decline of offense, and the pitching and defense era to be ushered in.

It wasn’t until pitching and defense era came about that the Royals were able to compete. In hindsight, Dayton Moore looks brilliant for building a team in advance of the pitching/defense boom. Instead of a masher at every position with defense sacrificed, the Royals had athletes everywhere. Their first baseman didn’t have 40 home run power, but he could sure scoop a throw. Their center fielder wasn’t going to win an MVP (though he did come relatively close last year) but he was going to get to everything he could. Their catcher was like a cat behind the plate. Their third baseman couldn’t hit, but he could really field. And so on and so forth.

The pride and joy of the Royals was really their outfield defense. Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon were probably the two best players at their position in baseball. If they weren’t the best, they were awfully close. With Kauffman Stadium being a huge park that suppressed home runs but nothing else offensively, the Royals built a team around finding guys who could let them go get the ball. Jeremy Guthrie was the first guy brought in. He wasn’t nearly as extreme a fly ball pitcher as we were told, but he gave up fly balls. James Shields was traded for and immediately changed his style of pitching and got more fly balls than he had in previous seasons. Then it extended to future off-season spending. Chris Young and Ian Kennedy were guys who could use the big ballpark to succeed. Same for Jason Vargas.

Just a scant eight months ago, the Royals won the World Series with that formula. They pitched to contact, and often it was weak enough contact that the great outfield could go get a fly ball. With home runs of less importance than they had been a decade ago, a contact-dependent team that could rack up the doubles was able to score enough runs to survive and then some. It was a strong formula, and one that brought the parade Moore promised when he was hired now more than a decade ago. It was a formula Moore hoped to continue to ride into the 2016 season. A rotation of Edinson Volquez and Yordano Ventura getting grounders, along Kris Medlen somewhere in the middle, and Ian Kennedy and Chris Young doing some work with fly balls should have been enough to form an average rotation to get to an elite bullpen.

A funny thing happened along the way. It didn’t work. The Royals have allowed home runs in the bunches during the 2016 season. Young is allowing them at a faster rate than basically anyone who has ever played the game. Kennedy has allowed a whopping 2.6 HR/9 in his last 11 starts heading into the break. Ventura is even giving them up at a higher rate than he ever has before. Danny Duffy, who had to return to the rotation because of the injuries and ineffectiveness has been great, but he’s a fly ball pitcher who has given up more homers than ever before as well.

So what gives? What in the world did Dayton Moore do to build this pitching staff that has kept the Royals from seriously competing for the American League Central title this year?

I don’t think he did anything. I think he got unlucky and so did the Royals. I think baseball has changed.

Take a look at the numbers comparing the first half of last season to the first half of 2016.

2015 Total 2015 % 2016 Total 2016 %
.500+ SLG 22 13.6 44 26.3
20+ HR 12 7.4 18 10.8
.250+ ISO 12 7.4 24 14.4
20%+ HR/FB 18 11.1 30 18.0
300 ft.+  FB* 29 10.2 41 16.3

*Fly ball distance data compares a full season of 2015 with the first half of 2016.

It’s jarring how many more hitters are slugging over .500, have isolated slugging percentages of .250 or higher, average fly ball distances of more than 300 feet and more.

Now take a look at some of the numbers from around the league.

2015 2016
AVG .253 .257
SLG .396 .419
HR* 2521 3082
ISO .143 .163
HR/FB 10.7% 12.9%
R/G 4.1 4.5

You see that average isn’t significantly up, but the power numbers definitely are, which are leading to runs per game numbers being way up as well. It’s worth noting that there have been about 1,500 more plate appearances in 2016 than there were in the first half of 2015. Still, plate appearances are up just 1.5 percent from last year and home runs are up 22.3 percent. That is a massive difference. And, with the rise of strikeouts, there’s actually only been 352 more balls put in play in the first half this year compared to last year.

Call it a conspiracy theory or just a theory, but after Rob Manfred openly discussed ways to boost offense during the 2014/2015 off-season and then offense suddenly burst back onto the scene, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the game has been somewhat artificially changed. I don’t know how exactly, but my theory here is that something has drastically changed. It wouldn’t be that far fetched to think that maybe baseballs are wound more tightly, thus giving them some extra distance on fly balls. I know he denied it yesterday, but what’s he supposed to say?

There are more fly balls being hit this year. In the first half, fly balls were hit 33.6 percent of the time league-wide compared with 34.2 percent this year. That’s not nothing, but it also doesn’t explain the uptick in itself. It’s an extra 599 fly balls. That doesn’t quite account for the extra 561 home runs, though I guess statistically it could, but that would mean it would be a 93.5 percent HR/FB percentage on those extra ones.

The league is on pace to hit somewhere around 5,700 home runs this season. The most home runs ever hit in a season is 5,692 in 2000. Second most is 5,528 the year before that. In fact, the 2016 season has already seen the 40th most home runs in a full season in baseball history. That’s quite a pace.

So you know my theory on this. And if I’m right, it would make sense. Winding the yarn inside the ball can increase the elasticity of the baseball, which increases the distance it can be hit. There aren’t that many more fly balls, but there are significantly more home runs. It kind of adds up.

Some might wonder how the Royals aren’t benefiting from this uptick in home runs and offense, but they are actually. Well, the home runs at least. They have hit 81 home runs through their first 88 games of the season. That’s just 14 less than they infamously hit in 2014. They’re on pace for 149 home runs this season, which would be a full 10 more than they hit last season. The 81 home runs they’ve hit to this point are 14 more than cleared the fence in the first half of last season. If they just match the 72 home runs last year’s team hit, they’d end up with 153 homers.

They have a good shot to end the year not too far off from a team record. In 1987, they hit 168 home runs. That seems out of range right now, but you never know. In 2003, they hit 162. Their current pace would give them the ninth most home runs in franchise history, but it wouldn’t take much to push them into the top five.

So the Royals are even getting in on the action, even if it’s hard to realize that sometimes during games.

Add it all up, and it’s seems clear why the Royals pitching staff has struggled so much. I mean we knew that they were giving up home runs at a ridiculous pace, but it’s strangely comforting (to me anyway) that the rest of the league is hitting them at a ridiculous pace as well. This pitching staff was built for a different offensive climate; a climate where the home run ball wasn’t the key way to score runs. As with seemingly everything in baseball, things have changed. And as teams and players have to do on an almost daily basis, it’s time to adjust.

Home runs are back in. Fly ball pitchers might be out. We certainly know many of their pitches end up out of the park. It’ll be interesting to see how the Royals manage the rest of this season and then how they approach the pitching market this off-season and in winters to come.

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