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The Strike Zone

Once again, punchless Royals change hitting coaches, but will anything change?

Alex Gordon and the Royals have one of the worst offenses in the AL this season. (Charlie Riedel/AP)Alex Gordon and the Royals have one of the worst offenses in the American League this season. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

Last year, the Royals surprised the baseball world with an 86-win season, their first time above .500 since 2003. At 25-28 thus far this year, they've struggled to live up to expectations, particularly on the offensive side. Now, on the heels of a three-game sweep at home by the Astros in which they were outscored 21-5, they've changed hitting coaches, appointing third base coach Dale Sveum to the job while re-assigning Pedro Grifol to duty as the team's catching instructor.

If that sounds familiar, it is. Not only did the Royals become the second team to axe their hitting coach this week — the Mets were first — they shuffled the deck chairs for the third time in a year. On May 30 of last year, the team fired co-coaches Jack Maloof and Andre David in favor of Hall of Famer George Brett; the pair had been on the job for less than a year since taking over for Kevin Seitzer, who was fired at the end of the 2012 season. Brett, who focused on "mental rescue" of the team's hitters while Grifol focused on the technical side, spent less than two months in the role before going back upstairs to resume his front office duties, at which point Grifol took over as the sole hitting coach.

If you're keeping score, that's four changes inside of 20 months — four changes that have had little impact on the team's ability to score runs. In 2012, the Royals ranked 12th out of 14 teams in the AL in scoring, 13th in homers, and 14th in walks. In 2013, they ranked 11th out of 15 in scoring, 15th in homers and 13th in walks. Currently, they rank 14th in scoring, 15th in homers and 13th in walks. At least they're consistent, right?

Oh, and if you're wondering about Seitzer, he's currently the hitting coach of the red-hot Blue Jays, currently first in the league in homers and second in scoring.

This year's Royals are eking out just 3.87 runs per game in a league where 4.35 is average. They're hitting .253/.308/.352, numbers that rank eighth, 14th and 15th in the league, respectively. Their 22 homers are 12 less than the next-lowest team, the Rangers, and just three more than what league leader Nelson Cruz has hit by himself; team leader Salvador Perez has five. Only three regulars have on-base percentages above the league average of .322 (Lorenzo Cain at .376, Alex Gordon at .345 and Nori Aoki at .326), while only two are exceeding the league slugging percentage of .394 (Perez at .420 and Cain at .404). Even after adjusting for ballpark, Cain (115 OPS+) Gordon (103 OPS+) and Perez (100 OPS+) are the only players who are at least league average in their overall production.

Unlike the Mets, the Royals can't even point their fingers at their ballpark. While Kauffman Stadium does suppress home runs, via Baseball-Reference.com, its single-year Batting Park Factors have been at or above 100 in each of the past four seasons: 101 in 2011, 100 in 2012, 106 in 2013 and 108 thus far this year. Even with their lousy offense, they and their opponents are combining to score 8.26 runs per game at Kauffman, 7.73 elsewhere. It's not like the pitching is that bad; the team's 4.13 runs per game is the league's fourth-lowest total, their 111 ERA+ second-best.

No, the blame for this starts with the hitters, and particularly the nucleus of former top prospects that general manager Dayton Moore has amassed, the nucleus that was supposed to carry the team to contention. Twenty-five-year-old third baseman Mike Moustakas hit just .152/.223/.320 before being sent back to Triple-A Omaha earlier this month, a long overdue move for a player who hit just .233/.287/.364 for a 77 OPS+ last year. Twenty-four-year-old first baseman Eric Hosmer, who appeared to benefit the most during Brett's abbreviated tenure, is batting just .276/.318/.378 with one homer in 236 plate appearances, well off last year's .302/.353/.448 rebound. Twenty-eight-year-old DH Billy Butler is stuck on one homer as well while hitting a mere .238/.295/.301; his 65 OPS+ is miles below last year's 116 mark, itself his lowest since 2008. Elder statesman Alex Gordon, 30, is at .279/.345/.393; his 103 OPS+ matches last year's mark — his lowest since 2010 — which came via a .265/.327/.422 line.

Players brought in from outside the organization are struggling, too. Second baseman Omar Infante, whom Moore signed to a four-year, $30.25 million deal, has battled injuries while hitting .265/.315/.382, nothing close to last year's sizzling (but injury-shortened) .318/.345/.450; his 91 OPS+ is alarmingly close to his career mark of 93, a bad sign for a 32-year-old of questionable durability signed to patch up a perennial problem. Rightfielder Aoki is hitting .265/.326/.319 for a 79 OPS+, down from the 105 he put up in two years as a Brewer. If the two other ex-Brewers, Cain and shortstop Alcides Escobar (.271/.320/.372 for a 90 OPS+) weren't exceeding expectations, the team's entire offense might merit demotion to Omaha.

On a team-wide basis, the Royals' underperformance doesn't appear to be the result of an extreme number of shifts against them. Via data from Baseball Info Solutions, Moustakas and Gordon are the only Royals among the 50 most shifted-against hitters this year, and they're 23d and 36th, respectively. The former is just 1-for-36 when putting the ball in play against the shift, but even if you remove those at-bats from his line, his batting average on balls in play would be an anemic .230 (it's an unfathomable .155 with them).

However, the common thread since 2012 — actually, going back even further — is that the Royals put the ball in play more often than any other AL team. This year, they're doing so 76 percent of the time, where the AL average is 68.8 percent. As noted before, they don't homer or walk often; they're also striking out less often than any team, which would seem not to be a problem except that strikeouts tend to correlate positively with power, which the Royals severely lack. While out of step with today's increasingly power- and strikeout-saturated game, the put-in-play offense can work, but it's dependent upon a high batting average on balls in play, and the Royals' .290 mark is just 10th in the league. They're hitting too many grounders (a league-high 49.6 percent of balls in play) and too few line drives (18.1 percent, 14th), and once again, their groundball/flyball ratio is among the league's top three. They're also swinging at more pitches outside the zone (30.5 percent) than all but two other teams, their fourth straight year among the league's top three.

All of which reflects on the personnel and the philosophy being imparted. With the turnover in batting coaches such that none has had very long to implement a new approach, ownership for the failure of the aggressive, contact-oriented bent belongs to Moore, who's now eight full years into his tenure having yet to produce a playoff team. Sure, he's been hamstrung by a tight-fisted owner, but the team's $92.2 million payroll is the highest in franchise history, up $10.3 million from last year and $28.2 million from two years ago. Last year, four teams with lower payrolls — the Indians, Pirates, A's and Rays — qualified for the playoffs. Moore is the one who built around a booming farm system that has yet to turn the franchise's fortunes around, the one who traded the powerful but strikeout-prone Wil Myers to the Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis. Admittedly, Myers is off to a slow start this year, but last year both his strikeout rate and slugging percentage would have led last year's Royals by a wide margin.

It's not too late for the Royals to turn this season around; last year's club was 23-30 at the 53-game mark, two wins worse. Sveum, who served as the Brewers' hitting coach from 2009-11, does have some success to point to given that the Brewers made the playoffs in 2011, but this team has no Prince Fielder/Ryan Braun-type mashers to its name. His quick take on the team's struggles is that they're not hitting balls up in the zone, which tend to produce more power. He'll be a different voice in the hitters' ear, and he stands to reap the benefit of the credit if his players merely regress to their career norms, but if and when he's unceremoniously dumped at some date to be named later, it will be worth remembering that this is merely the cycle repeating itself.
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