On Tuesday night at Detroit, the Royals tied their team record for home runs in a single season when Lorenzo Cain homered in the sixth inning.
Despite hitting home runs at what for them is a record pace, the Royals are second-to-last in the American League when it comes to runs scored and are currently one game under .500.
Why haven’t those 168 home runs resulted in more runs or wins?
Home runs aren’t the problem, it’s trying to hit home runs
These days it’s hard to read a story about baseball without encountering OPS: on-base-plus-slugging percentage. It’s a stat that gained in popularity after Moneyball was published: lots of people fell in love with players who walk and hit home runs.
But focusing on OPS didn’t do much for the Oakland A’s when it came to the postseason and being second-to-last in home runs and dead last in walks didn’t seem to hurt the 2015 Kansas City Royals.
Nevertheless, prior to the 2017 season, the Royals talked about hitting more home runs.
Several people in the Royals organization have said focusing on hitting more home runs may have led to a lousy first month of the 2017 season. The team batting average was .210 and their record was 7-16.
George Brett finished his career with 317 home runs, but says he rarely hit one when he tried. Instead, Brett focused on hitting the ball hard and some of those hard-hit balls would leave the premises.
Now here’s what happens when you try to hit home runs.
Hitting the ball in the air leads to a low batting average
136 of the Royals’ 168 home runs have come on balls hit with a fly-ball trajectory; unfortunately, when the Royals hit a fly ball and it isn’t a home run, they bat .074.
32 of the Royals’ home runs have come on line drives; when the Royals hit a line drive and it isn’t a home run, they still hit .611.
Numbers like these are why Charlie Lau, the hitting instructor who turned George Brett into George Brett, believed that over the course of a season a line-drive hitter would beat you more often than a home-run hitter.
Home runs are great, but if you hit the ball in the air and it doesn’t leave the yard, the chances of that fly ball paying off are slim.
Pulling the ball leads to strikeouts
96 of the Royals’ 168 home runs have come on balls hit to the pull side of the field, 60 home runs were hit up the middle and 12 were hit to the opposite field.
When Royals hitters put a ball in play to the pull side of the field they hit .366; when Royals hitters put a ball in play to the opposite field they hit .333.
So what’s the problem?
“Ball in play” is the key phrase in that sentence. Hitters who are trying to pull the ball have to start their swings earlier; that makes them easier to fool and easier to strike out.
In 2015 the Royals only hit 139 regular-season home runs — second-to-last in the American League — but only struck out 973 times. No AL team struck out less.
So far this season this season the Royals are 10th in the AL when it comes to home runs, but have struck out 1,011 times and are on pace to strike out 1,195 times.
That’s 222 more strikeouts than the team that made “Keep the Line Moving” a mantra. 222 plays opposing defenses won’t have to make, 222 lost opportunities for errors, sac flies or groundouts that advance runners 90 feet.
The 2015 team that was more concerned with getting the ball in play than getting the ball out of the park hit .281 with runners in scoring position; this year’s team is on pace to set a team record for home runs, but is hitting .261 with runners in scoring position.
Home runs are exciting; waiting for home runs is boring
Once some teams were convinced to buy into OPS, some of those teams started playing really boring baseball. Watching a hitter try to work a walk or let hittable pitches go by because he’s waiting for a pitch he can pull for a homer or take pitches until he punches out is boring.
It’s not only boring, but it takes a while.
And now baseball is concerned with the length of games; me, too — I’ve got to watch them.
On Tuesday night, seeing Lorenzo Cain hit a record-tying home run did not make up for watching three hours of the Royals getting beat and beat badly.