Royals hitting coach blames it on the ballpark

Jeff Gross

When all else fails, find a scapegoat.

Back during the winter meetings, Royals manager Ned Yost said that his team would hit for more power in 2013 despite not having added any home-run hitters to the lineup. I asked him how they would accomplish this given the team's inherent limitations. He said, they would do it through "a change of philosophy."

The way he said it, he could have said, "secret mind powers." What he really meant was, "We fired Kevin Seitzer." "I would rather strike out than hit a ball to the right-center field wall and have it caught," he said, " unless there's a runner on third. I want to open up our offense." Presumably Seitzer's replacements, Jack Maloof and his assistant, Andre David, were given this same message: PULL THE BALL. ANYONE HITTING TO RIGHT-CENTER WILL BE SUBJECT TO A FINE AND TOWED AT THEIR OWN EXPENSE.

This has not paid off for the Royals, not even slightly. They are dead last in the American League with 28 runs. They trail the Twins by 13. They miss being last in the majors by just one, and that only by virtue of the fact that Miami has been allowed to field a fake team this year. The team is hitting .261/.314/.375 overall; by OPS+ they are the third-worst offense in the AL; by wOBA the second-worst. Alex Gordon is having a good year, Lorenzo Cain hit well until the inevitable regression took hold of him*, and Billy Butler has had his moments in what has been his worst offensive season in five years. Everyone else has been somewhere between miserable and disastrous.

*After I recently suggested that Cain would regress, a reader took issue: "Just out of curiosity, why would Lorenzo Cain regress? ...Guy has always had tons of talent, but has been injured much of the past couple years. If injury = regression, then I maybe see your point, but his production while healthy should stay similar all year long." The answer is, because he's Lorenzo Cain and true .320 hitters are rare. Cain hit well enough in the minors that he might be one, but when it comes to batting average, it's always wiser to bet the under until they actually do it.

For KC talk that will grab you by the collar and yank hard, visit Royals Review

Naturally, that has Maloof making up alibis in order to save his job: It's not me, it's Kaufmann Stadium. As Jeffrey Flanagan of Fox Sports Kansas City reports:

"There is just no reward here (for us) to try and hit home runs," Maloof said. "We try to stay down on the ball, be more line-drive oriented, and do more situational hitting at least through the first two or three rounds (at home) here. That's why I'm not overly concerned because I think we'll lead the league in fewest home runs again this year. We don't have a 40-homer guy in the middle of the lineup.

"We've got kids. Billy Butler is a doubles machine. No one has told me he is a home run hitting guy. If we try to do it too much, we'll get ourselves in trouble. Same thing with Alex (Gordon). They'll hit home runs on the road, and yes, they'll hit some here.

Flanagan asks Maloof the obvious question: Why the hell can other teams come into Kaufmann Stadium and knock the ball over the wall? Opponents have out-homered the Royals at home 32-11. Last year they were out-homered 87-62. Don't worry; Maloof has an answer for that. It's a familiar tune that those involved with the Rockies have been singing for years:

"Here's the thing: Other teams come in here from Anaheim or wherever and they have their swing already down," Maloof said. "This park doesn't even enter into their minds when they hit here. They have their swings, the same swings, because it pays dividends for them at home.

Look, maybe there's something to that, but the truth is far more prosaic: the Royals just don't have very many good hitters. You can put good hitters in bad environments and that will knock their numbers down, but they'll still produce well at home relative to the typical player and they'll perform at a high level in neutral environments. The Royals are hitting .252/.307/.358 at home and .261/.314/.375 on the road. League average overall is .256/.323/.414. It's not just the park and it's not just the mentality inflicted by the park.

Contrast that with the performance of a Royals team that was filled with good hitters, say, the 1977 team, winner of 102 games. They played in the same ballpark, though the dimensions, the surface and other aspects have been changed a bit since then so the comparison isn't perfect. Still, players like George Brett, Amos Otis, Al Cowens, and Hal McRae found ways to produce somewhere even though they were clearly affected by the stadium. Brett hit .337 with nine home runs at home, .287 with 13 home runs on the road in roughly the same number of at-bats. McRae hit .278 with eight home runs at home, .318 with 13 home runs on the road. Otis hit .245 with seven home runs at home, .258 with 10 home runs on the road. Good hitters will out, and when the Royals had them you could find evidence of it. The great hitters, like Brett, simply altered their style of hitting to take advantage of what you could get out of the park -- doubles and triples to the gaps. Everyone else did it the traditional way, getting their licks in on the road.

They don't have the horses now, and you could drag the fences in until you had Green Monster distances in left, center, and right, and the Royals would still get beat in their own ballpark and hit poorly on the road. Despite Yost's wishcasting, as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time." In context, this was a terribly callous thing to say about letting troops die due to a lack of properly armored vehicles; removed from context and applied to baseball teams it's a brilliant rejoinder to a common fallacy of baseball managers, executives, and owners: You can have whatever team you want to have, just by saying it's true. The Royals will hit for power despite no evidence that they will do it. Ozzie Guillen fantasized about a bunt-and-run offense with a team whose offensive centers were slow right-handed hitters like Jermaine Dye, Paul Konerko, and Frank Thomas.

There's a line about the Hall of Fame outfielder Max Carey in the original version of the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract that applies here. Carey was a noted basestealer in his day, and when he got to be a manager he naturally wished to emphasize that aspect of things. The problem was that this was the 1930s, and the game was more about hitting balls over buildings than stealing bags. James wrote, "Carey tried to install a running game with the [Dodgers], but the game had changed too much, and it was easier to teach his youngsters to run often than to teach them to run successfully." Carey's problem was the same as Yost's -- you can't play any style of game you want, but only the one your club is capable of at the moment.

In the classic Dustin Hoffman film "Little Big Man," Richard Mulligan plays General George Custer as a visionary in the worst sense of the term, someone who is so impressed by his own powers of perception that in actuality he is totally blind. At one point, Hoffman, playing Jack Crabb, a white man raised by Indians, offers to join Custer's company as a scout. Custer insists that Hoffman has misrepresented himself:

General Custer: A scout has a certain look... Kit Carson, for example. You look like... a muleskinner!

Jack Crabb: Uh, General I don't know anything about mules...

General Custer: Lieutenant, it's amazing how I can guess the profession of a man just by looking at him! Notice the bandy legs, the powerful arms. This man has spent years with mules. Isn't that right?

Jack Crabb: Uh, yes sir!

General Custer: Hire the muleskinner!

Yost made the same kind of evaluation of his hitters. He was able to rationalize his interpretation because he had Seitzer to blame; the hitting coach's philosophy was suppressing his hitters' ability to hit for power. Seitzer now looks like the smart one -- he correctly evaluated the hitters' strengths and weaknesses and concluded that they might as well try to hit for average, because they sure as heck weren't going to hit for a great deal of power. Maybe they weren't good at that either, but at least they weren't being asked to do something they were incapable of doing.

Maloof's theories are a distraction (perhaps a knowing one) that the Royals have a deeper problem on their hands than home-road splits. The team is three seasons into the Hosmer-Moustakas era and the players have not progressed. Maybe, like Alex Gordon, they'll come on late, but at this point they've passed the point of "innocent until proven guilty" and are more like the opposite -- failed hitters until they prove otherwise. As for the rest of the cast, Alcides Escobar and Salvador Perez are the kind of players who have to hit .300 to be productive, second base is a suppurating wound, and Jeff Francoeur is possibly the lead effective right fielder to be given an extended big-league trial in modern history.

No doubt Maloof promised to have the answers when he applied for the job. Now that he's got it and has presided over a lineup even less productive than Seitzer's, he might as well blame the ballpark. Heck, he could blame the tides or his zodiac sign. To paraphrase an old Sinead O'Connor album title, you cannot hit with what you have not got. End of story.

UPDATE:

See? I TOLD you it wasn't the ballpark!

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