If you’re looking for one stat that neatly explains the Royals’ Game 2 victory over the Mets, it’s this one: Out of the 94 pitches Mets ace Jacob deGrom threw in his five innings, the Royals only swung and missed at three of them.
This would be a less remarkable stat if Jacob deGrom were a junkballer, or a pitch-to-contact guy who grinds out innings with a heavy sinker. But this is a guy who throws 97 mph, struck out more than a batter per inning this year, and has the ability to throw any one of his dominant breaking pitches for a strike in any count. During the regular season, deGrom’s whiffs-per-swing rate on his fourseam fastball was 26.61 percent, making it the nastiest fourseamer in the entire league among starting pitchers. He threw 27 fourseam fastballs last night, and the Royals didn’t swing and miss at a single one.
It’s not that deGrom was particularly wild, or that the Royals hitters were exceptionally patient. Plenty of swings were taken; it’s just that almost all of those swings resulted in some form of contact. The Royals fouled off 23 of deGrom’s pitches, and repeatedly did absurd shit like this:
That’s Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas flicking away a shoulder-high, 97-mph fastball during his fifth-inning at-bat. He fouled off four pitches during that at-bat, before eventually hitting an RBI single to right. How deGrom didn’t just perish from sheer exasperation after watching that high heater get slapped away, I’ll never know.
The Royals’ performance was so outlandish that a few ex-players told ESPN’s Adam Rubin that they thought deGrom was tipping his pitches. Jumping to that conclusion makes some sense—if a pitcher really were tipping his pitches, this is exactly what it would look like. But that theory doesn’t give the Royals the credit they deserve. This is just what they do, because they are basically the best contact team in the history of baseball. Dig this, from Fangraphs’ Jeff Sullivan:
The Royals don’t have the lowest raw strikeout rate ever, but doing that would be almost impossible, given the changes in eras. Strikeouts, as you know, have gone up, so once you take that into account, then this year’s Royals really emerge. Relative to the rest of baseball, no team has struck out less often than this year’s Royals, beneath the average by more than two and a half standard deviations. Behind them you get the 2002 Angels, and it’s somewhat encouraging to know that team won the World Series.
It’s usually a reasonable bet to assume that otherworldly pitching—precisely what the Mets have in bunches—will beat out a good hitting team in a seven-game series, but the Royals are showing us that there are different ways to build a dominant lineup. They don’t have any of the big, free-swinging hulks that powered the Cubs’ offense before eventually getting stood on their heads in NLCS, but they do have nine guys who just know how to put the bat on the ball, and that’s much more of a threat to pitchers like deGrom and Matt Harvey.