KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Jason Hammel's struggles, in many ways, are the Royals' struggles as a whole.
In an MLB season that has featured more strikeouts than ever before, the Royals — for another day — lagged in that all-important aspect during a 5-3 loss to Tampa Bay on Wednesday afternoon at Kauffman Stadium.
Let's start with Hammel. Though he walked no one in six innings, he also didn't get nearly enough swings and misses, striking out only two while allowing five runs and 10 hits.
He labored most in the first, as three singles and a hit-by-pitch resulted in the Royals facing an immediate 3-0 hole.
"Beyond frustration. Right now, it's just unacceptable: Three-spots every first inning," said Hammel, who has allowed three first-inning runs in his last three starts. "We have a team that's putting the ball in play and giving us a lot of runs now — earlier in the year they weren't — just give them a chance. But put their heads underwater right away ... it's tough to battle back every single game out."
To be fair to Hammel from a strikeouts perspective, part of the gameplan Wednesday could have been to let the Rays get themselves out. He called Tampa Bay an "aggressive" hitting team, later saying he believed that putting the ball in well-located spots could result in grounders.
"I just didn't make good pitches down in the zone early in the at-bats," Hammel said.
He also couldn't make up for that with an increase in punchouts, which was the continuation of a troubling trend this season. Hammel struck out just one in his previous start, and his 12 percent strikeout rate entering the game ranked 91st out of 92 qualified MLB pitchers.
This, as one can guess, is a problem. Hammel's strikeout rate was 18 percent a year ago, meaning he's lost about half of his automatic-out generation in the span of a single season.
Royals manager Ned Yost said Hammel "didn't have his best stuff" Wednesday before praising him for his ability to recover from a shaky start.
"Veteran guys that can calm it down, keep us in the ballgame and go out for the seventh inning ... you've got to get him credit for that," Yost said.
Hammel is far from the only KC player with a strikeout issue. The Royals, as a staff, have struck out 18 percent of batters, which is last in the majors and also not particularly close to the league average of 23 percent.
And while strikeouts aren't the only part of pitching, they certainly are significant. The top five in strikeout percentage include names you'd expect (Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Patrick Corbin, Chris Sale) while most of the bottom five are pitchers considered at this point to be back-end starters (Ty Blach, Hammel, Lucas Giolito, Homer Bailey, James Shields).
The Royals' team numbers, not surprisingly, also have been influenced by bullpen regression this season.
With the departures of Mike Minor and Matt Strahm — two of the team's best strikeout pitchers from last year — the Royals relievers entered Wednesday last in baseball with a 16 percent strikeout percentage. For reference, that's less than half of what the New York Yankees' bullpen (34 percent) has amassed this season.
Wednesday's result only continued the latest Royals' skid. KC, which has lost seven of eight, was swept by a Tampa Bay team that entered the series with only one win in its previous calendar week.
Hammel, following the rough outing, saw his season ERA spike to 6.28.
"I'm obviously not very proud of the effort," Hammel said of Wednesday's game. "I've just got to get it better."
The Royals, now 13-30, will have Thursday off before hosting the Yankees for a three-game set starting Friday.