Part of the Royals recipe for offensive success the last couple of seasons was their ability to put the bat on the ball. With the mantra “Keep the line moving” and lacking power of their peers, the Royals relied on a simple formula of putting the ball in play and putting pressure on the opposing defense with their collective speed.
This season, the Royals are a league average team when it comes to contact rate. (I’m not sure why the headers are cutting off the tables. Until I get that fixed, the first column is plate appearances, the second is pitches seen. The third column is pitches per plate appearances and the last column, the one we’re discussing is contact rate.)
Compare the names above to what we saw last season, when the Royals led the lead in contact rate.
Obviously, some of the names have changed. Mike Moustakas had given the Royals three consecutive seasons of increasing contact rate above 80 percent before missing most of 2016. In his 114 plate appearances before hitting the shelf for the season, his contract rate was again on the climb, up to 83.8 percent. While Cheslor Cuthbert has been an adequate replacement, he can’t compare to Moustakas in the category of contact rate. The Royals were only a .500 team with Moustakas, but you can’t help but think the team missed his ability to put the bat on the ball in the number two spot of the batting order.
We’ve noted in this space that Salvador Perez sacrificed some contact rate in exchange for a little more pop. He will finish with a slugging percentage around .440, which will be his highest mark since 2013, which coincides with the last time he got what could be considered regular rest. He will, however, set a career high in ISO at .191. For a guy who can’t lay off the sweeping slider, and generally sees fewer pitches than any Royals batter on the regular, this is a trade that works for the team.
Alcides Escobar has lost a couple of percentage points off his contact rate, but like Perez, I’m not sure it really matters so much. Escobar doesn’t walk, either, and despite his late season power surge, will never be mistaken for a guy who should swing for the fences. His offensive production is completely tied to his BABIP. The more holes he finds, the better his overall production. Escobar is actually providing a little more offense this season. That’s because while his contact rate has dipped a couple of percentage points, he’s jumped from a .286 BABIP to a .299 BABIP.
The real culprits can be found further down the list. Eric Hosmer and Alex Gordon have both seen their contact rates drop, roughly five percentage points each. Gordon’s decline is the most alarming. Previously, his career low contact rate was 74.9 percent set in his rookie campaign. Conversely, his strikeout rate is 28.5 percent, which is a career high by almost six percentage points. Gordon’s swing has gotten long and the guy simply never got on track. Lost at the plate in a lost season.
Gordon’s career contact rate coming into this season was 76.8 percent. He’s nearly six percentage points off his career average. That’s an amazing collapse.
Hosmer’s Baseball Reference page resembles a yo-yo when you gaze at his offensive production. Up one year, down the next. Up. Down. Up in 2015. Down in 2016. Of course, when the season opened and through the first couple of months, it looked like not only was Hosmer going to break that cycle, he was going to have a breakout type of year. Then the wheels completely fell off.
Yet while Hosmer’s offensive performance has varied from season to season, his contact rate, until this year, has remained fairly stable.
Obviously, the team-wide decline in contact rate isn’t the only reason the Royals have seen their offense decline in this, their World Championship defending season. However, for every key player to see a drop is a little strange, and certainly enough to be a cause. The good news is, these rates could be seen as outliers, so if you were to do your own offensive projections for 2017, you could see a way for some of these bats to regress to the mean. With the game evolving back to power though, I’m not certain that is enough to guarantee success going forward.