Runners or not, the Royals’ hitting is lousy

05/21/2014 1:35 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

The company line is that the Royals need to hit better with runners in scoring position. You can hear this from general manager Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost. Depending on who you talk to in the clubhouse, chances are good that the Royals hitter in front of you will bring up the need to bear down and grind and perform other related clichés in those important spots.

By now, it is not analysis so much as it is indisputable fact: the Royals offense stinks and needs significant improvement to make good on a crucial season. And the key, we keep hearing over and over, is for the Royals to have better plate appearances in prime scoring chances.

The Royals lost 7-6 to the White Sox on Tuesday, falling to 22-23. There are a dozen reasons the Royals lost this particular game, just like there are a dozen reasons they’ve lost each of the other 22. But one of the lasting images of this one will be Mike Moustakas and Nori Aoki making harmless outs with the tying run on in the eighth, and of Lorenzo Cain doing it in the ninth.

This is but one small example of a larger problem, the thinking goes, on a team that’s hitting .238 with runners in scoring position.

Except, well, there’s no delicate way of saying this: What if that’s a bunch of baloney?

Many of the men who make their living as players and coaches in major-league baseball swear by the word of clutch hitting. This is where run producers make their money, and it can be where any player makes his mark.

There is an art to it, too.

It’s not easier. It’s not harder. It’s just different. Pitch selection changes, matchups change. The cat-and-mouse game between pitchers and hitters takes on extra variables. This is the way Eric Hosmer explained it before Tuesday’s game.

Like, the other day, against Baltimore, he came up with one out and Nori Aoki on second base. The Orioles had been killing Hosmer with fastballs, but in that situation with first base open, a middle-of-the-order guy usually expects offspeed stuff. But Hosmer figured the Orioles thought he’d be expecting offspeed stuff, so he went up hunting a fastball. Bud Norris threw a first-pitch fastball, but the thing tailed away at the end, and Hosmer grounded out to short.

If nobody is on base, the thought process would’ve been different.

“With a guy in scoring position my game plan there was right,” Hosmer says. “But my pitch selection was bad.”

Yost is a little less technical and a lot more philosophical. He likes to say that hitting with runners in scoring position is an attitude. That attitude is best formed over time and through successes but is described by Yost simply:

“They’re not the one in trouble,” he says. “It’s the pitcher that’s in trouble.”

George Brett has similar sentiments. He talks a lot about the strong tie between success and confidence, of each side building and feeding off the other. He couldn’t have hit that home run of Gossage, for instance, without the swagger to believe he could.

You hear this a lot in baseball, and particularly when the topic is hitting big-league pitching at the most crucial points of a game.

For this Royals team, it has become something of a talking point. They have to have their best plate appearances with runners on base. Hitting .238 with runners in scoring position just isn’t good enough.

It makes sense, on the surface. But, again: What if that’s a bunch of baloney?

The Royals are actually having nearly identical success (or failure, depending on your mood) with runners in scoring position and with nobody on.

Would you have guessed that? They entered Tuesday with a .656 on-base-plus-slugging percentage with runners in scoring position, and .653 with no runners on base. That pretty much echoes the larger trend around the American League: .714 OPS with runners in scoring position, and .703 with nobody on.

And as much as you tend to nod your head when you hear about the importance of hitting with runners in scoring position, when you look at the facts and think about it, you might end up doing the same.

Because to say that a player concentrates harder with a man on second base is to say he doesn’t concentrate like he should with nobody on.

If a player was capable of All-Star production with runners on second and third base, why shouldn’t he be capable of doing it all the time?

Plus, as much as the Royals could jump-start their offense with better success in key plate appearances, they’re actually one of the league’s better teams with situational hitting so far this season. Fifteen percent of their base runners have scored this season, a higher rate than all but the Tigers, White Sox and A’s. No team in the league has done a better job getting a runner home from third with fewer than two outs.

To concentrate too much on the noise of small sample sizes about runners in scoring position is to ignore the larger pile of evidence in all situations. The Royals have hit 20 home runs, less than half the total of seven of the other 14 teams in the league. They are dead last in slugging percentage, but also 12th in on-base percentage.

The Royals have part of it right, in other words.

They need to hit better with runners in scoring position.

But more importantly, they just need to hit better.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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