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On the Royals Defense

This article has nothing to do with Nate Silver.

Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE

There appears to be a large amounts of positive buzz surrounding the Kansas City Royals defense this off season. Multiple articles have been written to praise the Royals defense, while other stories referencing the Royals pitching staff make sure to compliment the defenders. Below is a sample of quotes I pulled from writers talking about the Royals defense.

Bob Dutton:

(The Royals) see their defense as being as good as any in the American League.

Read more here:

Sam Mellinger:

Rick Porcello, for instance, would be a much better fit in front of the Royals' athletic defense than he is in Detroit.

Dick Kaegel:

There's a lot to be said for Kansas City's defense. Mostly because less is being said about it.

Jeffrey Flanagan:

The Royals soon could become the first team in the history of the Gold Glove award, which started in 1958, to have five winners on the same team.

All of the articles taken together paint the picture that the Royals have a defense that is the toast of the league. While the Royals have some nice defensive pieces and could improve their defense from last season, it is pretty much impossible to claim that the Royals had an elite defense last season; on the contrary, Kansas City played below average defense last year. Furthermore, having a good defense should not be used as an excuse to justify pitchers Dayton Moore acquires this off-season, especially since the Royals will not likely field a high-quality defense next season.

Below is a table of the Royals' defensive statistics last season, some traditional, same advanced.

Fld% Defensive Efficiency Total Zone Plus/Minus UZR
Royals 0.981 0.673 -45 12 -3.2
Rank in AL 14 13 13 8 9

The statistics suggest that the Royals were below average to awful last season, depending on which statistics you want to use. Ironically, the more advanced UZR and Plus/Minus suggest the Royals were better than the more traditional Fielding Percentage and Defensive Efficiency claim.

I tend to trust team defensive statistics more than I trust individual defensive statistics. It's still important, however, to examine the Royals as individuals to see misconceptions between perception and reality, as well as to search for improvements.

Player Inn Fld% Total Zone Plus/Minus UZR
Alex Gordon 1424.1 0.994 2 24 14.1
Alcides Escobar 1379.2 0.972 -17 -2 -12
Mike Moustakas 1314.1 0.967 9 14 16.6
Jeff Francoeur 1299.1 0.985 -2 -14 -5.8
Eric Hosmer 1293 0.992 -16 -6 -11.4
Jarrod Dyson 699 0.976 -17 5 2.4
Salvador Perez 653.2 0.993 7 9 5.4
Lorenzo Cain 493 0.974 7 8 7
Chris Getz 483.1 0.983 -2 -2 0
Yuniesky Betancourt 449.1 0.973 -9 -11 -8.2
Brayan Pena 426.1 0.989 0 1 -0.4
Johnny Giavotella 376.2 0.967 -9 -4 -5.3
Irving Falu 190 0.967 -2 0 -1.2
Billy Butler 165.2 0.982 1 -3 -2.7
Tony Abreu 160.2 0.987 -1 -1 -0.6
Mitch Maier 155 1 -1 -6 -1.8
Jason Bourgeois 140.2 0.94 -1 -5 -3.4
David Lough 127.2 0.968 3 0 2.1
Adam Moore 22 0.923 -1 -1 -0.5
Manny Pina 3 1 0 0 -0.3

A few thoughts about the Royals individual defensive statistics:

  • Jeff already wrote about this, but I'm pretty sure the Royals positioning is messing with the defensive statistics for Moustakas and Escobar. While I think Moustakas improved last season and Escobar regressed, I imagine both have a true talent level around league average as fielders.
  • The loss of Betancourt should help the Royals defense, but if Gio takes his playing time, it will likely be a net zero. Getz, Falu and Abreu are not particularly strong defensive options either.
  • Not playing Francoeur next season should also strengthen the Kansas City defense, but it's still up in the air how much playing time Frenchy will receive next year. There is no gurantee Wil Myers plays quality defense in right field, but he definitely has the potential too.
  • Until proven otherwise, it's probably time to assume that Hosmer is a below-average defender (and potentially atrocious). I'm still holding out hope that he improves, but that belief rests upon his athletic ability more than any evidence of actual improvement.
  • Full seasons of Perez and Cain could have helped the defense, but they aren't elevating the Royals to an elite defense by themselves. Perez looks like the real deal, but I'm skeptical about Cain. I would not bet on him replicating his rather outstanding numbers next season.

When I talk to people who are proponents of this "Royals have a great defense" myth, they like to point out how dominant the left side of the field performed. Even if granted this dubious claim, these same proponents do not enjoy to acknowledge how terribly the right side of the infield played last season.

While I believe the Royals will have a better defense this season than last season, it's not likely to be a significant improvement. It seems reasonable to project the Royals to have an average defense in the American League next year, but that is probably at the higher end of an accurate projection. The starting lineup will mostly look the same in April, so it's foolhardy to assume they will suddenly make a leap to become a great defense.

Furthermore, the Royals should not believe that their defense will off-set some the of the weakness in their starting rotation. If anything, the Royals needed starters last season that could hide some of their defensive deficiencies. Acquiring low strikeout starting pitchers that rely on their defense is a risky strategy for any team, but is an outright foolish one for a team that doesn't own a good defense.

The Royals cannot bank on having a strong defense next season; based on last season's statistics, they should assume the defense will be below-average and hope that it turns out average. Anyone who believes the Royals had one of the best defenses in the American League last year is basing their opinion on hype and wishful thinking rather than fact.