New year, new slogan: Royals aim to 'Reign The Zone' in '24

February 14th, 2024

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Last year, the Royals brought a new coaching staff to Kansas City and a whole new wardrobe for their pitching department, the message of "raiding the zone" appearing on T-shirts during Spring Training and throughout the season.

This year comes with a new T-shirt and a new twist: Reign The Zone. But the message is not just on T-shirts or in meetings led by the coaches. The Royals will see it from the new additions they added this offseason as they remade their pitching staff, signing starters Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha and relievers Will Smith, Chris Stratton and Nick Anderson.

“I think it’s just understanding how much we value the strike throwing and first-pitch strikes,” pitching coach Brian Sweeney said after the first pitchers and catchers workout of the spring. “Reigning the zone is taking the next step from raid, understanding how your strengths play to fill up the strike zone to get swing and miss and to get weak contact when needed. Having guys around that have done it for a while -- a rising tide raises all ships.”

On Day 1 of Spring Training, new faces peppered the Royals’ clubhouse at their complex in Surprise, Ariz. There were the additions from free agency, as well as several non-roster invitees in Royals camp for the first time. There’s also a sizable group of position players already in town, with Bobby Witt Jr., Vinnie Pasquantino, and MJ Melendez among those in camp.

After a busy offseason, it’s no wonder everyone is ready to get started.

“This is day one, where we start building that camaraderie and building that team that will hopefully make an impact through these next 162 games,” Wacha said.

The Royals are hoping Wacha, who signed a one-year deal with a player option for 2025, not only makes an impact on the field, but in the clubhouse as other pitchers watch how he works. After ranking 26th in strikeout percentage (20.7%) and 20th in walk rate (9%) in 2023, the Royals targeted strike-throwers this offseason in their pursuit of better pitching.

Wacha, who has a 7.6% walk rate in his career, fits the bill. Lugo, who signed a two-year contract with a player option for 2026, owns a 6.5% career walk rate and was even better last year, his 6.0% walk rate ranking in the top 20 in all of baseball among pitchers with at least 140 innings.

“Worst thing you can do is give out free passes,” Lugo said. “Playing with Wacha, he throws a lot of strikes too. Going right at guys. He’s not doing it at 97-98 mph, he’s doing it at 92-94, and it’s still effective. It just shows how hard it is to hit at this level, and if you can really locate pitches in the strike zone, you’re going to be successful as a pitcher.

“Once games come around, we’ll start talking to the other pitchers about it a little more, they’ll start identifying that and really seeing what it looks like to attack a hitter.”

The importance of throwing strikes isn’t lost on anyone -- it’s a fundamental of pitching, after all. But the Royals are not only keeping it “on the front burner,” manager Matt Quatraro said, but going one step further by emphasizing location in the zone based on where a certain pitch plays best.

After all, opponents had a slugging percentage of .700 on the Royals' first-pitch strikes in 2023 -- worst in baseball.

“We gave up some slug last year,” Sweeney said. “We’re always going to value strikes and getting ahead early. But now it’s understanding where your stuff plays best. Knowing who you are, where you get weak contact, where you get swing and miss.”

It’s on a T-shirt, yes, but thanks to that busy offseason, the Royals now have several veterans who have lived by that mantra for their entire careers.

“If everyone’s piling strikes on, you don’t want to be the guy out there that walks people,” Lugo said. “You can sense it with other pitchers, and there’s an attitude and aggression toward hitters that’s definitely contagious.”

Royals rumblings

• Among those throwing a bullpen Wednesday was lefty Jake Brentz. The southpaw is finally healthy after two years of injuries, and there’s buzz around him already. Most are intrigued as to what he can bring to the Royals’ bullpen given he was a hard-throwing lefty his rookie season before Tommy John sidelined him in ‘22 and a lat strain ended his rehab early last year.

• There was one baseball staple missing at camp Wednesday: uniform tops. They weren’t in lockers nor worn on the field by any player. There’s a delay with getting jerseys with new details to the complex, but they should be here soon, according to an official.