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Why the Royals’ defense is not converting as many outs as you might think.

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All this speed and they’re just running into walls, I guess.

MLB: Game Two-Kansas City Cardinals at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Living outside of the Kansas City area, my Royals fandom is a bit of a novelty to my friends and coworkers. I proudly sport a KC hat around town and bring a Royals coffee mug to every morning meeting at the office. Every once in a while, someone will feign interest and ask, “How are the Royals doing this year?” My stock answer lately has been that they’re not doing well at all, but they’re better than their record would indicate. They seem like they should be closer to .500 than .300, I say. They could have the dubious honor of being the best last-place team in baseball. Or as our own Ryan Heffernon recently put it, they are the best really bad team ever. In a small way, it feels like they’re fairly competent.

There are holes in the roster for sure. Oh, the holes. The fact that their starting pitchers have struggled so much is a huge reason why they’re sitting in the basement of the weakest division in baseball. The bottom third of the lineup has been abysmal, too, and though they’ve been much better lately, the bullpen’s wretched start didn’t do them any favors. But the top of the order has exceeded expectations, the middle has shown improvement and the speed on the bases has been exciting, if nothing else.

That speed and athleticism have been apparent on defense as well. Defense up the middle has looked good, and Alex Gordon still plays a mean left field. The infield corners are probably only league-average or a little below, and Jorge Soler has been a total mess in the outfield, but league average isn’t bad and with Whit Merrifield theoretically seeing more time in right field as a result of Nicky Lopez’s promotion, I’m thinking this defense should be pretty darn good. That’s why it was a bit of a shock when I saw that the Royals have been one of the absolute worst teams at converting balls in play into outs this year.

I know that sounds totally wrong, but I can assure you it’s true; the fastest team in baseball is making outs on defense at a remarkably low rate.

Defensive Efficiency (DefEff) is a pretty straightforward stat. It is basically the number of outs made divided by the number of balls put into play. The result is a simple measure of how efficient a team is at converting balls in play into outs. A high DefEff is good, low is bad. And the Royals have been pretty bad.

Defensive Efficiency

TEAM DefEff
TEAM DefEff
Astros 0.751
Dodgers 0.735
Athletics 0.73
Cardinals 0.726
Yankees 0.725
Blue Jays 0.724
Rays 0.722
Indians 0.718
Padres 0.718
Giants 0.718
Angels 0.716
Braves 0.716
Orioles 0.716
Brewers 0.714
Red Sox 0.712
Marlins 0.712
Cubs 0.71
Twins 0.709
Reds 0.705
Pirates 0.705
Rockies 0.704
Diamondbacks 0.702
Mets 0.702
Phillies 0.7
White Sox 0.699
Tigers 0.699
Mariners 0.697
Royals 0.692
Rangers 0.687
Nationals 0.686

It’s important to note that DefEff is a measure of outcomes only and there are factors besides defense that can contribute to those outcomes. The Royals play half of their games in the most spacious outfield in the AL. They’re going to have more balls drop for hits out there than they would if they played in a bandbox. Pitching and defensive positioning can also have a big impact on out conversion. If your pitchers are giving up a lot of hard contact, a good defense can help mitigate damage, but they’re not going to make many outs on those balls. Likewise, if the organization is not effectively using data to position the defense, efficiency can drop. And luck is always – always – a factor in baseball. Broken-bat-bloops and ground-balls-with-eyes are out of everyone’s control. Sometimes a team just can’t catch a break. Defensive stats are also among the slowest to stabilize, and we’re working with a very small sample size at this point in the season. Still, the team with the third-worst record in baseball is the third worst at making outs on defense? Oh yeah, that jibes.

The thing is, the Royals actually look pretty good by most defensive metrics. They are best in the majors in errors committed, with only 17. That’s significantly better than the league average of 28 and leaps and bounds ahead of the Mariners, who have committed a whopping 57 (57!) errors so far this season. KC’s DRS of 17 is 10th in baseball and by UZR (9.5) they’re third best. Those stats would indicate that at best they’re one of the better defensive teams in baseball and at worst they’re solidly above average.

So what about defensive positioning? As an organization, the Royals have a bit of an old school reputation – deserved or not – when it comes to data usage, so perhaps they’re losing ground on defensive positioning. I’m not aware of a statistic that measures the effectiveness of outfield positioning (if there is one, please let me know), but Fangraphs does have a stat for infield shifts called rTS. By that stat, the Royals have been one of the most effective teams when it comes to shifting.

Team Shift Runs Saved

Team rTS
Team rTS
Astros 20
Dodgers 19
Diamondbacks 12
Royals 11
Cardinals 11
Rockies 11
Blue Jays 10
White Sox 9
Indians 7
Yankees 7
Reds 6
Athletics 5
Brewers 5
Pirates 5
Rays 4
Giants 4
Orioles 4
Nationals 4
Twins 3
Red Sox 2
Angels 1
Rangers 1
Cubs 0
Marlins -1
Mariners -1
Tigers -2
Mets -2
Braves -3
Padres -4
Phillies -6

Yes, there’s a big difference between the cream of the shifting crop and the rest of the league (holy buckets, the Astros and Dodgers are really good), but the Royals are in the upper middle class when it comes to infield positioning. They’ve really done a nice job this year.

So. If the players aren’t committing errors and they’re getting to the balls they should, and as best we can tell the defensive positioning has been good, that leaves two factors that could be preventing the Royals from making outs: pitching and luck.

I don’t know how to break this to you, but the pitching has probably been a pretty big factor. I think there are some good arms emerging in the bullpen. Unfortunately, I think there are also some good bullpen arms in the rotation. Overall, the pitching just hasn’t been there. I won’t go over the gory details here, but I will selectively highlight a few things that are likely contributing to the Royals’ inability to make outs.

This isn’t good

Stat Rate Rank
Stat Rate Rank
Line Drive % 28.15% 30th
Hard Hit % 39.50% 25th
Pull % 42.90% 30th

They’re allowing line drives at a higher rate than any other team while playing half their games in a line-drive hitter’s paradise. They’re also allowing a ton of hard-hit balls, and opposing batters are having no trouble getting around on their pitches. That’s a recipe for a pretty high batting average on balls in play (3rd worst, as a matter of fact) and since BABIP is essentially the inverse of DefEff, this is beginning to make some sense. Yeah, it’s probably the pitching and not the defense.

But about that BABIP? Some of it is definitely deserved, but there’s also evidence that the Royals have been pretty unlucky on balls in play so far. Here are the five teams with the greatest difference between ERA and FIP. If you’re a pitcher on one of these teams, you’re probably pretty frustrated.

You won’t believe #2

Team ERA FIP FIP-ERA xFIP DRS UZR DefEff
Team ERA FIP FIP-ERA xFIP DRS UZR DefEff
Nationals 4.90 4.10 -0.80 4.22 -31 -10.7 0.686
Royals 5.19 4.70 -0.49 4.68 17 9.5 0.692
Mets 4.54 4.09 -0.45 4.26 -35 -4.7 0.702
Rangers 5.25 4.85 -0.40 4.89 -23 -1.7 0.687
Rockies 4.90 4.56 -0.34 4.33 1 2.1 0.691

Yes, the Royals have the second largest difference between their FIP and ERA, meaning quite a few runs have been scored as a result of factors that are outside of the pitchers’ control. You’ll also notice that the Royals are a real outlier in that the other teams on this list have pretty bad defenses to “help” inflate their ERAs. In fact, the Royals’ rank of 3rd in DRS and 28th in DefEff is easily the biggest difference in baseball. If you prefer UZR, it’s still the biggest. The Nationals and Mets may have had a bit of bad luck on balls in play, but their defenses are likely the greatest culprits here. With some better luck, the KC defense should be able to help out the pitching staff, meaning positive regression could be on its way. The pitching has been bad, but it’s probably not this bad.

I keep reminding myself that the 2019 Royals are not a finished product. The starting rotation is a mix of unestablished pitchers and pitchers trying to re-establish themselves, with the most promising talent still years away from cracking a major league roster. Many of the position players are unknown quantities or short term assets. They have a long way to go before they’re ready to contend again. But I see things that I like and I’ve been thinking all year that this team is better than its record. Maybe it’s confirmation bias or a penchant for silver linings, but I keep finding more reasons to be optimistic about this team. With a bit of positive regression to back a surprisingly effective offense, they could rack up a few more Ws – or at least keep the games closer. I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again: they’re a damn fine last place team.