In 2018, for the first time in the history of big-league baseball, there were more strikeouts than hits. Big-league hitters struck out a record-breaking 41,207 times, and much of the responsibility for that dubious accomplishment can be traced to the game’s fixation on home runs.
Home runs and strikeouts tend to go hand-in-hand.
To hit home runs, most hitters have to start their swing sooner and make contact out in front of the plate. That allows them to pull the ball into the shortest parts of the ballpark — the corners — and hitters who swing early tend to get fooled more often. A pitch that looked like a fastball down the middle coming out of the pitcher’s hand ends up being a slider in the dirt.
The launch-angle craze played its part. Hitters who tried to change their swings to get under the ball often developed a letter-high hole in those loopy swings and smart pitchers started taking advantage of that weakness with high fastballs.
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To make matters worse, hitters with two strikes did not always see fit to cut down on their swings to get the ball in play. These days it’s rare to see a big-league hitter choke up on a bat.
Blame the marketplace.
If hitters get rewarded for home runs and don’t get punished for strikeouts, they will just keep swinging for the fences, even with two strikes.
In the year 2000, 58 big-league hitters struck out 100 times or more; in 2018, 153 hitters struck out 100 times or more, and that list includes some of the biggest stars in baseball. Striking out 100 times in a season used to be embarrassing.
Giancarlo Stanton struck out 211 times this season and it doesn’t seem to have hurt his career.
Many teams were so enamored with home runs, they not only put up with strikeouts they also put up with home run hitters who were bad on defense.
And that’s something the 2019 Royals can exploit.
The pressure principle
On Oct. 30, 2015, the Royals were set to play Game 3 of the World Series against the New York Mets. When a Royals front office executive was asked about his team’s chances, he said as long as the Royals put the ball in play and hit it on the ground, they’d win the Series.
A fly ball requires one guy to do one thing: catch it. Most of the time, a ground ball requires two guys to do three things: catch it, throw it and catch it again. Ground balls put more pressure on a defense than fly balls, and if the guy who hits a ground ball can fly down the first-base line, the pressure increases.
Back in 2015, the Royals did not think the Mets’ infield could handle that pressure — and the Royals were right.
Now here’s what KC general manager Dayton Moore recently said at the winter meetings:
“We’re potentially capable of playing really good defense and being a threat on the base paths. We want to make sure we strike out less (and) get on base more so we can utilize that speed and aggressiveness.”
In 2015, the Royals struck out 973 times; that season, no team struck out less often. In 2018, the Royals struck out 1,310 times. Divide those 337 extra strikeouts into 27-out chunks and that’s about 12 and a half games where the Royals’ offense put no pressure on the other team’s defense.
If the Royals want to get back to the approach that won them two American League championships and one World Series, they need to do a better job of getting the ball in play…and that brings us to the recently acquired Billy Hamilton.
Hamilton can fly, and speed plays well in Kauffman Stadium. His speed means Hamilton can cover ground in the outfield, and whenever he gets on base he’s a threat to swipe a bag. Having a guy with 277 career steals stand on first base distracts the pitcher and can result in mediocre pitches to the guy at the plate.
But his speed doesn’t matter if Hamilton doesn’t get the ball in play ... and that’s been an issue. Hamilton has 554 career strikeouts and has struck out more than 100 times in a season three times. In 2018, his 132 punchouts would have been tops on the Royals.
Hamilton strikes out way too often for a guy with 21 career home runs.
How to avoid strikeouts
If you still believe taking pitches and trying to work walks is the only path to victory, brace yourself: Last season, a Royals front-office executive pointed out that the best way to avoid strikeouts is to avoid two-strike counts.
Baseball is constantly making adjustments, and if hitters are going to stand at the plate taking pitches, pitchers are more likely to throw strikes.
That means the first pitch of an at-bat might be the best pitch a hitter will see. Take a fastball down the pipe and after that a hitter might see nothing but nasty breaking pitches. So depending on the situation it might be smart to swing early in the count.
Over his career, when Hamilton has put the first pitch in play, he’s hit .362. If Hamilton takes the first pitch for a strike, that average drops to .211. Those numbers are not unusual; last season the Royals hit .339 when they put the first pitch in play and .206 after taking the first pitch for a strike.
If it makes you feel any better, the 2018 Boston Red Sox — the team with the most productive offense in baseball — decided they were taking too many good pitches early in the count and talked about hitting the first good pitch they saw.
And we all know how that worked out.
Despite the accepted wisdom that on-base-plus-slugging percentage is what really matters, the Royals won two American League Championships and one World Series while finishing 10th in the American League OPS in 2014 and seventh in OPS in 2015.
There’s more than one way to win a ballgame, and the Royals proved it.
These days good defense and getting the ball in play appear to be undervalued, and if the Royals want to take advantage of that, they have to avoid strikeouts.
And don’t be surprised if they swing at the first pitch to do it.