The Swing's the Thing
And the Royals do that thing way too much.
The Kansas City Royals are not known for their plate discipline, and outside of some of the early teams in the 1970s, they haven’t ever been. That has reached a crescendo in recent years. Their 7 percent walk rate in 2021 was the lowest in baseball…by a decent amount. They were fifth worst in 2020, sixth worst in 2019, third worst in 2018, well you get the picture. Walk rate isn’t the only thing that matters, though. Sometimes teams don’t walk because there’s no reason to do anything but throw strikes. But sometimes teams don’t walk because they just swing at everything.
And the Royals fall into that category. On the whole, the Royals swung at half the pitches thrown their way. That might not seem so bad if you think about their lack of firepower as a reason why teams might put pitches in the zone more often than not. But they were tied with the White Sox for the second lowest percentage of pitches seen in the zone at 48.1 percent. So at this point, the facts we know are that the Royals see one of the lowest percentage of pitches in the zone but swing at the most pitches in baseball.
Looking a little deeper, you’ll find that they swing at the second highest percentage of pitches in the zone of any team in baseball. On the surface, that seems like a pretty good plan. The Braves won the World Series and they swung at the highest percentage. The Blue Jays were right behind the Royals while the Rays were fifth. So that’s three very good offensive teams in the top five to join the Royals and the Mets. But the problem is that the Royals didn’t do enough damage. Sure, they hit for a pretty high average - .288, seventh in baseball - but they didn’t do enough with that average. Their .470 SLG on pitches in the zone was ninth worst and they were one of just eight teams with a sub-.200 ISO on pitches in the zone.
Of those pitches in the strike zone, 54 percent were considered in the heart of the plate. We’ve talked about that location before, but for a reminder:
So these are the pitches that you really want to hit. On pitches in the middle of the plate, the Royals hit .316, which was good for 10th best in baseball but slugged .522, which was fifth worst. Their .206 ISO on those pitches was tied for the worst in baseball with the Marlins. But again, even with their struggles to perform up to the standards of other teams, “bad” results on pitches in the center of the zone are still quite good and something opposing pitchers want to avoid.
This is where the Royals complete disregard for the strike zone comes into play. You’d think that pitchers would challenge Royals hitters more given how comparatively poorly they hit within the zone, but the Royals make it so pitchers don’t have to even take that risk against them. It stands to reason that if the Royals see the second fewest pitches in the zone, they’d see the second most out of the zone. So that math was easy to do. Guess who swings at the second most of their out of zone swings?
Come on, that’s an easy one. Of course it’s the Royals, topped only by the Marlins who had a terrible offense in 2021. It’s a bit odd that the Red Sox were right behind the Royals, but other than them, it takes a bit down the list to get to any offense that was especially good this last season. While contact can often be a good thing because putting pressure on defense can be quite beneficial, one area where it isn’t so great is on pitches out of the zone. Yes, the ones that are close can still be knocked for a single or if you’re Salvador Perez for a massive home run, but generally making contact on balls outside the zone mean you’re making weak contact.
The Royals actually do have the highest average exit velocity on pitches outside the zone at 81.3 MPH, but the fact that it’s the highest says everything you need to know. The league average exit velocity on pitches that should simply be taken is 79.5 MPH. So in a lot of ways a swing and a miss is actually better than putting bat on ball. Now, the Royals do swing and miss at about an average rate. Their 43.9 percent whiff rate on balls out of the zone ranks 16th in baseball. But because they see so many more pitches outside the zone, they actually made contact with the third most pitches on those outside the strike zone.
So to recap, they swing too much at those pitches and while they whiff a pretty normal amount of time and make the best contact in baseball on average, they still make way too much contact. So what’s the solution? It’s to swing less of course. If the Royals swung less, they’d put themselves in a much better position to succeed.
Only seven teams saw more first pitches outside the strike zone than the Royals and no team saw a higher percentage of first pitches outside the zone. And why is that? Because pitchers could get swings and ultimately outs on them. They put 95 of the 2,946 first pitches outside of the zone in play and while their .315 average was ninth best in baseball and their .528 SLG was second best, it was such a small number of pitches that it didn’t matter all that much. See, their 432 first pitch whiffs or foul balls were 21 more than any other team in baseball.
They also have the eighth most first pitch whiffs or foul balls on pitches in the zone, so add it together and they started 0-1 because of a swing more than any team but the Braves. And the Braves had the firepower to overcome a pitcher’s count. Ultimately, that’s what this all comes down to. It’s sort of like everything else in life. The more natural gifts you have in doing something, the more mistakes you can get away with. The 2021 Royals simply didn’t have the ability to overcome being behind in the count as often as they were because of their swing decisions.
But because they will help a pitcher out as often as they do, the pitcher never even feels compelled to give in to them. They may not have been among the best in the game when it came to doing damage on strikes, but if they forced pitchers into the zone even just a little more often, how many more runs could they have scored? It’s tough to honestly answer that question, but given how much better they were within the strike zone, maybe they add another 20 runs simply from seeing more pitches there. Over the course of 162 games, 20 runs is a pittance. It’s a bit more than one-tenth of a run per game. But with quick and dirty math, it’s probably two more wins.
Going from 74 to 76 doesn’t mean a whole lot (other than the fact that it could have made me right in my prediction, yes I’m still bitter), but if they get some better pitching moving forward, going from 88 to 90 could make a difference. I’m not saying they’re necessarily going to push that far forward in 2022, but the point is that when teams talk about doing the little things to get that extra win or two, this is one of those little things that can pay off in a big way when the race is as tight as it could very well be in a couple seasons.