The Royals offense looks like egg salad that’s been sitting in a flaming dumpster for 3 weeks … very bad. They have the lowest BB% in baseball and the second lowest wRC+.
There are plenty of simple explanations for why the Royals aren’t scoring runs, but I want to focus on a fairly specific one—plate discipline. Not just their complete inability to walk (that hurts tremendously, but I feel like that’s been covered extensively for about 10 years), but how lacking plate discipline hurts their ability get hits and hit for power.
The image below shows a table of how the Royals preferred lineup is hitting against pitches thrown in “the shadow,” an area Baseball Savant defines as the outer third of the strike zone and just outside it. As you can see, the Royals have only two hitters with a wOBA over .300 against pitches located in the shadow.
Why? Well, if you’re quick with a calculator, you can see that they put a significant number of these pitches in play. Whit Merrifield, for example, has put 24% of these pitches in play for an average exit velocity (EV) of 77.9 MPH. That’s not good. It’s giving him an expected batting average (xBA) of .148 (only slightly better than his actual BA against shadow pitches, .105). Adalberto Mondesi is putting 18% of these pitches in play with an average launch angle of -1.5 degrees and an EV of 77.1 MPH. You can guess how frequently those become hits.
Even more disheartening is how infrequently these balls in play become extra base hits. As the table shows, the expected slugging percentage (xSLG) on the balls Kansas City puts in play from the shadow is abysmal. Most of them are under .250.
Colloquially, we call pitches the live in the shadows “pitcher’s pitches” because that’s where the pitcher wants the ball. They want hitters to swing at pitches in this zone, and the Royals often oblige, swinging at a whopping 59% of pitches in the shadows. These pitches aren’t easy to hit so the boys in blue are wiffing on 28% of those swings so far this season.
Major League pitchers are good. They live on the edges of and just outside the strike zone. If a team can’t either lay off these pitches or put them in play hard with good launch angles, they’re going to score 2.8 runs a game … like the Royals are currently doing.
But it’s not just shadow dancing (that’s what I’m calling it when teams are so keen to swing in the shadow) strangling the life out of the Royals offense. It’s the heart, too. That is to say, they aren’t doing very well against pitches in the heart of the plate either. Below is a table showing how the Royals preferred lineup hits against pitches in the heart of the zone (as defined by Baseball Savant). As you can see, roughly 25-30% of all the pitches they see are in the heart of the zone.
How many of these pitches are they putting in play? Not as many as you’d think. They’re swinging at 75% of pitches in the heart of the plate, which seems pretty good, but they are wiffing on 15% of those swings.
Shadow dancing is hurting them, but what’s really pushing them into the depths of terrible offense is what they’re doing when they make contact on pitches in the heart. The table above may look a little encouraging, as the difference in expected output and actual output indicates some “bad luck,” but it’s really not that encouraging. Take Mondesi again as an example. He is putting only 30% of center cut pitches in play for a .133/.133/.133 slash line, a xBA of .273, and a xSLG of .390. That may seem like he’s just been bitten by the bad luck bug, but remember, this is the heart of the plate. Even an average hitter should crush in the heart of the plate. Even if his BA and SLG matched what was expected, Modesi’d only be hitting .273 with a .390 SLG on pitches right down the middle.
By comparison, Starling Marte, the most average hitter in MLB right now (100 wRC+ this year) is hitting .316/.316/.632 on pitches in the heart. That’s not a great batting average (for the heart of the plate anyway), but that’s the type of slugging someone should have in the heart of the plate (and his xSLG is slightly higher at .676). He’s crushing the fat pitches he gets. Mondesi is not.
And neither are many of the Royals. Carlos Santana has a .484 xSLG; for a first baseman facing pitches in the heart of the plate, that’s awful. Andrew Benintendi has good overall numbers, but he’s not really punishing pitches in the heart. Nicky Lopez isn’t either. Bobby Witt Jr. is clearly still adjusting, and that’s causing some horrible numbers against pitches right down broadway.
Eventually, I think the team’s numbers against pitches in the heart will even out. It’s still early and no group of professional hitters can be this bad against fat pitches for so long (dear lord, make it so). But those numbers against pitches in the shadow will always drag the team’s offensive production down. They swing at too many pitches in the shadow (and probably too many outside the shadow, as well, but I digress).
At this point, it’s too late to change many of the team’s major league hitters. Salvy will always be a free swinger. Whit will always try to hit pitches in the shadow. The Royals have a crop of hitters on the doorstep with more patience and plate discipline so hopefully the next wave of Royals hitters infuses an approach that really looks to punish mistake pitches more and swing at pitcher’s pitches less.