The Main Offenders of an Offensive Offense
Runs have been difficult to come by for this Royals team so far in 2022.
Spring training brings so much hope each and every year that the Royals offense will find their footing and score some runs. And then inevitably, as spring training winds down, the offense will start to struggle a bit, making you wonder what the mirage was. Usually, as Royals fans, we quickly see that it was the early part of the spring. Sometimes, like in 2021, they come out of the gates on fire and look like they might actually hit only to see that peter out relatively quickly. And this season followed the general pattern of score tons of runs early in spring, struggle as spring comes to a close and then come out of the gates ice cold.
The Royals scored three runs in a win on Opening Day and then pushed across one run in their second game, but it was enough for another win. You don’t see that very often. They scored three in their third game before exploding for seven the next day and five the day after that. Following the rainout in St. Louis, they got three games in with Detroit where they scored a total of six runs. That’s eight games and 25 runs scored, which is, well, not great. Let’s take a look at the main sources of those struggles.
A Lot of Regulars Have Stunk
If you’ve just eaten, I implore you to not visit the Royals team page on Baseball Reference. This is roughly the number one through 87 reason they’re struggling to score runs. It seems obvious, but they’re in one of those team-wide funks that they’ll crawl out of at some point, but it’s ugly right now. They have 13 batters who have stepped to the plate at least once in the first eight games. Of those 13, four have an OPS+ above 100 and those same four all have a wRC+ above 100. It’d be easier to say who isn’t the problem:
Andrew Benintendi - .357/.438/.464, 12.5% BB, 9.4% K, 172 wRC+
Hunter Dozier - .296/.321/.481, 0.0% BB, 14.3% K, 134 wRC+
Nicky Lopez - .348/.375/.391, 0.0% BB, 4.0% K, 128 wRC+
Cam Gallagher - .500/.667/1.000, 33.3% BB, 33.3% K, 356 wRC+ (in three plate appearances)
Everyone else is below 100. I think you can probably argue that Michael A. Taylor at a 96 wRC+ isn’t a problem either given that he’s there to play top end defense and hit at the bottom of the order.
But it’s pretty easy to see why they’re not scoring when you realize that’s it for bright spots. Whit Merrifield has a .176 OBP from the leadoff spot with a -11 wRC+. Bobby Witt Jr. has hit second every game and he has a .182 OBP with a 26 wRC+. The two at the top of the order have combined to reach base 12 times in eight games. Merrifield has yet to score a run. It’s actually kind of amazing that Witt has four runs scored and three runs batted in.
Beyond them, Salvador Perez has three multi-hit games and zero hits in five games. Carlos Santana is looking for his third hit of the year. The bench outside of Gallagher is 0 for 8, which probably isn’t their fault entirely due to the lack of playing time, which is also kind of nobody’s fault but also kind of Mike Matheny’s fault. He’s definitely in a tough spot there because they’ve played eight games in 12 days, so it’s tough to “rest” a regular, but you also want to get your bench in some action. It’s easy to say he’s been wrong in the way he’s handled his bench, but I’m not entirely sure if there has been a right way to this point.
Okay, so why have they stunk?
This is a never-ending story with the Royals. After the weekend, the Royals had the sixth-highest O-swing%, which is the percentage of times they swing at a ball outside the strike zone. The problem is that this isn’t a new issue. This year’s percentage is 33.3 percent, which is well above league average. Last year they were at 34.5 percent, which was well above league average (though I guess improvement this year? Yay?). They’ve been above league average every single year but 2010 since 2010.
They also make a lot of contact on pitches outside the zone, which helps keep that strikeout rate down, but outside of a handful of hitters, hitting a pitch that isn’t a strike generally leads to weak contact. On pitches outside the zone, the Royals are hitting .161 as a team with an average exit velocity of 77.1 MPH. In the zone, the average jumps 60 points (you’d like to see more), but with an average exit velocity of 82.2 MPH. They’re not doing well enough in the zone, but swinging outside the zone and making contact is doing them no favors.
Struggling on Pitches They Should Drive
The Royals have hit .241 with a .371 SLG on pitches in the heart of the plate, as defined by Baseball Savant here:
These are the pitches that a pitcher wants to avoid and a hitter’s eyes should light up to see. Before we go scorched earth on everyone in the lineup, there is likely a little bad luck in play. That .241 average is a full 37 points below the xBA and the .371 SLG is a full 119 points below the xSLG, so you would think if they maintain their current batted ball metrics that this will turn around. But even the expected stats are both fourth-worst in all of baseball.
Of the 278 pitches they’ve seen in the heart of the plate, 179 have been fastballs. That means a couple things. There’s an opportunity here if they can get their timing right to start crushing these. But also, the law of averages indicates that eventually there’ll be some more breaking balls being missed in this spot. But they need to take better advantage. They’ve seen 65 pitches in the heart of the plate while behind in the count and have done very little. That’s where an offense needs to make a pitcher pay. I don’t mean to pick on Merrifield, but this was from Saturday afternoon:
With two on and two outs after Dozier was cut down at the plate on a play I still don’t quite get from Vance Wilson’s perspective, Merrifield was down in the count, but Matt Manning left a center cut fastball for him. And instead of making him pay as we’ve seen Merrifield do so many times in the past, he hit a grounder up the middle to end the inning. There are far too many examples of this.
This one is on the coaching staff in my opinion. The Royals didn’t score a first inning run until Saturday. They’re hitting .167/.242/.233 in the first. It’s .206/.250/.324 the first time through the order. Once they’ve seen a pitcher, they hit .288/.333/.356 against them. That’s not enough power, but I think there are some outside forces hurting that which I’ll get to shortly. How do they consistently waste nine plate appearances to start a game and seem to do it just about every game? They had the same issue last year hitting .241/.298/.364 the first time and .270/.320/.448 the second time through.
For what it’s worth, the league had a .691 OPS the first time through the order through Sunday’s games and .693 the second time through, so this is not a league-wide issue. This is a Royals issue. I’m not going to get into the third time through because starters have been pulled so early to start the year that the data isn’t great, but the trend is troubling for this team. They need to find a way to get out of the gates faster.
They’re also struggling against bullpens. And look, relievers are better than ever. But they’re hitting .167/.240/.263 the first time they see a reliever. The league is at .220/.306/.355. All these samples are tiny, but their team OPS against relievers for a first time last year was about 40 points lower than the rest of the league as well. They have to be able to hit pitchers before they’ve seen them once.
I tend to believe the hitting coach is far less important than the pitching coach, but when the numbers show that a team isn’t showing up ready to hit, there’s some blame to be spread to Terry Bradshaw. With Keoni DeRenne brought on as an assistant, you’d have to think the group will need to show some progress or else Bradshaw might be forced to move aside.
Before I move on to what I think are the other offenders to the slow offensive start, I want to note that the above are the biggest and most prevalent reasons, but there’s always context to be had.
The Royals, due to the start of the season and rainouts have faced some very good pitching. They’re big leaguers, so they’re all good, but I think the Royals will likely get in there against more 4/5 guys moving forward than they have to this point. The season started with Shane Bieber, who won the Cy Young in 2020 and is very good. Then they faced Cal Quantrill, who has completely bought into the Cleveland pitching machine and has become a very good starting pitcher. Those two shut them down.
Then they were shut down by the number one overall pick in the draft a few years ago, followed by a pitcher who I actually think has a higher upside in Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal respectively. Those were the Tigers numbers two and three starters. Manning isn’t especially good, but they did get to him a bit before he left and then it went back to being unprepared and they got pushed around by Zach Plesac which is inexcusable, but they did fine against Aaron Civale and Dakota Hudson.
This week, they’ll get Chris Archer to start, who is not the Archer he once was. They’ll get Chris Paddack, who has not been good since his rookie year. And they’ll get Joe Ryan, who was the Twins Opening Day starter and is probably pretty good. The Mariners starting staff is tough one through five, so not many breaks, but they’ll get Chris Flexen and Matt Brash, who has looked nasty but is still a rookie. So things are already slowing down for them in terms of the quality of starters they’re facing and will continue to as they get more into the swing of the regular season.
The fact that they struggle against the top tier starters is a problem without a doubt, but I think they’ll face more guys soon who aren’t in that top tier.
I’ve been sitting on this for a couple days because I wanted to see if it would remain true through the weekend. Then Sunday’s game was postponed and it was guaranteed to be true. The Royals have played eight games, and I think it’s fair to say five of them have been in terrible hitting conditions with three in pretty good hitting conditions. In those five terrible hitting condition games, the Royals have scored a total of 10 runs with one home run. In the other three, they’ve scored 15 and hit four home runs.
“But the other team hits in the same conditions!”
Yep, that’s correct. In those five bad hitting weather games, the Royals have allowed eight runs. In the other three, well, it’s been more. This isn’t about the pitching, guys. My point here is that there have been 18 total runs scored in the five games that I think everyone would agree the weather has been at the very least rough for hitters. And it’s gone both ways. Sure, you can argue that the Guardians and Tigers offenses aren’t great, but the Guardians sure had no trouble in Kansas City when the weather warmed up. And the Cardinals didn’t either.
There are obviously other factors from the pitching side with Zack Greinke and Brad Keller starting four of the five bad hitting weather games, but Kris Bubic started the other and walked six and still only allowed one run. My point is that I’m curious to see how the offense fares when it’s much more like baseball weather because they’ve been at least better when it has been and everyone on the field has been horrible when it hasn’t been.
So this is not to say that once the weather gets going, the Royals offense is suddenly going to average the five runs per game they’ve averaged in decent weather (though that would be nice). There are plenty of reasons why this rough start is more than just small sample size noise, but also some reasons to think that better days will be ahead.
Thorough and to the point - we can't hit or at least we aren't hitting.
As you probably recall, I've campaigned for Bradshaw to be shown the door for as long as you've been asking the same for Eldred. Your response has been what you said above, that you believe the hitting coach isn't quite as important as the pitching coach. That may be true. However, our offense is never any good and there are offenses that are so a hitting coach does have some importance.
Bradshaw road the Hosmer, Moose, Salvy wave to the bigs. And as I've contended all along, outside of Merrifield, really hasn't helped anyone exceed expectations and has helped almost everyone perform under expectations.
Whether it's metrics/analytics, philosophical approach, whatever it is that Bradshaw is doing, it isn't working and it hasn't worked and there is no reason to believe it will work. The saying we have in business is "if you can't change your people, you have to change your people". Terry Bradshaw, "you gots to go!"