Royals hitters and strikeouts: Bad streak or a bigger issue?

The Royals were able to bounce back on Tuesday with a big 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Angels, which ended with a unique pick off play from Salvy:

While the win and the possibility of a series win against the Angels are promising developments, it has been an inconsistent start to the 2021 season, especially on the offensive end. While the lineup was upgraded by the off-season acquisitions of Andrew Benintendi, Carlos Santana, and Michael A. Taylor, the Royals lineup overall has been a bit of a mixed bag.

Currently, the Royals offense ranks 21st in wRC+ and 23rd in wOBA, according to Fangraphs, going into Wednesday afternoon’s series finale against the Angels. While the Royals are 5-4, which is something to celebrate, their offensive inconsistency could be something to worry about.

One of the main culprits to this mediocre start as a whole has been their strikeout issues at the plate. The Royals are posting the fourth-highest strikeout rate in baseball, according to Fangraphs, and MLB.com Royals beat writer Anne Rogers posted this stat after Tuesday’s game:

The Royals traditionally have been a team that has valued contact and minimizing strikeouts at the dish in the past, especially under general manager Dayton Moore’s tenure. During the 2014-2015 pennant runs, the Royals had the lowest strikeout rate in baseball at 16.1 percent, according to Fangraphs. In 2021? That percentage is 10.5 percent higher at 27.6 percent.

Thus, what are the culprits of the Royals strikeout issues so far this year? Is it simply a bad streak after going against some stellar pitchers? Or are these strikeout issues a sign of some much bigger roster and plate approach issues that could plague the Royals offensively this season?

Let’s take a deeper dive into the data and see what trends emerge.


Overly aggressive approach and its effect on contact and swinging strike rates

What’s interesting to note is that a huge contributor to the Royals’ strikeout issues is the fact that Royals hitters tend to be overly aggressive swingers at the plate this season. When it comes to swing percentage, the Royals are tied for first with the Atlanta Braves for the highest percentage in the league at 50 percent, according to Fangraphs. For the most part, league average is around 45-46 percent when it comes to swing percentage, so the Royals are significantly more free-swinging than most organizations out there.

To compare, I took the St. Louis Cardinals, who rank 19th in swing percentage at 45.5 percent, and took a look at Cardinals hitters with 10 or more plate appearances this season, to see what the swing rate numbers looked like on an individual basis. Of the 10 hitters, only one had a swing percentage over 50 percent (Tyler O’Neill at 64.5 percent; though Yadier Molina was close at 49.3 percent).

I then took a look at Royals hitters who had 10 or more plate appearances and analyzed how many Royals hitters had swing percentages over 50 percent. The Royals had six hitters with swing percentages of 50 percent or higher, a much greater number than the Cardinals sample. This also was relevant last season as well, as the Royals had four hitters with 10 or more plate appearances with swing rates over 50 percent, and Maikel Franco was just barely under that threshold at 49.9 percent.

Therefore, even with the addition of walk machine Santana to the lineup, the Royals still are overall as a lineup overly-aggressive at the plate, and that may be a sign of a mentality championed in the organization when it comes to plate approach.

That being said, an overly aggressive approach isn’t a bad thing. The Royals had the 8th highest swing rate in baseball during that 2014-2015 span at 47.5 percent, and yet, they had the lowest strikeout rate in baseball. An overly aggressive approach of swinging at pitches in the strike zone (and minimizing swings outside the strike zone), with good contact hitters, can produce fruitful results, as the 2014 and 2015 Royals displayed.

But how are the Royals doing in those respective areas so far this year?

When it comes to the Royals minimizing swings at pitches outside the strike zone, they have been pretty lackluster in that area. The Royals have an O-Swing % (percentage of swings outside the strike zone) of 35.3, which leads the league (the Chicago White Sox are currently second). Thus, it’s not a surprise that the Royals have a contact rate that is fourth-lowest in the league at 70.8 percent, and a swinging strike rate that leads the league at 14.6 percent. The Royals are simply whiffing too much at the dish, and that is not a sustainable model for consistent offensive success.

One of the bigger issues that Royals fans may pay attention to is the extremely high swinging strike rates from Royals hitters so far in 2021. When it comes to swinging strike rate, only three of the 10 Royals hitters with 10 or more plate appearances have swinging strike rates under 10 percent. Here ar those hitters:

  • Hanser Alberto: 8.5 percent
  • Whit Merrifield: 8.0 percent
  • Nicky Lopez: 4.7 percent

Now, here are the following hitters with swinging strike rates over 10 percent:

  • Salvador Perez: 23.7 percent
  • Jorge Soler: 20.5 percent
  • Hunter Dozier: 17.9 percent
  • Michael A. Taylor: 17.4 percent
  • Andrew Benintendi: 15.4 percent
  • Kyle Isbel: 14.5 percent
  • Carlos Santana: 11 percent

Now to compare to that Cardinals sample, the Cardinals have five hitters with double-digit swinging strike rates. However, they only have two hitters over 15 percent (O’Neil and Paul DeJong). The Royals have five. Thus, it’s not a surprise that the Cardinals have a wRC+ that is nine points higher (97 to the Royals’ 88) so far this season.

And to compare to 2014-2015, the Royals during that tenure had the third lowest swinging strike rate in the league (8.4 percent) and the highest contact rate in the league as well (82.3 percent). Hence, Royals fans who harkening back to 2014 and 2015 as a comparison to this season’s Royals team may think again, as offensively, this year’s lineup samples much differently from those successful pennant-winning squads.

Or at least so far this season.


Can the Royals fix their strikeout issues (and if they can’t, can they still be successful)?

Fixing strikeouts at the MLB level is always a difficult dilemma for teams. Yes, strikeouts are bad and look bad to the baseball fans watching on TV or in the stands. However, certain hitters have certain approaches that make them more susceptible to strikeouts.

For example, Salvy and Soler are power hitters, and they trade more contact for bigger swings that may result in more whiffs, but a higher percentages of extra base hits and home runs when they make contact. The same could also be said for hitters like Dozier and Taylor so far this year: their value is going to be on the power end, even if it’s not as great as Soler and Salvy. To suddenly emphasize contact for the sake of contact may not only deflate those hitters’ value, but also may not produce better results either (for example, trading strikeouts for easy groundball outs; they’re both outs at the end of the day).

Hence, expecting hitters to dramatically change their approaches may be unrealistic for Royals fans. Thus, the key may be supplementing high contact guys in certain spots in the lineup in order to minimize those high-strikeout hitters’ impact. For example, Salvy-Soler-Doz-Taylor-Benintendi have all hit in the 2-7 spots in some capacity this year. Their combined swinging strike rate is rounded up to 19 percent. The Royals can’t have hitters bat in sequence with such high whiff rates, as it kills rallies, and limits production to single-run efforts (i.e. solo home runs).

However, mixing in low whiff guys in the middle of the order could produce some changes in results. Instead of having Salvy and Soler batting back to back, perhaps having Santana in the middle of them could be a better strategy (especially with Santana’s high walk rate). Perhaps having Lopez bat in between Doz and Taylor could also be a strategy, especially with Lopez’s high contact rate displayed thus far, which could give opportunities to drive in more runs at the end of the lineup.

I know, I’m playing armchair manager, and I doubt Mike Matheny employs this strategy because he knows more than I do with him being in the clubhouse everyday. That being said, it may be necessary for the Royals to toy with the lineup in the coming weeks, especially as Adalberto Mondesi returns off the IL. Mondesi most likely will replace Lopez in the lineup, and unfortunately, the Royals will be replacing their highest contact-rate hitter with a hitter who traditionally has been subpar when it comes to contact, as Mondesi has a career strikeout rate of 29.7 percent and contact rate of 64.6 percent, according to Fangraphs.

That being said, let’s say the Royals continue to be a club that is in the lower part of the league when it comes to strikeout rate. Can the Royals overcome that flaw and still find success overall?

It depends, but the overall data doesn’t look encouraging if Royals fans have high ambitions.

Last year, of the 10 teams with the highest strikeout rates in baseball, three teams had wRC+ numbers over 100 (100 being average). That included the Rays (110 wRC+), who had the second-highest strikeout rate (26.9 percent); the White Sox (113 wRC+), who had the sixth-highest strikeout rate (25.2 percent); and the Braves (120 wRC+), who had the 10th-highest strikeout rate (24.4 percent). Considering all three teams made the playoffs last year, Royals fans may look at those clubs and hope the Royals could be a replication of them this season.

However, last year was a 60-game sample, and when looking at a larger sample, things look a little more dreary

I combined the 2018-2019 seasons on Fangraphs and organized the data by strikeout rate. Of the top 10 teams with the highest strikeout rate, none of them produced a 100 wRC+ or better. Therefore, over the longer course of a 162 game season, strikeout rates generally hurt, and while the Royals may still be an improved team from 2020, this deficiency may prevent them from making a dramatic next step in the AL Central this year as some have hoped.

It is still a long season, and it will be interesting to see if some Royals hitters will see some slight regression on those strikeout rates as they see more at-bats. Nonetheless, this is still a damaging flaw, and it will be hard for the Royals to find any lasting success at the plate in 2021 if they are unable to see any regression in strikeout rate and whiff rates as an overall lineup.

Photo Credit: Royals Review

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