Aug 7, 2017; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Ian Kennedy (31) reacts after walking in a run in the fourth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Hard Knocks

Baseball can be a pretty simple game. If you score more runs than your opponent, you win. It’s that easy. Of course, how the runs are scored and prevented is what can get complicated. Sure, a home run is always at least a run and a strikeout is (almost) always an out, but what about everything in between? One of the great things about the data we have at our fingertips every day is that we can quantify how those results happen much easier than ever before. But even that in between is, on the surface, quite simple. Hit the ball hard and you’re more likely to get a hit. Allow weaker contact and you’re more likely to get an out.

As a team, the Royals pitching staff did an okay job at limiting hard contact. According to Fangraphs, their hard contact percentage of 31.4 percent was the 13th best in baseball. Middle of the road isn’t bad. And they were 15th in soft contact percentage at 19.1 percent, so that checks out. According to average exit velocity, though, the story was slightly different. They allowed the 10th highest average exit velocity at 87.1 MPH. As with any stat, you can’t glean everything from an average, but it’s a good way to start looking at the very least.

Among pitchers who threw at least 20 innings for the big league club this year, the biggest culprit in terms of giving up hard hit balls by percentage was Ian Kennedy at 41.7 percent. This might shock you, but he also gave up the least soft contact at 11.8 percent. That’s a far cry from his career of 16.9 percent soft contact and 33.7 percent hard contact. I guess we’ll find out in 2018 if this past year was about age or about injury for him. Take a look at every Royal who threw at least 20 innings with their hard contact percentage, soft contact percentage and average exit velocity:

Pitcher Hard Contact% Soft Contact% Avg. Exit Velocity DRA
Ian Kennedy 41.7% 11.8% 89.3 MPH 5.68
Jake Junis 36.7% 16.9% 88.9 MPH 4.70
Kelvin Herrera 33.5% 18.7% 87.7 MPH 4.42
Jason Vargas 32.7% 17.9% 86.7 MPH 3.83
Nate Karns 32.0% 23.0% 88.0 MPH 4.21
Jason Hammel 31.6% 16.6% 87.8 MPH 4.78
Brandon Maurer 31.5% 24.7% 87.9 MPH 6.48
Danny Duffy 29.8% 17.8% 86.0 MPH 3.85
Chris Young 29.7% 21.6% 85.8 MPH 7.10
Matt Strahm 28.3% 22.8% 84.8 MPH 5.04
Mike Minor 27.6% 22.5% 84.7 MPH 2.86
Joakim Soria 27.2% 18.4% 86.5 MPH 3.07
Travis Wood 26.9% 20.0% 88.1 MPH 8.84
Trevor Cahill 26.8% 23.2% 87.6 MPH 5.32
Peter Moylan 26.4% 31.1% 84.0 MPH 2.52
Kevin McCarthy 26.3% 24.4% 84.9 MPH 5.81
Scott Alexander 25.0% 26.5% 86.4 MPH 3.81
Ryan Buchter 24.4% 29.5% 80.5 MPH 4.76

A couple things jump out to me here. The first is that there isn’t the correlation I was expecting among all these factors. I had a preconceived notion that the guys who rank well in these categories would, as a general rule, be the best pitchers on the staff. It’s not necessarily the case.

As you can see, a guy like Ryan Buchter limited hard contact, got a lot of soft and didn’t allow much exit velocity, but still had a DRA of 4.76. I suppose that could be a sample size issue given that he only threw 27 innings for the Royals with a 2.67 ERA. I think the lack of strikeouts with the Royals is the culprit for him. Given that he’d struck out more than a better per inning with the Padres in his 109 appearances with them before being traded, I think his low rate may have been a bit of an aberration.

Kevin McCarthy, on the other hand, posted a very solid 3.20 ERA and did a nice job of limiting the soft contact, but his 5.81 DRA was one of the worst on the team. That seems to go back to the lack of strikeouts as well. The difference here is that he’s not a strikeout guy. Of course, he does get a lot of ground balls, so maybe that makes sense too.

I think the above chart does show us a few things. For one, the Royals actually do have a lot of the pitching staff coming back who didn’t allow a ton of hard contact. Guys like Buchter, Alexander, McCarthy and, yes, even Soria should do a nice job of limiting the hard hit balls in 2018 just like they did in 2017. For another, it makes me even more frustrated about how terrible Maurer looked in his brief time with the Royals. He wasn’t great, but given the batted ball profile, he should at least be average. And yet, here we are.

As baseball becomes more and more about the three true outcomes, I imagine there will be an emphasis placed by some teams on finding hitters who can simply make contact. The Royals obviously made it work quite well for a couple years, but that was before the home run explosion of the last two or three seasons. With that in mind, having a staff that is adept at limiting hard contact and even coaxing weak contact will become even more important. In today’s game, getting the strikeout isn’t that hard (for most). It’s keeping the exit velocity down and making it so batted balls are more easily turned into outs.

This sort of brings me back to a guy I’ve talked about a lot as a target for the Royals, Tyler Chatwood. Last season, among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched, he allowed the 13th highest soft contact percentage at 22.1 percent and the 32nd lowest hard contact percentage at 29.1 percent. That’s all out of 134 pitchers. He also allowed an average exit velocity of 85.4 MPH, which would have been best among Royals starters.

Hard and soft contact and exit velocity aren’t the be all, end all for a pitcher, and I certainly didn’t intend to make this a “sign Tyler Chatwood” article…again, but get soft contact and get it on the ground and that’s a pretty good way to at least try and combat the changing game of baseball. The Royals weren’t horrible as a team at that last season, but they’ll need to get better at it if they dream of competing in 2018.

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