Prioritizing Bats Over Gloves
The Royals had to have great gloves to support their staff. Maybe that's beginning to change.
When you think of the 2014 and 2015 Royals, you probably think of the great bullpen first, but then you really start to think fondly of those defenses that were able to catch just about everything hit toward them. That team was designed to be a vacuum, built almost perfectly for the years in which they won with fly ball pitchers and a whole lot of contact (at least in the first six innings of games).
The 2015 Royals had a team strikeout rate of just 19 percent, which ranked 23rd in baseball. The 2014 team struck out just 19.1 percent of hitters, and that ranked 24th. They simply didn’t miss many bats. And while you have people like me talking all day long about how missing bats is the name of the game, those teams didn’t care because they built strong defenses and were playing with a ball that wasn’t juiced to the point that 96 different players hit 20 or more home runs in 2019 compared to just 47 in 2014.
Now, more than ever, teams need to get strikeouts. But it’s not just because a check swing can result in a ball going 380 feet into the alley. It’s to get better hitters on your team, and that’s what I took way too long to get into with that introduction. While the championship Royals teams of 2014 and 2015 were built on speed, defense and a lockdown bullpen, the best teams generally need to be able to bash the ball. In the last four seasons, the Nationals were the only champion to not have the best slugging percentage in baseball and they had the seventh best. The Rays, always the exception to like every rule, are the only runner up of the last four seasons to not rank in the top three in baseball in slugging percentage.
How does that impact the Royals? Let’s take a look at the 2020 season because it’s about balls in play. The Reds led all of baseball with a 28.9 percent strikeout rate in 2020. The Royals were 18th at 23.2 percent. And the Rockies brought up the rear at 16.8 percent.
Here’s how that impacted them:
This is pretty simple math here. The Reds faced 2,125 batters and had 615 outs before they even had to think about getting gloves for their middle infielders. The Rockies, well, had fewer than that. But more importantly, look at the difference on the number of balls the defense was required to handle. The Rockies defense had to go get it 432 times more than the Reds. So the Reds faced 91 percent of the batters the Rockies did, but only had 78 percent of the balls in play.
The Royals, in the middle of the pack, had to get 206 more batted balls than Reds defenders. I know that Mike Moustakas looked fine at second base and all that, but you can sign a big thumper for the middle of the lineup and play them out of position if you’re not letting opponents hit the ball much.
Take a look at the three teams mentioned above again, presented in a slightly different way:
That’s a super simplistic chart and it’s important to remember that there’s always more to the story with errors and all that, but the Reds recorded 137 fewer outs via a non-strikeout than the Royals and allowed 97 fewer runners. The Rockies recorded 152 fewer non-strikeout outs than the Royals and allowed 84 more base runners. This isn’t rocket science, but a strikeout is (almost) always an out and a batted ball is, well, not.
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In 2020, Brady Singer showed he can get those whiffs, at least at an average rate in the big leagues. His 23.2 percent strikeout rate was right in line with the team, and while not elite, ranked right in the middle of 106 big league starters with 40+ innings. Kris Bubic at 22.1 percent was a touch below. Brad Keller doesn’t strike guys out, so that’s an issue, but Mike Minor ranked 26th and Danny Duffy ranked 45th. Group those five with a bullpen with the sixth best strikeout rate in baseball and they’re well on their way.
The big question is if the young prospects who haven’t made it yet can do it. Daniel Lynch clearly has the stuff. So does Asa Lacy and Jackson Kowar. Carlos Hernandez too. I’m not going to bore you with all the pitching prospects the Royals have on the way, but if they can keep around average with guys like Singer and Bubic and find one or two guys above average with a bullpen that can get strikeouts, the Royals can limit their reliance on defense as well.
I’m not saying you use that to go sign JD Martinez to play center field or anything, but wondering whether or not an outfielder can play elite enough defense to hold up in center field at Kauffman Stadium may not be quite as important as it once was. Sure it’s still a huge outfield, but they don’t have to be drawn to guys like Michael A. Taylor now or maybe a Kevin Kiermaier in the future just because they know that they have to have elite defense (I know Taylor hasn’t been elite defensively, but just go with it please).
This isn’t to say that the Royals should just punt on defense or strive to punt on defense. They have a big park with a lot of ground to cover and even the team that struck out hitters at the highest rate didn’t strike them out 71.1 percent of the time. This is just to say that getting those strikeouts will give them the option to not worry about it so much at every single position and to be able to maybe actually go for the masher who isn’t quite as adept in the field.
Get swings and misses, limit balls in play, and suddenly, you can sacrifice some defense somewhere to make the offense better and make it a little bit easier for the team to put runs up and get some wins.
The more pitchers concentrate on strike outs, the higher their pitch counts. More use of bull pen is the result. Also, strike outs are boring, except in critical situations. I prefer watching defensive plays.
Music to my ears! And the logic follows; face less runners and there is not only less chance for fielding errors but also less dying quails, ground balls with eyes, etc.
And let's face it, with a juiced ball (even if they are allegedly taking a few droplets out of it) you got to score, so finding a balance that is more O heavy than the 14', 15' teams makes sense. That is one reason why I'm excited about this team. I see some definite possibilities.
I'm interested in your thoughts - or maybe your next article on the bats - I haven't checked PECOTA or any similar sources - but I think if we stay healthy we could be a 150 HR, 50 Triple, 150 SB team. Of course, if we're blasting that many HRs and Trips then maybe a few less chances in the stolen base department. But I'd settle for 150/50/125. If we do that, I feel we will be seeing the post season.