Royals continue to wage the ‘War on Walks’
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Among Royals fans and bloggers, it is a phenomenon known as the Royals’ “War on Walks.”
For years now, decades even, the Royals have been one of the worst teams in baseball at drawing bases on balls.
In fact, the last time the Royals finished in the top half of the American League in walks was 1989. Far more common has been the Royals finishing last or near last in that category.
Since 1989, the Royals have finished last in the league in walks five times, most recently in 2012, and they also have finished second to last in the league another five times.
This year? They are in familiar territory, second to last, 109 walks behind league-leading Oakland.
There is no one-size-fits-all explanation, since the Royals’ “War on Walks” spans four decades and four general managers.
But as Royals general manager Dayton Moore points out, there is at least one common denominator — Kauffman Stadium.
“We have the largest ballpark in terms of square footage of any ballpark in baseball,” Moore says. “When pitchers come here, they have the mindset to use that park — put the ball in play, throw strikes, attack the zone. There isn’t the same fear factor of getting beat deep that you might have elsewhere.
“I think that plays a huge factor in that walk statistic.”
Former Royals hitting coach Kevin Seitzer agrees with Moore, noting a correlation between the Royals’ low home run totals with the low walk totals. In Seitzer’s four years as hitting coach, the Royals consistently finished near the bottom of the league in homers and walks.
“Pitchers mainly fear the long ball,” he says. “If your lineup isn’t hitting home runs, pitchers aren’t pitching around you. They’re going after you. There’s no need not to.”
But neither Moore nor interim hitting coach George Brett is ready to concede that the Royals can’t get better at drawing walks and thus increase their on-base percentage as a team.
“It comes down to not trying to be a hero,” Brett says. “Don’t give in to the pitcher. Make him give in to you. If you’re patient and don’t try to do too much by going after pitches out of the zone, you can draw walks.
“It’s not about you. It’s about the team. Get on base. Keep the line moving.”
So far, there hasn’t been a dramatic improvement in that area since Brett took over. The Royals were averaging 2.5 walks per game pre-Brett, and are at 2.6 since.
But Moore, who is a steadfast believer in on-base percentage, maintains that the Royals eventually will get much better at plate patience.
“There comes a point for all young guys when they get confident enough to hit with two strikes, and then they can take more pitches,” Moore says. “When you get deeper into counts, obviously you have the opportunity to draw more walks.”
Players such as Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler all were known to draw plenty of walks in the minor leagues and thus post high on-base percentages. Hosmer led the league in on-base percentage at Class A Wilmington in 2010 at .429. Gordon drew a league-high 72 walks in Double A. And Butler’s on-base percentage in the minors was a whopping .416.
Butler and Gordon have consistently led the team in walks the past few years, and this year is no different. Butler has drawn 40, Gordon 23.
“Just experience,” Moore explains.
Hosmer is third on the team with 22 walks.
Critics, though, will suggest the lack of plate discipline is a far too common theme within the organization, top to bottom. Class A Wilmington, for example, is second to last in the league in walks. So is Class AA Northwest Arkansas.
And Class AAA Omaha is 12th in walks in the 16-team Pacific Coast League.
Are the Royals perhaps not paying enough attention to plate discipline when drafting or developing players?
Both Moore and Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo say that’s not the case.
“Plate discipline and patience are certainly qualities you scout. No question,” Moore says. “When we were in Atlanta, we very much believed in walks and on-base percentage. It was an area we looked at when drafting guys. We took guys like Brian McCann and Adam LaRoche and Rafael Furcal — all very good on-base guys.
“We also took Jeff Francoeur, who had a different approach that worked for him. It’s more of an individual thing than anything else.”
Picollo, though, did point out that at least in the early rounds of the draft, the ability to draw walks isn’t necessarily high on the priority list when selecting players.
“When you’re looking at the impact guys in the first couple of rounds,” Picollo says, “you look at the major tools. Can he square up a ball? Can he hit for power? What’s his speed? Can he hit consistently? All those things.
“You have to have the tools first or it really doesn’t matter. Now, when it gets to later rounds, when the talent gap isn’t that much between players, that area (on-base percentage) has more of a chance to stand out and it may separate one player from another.”
Moore and Picollo also suggest the low-walk totals aren’t reflective of any flaw in the developmental approach.
“It’s more nature vs. nurture,” Moore says. “Some guys just have that natural discipline, guys like Alex and Billy. It’s not something you can necessarily teach, though we do preach plate discipline throughout the minor leagues.
“But we do have guys, young guys, who already have demonstrated that. Look at (Raul) Mondesi and (Cheslor) Cuthbert and (Jorge) Bonafacio.”
Mondesi, a 17-year-old shortstop prospect, has a healthy .346 on-base percentage at Class A Lexington (Ky). Cuthbert, a third baseman recently promoted to Double A, had a .354 on-base percentage at Class A Wilmington. And Bonafacio, an outfielder, had a .404 on-base percentage at Wilmington before a wrist injury slowed his season.
“Those guys, and there are more in the system, all show excellent ability to work the count,” Moore says. “It’s just who they are. It’s their nature.”
You can follow Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter @jflanagankc or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.