Jul 10, 2013; Bronx, NY, USA; Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost (3) looks out from the dugout against the New York Yankees during the sixth inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports
"I’d rather just take some good swipes at the ball and try to put the ball in the stands,” Yost said. “I think we’ve got guys that can do it. I think Salvador Perez can hit 20 to 25 home runs. I think Hosmer can hit 30. Moose can hit 30. Gordy can hit 30. I think Cain can hit 20. I think, eventually, Wil Myers can hit 30 home runs. So we’ve got guys. Billy Butler could hit 40 home runs. He’s got that kind of pop."
Not one for modesty, Yost basically predicted (minus Wil Myers) that Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and Billy Butler were capable of hitting 180 home runs. Six guys were going to possibly crush 180 home runs. Remember that?
Well…those six players have combined for 58 home runs so far, well off pace in the race to 180. Why waste swings by, I don’t know, making solid contact and hitting line drives? Let’s just swing out of our shoes. Who cares that we play in cavernous Kauffman Stadium?
Needless to say, Yost’s plan isn’t working and doesn’t look like it’s going to work in the near future. Essentially what he accomplished with this prediction was placing a whole lot of unneeded pressure on the backs of the key hitters on this team.
I’m not going to dig into all these guys, as some are still developing and growing as ball players and as hitters. But I will take a look at two batters in particular: Alex Gordon and Billy Butler. Two guys who have proven to be very productive big league hitters. Butler with modest home run power until a breakout in 2012, and Gordon, who has done it by hitting line drives and doubles.
First up, let’s take a peek at Billy. He’s had a dip in batting average and slugging percent this year, much of which can be attributed to pitchers throwing him a lot of junk. Why throw Billy, coming off a 29 homer season, anything worth hitting when there is nobody to intimidate the pitcher taking cuts in the on deck circle?
Much of Billy’s offensive woes this year can be chalked up to this issue, and his eventual bouts of impatience that lead him to swing at whatever garbage pitchers are tossing at him. Not that he’s been completely impatient, his walk rate this year is the highest of his big league career at 12.8%. But it could probably be even higher if he didn’t try to do too much at times this year.
This home run trot has been a rare sight in 2013. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports
Looking at the basic stats, it’s easy to see where he’s lacking this year…power. The average is a little low, but within striking distance of the usual .300 he puts up. His OBP is very good, in fact, it’s a not far off from his career high. Slugging though, is another story. At .427, it’s the lowest SLG he’s posted since 2008.
Digging a little deeper, we can see a couple of major differences in some of the advanced batting numbers. His GB/FB ratio is higher than usual at 1.79, which is actually a career high. His line drive percentage is down from last year at 20.8%, but still higher than his career number of 19.5%. His fly ball percent is not far off his 2012 pace, but his HR/FB is down by 8.4% this year. He’s hitting less line drives (meaning he’s not hitting the ball hard as often) and it appears that’s resulting in a lot more fly outs. Why is that?
Looking at his plate discipline, which at face value seems great, given his walk rate, we may find a couple of telling details. He’s not swinging at as many balls outside the zone, which is a good thing…and he’s swinging at about as many inside the zone as last year. Overall though, he’s swinging at just 41.5% of the pitches he sees…that’s down about 2% from last season and about 2% off his career rate. This means he’s likely seeing a lot less worth swinging at – seeing a lot less of those pitches he can put some good wood on.
More telling on this topic – the total number of pitches he sees in the strike zone is just 48.6%, which is the lowest percentage since his rookie year back in 2007. Also telling is the fact that his overall contact rate is the highest of his career, yet his numbers are down…meaning what? He’s not getting “his” pitches. And eventually, rather than take a walk with men on base, he’s taking his hacks, making weak contact, and grounding out (remember that GB/FB ratio?).
Now we’ll switch gears and take a look at Gordon. Since his bounce back year of 2011, Gordon has been an extremely productive hitter. He posted an OPS of .879 in that comeback season, his first as an outfielder, and followed that with a solid .822 OPS. He scored a lot of runs, spending much of that time as a leadoff batter (194 runs in two seasons) and still managed to drive in runs as well, with RBI totals of 87 in 2011 and 72 in 2012.
How’d he put up such productive numbers? Home runs? Nope…as you probably know, he hit 23 in 2011 and just 14 in 2012. He also managed to hit for average and get on base with a .303 AVG in 2011 and .294 in 2012. One major key to his success was not trying to do to much…just making solid contact and hitting the ball hard, much like Butler. That approach resulted in a total of 96 doubles in two seasons, with a league leading 51 last year.
What’s the difference this year then? Like Billy, his slugging is way down this year at .407, but Alex is also struggling with his AVG/OBP (sitting at .262/.326 after Tuesday’s game). Gordon’s OPS is nearly 100 points lower this year, meaning he’s struggling all the way around, where Billy is just struggling with his power.
Jul 20, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon (4) takes the field in between innings in the game against the Detroit Tigers at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals won 6-5. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Again, looking deeper, the stat that immediately jumps out at me is his line drive rate. This year, it’s at 19.8%, a sharp decline from 25% last season and down from the 22% he put up in 2011 as well. His ground ball rate is actually down this year, while his fly ball rate is up to 38.5%, which is a 6% jump from 2012. He’s actually hitting homers at a better clip this year, with a HR/FB rate of 9% (he’s already at 13 this year vs. the 14 he hit all of last year).
Gordon’s plate discipline is about where it was last year for the most part. He is making less contact – both in the zone and out of the zone – and like Billy is seeing less pitches inside the zone, down from 44.8% last year to 42.6% in 2013. One more noticeable change this year – Alex is seeing less fastballs than any other year in his big league career.
So what does this all mean? Well…coming into this year, and for a good portion of this season, these two were obviously the most proven and most feared hitters on this team. Surrounding them were unproven youngsters and a couple of weak-hitting vets in Jeff Francoeur and Chris Getz. Teams figured out early on they could work around these guys and get their outs elsewhere.
And for what it’s worth…that whole Ned Yost power prediction couldn’t have helped. Rather than waiting for the pitches they can hit, and just driving the ball into the gaps, these two are swinging away…and doing so a too often. Remember, according to Ned, these guys could combine for 70 home runs. That’s a lot to live up to.
Heading into 2014, I’ve got a couple of ideas…first, tell Ned to shut his trap. Second…you remember how Dayton Moore completely overhauled the starting rotation last winter? Well, the lineup’s in need of some work now. Maybe it’s time to stop trying to turn guys like Butler and Gordon into things they’re not. Let these guys go back to doing what works (for example, please move Gordon back to leading off). Hitting 180 home runs is not the key to winning, anyway. I’d gladly load the doubles-hitting offense from 2011 into a time traveling DeLorean and bring them to 2013…paired with this pitching staff, we’d have a hell of a well-rounded team.
And Ned, if you want a guy who can hit 35 or 40 home runs per year, tell your GM to go out and get one. Because right now that guy is not on this team.