I start with an observation and a statistic. The Royals see very few pitches; that’s the observation. Here is the statistic. They see 3.75 pitches per plate appearance, which is next to last in the American League; the Angels are last at 3.74.* Of course, conventional wisdom states that the more pitches a team sees the better. It means the other team has to burn through pitchers more quickly, allowing the patient team to face the opposing team’s bullpen more often. Typically, bullpen pitchers aren’t as good as starting pitchers, which is why they are in the bullpen. Seeing more pitches also allows hitters to understand a pitcher’s stuff better, thus, giving those hitters a better chance at the plate. The top five teams in P/PA are Boston, Oakland, Minnesota, Cleveland, and Toronto. Four of those teams rank above league average in runs scored per game with Cleveland, Oakland, and Boston scoring 5.09, 4.79, and 4.76 R/G respectively.
*All stats in this post come from before the first game of the Angels series.
Digging a little deeper into the numbers, it’s fairly easy to see why the Royals see so few pitches: 1) The Royals swing at 47.7 percent of pitches, second only to the Angels; 2) They make contact with 81.2 percent of pitches they swing at, which is fourth in the AL; 3) They swing at 32.4 percent of pitches outside the strike zone and make contact with those pitches 72.2 percent of the time. That’s tops in the league. From this data we get a picture that our eyes probably already began constructing as we watched the games. The Royals swing at a lot of pitches, but they don’t strike out that much. Instead, they put a lot of balls in play. This might be ok if it were true that all balls in play are created equal, but as has been one of my battles for at least two years against the notion that BABIP is a matter of “luck,” all batted balls are not created equally. This data hints at that. The Royals make contact with a lot of balls outside the strike zone. Some of those are fouled off. Some of those drop as hits, but a large majority of those are put in play weakly for outs. To state it simply, the Royals put too many balls in play. They put balls in play that should be left alone.
This doesn’t just include balls out of the strike zone. It also includes pitcher’s pitches, balls placed on the corners and low. These are tough pitches that make hitting safely difficult. If a hitter swings at a pitcher’s pitch, he is most likely going to miss it or put it in play weakly. We already know the Royals actually don’t swing and miss much, only 8.7 percent, which is ninth in the American League (Jeff Francoeur be damned). Instead, they put the ball in play weakly a lot.
It’s an interesting and incredibly frustrating combination. The Royals swing at pitches they shouldn’t, but instead of striking out at an Astros-like rate, they simply hit weak ground balls to the second baseman. Of course, it seems like striking out is worse, but maybe we shouldn’t take that for granted. If Francoeur swings at a pitch outside the strike zone on the first pitch and hits a weak ground ball to second, that’s one pitch and one out. If he swings and misses at three bad pitches, that’s three pitches and one out. Sure, his ball in play gave him the slight chance to get on base (error, infield single, bloop hit, weak ground ball through the infield). But it also cost him two pitches. It’s not a coincidence that starting pitchers go deep against the Royals. The only way they have of running up pitch counts is to get a lot of hits because they don’t see enough pitches otherwise.
So, if I had to boil their philosophy down into a few words it would go like this: When you see a pitch you think you can hit, hit it. Simplified, but it seems like this is how they approach hitting. This is, in fact, a bad philosophy. It discounts all the benefits that come from seeing more pitches for the belief that one may get the best pitch to hit early in the count. It’s actually predicated on fear, a fear of missing out on the pitch early in the count that would have been the best one to hit. This scenario plays out all the time in real life when people decide to settle for something they can hit instead of waiting, gathering more information, and hitting the pitch they should hit. Why is this bad? Because more information is almost always better than less information i.e. seeing what a pitcher is throwing and understanding it is better than not. Plus, pitchers live to exploit hitters willing to swing at quality strikes. Swinging early and often places them right in their comfort zones and misunderstands the game of hitter versus pitcher.
In the hitter versus pitcher battle, it begins with the hitter at a slight disadvantage because it takes four balls to walk and just three strikes for an out, which is why I never understood why people call 2-2 an even count. That’s not even; that’s advantage pitcher, same with 1-1, but I digress. At 0-0, the pitcher has virtually no pressure to pitch to any one area of the strike zone or using any particular pitch. The information slate is nearly blank for that particular plate appearance. At 0-1, there is greater leeway to throw fringe pitches, thus, greater incentive to stay out of the middle of the plate. At 0-2 this is doubly true, which is why hitters who get in 0-2 counts produce negative results much more often. The pitcher expands the strike zone and so do hitters to protect. But in some ways, being 0-2 creates an advantage for the hitter because the hitter now has information about what influences exist on the pitcher. They now know that the pitcher is probably going to consciously stay away from the middle and is much more likely to throw a certain pitch (out pitch).
This is all conversely true as well. In 1-0, the hitter is aware that more pressure exists in that moment to throw a strike. And so on and so on. All the while, the hitter is reformulating his approach or at least, he should be. In 2-0, he should be thinking one pitch in one spot. If he doesn’t get that pitch in that spot, he shouldn’t swing. In 2-1, he can recalculate. As the count turns in the pitcher’s favor, he will expand to cover the plate but he will also understand the potential pitch selection better.
Without seeing more pitches, none of this happens. Or rather, less of this happens. It keeps the Royals from getting into counts like 2-0, 3-1, 2-1, counts that help the conscientious hitter more than the pitcher. I say it helps the conscientious hitter because it really does very little for the Francoeurs of the world who really only understand the notion of swinging at all cost.
The Royals BABIP right now is .302, which is fifth in the AL—not bad. Of course, they never walk so they need their BABIP to be in the .315 range to score a significant amount of runs. Do you see the perfect storm of why they aren’t producing offensively? Swinging at non-premium pitches. Putting balls in play weakly. Pitchers going very deep into games. It starts with their approach at the plate. Yes, they aren’t hitting for power, but that’s in large part because they are swinging at non-premium pitches and putting them in play early in counts. Yes, they aren’t walking, but that’s because they have a philosophy that doesn’t stress patience at the plate (By the way, the top five teams in walk percentage are all above league average in runs per game including the Tigers who are tops in runs per game at 5.37. They are also tops in BABIP, which means they’re walking and then hitting those runners in).
There might be some who want to blame the hitting coach(es) for this. It’s really not their fault(s). This is an organizational problem, and Kevin Seitzer was just as disinterested in seeing pitches. The organization as a whole does not stress the importance of seeing pitches and consequently does not emphasize it enough in the minors nor consider it enough when constructing a roster.
And because it’s organizational, it’s a problem not easily solved.