Striking out on the strikeout
The Royals pitching staff can't miss bats and features the lowest strikeout rate in baseball.
The Royals opened June like they closed May—with a loss in Cleveland.
On Wednesday it was a 4-0 defeat at the hands of the Guardians. It was a three-game sweep, bringing the curtain down on a 2-7 road trip. The Royals have lost 12 of their last 16.
Brad Keller didn’t have an especially strong outing on Wednesday. It was a grind. He completed six innings but gave up single tallies in four frames. He allowed six hits (two doubles) and three walks.
However, what really caught my attention was the fact in facing 27 Guardians, he struck out only one batter. And got just three swings and misses on the afternoon.
Keller had one whiff on 23 swings against his four-seamer, one on 13 swings against his slider and one on 10 swings with the sinker. I broke out my abacus and yep…three swings and misses all afternoon.
While Keller’s outing may have been extreme in the lack of whiffs, it was something that has become all too common for Royals starters this season.
The table below is sorted by swinging strike rate for their pitchers in ascending order.
The Cardinals, the worst pitching staff in the majors at inducing the swing and miss, is the outlier on this table. They’re the only club on the list allowing fewer than four runs a game (the league average so far is 4.26 RA/G). Likewise, they’re the only team with a winning record. Although the Rangers have pulled level after a start where they won just six times in their first 20 games. They are winners of six of their last seven.
I want to be clear, I’m not drawing a direct correlation to lack of swing and miss to runs allowed or even winning ball games. I’m merely painting with a broad brush to illustrate that teams that don’t feature a hearty swing and miss from their pitching staff generally aren’t a good one.
Here’s how the Royals’ starters have done with the swinging strike this year. I’ve included K/9 for a neat little reference point.
This table beggars belief. At a time when the average pitcher is whiffing over eight per nine innings, the Royals starting staff features two pitchers who are above league average. Their collective staff strikeout rate is 6.98 K/9. That is the worst in the majors. The Royals are the only team striking out fewer than 7.2 K/9.
So far this year, 57 starters have thrown enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. Just two of those starters (Keller and Greinke) pitch for the Royals. They rank 55th (Keller) and 57th (Greinke) in strikeout rate. With that data, you don’t have to guess where Heasley and Hernández would rank if they had enough innings.
The question is…why? Greinke aside, why are the Royals suddenly not missing bats; not striking out the opposition? It’s not like this is the culmination of a trend. In fact, after back-to-back years of gains, the staff is collectively backsliding.
Greinke plays a part in all this, but it’s impossible to lay the blame on the declining swinging and miss rate crashing strikeout rate solely on his arm. The Royals have never been a big swing-and-miss team. At least as far as it goes in today’s game. Yet, the strikeouts have been there for the most part. Except for this year.
On Wednesday against the Guardians, Keller had two strikes on a batter on 13 different occasions. He struck out one.
It didn’t really hurt Keller in his start. He was able to record plenty of outs if he advanced to two strikes on the batter, without the strikeout. Although in the fifth he did walk Luke Maile on a full count and then allowed a single on a 1-2 pitch to Steven Kwan after getting ahead 0-2. Maile later came around to score.
Overall with two strikes on a batter, Royals’ pitchers allow the opposition to hit at a .189/.277/.311 clip. On the surface, that looks good, doesn’t it? It’s not. Not with two strikes on the hitter. It’s 36 percent worse than the league average (.165/.241/.258). The Royals rank 27th out of the 30 teams when it comes to putting the other team away with two strikes. The “pitch to contact” mantra that for some reason has come up once again on the broadcast is mind-numbing.
You’d have to think if this is one of the broadcast’s discussion points (it comes up almost every game on Bally Sports Kansas City), the announcers are getting it from inside the organization. Even if it’s not, even if it’s just Uncle Hud coming up with something on his own, the lack of swings and misses and strikeouts is not the path to a successful pitching staff.
Combine that with a stat we know the team is focused on—first-pitch strikes— and the picture looks even worse. The Royals are delivering a first-pitch strike in 57.6 percent of all plate appearances. That’s the worst rate in the majors, a full percentage point behind the next worst (Pittsburgh at 58.8 percent).
How the Royals can see issues with their hitting and replace their coach while not doing a thing about the pitching continues to boggle the mind.
Roster moves are coming
No, not the ones you want…
Cam Gallagher and Michael A. Taylor are in Omaha to begin rehab assignments with the Storm Chasers. This is roster is going to get interesting, and not necessarily in a good way. Lynn Worthy from The Star:
The roster crunch hasn’t hit the Kansas City Royals yet, but sooner than later it will, and playing time will have to get divided among an increasing number of healthy players with strong cases to be in the lineup.
I’m not sure that Gallagher has a strong case to be in the lineup. I’m not sure about Taylor, either.
There’s an old unwritten rule in baseball that a player should never lose his spot due to injury. Meaning, when he’s ready, he gets to assume his usual role. While I think that Gallagher is a fine backup (especially given how heavy the Royals lean on Salvador Perez), with MJ Melendez up and performing well, there’s no reason for Gallagher to return once he’s ready. In 89 plate appearances, Melendez is hitting .259/.326/.481 with a 129 wRC+. Among Royals batters with at least 60 batted balls in play, Melendez’s average exit velocity of 92.2 MPH is the highest. His ISO of .222 is second on the club, behind only Emmanual Rivera at .244. The point is, Melendez is doing just fine in the majors, thank you very much. To curtail is playing time—or heaven forbid, to send him back down—would be akin to baseball malpractice at this point. The dude belongs in the bigs.
The availability of Gallagher should not have any kind of impact on Melendez. I am tempted to add that a competent baseball organization wouldn’t allow that to happen. Let’s just say we’ll see how this plays out in the weeks ahead.
As far as Taylor goes…
Taylor’s return likely means an eventual everyday lineup that features the team’s leading hitter Andrew Benintendi in left field, where he won a Gold Glove last season, and Taylor in center field. Between right field and designated hitter, the Royals will have Merrifield, Melendez and Isbel as options if Rivera continues to get regular playing time at third base.
Whew. That’s a bit of a self-inflicted mess.
Taylor is posting a career-low slugging percentage (.353), yet owns a career-best on base percentage (.333). Add it together, and in today’s depressed offensive environment, Taylor is a league-average hitter.
Still, that shouldn’t matter. Kyle Isbel after returning from the sidelines himself, has looked increasingly comfortable at the dish. Again, the question I keep returning to is, “Is this player going to be a contributor when the Royals are ready to contend?” (I do appreciate the insanity of asking this question as the contention goalposts continue to slider further and further into the future. It seems as if Matheny has gotten at least part of the lineup correct with Isbel in center and Merrifield in right for the majority of the innings. That allows the infield to align with Rivera at third, Bobby Witt, Jr. at short and Nicky Lopez at second.
Taylor’s best role on this club is as the fourth outfielder and late-inning defensive replacement.
The Royals roster resembles a hot mess at the moment.
The loss means the Royals have the basement all to themselves. Their 16-33 record is the worst in the majors, a half-game behind the Nationals. They’re a game behind Cincinnati and trail Oakland by two. I will remind you those three teams are actively trying to lose. A few weeks ago, general manager J.J. Picollo asserted his team was “still in this.” Whatever that means.
The Royals are on pace to lose 109 games.
They return to The K for a 10-game homestand, starting on Friday. It’s three against the Astros followed by three against the Blue Jays. They close it out with four games with the Baltimore Orioles. Pay close attention to attendance. The club announced less than 10,000 for a couple of games in early April which could be explained away by the weather, kids in school and a lockout hangover. None of those excuses play in June. If the Royals are drawing 10k after the weekend series, that would mean fans are collectively giving the club the middle finger. Twitter rants and calls for mass firings are one thing. Low attendance is something else altogether.