The KC Royals have been the best CLUTCH team in baseball the last three seasons, according to Fangraphs. Data shows that the Kansas City Royals hitters become more patient in key situations relative to their opponents.
Yes, you heard me right. I wrote patience. I know every TV analyst broadcasting a Royals game goes on and on about how Kansas City hitters put the ball in play early in the count. But what they haven’t noticed is all of that changes in key situations.
However, let’s back up a moment to understand why this difference matters.
Numerous pundits have attempted to address the puzzle of why the KC Royals win far more than the sum of their parts suggests they should. For example, Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection system has famously predicted 72 and 76 wins the last two seasons.
Not only did the Kansas City Royals defy Baseball Prospectus’ worst-in-baseball prediction by winning the World Series in 2015, they have exceeded PECOTA’s expectations by a cumulative 21 wins from 2013-15. Indeed, the KC Royals have won more games than any team in baseball (206) over the last two seasons—if you include playoff wins.
A big part of that projection-defying equation is Kansas City hitters success in key situations. According to Fangraphs.com, the KC Royals rank first in their team CLUTCH metric over the last three seasons by a huge margin (Royals 10.01, Orioles second at 4.79).
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Multiple sabermetric studies have shown that CLUTCH isn’t a “repeatable” skill, which suggests exceptional success in key situations is more due to “variance” (if you’re a stat head) or “luck” to the average fan. Yet, the Kansas City Royals CLUTCH success over the last three seasons, along with two straight AL pennants, has many pundits believing in CLUTCH—at least when it comes to the Royals.
Conversely, most traditional baseball men VERY much believe that situational hitting is a skill. If they— and the pundits who are now buying into the KC Royals situational magic—are right, there should be SOMETHING consistently different in their approach in important game situations that objective data can quantify.
That’s where the story gets interesting, because ESPN analyst David Schoenfeld seems to have uncovered just such evidence. Schoenfeld points out that though the Kansas City Royals hitters are well-known for their aggressive approach at the plate (best contact rate in baseball, plus 27th in hitters getting into “pitchers” counts—which means KC hitters are ending the at bat before pitchers can get them in trouble), all of that changes with runners in scoring position:
"“The interesting thing, however, is that the Royals were actually less aggressive at the plate with runners in scoring position. Although they had the ninth-highest swing rate overall, that fell to 15th with RISP, and against fastballs, their swing rate went from third overall to ninth with RISP.”"
The key observation is that the changing swing rate reflects a different approach at the plate with runners in scoring position, rather than a result stat like batting average—which can show drastic increase with a little lucky hit placement due to small sample size.
I looked further into the Kansas City Royals hitters behavior and results in low, medium, and high leverage situations at Fangraphs.com. Over the last three seasons, KC Royals hitters were dead last in walk rate in both low and medium leverage situations with walk rates below 6.5%, but jumped to 9.2% in high leverage situations (18th in MLB). Kansas City hitters also hit to the opposite field less in high leverage situations than all but one team (Yankees), while ranking 15th in medium leverage situations, and 11th in low leverage at bats.
Since players often hit to the opposite field when they take defensive swings, the KC Royals patience in key situations seems to yield both more walks and swings at better pitches. Now we begin to understand where all those late-inning rallies in the playoffs came from.
The bottom line is that the KC Royals changing approach with runners in scoring position is objective evidence their clutch hitting is due to a repeatable skill rather than luck.