Judging the Royals

Why the Kansas City Royals are a better team at home

When playing in Kauffman Stadium, Royals pitchers can let the ball be hit in the air and then watch their outfielders run those fly balls down. That same tactic doesn’t work as well on the road, The Star’s Lee Judge writes.
When playing in Kauffman Stadium, Royals pitchers can let the ball be hit in the air and then watch their outfielders run those fly balls down. That same tactic doesn’t work as well on the road, The Star’s Lee Judge writes. tljungblad@kcstar.com

Today’s game plan called for me to write a column explaining why the Royals play so much better at home than on the road. Friday night, the Houston Astros put a dent in that plan, beating Kansas City 13-4 at Kauffman Stadium.

But let’s assume that was an aberration and the Royals will play somewhat better before this homestand ends. (They better. Watching the other team score nine runs in the first inning is depressing.)

So we’ll stick to Plan A, a comparison of the Royals at home and on the road.

Size matters, especially when it comes to ballparks

The Royals play in a very big ballpark, and that matters. The fences are a long way from home plate, and once you get to those fences, they’re pretty high, so hitting home runs in Kauffman Stadium is difficult.

That helps explain why only one team in the American League has given up fewer home runs at home than the Royals.

When playing in Kauffman Stadium, Royals pitchers can let the ball be hit in the air and then watch Kansas City outfielders run those fly balls down. But that same tactic doesn’t work as well on the road.

No team in the American League has given up more home runs when playing on the road than the Royals.

Lorenzo Cain’s range doesn’t matter as much when you play in a smaller park, and those warning-track fly balls in Kauffman land in the seats of a smaller stadium.

So far, the difference between playing at home and on the road is pretty understandable — the fences are farther away — but no matter where you play, the pitcher’s mound is still 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate, and home plate still is 17 inches wide.

Nevertheless, when the Royals play at home, their pitchers are less likely to walk opposing batters. On the road, the Royals pitchers issue more walks per innings pitched.

And that trend stays constant. When playing at home, the Royals’ pitchers’ strikeout-to-walk ratio is better, and they also strike out more batters per nine innings. When playing in Kauffman Stadium, Royals pitchers hold opposing batters to a lower batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

Royals pitchers just flat-out pitch better in Kauffman Stadium.

To adequately explain why might take a team of psychologists and a quart of sodium pentathol, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to try and jab Wade Davis with a needle.

But here’s a theory in the meantime:

The difference in park dimensions explains the difference in home runs at Kauffman Stadium and home runs on the road, and the fear of road home runs explains the rest.

In Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City pitchers can be more aggressive. They can go right at the opposing batters and count on the park size and their outfielders’ speed to get them outs.

On the road, Royals pitchers might lose that aggression and start to nibble. And nibbling usually leads to falling behind in the count. And that leads to walking batters or throwing pitches down Main Street.

What about the Royals’ hitters?

When Dayton Moore took over as the Royals’ general manager, he knew a couple of things immediately. The Royals would need three outfielders with good range to cover ground in Kauffman’s huge outfield, and it didn’t make much sense to invest in home-run hitters.

If a guy makes a living hitting balls over fences, he doesn’t want to play in Kauffman Stadium. So the Royals would have to overpay to get a power hitter to come to Kansas City, and then they wouldn’t get what they paid for.

Royals hitters have been encouraged to hit the ball with a line-drive trajectory. Those distant fences make it hard to hit a ball out of the park, but those distant fences mean a ball in the gap can roll for a while.

But when the Royals play on the road, things can change.

I once watched the Royals take batting practice in Yankee Stadium. With that short right-field porch, batting practice turned into home-run derby. Chicks — and big-league ballplayers — dig the long ball.

To hit home runs, you generally need to pull the ball. And when you pull the ball, you swing sooner. And when you swing sooner, it’s easier to get fooled.

At home, Royals hitters strike out about once every five at-bats. On the road, it’s about once every four at-bats. At home, the Royals have a higher batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage than on the road.

The Royals have a slightly higher percentage of home runs-per-at-bat when playing on the road, but a road record of 13-25 would suggest that hitting slightly more home runs per at-bat isn’t the answer.

At home, Kansas City batters are more than twice as likely to sacrifice bunt, and that suggests that the Royals are more likely to play their “keep-the-line-moving” style of baseball when playing at home in a park that is less likely to reward swinging for the fences.

It all adds up

When you look at these numbers, sometimes the difference between home and away is small, but the trend is across the board. A small difference in almost every category adds up to something big.

The Royals are better team when they play in the park they were built to play in. When they play in another park, the Royals sometimes get away from the style of play that won them a World Series.

Now enjoy the rest of your Saturday, and let’s all hope Chris Young doesn’t give up nine runs in the first inning when he faces the Astros tonight.

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