Kansas City’s War on Walks

iAfter the first month of the 2013 season Royals’ GM Dayton Moore had to be feeling pretty darn good about himself. By the end of April an offseason full of risky moves in the pitching department and prospect department had begun to coalesce into one of the best rotations in baseball, leading Kansas City to a 14-10 record despite a struggling offense.

Unfortunately for those decked out in royal blue, things haven’t gone as smoothly in May. Tuesday’s 4-1 loss at the hands of the rival Cardinals was particularly bitter. Not only did it drop Kansas City’s record in May to a pathetic 7-18 on the month, the loss was also the Royals 10th straight at Kauffman Stadium, matching the franchise record set just one season ago. After spending much of the first month in 1st place in the AL Central, the Royals are now tied for last with the Twins, staring 7.5 games ahead at the Detroit Tigers.

To make matters worse, the offense, which was supposed to be the Royals’ calling card, has been a completely flop. The franchise ranks dead last in the AL in homers, 2nd to last in walks and slugging percentage, and 3rd to last in runs scored. The homers have been particularly hard to come by of late, with Kansas City hitting just 2 in their last 13 games. That’s not exactly the formula for playoff contention and it appears to stem from Kansas City’s quarter century long war on walks.

Take a quick guess at the last time Kansas City finished in the top half of the AL in walks? Give up? It was 1989, which also doubles as the last time the Royals topped 90 wins. In that same time span the Royals were able to finish dead last in the AL in walks drawn 5 different times (2012, 2008, 2001, 2000, 1993) while finishing 2nd to last another 5 times.

This year is no different either. The Royals are 2nd to last in walks in the AL and their 123 free passes are 40 fewer than the AL average. If you subscribe to the simple notion that 4 bases are worth one run and 10 runs is worth one win, than the Royals have already thrown away one full game this year just by not being selective enough at the plate and they’re on pace to throw away 3 more.

Developing hitters hasn’t been the problem, developing patient ones has. For the 4th year running Kansas City has put together a collection of hitters with good bat-on-ball skills. The Royals have ranked among the 5 best teams in the AL in batting average each season while failing to produce in the run department. This year’s team is no different. Kansas City’s .264 team average is currently the 5th best in the AL, but thanks to their inability to earn a free pass, their on-base percentage sits at a much more paltry .319 (8th in the AL).

And when you compare Kansas City to some of the more forward thinking franchises like Oakland or Boston (#1 and #2 respectively in walks drawn in the AL), things get even worse. KC is nearly 100 walks behind the A’s and despite outhitting Oakland .261 to .245, the Royals have been outscored by 55 runs. Even if we remove the 25 homer difference between the two ball clubs, there’s still a 30-run gap, which factors out to about 3 wins in just 50 games. At that rate Kansas City just can’t keep up.

The young players coming up through the former “best farm system in baseball” are some of the biggest perpetrators as well. Catcher Salvador Perez is looking like a Hispanic J.P. Arencibia without the power, walking just 3 times in 41 games. Alcides Escobar, the young shortstop, is guilty of free swinging as well, drawing just 8 free passes in over 200 at-bats. Mike Moustakas has more strikeouts (11) than hits (10) in May and he avoids walks like the plague too. Eric Hosmer hasn’t been much better, hitting .268 on a steady diet of singles, posting just 9 extra-base hits in nearly 200 plate appearances. None of these players (apart from Hosmer) displayed any ability to take ball four in the minors either, which means this problem runs all the way from the big leagues in KC to rookie ball in Idaho Falls.

Kansas City also annually ranks in the bottom 10 in the Majors in pitches per plate appearance. Not only does that mean fewer walks drawn it also means less work on the opposing pitcher. Opposing starters stay in games longer against Kansas City, denying the Royals the chance to get into the weak underbelly of their opponent’s bullpen. It also means less opportunity to work into a favorable count. These little issues all add up to create one giant problem.

Struggling to earn free passes for a couple consecutive seasons means you have a problem. Doing so for 25 years in a row means something much, much worse. The Royals organization is broken down to its core and it’s going to take a change in management to get things back on track. Maybe George Brett can be the guy to do it.

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