Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals

The Royals Have a Contact Problem, Relatively Speaking

During the Royals’ run of success as one of the best teams in baseball over the last three seasons, they’ve earned a reputation as a team that avoids strikeouts. Between 2013-2015, Royals’ batters struck out in just 16.5 percent of their plate appearances, easily the lowest rate in baseball. The next best team in that department, the A’s, had a strikeout rate of 18.3 percent.

This became a part of the Royals’ identity, and deservedly so. When national fans and analysts mention the Royals, they’re likely going to talk about the bullpen, the defense, and the contact. The Royals have put the ball in play more than anyone, and it’s paid off in spades.

In 2016, things have changed a bit. Prior to Tuesday night’s game, they had struck out in 19.5 percent of their plate appearances, and while that rate is still good for fifth in the league, it’s obviously well below what we’ve become accustomed to seeing.

Alex Gordon is getting plenty of attention for his strikeouts, as his strikeout rate is seven points higher than last season’s, which has contributed to his horrific year. I started doing some research into his increased whiffs, and got sidetracked when I noticed that the star left fielder is not alone. Salvador Perez’s strikeout rate has seen an even bigger jump over last year (eight points). Lorenzo Cain has added four points to his K-rate. Same for Kendrys Morales. Even Eric Hosmer added three points to his rate.

Just because a player is whiffing more doesn’t mean that player can’t still be productive. As you can see all over the league, players are striking out at a historic pace, while still hitting home runs at a historic pace. On the Royals, Perez has traded some contact for power, and he’s having his best full season as a big-leaguer.

But the Royals aren’t a team filled with power hitters. In 2015, they scored runs by putting the ball in play over and over and over and over again. Now that the ball isn’t being put in play as often, they have fewer chances for opposing defenses to mess something up, which has led to fewer run-scoring opportunities.

Diving deeper into the issue, we can see that the Royals have made contact on just under 60 percent of their swings at pitches out of the strike zone. That is a sharp decrease from their O-Contact rate last year (64.6 percent), and while they are chasing a bit more frequently, they’re actually seeing fewer pitches out of the zone now, so the strikeout spike isn’t solely being caused by that.

More troubling is the Royals’ inability to make pitchers pay for throwing pitches in the strike zone. Last season, they made contact on 89 percent of their swings at strikes, which was easily the highest Z-Contact rate in the league. This season, they still rank in the top five in the league, but their Z-Contact rate is now below 86 percent.

Here’s a look at how that three-percentage point decrease ranks among all major-league teams:

MIL 84.95% 81.38% -3.57
KCA 88.99% 85.95% -3.04
ATL 86.59% 83.81% -2.78
TBA 82.54% 79.80% -2.74
SDN 84.42% 81.70% -2.72
CLE 86.73% 84.49% -2.24
PHI 86.01% 84.14% -1.87
OAK 87.79% 86.07% -1.72
CHA 85.75% 84.13% -1.62
NYN 86.17% 84.93% -1.24
CIN 84.69% 83.55% -1.14
TOR 85.26% 84.19% -1.07
DET 84.85% 84.08% -0.77
PIT 84.56% 83.85% -0.71
ARI 85.52% 84.87% -0.65
BAL 83.50% 82.91% -0.59
CHN 82.05% 81.83% -0.22
MIN 84.14% 84.00% -0.14
MIA 85.91% 85.96% 0.05
HOU 81.23% 81.29% 0.06
SLN 84.94% 85.15% 0.21
TEX 84.74% 85.27% 0.53
COL 83.52% 84.44% 0.92
BOS 86.41% 87.36% 0.95
ANA 86.90% 87.98% 1.08
SFN 85.63% 86.74% 1.11
LAN 84.24% 85.36% 1.12
WAS 84.07% 85.22% 1.15
NYA 86.68% 88.40% 1.72
SEA 83.10% 85.27% 2.17

It’s usually not a good sign when the team is sandwiched around two terrible teams in a statistic. Obviously the Brewers have one-upped the Royals (thanks, Chris Carter) but they’ve certainly earned their ranking, outpacing even the Rays, who have been completely dominated in the strike zone.

Looking at the individual differences from last year, it’s easy to see that the blame can be spread up and down the lineup. I’ve also included their O-Contact rates, because who doesn’t want to see more ugly numbers?

Gordon 57.28% 47.65% -9.63 84.04% 80.54% -3.50
Hosmer 65.41% 58.02% -7.39 89.22% 84.42% -4.80
Morales 58.25% 55.60% -2.65 87.34% 86.03% -1.31
Cain 66.50% 57.00% -9.50 88.77% 84.94% -3.83
Perez 69.86% 60.78% -9.08 91.25% 86.53% -4.72
Escobar 68.00% 71.43% 3.43 89.22% 86.70% -2.52
 2015 Player  2016 Player
Zobrist 77.87% 62.42% -15.45 91.98% 88.89% -3.09 Merrifield
Moustakas 73.61% 61.31% -12.30 88.66% 83.98% -4.68 Cuthbert
Rios 60.81% 56.98% -3.83 91.38% 84.23% -7.15 Orlando

The only increase in contact rate belongs to the least productive hitter still on the roster, and even that’s only when he swings at bad pitches. Everyone is making less contact, and again, while that doesn’t guarantee bad results, it’s absolutely contributing to the Royals’ problems on offense this season.

As far as underlying causes go, there are a few explanations. The new players each replaced guys known for excellent contact skills, so those decreases are to be expected. As mentioned, Perez appears to be selling out for power, which saps some of his contact abilities.

The other culprits are dealing with various issues, from high fastballs (Cain, Hosmer), to offspeed stuff (Gordon), to some breaking balls (Escobar), to a combination of several pitches (Morales). To be honest, I could probably spend another several thousand words digging into each player’s specific situations, but I’ll save that for another day. For now, it’s enough to know that this is a team-wide problem.

It is important to note that the Royals are still a high-contact team. They still avoid strikeouts more than most teams, and they still make more contact on pitches in the zone than most teams. However, that was one of the areas on the margins that helped them to back-to-back American League pennants.

The Royals won more games than anyone else because they had significant advantages in those seemingly-insignificant areas – contact rates, bullpen depth, baserunning, and the like. This season, the team is still generally good at those kinds of things (other than the baserunning), but their advantages have shrunk.

Slightly shakier relief pitching shows how difficult it is to succeed with poor starting pitching. Giving away outs on the bases makes it tougher to keep the line moving. And fewer balls in play makes the lack of power seem like an even more glaring weakness.

The increase in whiffs isn’t a death knell on its own. The Royals are still great at putting the ball in play. They simply haven’t been great enough. Their margin for error is even smaller, and it all adds up to a team currently sitting at .500, nine games out of the division lead, and teetering on the precipice of the buy-or-sell conundrum.

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