Opinion

It’s been 50 years since we’ve seen a team like this year’s Royals

Kansas City Royals third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert swung at a pitch during a game earlier this month.
Kansas City Royals third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert swung at a pitch during a game earlier this month. jsleezer@kcstar.com

This is the continuation of a weekly stats column to examine how this year’s Royals compare to the 2015 World Series champions. All numbers through Sunday’s game.

The Kansas City Royals do not value walks like many teams. I know this. You know this.

Manager Ned Yost says he has no problems with KC’s aggressive approach. And really, the Royals’ strategy isn’t much of a secret: Swing at (and hit) the first good pitch you see.

This gameplan doesn’t lend itself to a lot of deep counts and, thus, doesn’t often result in walks.

You’d probably still expect the Royals to get a few more free passes than this.

At the All-Star break, KC has drawn walks on 6.0 percent of its plate appearances. The Chicago Cubs’ walk percentage is nearly double that (10.8 percent). The MLB average is significantly higher (8.2 percent).

And the Royals are in line to make history if they keep up their current ways.

Many people consider 1969 the beginning of the “modern era” of baseball; MLB expanded (which included the Royals), reduced the strike zone and also implemented division play.

In the 48 seasons since then, no team — nonehas a lower walk percentage than this year’s Kansas City Royals. The 2002 Detroit Tigers, who went 55-106, rank second-worst on the list at 6.1 percent.

Another way to look at it: The Royals rank 1,318 out of 1,318 in walk rate since 1969.

KC proved a year ago that success can come without many walks. The Royals’ rate last year was 6.3 percent, which is fourth-worst in the modern era.

It’s fascinating that the Royals, in at least one way, are completely bucking the trend of modern baseball. The last time a team was more walk-phobic was 1966 — some three years before the moon landing.

Will the pace keep up? I’d bet against it, especially with Alex Gordon (one of the team’s most patient hitters) back from injury.

I know this, though: An increase in walks isn’t likely to be a major talking point in the second half. The Royals didn’t put extra emphasis on them last year when winning a World Series title, and they seem content to be MLB’s great outlier when it comes to this aspect of the game.

Let’s take a look at this week’s team numbers.

Hitting

2015 — .269/.322/.412 (Batting average/On-base percentage/Slugging percentage)

2016 — .272/.320/.412

Last 7 games — .233/.280/.404

The top two sets of numbers above look similar, meaning the 2016 Royals compare favorably to the 2015 team offensively. So why is this year’s team averaging nearly a half run per game less (4.0) than 2015 (4.47)? Baseball can be a weird game, and sometimes timing is everything. The Royals sequencing doesn’t appear to be as effective this year with less clutch hitting (see more below).

It doesn’t help the Royals that offense is up across the league, going from an average of 4.25 runs per game last year to 4.51 this season. Home runs, in particular, are up, and that’s an offensive category that isn’t a KC strength.

Hitting with runners in scoring position

2015 — .282/.347/.426

2016 — .272/.328/.397

According to one all-encompassing measure (weighted runs created plus), the Royals are hitting 11 percent worse than league average with runners in scoring position. In 2015, the team was 6 percent better than league average. It’s been proven over time that it’s difficult for teams to maintain “clutchness” from year to year, and the Royals — so far — haven’t been an exception to the rule.

Starting pitching

2015 — 4.34 ERA, 16.8 K%, 7.6 BB%

2016 — 4.99, 21.0, 8.8

Last 7 games — 5.30, 23.6, 5.1

The Royals starting pitchers have at least temporarily moved themselves out of the record books. KC’s starting staff has surrendered 1.66 home runs per nine innings, which is second all-time behind this year’s Cincinnati Reds’ starting staff (1.68). The worst mark outside of this season was 1.60 by the 1987 California Angels, so both the Royals and Reds remain on a level all their own when it comes to allowing longballs.

Relief pitching

2015 — 2.72, 22.9, 8.7

2016 — 2.92, 23.4, 8.0

Last 7 games — 4.76, 28.6, 9.2

Brooks Pounders’ one-inning, five-earned-run blowup distorts the numbers from the last week, and it also gives an example of how injuries can affect a team. Pounders, as you might recall, came up when Wade Davis was put on the disabled list. The rookie has allowed six runs in four innings; Davis, for the season, has allowed four runs in 29  1/3 innings.

Defense

2015 — 51 defensive runs saved (.315 per game, 2nd in MLB)

2016 — 22 defensive runs saved (.250 per game, T-6th in MLB)

Something that may only interest me: Christian Colon, in just 29 games, ranks fourth on the Royals in defensive runs saved (six). He’s been an awful hitter this year — his .277 slugging percentage is worst on the team — but that hasn’t seemed to affect his defense, where he’s been above average at both second and third.

Top 5 in Fangraphs WAR

2015 — Cain 6.6, Moustakas 3.8, Hosmer 3.5, Gordon 2.8, Ventura 2.7

2016 — Perez 2.3, Cain 2.0, Duffy 1.6, Herrera 1.5, Volquez 1.4

Last season, only one pitcher was able to crack the top five in WAR. This season, that number is up to three, which isn’t a great sign for the Royals’ position players. Moustakas (injury), Hosmer (0.4) and Gordon (injury, 0.1) — three guys considered to be cornerstones for 2016 — all haven’t performed at their 2015 levels, with injuries playing a major role.

Bottom 5 in Fangraphs WAR

2015 — Infante -0.9, Guthrie -0.9, Almonte -0.4, Gomes -0.3, Coleman -0.2

2016 — Young -1.5, Escobar -0.5, Fuentes -0.1, Gee -0.1, Pounders -0.1

The Royals will have an interesting decision looming with Alcides Escobar next season, as he has a $6.5 million club option with a $500,000 buyout. Fangraphs estimates his production this season as negative-$3.7 million, as he not only has declined as a hitter, but his defensive metrics also have slipped from elite production a year ago. Though Escobar is a fan favorite, the Royals might consider buying him out if he his production doesn’t improve in the second half — and also if top prospect Raul Mondesi proves he can hit Class AAA pitching the rest of this season.

Jesse Newell: 816-234-4759, @jessenewell

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