Judging the Royals

The 2017 Royals: Why trying to hit home runs can backfire

Kansas City Royals designated hitter Brandon Moss walked away from the plate after striking out a game against the Los Angeles Angels at Kauffman Stadium.
Kansas City Royals designated hitter Brandon Moss walked away from the plate after striking out a game against the Los Angeles Angels at Kauffman Stadium. jsleezer@kcstar.com

When the Royals said they were going to increase run production by hitting more home runs, it sounded like someone planning to increase their income by taking the rent money to a gambling casino.

It might work, but it’s a long shot.

It’s not just that hitting home runs — especially in Kauffman Stadium — is difficult, it’s all the bad things that come along with trying to hit home runs.

One more time: to hit home runs most guys have to pull the ball and to pull the ball you have to start your swing sooner and if you start your swing sooner you’re more likely to get fooled by a pitch.

And right now the Royals are swinging at a whole bunch of pitches that aren’t in the strike zone.

According to the TV guys — Ryan Lefebvre and Rex Hudler — Royals hitting coach Dale Sveum has said it’s not how the Royals are swinging the bat that’s killing them, it’s the pitches the Royals are swinging at.

Have the Royals gotten away from a successful offensive philosophy?

In 2014, the Royals were last in the American League in home runs, but struck out less than any other team. They were also second in the league in team batting average.

In 2015, the Royals were second-to-last in the American League in home runs, but once again struck out less than any other team. That year the Royals were tied for second in team batting average.

The offensive game plan seemed pretty simple; pressure the other team by getting the ball in play and running like hell.

In 2017, the Royals are currently tied for ninth in home runs, but six teams have struck out less often. The Royals are also dead last in team batting average.

So how do the Royals get out of this hitting slump?

I tell people that you shouldn’t come to this blog to hear my opinions; you should come to this blog because I get to talk to the best ballplayers in the world and, if you’re interested, I’ll tell you what those ballplayers have to say.

So what did the best Royals hitter of all time have to say about getting out of slumps?

George Brett once told me that when he was scuffling, he’d try to hit the ball to the opposite field.

Hitting the ball to the opposite field cures a lot of hitting problems: you have to wait longer so you’re less likely to swing at a bad pitch, you have to keep your front shoulder closed so you’re less likely to open up and pull off the ball and it helps if you have a dominant bottom hand pulling the bat through contact.

That makes it less likely that you’ll push the bat through contact with your top hand, roll over and hit a ground ball to the pull side of the field.

Take a look at Eric Hosmer

A lot of people have theories about Eric Hosmer’s hitting problems and what he should do to fix them. That being the case, I’ll try not to add a theory of my own — but I will explore Brett’s.

We’re only 19 games into 2017, so the sample sizes are still miniscule and jump around night to night; so let’s look at Hosmer’s career numbers instead.

Over his career when Hosmer pulls the ball he’s hit .301, when he hits it up the middle he’s hit .335 and when he takes the ball to the opposite field he’s hit .398.

(If you’re wondering how Hosmer can still have a .276 lifetime average, it’s because we’re talking about balls in play and that doesn’t include strikeouts. But Hosmer — and every other hitter who’s ever lived — is more likely to strike out when he’s trying to pull the ball.)

When Hosmer pulls the ball he hits more home runs (30), compared to 16 the other way.

But because Hosmer has hit more doubles to the opposite field — 63 compared to 37 on his pull side — he still has a higher slugging percentage on opposite-field balls in play; .652 compared to .475.

Now let’s look at hit trajectory.

Over his career when Hosmer hits fly balls he has a .216 batting average, but slugs .627 and that’s because most home runs are fly balls. According to Baseball Reference — which is where I’m getting all these numbers — Hosmer has hit 77 fly-ball home runs.

Over his career, when Hosmer hits ground balls he hits for more average (.254) but unless someone has a heart attack it’s hard to hit a ground ball homer, so his slugging percentage on grounders is only .267.

When Hosmer hits a line drive he’s at his best: a .693 batting average and a 1.043 slugging percentage. But line drives are hard to hit when the best pitchers in the world are trying to stop you from doing so.

So where does that leave us?

Go back to the part about pulling the ball and top-hand grounders.

If you believe Hosmer needs to quit hitting grounders, he’s more likely to do that if he quits pulling the ball. Remember: a lot of grounders are caused by the top hand taking over and pushing the bat through contact.

If you believe Hosmer needs to get the ball in the air he’s more likely to do that if he hits the ball to the opposite field. Going oppo usually requires a dominant bottom hand and that prevents a lot of those rollover grounders.

And going to the opposite field will improve Hosmer’s pitch selection and cut down on punch-outs.

If a guy is a dead-pull hitter he’s going to have problems taking the ball the other way, but it’s something Eric Hosmer and a bunch of his Royals teammates already know how to do.

And if George Brett is right — and I’m guessing he is — the sooner the Royals start hitting the ball to the opposite field, the sooner they’ll get out of this hitting slump.

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