The origins of the Royals’ HR celebration

April 30th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Anne Rogers’ Royals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Royals’ cabinet of helmets in the visiting dugouts of all three ballparks they’ve been in during this three-city road trip is a case of, "One is not like the other."

Blue batting helmets fill each slot in each row. Some batting gloves rest near the respective player’s helmet. Except for one -- a silver helmet with small spikes protruding from the crest. The Gladiator helmet, weighing nearly 10 pounds, looks like the one worn by Maximus, played by actor Russell Crowe in the Hollywood classic. And it is the Royals’ new home run celebration that debuted on this trip.

“It’s just something fun for us to do to celebrate and be together,” infielder said. “It’s a trend around the league, but it’s a good message for us.”

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The helmet was a backup plan after the Royals’ original home run celebration, a big crown, fell through when it arrived dented. The Gladiator might not be the celebration for the entire year -- Lopez teased a new idea at some point.

But for now, it sums up the Royals’ mindset.

“That’s our mentality,” shortstop said. “Everyone against us.”

Hitting coach Alec Zumwalt came up with the idea when he was searching for a quote in the movie as inspiration to keep his hitters on track as they fight through struggles early in 2023. He ordered the mask on Amazon, and it showed up a few days later. He placed it in the dugout in Anaheim last weekend. The players embraced it.

“When I was watching the clips, I was like, ‘This is us right now,’” Zumwalt said. “I want these guys to go in confident. We’re going through a rough time right now, and we’ve got to stick together.

“This is a battle. Every night is a battle.”

And it has been a battle for the Royals through the first month of the season. Kansas City is 7-21 entering Sunday with an offense that ranks at the bottom of baseball in several categories.

Kansas City is fifth in strikeout rate (25.2%), second-to-last in walk rate (6.6%), last in team OPS (.621) and has scored the second-fewest runs in the Majors so far this season. Zumwalt and the Royals’ hitting department look at advanced metrics to evaluate processes, and three stand out more than the rest: Hard-hit rate, chase rate and swing-and-miss.

“We preach it, and I believe in it: The only thing they can control is what they swing at and what they take,” Zumwalt said. “If we’re truly selling out to what our identity is of swinging at good pitches and taking the bad ones, those numbers would be much lower. That’s just reality. We’re going to get there with more games.”

The Royals rank sixth in hard-hit rate at 42.5%. But they rank second-worst in baseball in chase rate at 32.8% and have a 28.4% whiff rate, which ranks fourth-worst and has slightly improved in the past week. Unsurprisingly, they are swinging more than any other team in the Majors with a 50.1% swing percentage.

“The glaring one is the chase right now,” Zumwalt said. “We have a group of young hitters that are trying to prove themselves in the Major Leagues. We knew that was going to be something that we would have to pay attention to. As much as we preach our approach and game plan with these guys, they’re learning every single night. We’ve seen the upper tier of pitching. After the fact, we can dive into it. What would you have done differently? 

“Having those open conversations with the guys and understanding that that’s the one thing we know we can improve on significantly. The hard hit, I know that’s in a good place. But it’s really, ‘Guys, we’ve got to focus on what we’re swinging at, more than anything.’”

Entering Saturday, the Royals have five position players with fewer than 500 career plate appearances: Vinnie Pasquantino (409), Michael Massey (271), Edward Olivares (467), Kyle Isbel (442) and Nick Pratto (194). Witt (746) and MJ Melendez (632) don’t have many more.

The growing pains, although frustrating, are not unexpected.

“(The swing rates) are a clear sign that they’re an inexperienced group of hitters that are feeling it right now,” general manager J.J. Picollo said. “So they’re going to swing. When the swing rates go down, they’ll have more success. … We are keeping perspective on it, and using history as a reference, it tells you that guys get better with more at-bats in the Major Leagues. 

“When you’re not going good, when guys are struggling, that’s where the coaching takes place. They’re prepared. Zumi and all the coaches have done a great job keeping a real positive culture.”

Thus, the home run celebration. And celebrating every win, from a walk to a base hit to a bases-clearing double.

“They’re learning on the fly and learning through this process,” Zumwalt said. “I feel like our guys are more prepared than ever. Bottom line, baseball is won and lost by hitting mistakes. That’s the big thing right now. Guys are prepared. We’ve just got to hit mistakes when we get them.

“We’ve been honest with them in our daily meetings. Digest what happened yesterday, prepare for today, call the things out that are real and make adjustments. And celebrate the things we are doing well.”