The KC Royals are a contact hitting team. Pretty much anyone who has listened to five minutes of a Kansas City Royals broadcast, or read a couple of articles about the team, knows that fact. What most might not realize is the KC Royals might be the best contact hitting team of the last 65 years, according to Fangraphs.com writer Jeff Sullivan.
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While not a particularly prolific offense scoring 679 runs (5th in the American League), they are certainly above-average. Though they remain last in the American League in walk rate at 6.1%, and rank near the bottom at home runs with 130, the Kansas City Royals do excel as a contact hitting team. Their strikeout rate is an American League low 15.7%, with the next-best contact hitting team being the Oakland A’s at 18.0%.
Jeff Sullivan’s study also ranked the relative strikeout rates of every team in major league baseball, while excluding pitchers. As you can see in the graph below, the KC Royals are the best contact hitting team by more than one standard deviation compared to their next-closest competitor (Atlanta Braves):
[note: graph courtesy of Fangraphs.com]‘
However, not only are the 2015 Kansas City Royals the best contact hitting team this season, Jeff Sullivan’s research shows that the KC Royals strikeout less relative to the league less than any team in 65 season. Now, that does not mean that the Royals raw strikeout totals are lower than any team since 1950. Strikeouts have zoomed in the last 20 years. The 2015 Kansas City Royals are farther from the mean than any team in the last 65 years.
It is an entirely different philosophy in terms of building an offense. The KC Royals are purposefully avoiding the tried-and-true formula of high on base percentage plus power in favor of contact hitting. At a presentation at Boston University’s saber conference, Kansas City Royals analytics staff member John Williams had this to say about on-base-percentage:
Clearly, the KC Royals see on-base-percentage as both inefficient on the free-agent market, but also contradictory to their goal of building a strong defensive team (doesn’t age well, and comes at non-premium positions). Playing in a spacious ballpark that emphasizes pitching and defense, the Kansas City Royals want to invest their money and prospects in skills that fit Kauffman Stadium.
The result is a team that has compiled an outstanding 49-28 record at home, and has shown an outstanding ability to drive in runs with two outs. Sullivan considered the possibility that there could be a connection between the KC Royals contact ability and their clutch hitting success, but couldn’t find a strong statistical correlation between the two.
Even so, common sense suggests that when facing the dominant pitchers that populate the playoffs, a team that can make contact stands a better chance of scratching out runs than a team waiting for an ace to make a mistake by either allowing a walk or hanging a gopher ball. Putting the ball in play both increases stress on the defense, and does a better job of advancing base runners, than a team that walks and strikes out.
Last season, both the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants followed this formula to meet in the 2014 World Series. If the KC Royals can achieve similar success in 2015, the you will have to begin to consider that their contact hitting abilities might play a role in their success that isn’t apparent in the data.