Judging the Royals

What happens when the Royals’ runners slow down?

When Royals like Christian Colon pose a threat to steal bases, it also helps the hitters at the plate.
When Royals like Christian Colon pose a threat to steal bases, it also helps the hitters at the plate. jsleezer@kcstar.com

Talk about the Royals window of opportunity and most people will assume you’re talking about player contracts and how long the Royals can hold this group of players together.

But there’s another window of opportunity and no matter what contracts they sign, it will close as these players age.

Much of the Royals game is based on speed and it shows up on defense, on the base paths and — if you believe the guys who play the game — even in the batter’s box.

In 2014 the Royals were first in the American League with 153 stolen bases; in 2015 the Royals were second in the AL with 104 steals. That drop in total steals does not necessarily mean Royals runners were slowing down; it also reflects opposing pitchers speeding up.

Last season in order to slow down Kansas City runners, opposing pitchers were trying to get the ball to home plate more quickly. Pitchers who once delivered the ball to home plate in 1.5 seconds had whittled their delivery time down to 1.2.

But when pitchers rush their delivery, pitches can stay up in the zone. And a pitcher in a hurry might also want to throw a fastball to get the ball to the catcher more quickly.

If Royals base-running coach Rusty Kuntz determined that the opposing pitcher was too quick to home plate for his runners to steal a base, he’d let the hitters know; don’t let a hittable fastball go by — we’re not running tonight.

But in order to stop Royals’ base runners, pitchers were often throwing hittable pitches and batters could take advantage of that.

In the 2014 American League Championship Series against the Baltimore Orioles, manager Buck Showalter wanted to get the ball to home plate as quickly as possible and it worked; in the four-game series the Royals only stole one base in three attempts — but the Royals also hit .280, slugged .417, hit four home runs in the first two games and swept the series.

So between them, Royals hitters and base runners put pitchers in a bind. Throw an off-speed pitch to keep the hitter from teeing off on a fastball and the runners have an advantage; throw a fastball to keep the runners from stealing a base and the hitters might get you.

In 2014, with 153 steals, the Royals hit .263, slugged .376 and had an OPS of .690. They also had 1,456 total hits, 286 doubles, 29 triples, 95 home runs and scored 651 runs.

In 2015 the Royals only stole 104 bases but hit .269, slugged .412 and had an OPS of .734. They also had 1,497 hits, 300 doubles, 42 triples, 139 home runs and scored 724 runs.

So as their stolen base totals dropped, the Royals’ batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, extra-base hits and runs scored went up.

It’s always dangerous to look at one factor — in this case stolen bases — among the hundreds of factors involved and say this explains that; but Rusty Kuntz and the Royals believe there is a connection. They believe what the pitchers and catchers were doing to slow down base runners (pickoffs, pitchouts, fastballs thrown out of slide steps) helped the Royals’ hitters.

But if that’s true, what happens when those base runners slow down?

The Royals’ top three base stealers from 2015 — Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson and Alcides Escobar — will all be 30 years old before the end of the year; Dyson will be 32.

If the Royals’ base runners become less threatening, their hitters will get worse pitches to hit. If pitchers no longer feel like they have to worry so much about the stolen base, they can focus on the hitters. And that might mean fewer fastballs, slide steps, pickoff attempts and pitchouts.

So if the there’s a window of opportunity, the Royals need to run through it … while they still can.

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