Billy Butler is going to make contact. (Minda Haas/flickr)

The cliche says in order to be successful, you have to take your lemons and turn them into lemonade.  That’s kind of what Kevin Seitzer did last summer with the Royals hitters.  Hamstrung by having to deal with the likes of Yuniesky Betancourt, Jose Guillen and Rick Ankiel, the Royals somehow finished second in the American League with a .274 batting average.  That represented a 15 point improvement over their 12th place finish the previous year.

Well done.

The Royals were actually the best team in all of baseball at putting the bat on the ball.  Collectively, their hitters made contact on 93.4% of their swings.  Most teams hover around a 90% contact rate.  For the Royals to be so far above the norm – although just a tenth ahead of second place finisher Minnesota – is pretty impressive.

Here’s the list of the five teams who made contact on the highest percentage of their swings.

A couple of quick notes.  Of course the five teams with the highest contact rate are in the American League.  The DH will always skew studies like this in favor of the junior circuit.  Second, four of those teams finished above .500.

Interesting.

The Royals truly were just an unbelievable contact hitting team last year.  Of course, that contact was slap hits and in the case of Scott Podsednik, those softball-esque swinging bunts.  While the type of contact wasn’t always ideal, you still have to tip your cap to a team that put the ball in play so frequently.

While the Royals were the Contact Kings of baseball, you would think that some of that contact would translate into base runners.  In a way, yes… That did happen.  As I mentioned earlier, their team batting average of .274 was the second highest in baseball.  However, we know that while some of the old school firmly clings to the thought that batting average represents value, we know better.  We know that the name of the offensive game of baseball is reaching base.  And we all know that this is where the Royals had issues.

That’s old news.

Surprisingly, while the Royals collectively abhor the base on balls, they are one of the more selective teams in baseball.  Their swing percentage on balls outside of the strike zone is a modest 29%, which is slightly better than average.  (This shocks me.  It SHOCKS me.  All caps. The Royals were better than average at selectivity? How did this happen?) Here are the most selective teams in baseball:

You know how those Yankee/Red Sox games last five hours?  A long game is the price you pay when your team knows the location of the strike zone.  Of interest to me though is the fact that again, these are some pretty good offensive teams.  Except for Oakland.  I guess there has to be an outiler in every table.

Really, the thing to take away from the previous table is the fact that while the Royals aren’t represented here, they were close – they ranked 12th.  Not great, but certainly above average.
Now, let’s sort of combine the two.  Fangraphs tracks contact rate on swings on pitches outside the strike zone.  Your leaders for 2010:

Now we have more of a mixed bag.  The Rangers and Twins were two of the best offenses in the league.  The White Sox were close to league average.  The Mets were pretty horrible (I know!  Even with Francoeur for part of the season!) and the Royals were likewise below average when it came to scoring runs.

The Royals were making contact last year no matter where the pitcher delivered the ball.  They out-Guerreroed Vladi’s own team – the Rangers.

That was last year’s team.  The new edition features Jeff Francoeur, Melky Cabrera and Alcides Escobar.  Those three all figure to have a considerable number of at bats.

Cabrera, in many ways, is the optimal Royal.  (That’s an indictment, not a compliment.)  He swings at a better than average number of pitches outside the strike zone (33.9% last year vs a league average of 29.3%), yet makes a great deal of contact.  You’re just not going to see him swing and miss very often.  Of course, we could say the same thing about the Yunigma.

Meanwhile, Francoeur is just a bad hitter.  Period.  End of story.  His 43.4% O-swing percentage was the third worst in baseball, behind Guerrero and Pablo Sandoval.  We’ve been over this ad nausem the last month or so, so there’s really not much to say.  Except when a guy has less discipline than Miguel Olivo and Mike Jacobs… Nevermind.

Escobar is a little more difficult to figure, as his major league track record is much shorter than the other two.  Still, in his one full season in the majors, he’s exhibited much of the same traits his new team appears to value.  He doesn’t have a decent idea of the strike zone, yet makes contact when he goes fishing.  Overall, he missed on only 6.3% of his swings, well above the league average of 8.5%.

If I had to hazard a guess, I’d bet that the 2011 version of the Royals offense will be roughly a mirror image of the offense we saw last year.  They are going to be swinging a ton and they will make contact, but it won’t always be contact of a quality kind.  Their batting average will be solid, but their on base percentage will remain at or below league average because of their continued insistence to ignore the base on balls as a viable option.

Is it possible that Dayton Moore doesn’t mind the fact that his team doesn’t walk because his team is making contact? In other words, is he trading the lack of walks for a reduced number of strikeouts?  It kind of feels that way.  While the tables above show there is no sure fire approach that will guarantee success, it continues to elude the Royals.