Dodgers could benefit from Royals’ contact-oriented approach

One thing was evident for the 2015 Dodgers: They struggled, at times, to make contact. The Royals just won the World Series by being one of the best bat-to-ball teams since that data have been available.

Much internet ink was spilled praising and analyzing the Royals’ high contact rate and low strikeout rate.

Ted Berg, USA Today.

“The last two years have seen the Royals advance to the postseason, and then to the World Series, on the back of countless rallies fostered by bloop hits, seeing-eye singles and misplayed grounders. The aggressive approach and emphasis on contact, the players say, suits their spacious home park, Kauffman Stadium.”

Jeff Sullivan, FOX Sports/FanGraphs.

“It’s not only that the Royals have the lowest team strikeout rate in baseball. A year ago, they had the lowest team strikeout rate in baseball. The year before, they had the second-lowest. The Royals have been a contact-oriented team. What’s most notable is the magnitude of the Royals’ advantage over everyone else.”

Neil Paine, FiveThirtyEight.

“Doing a little cross-multiplication using the 2015 MLB-wide average strikeout rate of 20.4 percent, we would have expected New York’s pitchers to set down 17.2 percent of Kansas City batters on strikes in the World Series.

But instead of striking out 17.2 percent of the time, Kansas City hitters have whiffed in only 10.3 percent of their plate appearances through two games, a pretty sizable departure from expectations. There was only an 11.8 percent probability that Kansas City’s strikeout rate against these Mets pitchers would be as low as it has been through two games.”

Matthew Trueblood, Sports on Earth.

“The Royals have had the lowest strikeout rate of any MLB team over each of the past two seasons. These aren’t unrelated facts, but the correlation is certainly very loose. Ten years ago, this fact would have been noted, but with a shrug. Thirty years ago, it would have merited mention, but it would have been presented as an inevitability. That’s the way we understood baseball in those days, and to a large extent, that’s the way it was played.

Obviously, the evolution of the game in recent seasons has changed what we identify as the crucial elements of a winning team. It’s also changed the dynamic of every conversation we have about winning teams, especially winning teams like the Royals. There’s a tension here, one that wouldn’t have existed in those days when strikeout rates weren’t at the top of everyone’s keyword list. Contact rates have been not only exalted as the key to winning playoff series and the last bastion of the old way of doing things, but tied (implicitly and explicitly) to other traits that help shape the narrative of a winning team.”

As you can see, the Royals have made a ton of contact in the last two seasons. Coincidentally or not, they’ve been to the World Series in the last two seasons. Strikeouts have been demonized by the Old School, as have lack of walks by the New School. But the Royals and Dayton Moore have somehow successfully melded low strikeout rate, high contact rate and sabermetrics to produce a world champion.

Let’s compare the Royals and Dodgers in the two categories in the last two seasons.

Team Contact% Strikeout%
Royals 81.9 15.9
Dodgers 78.0 20.7

Pretty significant differences. The Royals led the majors in both categories, while the Dodgers finished 21st and 15th, respectively. The Dodgers’ leader in contact rate (qualified plate appearances) was Justin Turner, at 84.4 percent. Jimmy Rollins followed him at 83.5 and Andre Ethier and Howie Kendrick checked in at 81.4. The worst contact hitter was, unsurprisingly, Joc Pederson at 66.8 percent — second-worst in baseball (Kris Bryant, 66.3). For good measure, Yasiel Puig contacted the ball 74 percent of the time. Also, Corey Seager had a 78 percent contact rate in his first taste of MLB ball. He combined that with a nearly 13 percent walk rate, 17 percent strikeout rate and a 175 wRC+. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention his probably unsustainable .387 BABIP, which probably isn’t sustainable. Despite that, I’d expect his contact number to improve as he gains more experience.

Now let’s look at walk rate and home run rate.

Team Walk% HR/FB%
Royals 6.3 8.9
Dodgers 9.2 12.8

The Dodgers led MLB in walk percentage and were sixth in home runs-per-fly balls. The Royals ranked last in both categories.

Finally, here is wRC+ and BABIP.

Royals .301 99
Dodgers .292 106

Kansas City finished 11th with about a league-average BABIP and 10th in wRC+ — also about league-average. The Dodgers finished 23rd and third in the respective categories. The difference: The Royals scored the seventh-most runs in baseball, while the Dodgers checked in at 19th.

Maybe the Royals got lucky? Maybe the Mets’ pitchers relied on swinging strikes to be ultimately successful? Who knows, but the numbers don’t exact bear out how the Royals have been so good offensively (especially in October) the last two seasons.

Now, I’m not saying the Dodgers need to shift their focus to bringing in guys who don’t walk, don’t homer and rely on the batted ball; that would be foolish. But, something has to improve on the offensive side to be more consistent. And no, I’m not talking about small ball, either.

Turns out, hitting home runs is actually a good thing. Conversely, so is not striking out. If the Dodgers can mix some of what they have at present with some of what is available on the free agent- and trade markets, then perhaps the offense could be less frustrating at times. It’s weird to write that seeing as they were near the top of many categories for most of the season.

Lower contact rates aren’t the worst thing, though. Joey Votto had a 79.1 percent contact rate. Paul Goldschmidt had a 77.7 percent rate. Even Dodger-killer Matt Carpenter had just an 80.2 percent rate. They (and others) make up for the lower contact rate by walking and hitting for power. Not every player is going to be able to combine high contact, low strikeouts, high walks and power. Jose Bautista might be the best example of a player who does well in all four categories, but even his contact rate is just 81.1 percent. So, balancing the lineup with guys who can do a couple of those things better with guys who can do a couple of those other things better sounds like the way to go.

If I’m running the Dodgers, Jason Heyward is my main target. I wrote about him last week, and I think he’s a perfect fit for this club. He also puts the bat on the ball at an 84.4 percent clip. Other high-contact free agents include Ben Zobrist (88.6 percent), Daniel Murphy (92 percent), Gerardo Parra (83.1 percent) and Kendrick. Their BABIPs weren’t crazy, either. Heyward had a .329 BABIP, Zobrist was .288, Murphy  was .278 and Parra was .325. Kendrick’s was the highest at .342.

Realistically, the Dodgers would be able to bring in just one of those guys, seeing as three of them play the same position and one is a non-elite outfielder. Injecting a little bat-to-ball guys into the lineup would make the lower contact rate players more bearable. Pederson will pop some homers, but when he’s struggling to do that, having higher-contact guys to pick up the slack could be beneficial.

Finding the perfect blend of contact, low strikeouts, high walks and power is what every team should be looking for. It remains to be seen what the Dodgers’ front office does to specifically address this, but if they were to bring in Heyward and Zobrist, that would go a long way to finding that center.

About Dustin Nosler

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Dustin Nosler began writing about the Dodgers in July 2009 at his blog, Feelin' Kinda Blue. He co-hosted a weekly podcast with Jared Massey called Dugout Blues. He was a contributor/editor at The Hardball Times and True Blue LA. He graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in digital media. While at CSUS, he worked for the student-run newspaper The State Hornet for three years, culminating with a 1-year term as editor-in-chief. He resides in Stockton, Calif.