The Kansas City Royals’ Infield Fly Ball Issues


Mandatory Credit: H. Darr Beiser-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Royals are a team that relies on contact. They don’t have a ton of guys who will draw many walks, and they don’t have a ton of guys who will hit for much power. But they do have plenty of players who avoid strikeouts and put the ball in play often. Obviously it would be nice if the team had some better on-base and power hitters, but given the roster, the high-contact approach makes some sense.

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To maximize the effectiveness of this approach, the Royals must make quality contact. I shouldn’t have to explain that harder-hit balls fall for hits more often than weaker-hit balls. Typically that means more line drives, although hard grounders can also be helpful, as long as they’re not hit right at a defender. Fly balls are good as long as they’re struck well, because they tend to go for extra bases in those circumstances.

Unfortunately, the Royals didn’t always make great contact on their fly balls last season, and poorly-hit flies generally become outs.

When you think about the Royals and popups, you probably think of Mike Moustakas, and rightfully so. In his career, Moose has an infield fly ball rate of 17.4%. But Moustakas wasn’t the only Royal who popped up far more frequently than you’d like.

Salvador Perez had an infield fly ball rate of 17.3% in 2014. No qualified hitter in baseball had a higher rate. Omar Infante‘s infield fly rate was 14.8%. Moose actually improved his infield fly rate all the way down to 15.1%. All three of those guys were fly ball hitters last season, which means they were giving away outs at an incredibly high clip. Alcides Escobar isn’t a fly ball hitter, but his 11.5% infield fly rate is much higher than preferred.

As a team, the Royals had an infield fly ball rate of 11.2%, the second-highest rate in the majors. If we expand to all weak flies, not just those of the infield variety, we see that the Royals hit 337 popups last season. That’s 337 almost-automatic outs. Even though they weren’t hitting a ton of fly balls, a team who needs to make solid contact wasn’t doing so nearly as regularly as they wanted to.

If we look at what the 2015 Royals did in 2014, we see that Alex Rios avoided popups pretty well (5.9%), while Kendrys Morales was a bit worse (8.9%). Morales’ rate doesn’t look terrible, but it was actually the worst rate of his career since becoming a full-time player in 2009. Alex Gordon also hit 15 infield flies last season, tied for the highest number in his career.

If the trend from 2014 continues, the Royals’ odds of improving their contact quality don’t look great. Luckily, we have more than a season’s worth of data upon which to base expectations.

Morales and Gordon, as I mentioned, have been better in regards to popups, so it isn’t crazy to think they’ll bounce back. Unless he completely changes his swing, Moustakas is going to hit a lot of infield flies, but he has improved in that department each of the last three seasons. Escobar and Infante have both been better. Perez might hit fewer popups if he gets more rest as the season goes on. There is room for improvement, without question.

There’s also room for some regression, from guys like Lorenzo Cain and Rios, both of whom have a higher infield fly rate in their careers than they posted last year. The hope is that the improvement of many can offset the regression of a few.

The Royals also hope they can just get more line drives up and down their lineup. Only 3 of their current starters had a line drive rate below 20% last year, and one of them was Gordon, who has a history of hitting line drives everywhere.

Now, much of the team’s problem with popups stems from their hacktastic qualities. So basically the cause of most of their offensive issues. Their propensity to swing at – and make contact with – balls outside of the strike zone creates more weak contact than just about any other team in baseball. Only the Yankees made more contact on pitches out of the zone last year, and they did so while swinging at fewer of those pitches.

The Royals can probably expect some positive regression from a handful of their starting position players this season, in regards to infield flies. But if the Royals really want to ensure improvement in their contact quality, they’ll need to lay off pitches they can’t square up. It’s a different verse to the same old song.

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