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The best single-season defensive improvement belongs to the Royals

And it's not when you think.

G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images

The Royals were not always the best defensive team in the history of whenever, you know. There were dark times I tell you, DARK TIMES. The mid-2000s brand of Royals baseball would not have been approved by most marketing departments. The software development world would not have called those teams what is known as a "minimum viable product" - the minimum needed to get the product out the door in the first iteration.

Here we all are anyway.

During research for a different article for another website  which I never wrote, I came across a fun little fact. I wanted to look at Jerry Dipoto's new strategy with the Mariners in the context of recent history. Dipoto, the new GM of the Royals' Grass Creek adversary, immediately set about getting more defensive ability and more athleticism (a bit like the Royals eh?). I was looking for the best single-season defensive improvements to get context on what the upper bounds of Dipoto's efforts were.

I was using defensive runs saved, DRS - a stat commonly referenced on broadcasts. Playing around with the data in Tableau, I found the interesting little Royals fact. By DRS, which FanGraphs has going back to 2002, the Royals have the best single-season defensive improvement. It's not anytime recent with Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon patrolling the outfield.

No, the improvement came from 2005 to 2006.

In 2005, here is who logged the most innings at each position and their corresponding DRS at that position.

Player Position DRS
John Buck C -5
Matt Stairs 1B -6
Ruben Gotay 2B -6
Mark Teahen 3B -21
Angel Berroa SS -21
Terrence Long LF -1
David DeJesus CF 10
Emil Brown RF -23

With -112 total defensive runs saved (or not saved), the Royals ranked 29th, just ahead of the Yankees. A huge portion of those runs not saved were obviously concentrated in three positions - 3B, SS, and RF. However, those three players at those positions logged the highest number of innings on the team. Not only were they poor defenders, but they were spending the most time being poor defenders.

Other contributions from the 2005 Royals include Mike Sweeney at first base with -5 DRS, Donnie Murphy with -4 in only 204.2 innings at second base, Chip Ambres with -6 in 170 innings in left field, and a cavalcade of other guys with under 200 innings logged at a position and negative DRS values.

This is another reason to appreciate David DeJesus. He was consistently good during consistently bad times and is handsome.

In 2006, here is who logged the most innings at each position and their corresponding DRS at that position.

Player Position DRS
John Buck C -1
Doug Mientkiewicz 1B 13
Mark Grudzielanek 2B 15
Mark Teahen 3B -1
Angel Berroa SS -6
Emil Brown LF 5
Joey Gathright CF -2
Reggie Sanders RF 4

The bad players were less bad, and the Royals went out and got better players in Mint and Grud. With 26 total DRS, the Royals ranked 9th. As a bonus fact, UZR, the other main advanced defensive metric available on FanGraphs, had the Royals ranked as the number one defense in baseball in 2006.

In addition to improvement at the top innings-logger at each position, the Royals had positive contributions from David DeJesus, Paul Bako at catcher, and Ryan Shealy at first base. Shane Costa, Tony Graffanino, and Andres Blanco did OK in limited time.

The Royals went 56-106 in 2005 and improved to a whopping 62-100 in 2006. Despite the improved offense and defense, there was only a six-game improvement. The 2006 Royals pitching staff was a dumpster fire within an explosion. 17 different people started at least one game. The best starter was Luke Hudson, who hasn't thrown an inning in the majors or minors since 2007. I'm pretty sure Mark Redman was an All Star. He had a 5.71 ERA at the end of the season and was out of baseball after 2008. Runelvys Hernandez and Scott Elarton were different shades of terrible.

The relievers were equally terrible. Ambiorix Burgos somehow led the team in saves despite having the lowest fWAR. Andy Sisco threw 58.1 innings of 7.10 ERA ball (!!!). Do yourself a morbid favor and just go look at who threw bullpen innings in 2006.

The Royals have come a long way, folks.