SURPRISE, Ariz. -- A gray long-sleeve shirt hangs in the locker of every Royals pitcher in the clubhouse at their Spring Training complex. Finally graced with Arizona weather that doesn’t require heavy overcoats and sweatshirts this past weekend, a few pitchers and coaches broke out the shirt that illustrates the theme at the forefront of Kansas City's 2023 season.
On the front are the Royals' guiding values overlaid on a baseball field.
On the back is this phrase: "RAID THE ZONE."
That is the club's pitching motto this year. Pitching coach Brian Sweeney, assistant pitching coach Zach Bove and bullpen coach Mitch Stetter, along with the Royals’ analysts and research and development department, came up with the idea. Bove came up with the word “raid.”
“'Raid' just came to me. I can’t tell you this cool story,” Bove said. “But I view it as a two-parter -- raiding like filling up the strike zone, throwing strikes, which is not a different concept. But then also, I did some research on this, like the raiders of World War II. Defeating the enemy. It’s like this dominating mentality. We’re the aggressor, we’re on attack, we want to strike guys out.
"That’s where the 'raid the zone' comes in. We want to be in better counts this year. First-pitch strikes, attack the zone. That’s not anything new. But it’s a mindset and mentality that we’re trying to create.”
Throwing strikes is certainly not a new concept. But it’s something the Royals struggled with last year. Their 9.4 percent walk rate and 19.1 percent strikeout rate were both second-worst in baseball. Their first-pitch strike percentage was dead last at 58 percent, and they were in the bottom half in baseball in zone percentage at 41.2 percent.
“We’ve identified pretty clearly what we need to improve on,” general manager J.J. Picollo said. “That really comes down to pitchers trusting that they can be in the strike zone. A lot of it comes down to not trying to be too fine, especially early in counts.”
In 0-0 counts last year, opponents hit .328 against the Royals, which ranked 11th in the Majors. In 1-0 counts, hitters batted .373 against Kansas City -- 28th in the league. To be fair, the Royals’ opponent average in 0-1 counts last year was .365, last in baseball.
The Royals’ findings coincided with what they heard from Sweeney, Bove and Stetter in the interview process. Bench coach Paul Hoover identified what catchers could do to help strike-throwing, and Sweeney and Bove are also working with pitchers on improving pitch quality to drive up strikeouts and lessen hard contact, whether that’s through pitch usage or design.
“As I went through the interview process and after, I learned that these guys are good,” Bove said. “The results weren’t great last year. But there are a lot of pieces to this that are interesting, whether it’s the age of guys or the stuff that maybe wasn’t being utilized maybe to the best of the ability. The guys had success, it’s not a knock on anybody that was previously here. But is there a creative way to take the same people -- we don’t need a whole bunch of new pitchers, the ingredients are there -- and view them differently and help them improve.
“The strike-throwing was definitely something. Talking to Brian and the analysts, we were just all coming to the same conclusions. That’s where 'raid the zone' came from. We got to teach this mentality of not being afraid to throw strikes, especially early in the count, and then go from there.”
It seems simple enough to throw strikes. It gets harder on a Major League mound. That’s why there’s a focus on the message early in camp, on shirts and in meetings.
“I think we overanalyze things,” Brad Keller said. “Hitters say that hitting is hard, too, but sometimes they make it seem easy. So you always want to be pinpoint when you don’t have to [overanalyze]. I think that’s one of the things they’re trying to reiterate to us. And if we’re on the attack, hitters are on their heels.”