Going into this year’s World Series, we knew the numbers: during the regular season, the Kansas City Royals struck out at a lower rate than any other team in the majors. It wasn’t even close: the Oakland A’s, the second-best contact team in the big leagues, had a K-rate that was 14% higher than KC’s. But to watch the first two games of the 2015 World Series is to witness a master class is irritating an opposing pitcher. Miss already!
The New York Mets’ starters in Games 1 and 2 of the series, Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom, both throw smoke. Harvey averaged 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings in the regular season; deGrom registered a rate of 9.7. Harvey only managed two strikeouts in six innings of work in Game 1, making his per-nine inning rate 66% lower than his regular season rate.
For deGrom, who struck out two Royals in 5 innings, the rate declined 63%. KC drained the strength out of the New York staff. The Royals swung at 33 of deGrom’s fastballs in Game 2. They did not miss a single one of them.
So it’s no mistake that Kansas City is up 2-0 in the series, with Game 3 Friday night in New York.
What’s Kansas City’s secret to making so much contact, in an era where strikeouts are so accepted? In 2015, hitters tied last year’s mark for the the highest strikeout rate in baseball history. In fact, hitters have set or tied strikeout rate records in every season since 2008. Dale Sveum, the Royals hitting coach since the start of 2014 — when KC made its first playoff appearance in 29 years — says it all starts with attitude. “The organizational thing here is catch the ball and hit,” says Svuem. “That’s the philosophy we’re going to abide by, or we’re not going to win games in our ballpark.”
Sure, every team seeks to catch the ball and hit it. But the Royals, who play in one of the most expansive stadiums in the majors, especially seek to put the ball in play to test the reach of the defense. “We swing early and attack,” says Sveum. “And we never really get away from that mode.” The Royals put no premium on walks — they were tied for the lowest walk rate in the majors this season. “If you’re not going to walk,” says Sveum. “you’d better put the ball in play.”
Steering clear of strikeouts seems like a reasonable goal for every team. You’d be surprised, says Sveum, who managed the Milwaukee Brewers for part of 2008, and the Chicago Cubs in 2012 and 2013. “You have to have players that buy into it,” says Sveum. “That’s the best thing here, is we have players who buy into it. I had a player about five years ago say, what’s the difference between a strikeout and a ground-out? I’m like, are you freaking kidding me? I’ve never seen a strikeout go over a fence, I’ve never seen a strikeout hit the outfield grass, I’ve never seen anyone make an error on a strikeout.”
In baseball, power pays the bills. And strikeouts are a common side-effect of swinging for the fences. “The money got huge,” says Sveum, explaining the surge in strikeouts. “Hey, if I can hit 20 home runs, and strikeout 170 times and hit .240 and drive in 80, I’m probably going to make a lot of money. Now in the course of a year did that help your team win many games? Who knows when you’re hitting those 20 home runs?”
Sveum has worked on the finer points of each player’s individual swing. But if Sveum’s philosophical mantra is swing early, swing often, his technical tenet is “no lazy head.” Don’t lift your noggin while hacking away. Sounds like Little League advice, but it’s important and worth constantly repeating, even to big league players. “What we emphasize probably more than any other mechanical thing is your head on the baseball,” says Sveum. “You’ll make contact if your head is in a good position when you swing the bat. Dropping down on the ball, those kinds of things. You will foul the tough pitches off, you’ll hit velocity.” He cites former All-Star Gary Sheffield as a player with a “violent” swing who still kept his face in proper position. “He has an impeccable head,” Sveum says.
These lessons bring joy to Kansas City. “It’s fun to be aggressive,” says Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer. “If you take pitches and get behind, it’s almost like you’re playing the defensive side when you’re in the box.” Shunning walks defies the analytical blueprint popularized by Moneyball, the best-selling book and Oscar-nominated film starring Brad Pitt. Which doesn’t bother Hosmer one bit.
“Maybe we’ll get Brad to do a movie for us,” says Hosmer.
Call it Impeccable Heads.