Black Holes And Second Basemen

It's 50-50 whether Yuniesky Betancourt actually reached this ground ball. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Dayton Moore has stated he wants the Royals to be a strong defensive team.

Makes sense. What GM in baseball says any different?

To illustrate this commitment to fine leather work GMDM then paid a boatload of cash to Jose Guillen to impersonate a statue in right field. He also signed the catching sieve that was Miguel Olivo. And Mike Jacobs. And The Yunigma. And The Yunigma - The Sequel. And… you get the point.

Still, with the first wave of prospects making their way through The Process, it looked like the Royals really were improving. The defensive spectrum dictates (rightly so) the most important defense is up the middle. Removing The Yunigma for The SS Jesus was a huge gain. Sal Perez is a defensive savant. Lorenzo Cain is better in center than Melky Cabrera. Second base was going to be questionable with some combo of Chris Getz, Johnny Giavotella and Yuniesky Betancourt, but there’s no denying we have three of the four up the middle positions upgraded.

Of course injuries have robbed us of our ideal defensive setup. Cain has been replaced by Jarrod Dyson who’s routes to the ball continue to confound. Perez was replaced by the recently departed Humberto Quintero who was supposed to be a "catch and throw" backstop. Turns out he was neither.

Overall if I had to characterize the 2012 Royals defense, it feels… Average. Mike Moustakas has been surprisingly awesome. Alex Gordon is doing Alex Gordon things in left. And Alcides Escobar owns short. The rest of the lineup seems like they field adequately enough… Except at second base. By the ol’ "eye test" it seems like this is a team that is solid defensively, often capable of the spectacular.

I’m pleased.

Then I check some defensive metrics. According to Baseball Prospectus’ Defensive Efficiency rating, the Royals are the second worst defensive team in the AL. Here are the bottom five in the majors.

Rank Team DER
26 Diamondbacks 0.692
27 Royals 0.691
28 Tigers 0.686
29 Brewers 0.681
30 Rockies 0.659

I’m on board with four of those five teams living at the bottom of the defensive rock pile. None of these clubs are new to iron-like glove work. But how could this be? How could the Royals be this close to rock bottom defensively?

Today I want to focus on the infield glove work up the middle.

Let’s start with Alcides Escobar. The SS Jesus. The guy was such a breath of fresh air last year. Especially after watching Betancourt plod around for a couple of seasons. Escobar was brilliant, saving 10 runs with his glove according to John Dewan's metrics in The Fielding Bible. That was the second best mark in the AL. His specialty was snagging balls in the hole between short and third - his backhand side. If you’re a right-handed batter and you are about pulling the ball on the ground, that spot is your money zone. Escobar erased that advantage.

(Interesting note: According to Volume 3 of The Fielding Bible, last year The SS Jesus made 77 Good Fielding Plays, the most among all shortstops. The average shortstop made 61.)

This season, the defensive metrics haven’t been as kind. The Fielding Bible says the SS Jesus has actually cost his team four runs with the glove. Really? And according to the plus/minus system, his range to his right isn’t nearly as strong as it was last year, which has really been his defensive calling card.

Some of the hard numbers back this up: Last year, Escobar converted 91 percent of all balls he fielded into outs. This year, he’s converting just 88 percent. With most players hovering around 89-90 percent, this three percent drop in conversion rate feels substantial.

However, using that old fashioned eye test I spoke of earlier, I don’t see Escobar as having an off year defensively. He seems steady from last season. Moustakas is having a phenominal defensive season, yet he doesn’t move as well to his left, so it’s not like he’s poaching from Escobar. Or even getting in his way. It’s strange… I feel like I’m missing something.

Meanwhile, what about The Yunigma? Dewan's Plus/Minus has him at -7 at second base, barely capable of fielding any ball within a six inch radius of where he sets himself for the pitch. According to the Fielding Bible’s Runs Saved, he’s cost the Royals seven runs with his glove. Would you be surprised to learn that he’s the worst defensive second baseman in baseball? Easy money.

As much as I hate do to it (because what did Johnny Giavotella ever do to me?) but Gio is Betancourt-esque out there with the leather. He’s played just 104 defensive innings, but is negative four in the runs saved category.

Chris Getz was actually having a so-so defensive season. He has been making most plays he should make. He’s saved two runs according to The Fielding Bible.

However, as a whole, Royal second basemen have cost their club 12 runs. That minus 12 mark is the second worst defensive position in the entire American League. Only Oakland center fielders are costing their team more runs. Here's the dirty breakdown...

Player Inn +/- Runs Saved DP Conv
Getz 252.1 +1 2 76.9%
Betancourt 236.1 -7 -7 69.4%
Giavotella 102.0 -2 -4 25.0%
Falu 67.0 -3 -3 83.3%

(The numbers are from Bill James Online. The DP Conv column is how often the second baseman is successful in turning the double play, given the opportunity. The numbers for Gio and Falu in this category are subject to SSS.)

The hard numbers back the metrics. Royal second basemen have converted just 88 percent of balls fielded into outs. That’s the worst rate in baseball. And they’re the only team in the AL that has converted fewer than 90 percent. The F2O% (as titled at Baseball-Prospectus) is interesting, but suffers the same fate of many defensive statistics in that it’s far from perfect. However, it should be noted Kansas City second basemen have also fielded fewer balls than any other team.

That’s not bad, that’s horrific.

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