Why are the Kansas City Royals so hard to beat?

Over the past two American League postseason sessions, the Kansas City Royals have run roughshod over the rest of the league. The Royals, who were about as irrelevant for the prior 20 seasons as a franchise could be, are now 15-4 while playing on the American League side of the postseason bracket the past two years. That’s a good stretch of baseball in the regular season, let alone the playoffs. The Royals rank 24th in the entire league with 139 home runs, 29th in walks (383), 25th in pitches seen (22,705), and have only one player, Ben Zobrist, seeing more than four pitches per plate appearance. How un-Moneyball of them!

So, in an era where batters are taught to take a lot of pitches, draw a lot of walks, and hit a lot of balls really, really far without worrying about the potential of a strikeout, why is the team that is taking an approach so decidedly different from the league norm going to two straight World Series?

Let’s start with what the Royals do well — namely put the ball in play. The Royals struck out only 973 times this season. That’s 134 whiffs clear of the next closest team. The Chicago Cubs, who were mowed down by the New York Mets in the NLCS, drew 184 more walks than the Royals, but struck out 545 times more than Kansas City. Consequently, the Cubs, who batted just .244 as a team (compared to the .269 BA of the Royals) actually produced a lower OBP than the Royals — .322 for KC, .321 for Chicago (it is worth noting that the Cubs OBP was significantly weighted down by the fact that Cubs pitchers batted .114 and reached base at a .148 clip this season. Taking the pitchers out of the equation, the Cubs have a .332 OBP). The Royals have two regulars who struck out more than 100 times. The Cubs have six, led by Kris Bryant‘s 199 whiffs.

Full disclosure, I’m not trying to pick on the Cubs here, but they’re the perfect opposite to the Royals — the Cubs take a lot of pitches, draw a lot of walks, hit a lot of homers, and strike out a lot. The Royals do none of those things.

Only two teams — the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians — ended at-bats ahead in the count more frequently than the Royals in 2015. The Royals ended 610 at-bats this season after a 1-0 or 2-0 count. That is by far the most in the league. The Cubs, on the other hand, put the ball in play in only 472 of those prime hitting counts — near the bottom of the league. When swinging early in the count, the Royals batted .351 on the year. A 1-0 or 2-0 count is almost always going to be a fastball, and the Royals capitalized on those opportunities to hit a good pitch. Only two teams in the league bat less than .300 when hitting 1-0, and only one team bats sub-.300 when hitting 2-0. The Royals take advantage of these golden chances to square up a ball better than any other team in the league. On the flip side, the Royals took the fewest two strike at-bats in the entire league — 467 fewer than the Boston Red Sox who led the league with 3,062 at-bats that went to two strikes. The Cubs had the second-most two strike at-bats in the league, struck out nearly 50-percent of the time in those at-bats, and batted a league-worst .154 with two strikes. Like the rest of the league, the Royals batted below .200 with two strikes, but they put themselves at the mercy of the pitcher at a greatly reduced rate.

Conventional wisdom states that over the course of an entire season, a team’s BAbip should regress to approximately .300. The Royals BAbip was nearly spot on with the expected value — .301. The Royals are not better or worse when it comes to converting batted balls into hits. They just put more balls in play than the rest of the league.

To reinforce the point that the Royals are good at identifying strikes and putting them in play, take a look at the starting lineup’s plate discipline statistics from the regular season. For comparison’s sake, I’ve tossed in Kris Bryant, who was abused by Mets starting pitching in the NLCS. If you’re unfamiliar, O-Swing % measures the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone a hitter swings at. Z-Swing % measures the same thing for pitches in the strike zone.

Player P/PA O-Swing % Z-Swing % O-Contact % Z-Contact %
Salvador Perez 3.32 43.4% 67.2% 71.1% 92.9%
Eric Hosmer 3.82 33.7% 62.8% 66.5% 91.3%
Ben Zobrist 4.03 22.7% 52.6% 80.4% 93.0%
Alcides Escobar 3.49 35.8% 68.8% 70.5% 91.1%
Mike Moustakas 3.96 32.4% 64.5% 74.8% 90.4%
Alex Gordon 3.99 23.2% 65.1% 59.1% 86.3%
Lorenzo Cain 3.79 33.4% 68.5% 69.6% 90.5%
Alex Rios 3.70 30.6% 64.5% 64.9% 92.2%
Kendrys Morales 3.81 30.8% 70.4% 59.4% 88.6%
Kris Bryant 4.06 29.1% 73.8% 43.8% 77.5%

Bryant, who was very patient all season, and swung at fewer balls than all but two members of the Royals, put himself in a two-strike count 57.4-percent of the time this season. Waiting around for the perfect pitch did not do Bryant any favors, especially against the devastating stuff of the New York aces. Only two members of the Royals lineup fail to make contact on fewer than 90-percent of the pitches in the strike zone that they swing at.

Have the Royals unlocked the secret sauce to winning baseball — namely swing aggressively early in the count when pitchers are focused on getting strikes across the plate? It does not take an MBA from Harvard or MIT to realize that capitalizing on fastballs early in the count is a recipe for winning baseball. It’s actually very difficult for pitchers to strike you out if they never actually get the chance to throw a pitch with two strikes.

There’s no true guaranteed recipe for success against arms like Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard, but if one team in the 2015 postseason has the formula for beating this trio of power arms, it’s the Royals. There’s nothing conventional about the way the Royals play baseball (unless you’re talking 1950’s baseball), but it works for them. The Royals have a lineup that can put the bat on the ball with regularity, one through nine. They’re an aggressive bunch, unafraid to swing the bat. The Royals keep themselves out of pitcher’s counts. This team is not going to sit back and wait for the Mets pitchers to make a mistake in the World Series. The San Francisco Giants got the best of the Royals in last year’s Fall Classic by the narrowest of margins. The Royals could very well go down again this year, but their lineup won’t be a walk in the park for the Mets.

Royals in seven.

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