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Why aren’t the Royals a good defensive team?

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They leave a lot to be desired on the field

Maikel Franco #7 of the Kansas City Royals reacts after committing a throwing error against the St. Louis Cardinals in the third inning that led to a run scoring in the third inning at Busch Stadium on August 25, 2020 in St Louis, Missouri.
Maikel Franco #7 of the Kansas City Royals reacts after committing a throwing error against the St. Louis Cardinals in the third inning that led to a run scoring in the third inning at Busch Stadium on August 25, 2020 in St Louis, Missouri.
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Back in the day, when the Kansas City Royals were good for a spell, the unofficial motto of the team was “Speed and Defense.” Across the diamond, they overflowed with athletes who were above average defenders at their position or true defensive stars. When the Royals fell hard from the good graces of winning baseball in 2018, it seemed like they kept the motto going—merely failing at other parts of baseball, namely pitching and hitting.

However, that has not been the case, at least regarding the defense part of that motto. One of the reasons—perhaps not the most important reason, but a reason nonetheless—that the Royals have been a very bad team recently is that their defense has completely fallen apart. Not only have the Royals trotted out position player after position player that couldn’t hit, but those same players have somehow also lacked the defensive skill that you might expect given that fact.

There are a whole lot of ways to look at defense, but we’ll focus on two of the easiest metrics to understand: Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). Both are calculated somewhat differently, but they both evaluate a player’s defense as runs above or below a league average defender at that position. And since they are measured in the same unit, they can be averaged to take both approaches into account.

To take a look at what the 2013-2015 teams were working with, the following table includes all non-pitchers with at least 200 innings at any single position. Included are the metrics AVGDEF, which is simply the average between DRS and UZR, and AVGDEF/1000, which shows how many runs that player saved per 1000 innings (UZR is not available for catchers, hence the N/A).

2013-2015 Royals Defense

Name Pos Inn DRS UZR AVGDEF AVGDEF/1000
Name Pos Inn DRS UZR AVGDEF AVGDEF/1000
Lorenzo Cain RF 594 12 10.7 11.4 19.1
Elliot Johnson 2B 353 7 3.9 5.5 15.4
Lorenzo Cain CF 2658 45 28.6 36.8 13.8
David Lough RF 577.2 9 6.2 7.6 13.2
Jarrod Dyson CF 1501.2 20 14 17 11.3
Alex Gordon LF 3601.2 42 38.5 40.3 11.2
Danny Valencia 3B 208 -1 4.1 1.6 7.5
Paulo Orlando LF 252 2 1.1 1.6 6.2
Emilio Bonifacio 2B 263 3 0.2 1.6 6.1
Salvador Perez C 3556.1 18 N/A 18 5.1
Paulo Orlando RF 325.1 2 1 1.5 4.6
Chris Getz 2B 541 2 2.9 2.5 4.5
Alcides Escobar SS 4128.2 5 22.5 13.8 3.3
Eric Hosmer 1B 3848.2 11 2.2 6.6 1.7
Jeff Francoeur RF 439.1 0 0.7 0.4 0.8
Billy Butler 1B 363 -1 1.4 0.2 0.6
Omar Infante 2B 2230.1 2 -0.7 0.7 0.3
Mike Moustakas 3B 3532.1 -12 5.1 -3.5 -1.0
Nori Aoki RF 937.1 -7 1.8 -2.6 -2.8
Alex Rios RF 914.2 -8 1.8 -3.1 -3.4
Ben Zobrist 2B 299.2 -3 -1 -2 -6.7
Justin Maxwell RF 289 -2 -1.9 -2 -6.7
Drew Butera C 226.2 -2 N/A -2 -8.8
George Kottaras C 262 -4 N/A -4 -15.3

As you can see, the Royals had an awful lot of downright fantastic outfielders. The Alex Gordon, Jarrod Dyson, Lorenzo Cain combo is a truly historically great combination. Even so, the Royals had lots of other good contributors—Paulo Orlando, Chris Getz, Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer, Omar Infante, and even Billy Butler posted positive figures over at least 250 innings. And at the bottom were two backup catchers, a journeyman right fielder, and a midseason acquisition for his bat and versatility.

The list from 2018-2020, with the same criteria, looks a liiiiiiiittle different.

2018-2020 Royals Defense

Name Pos Inn DRS UZR AVGDEF AVGDEF/1000
Name Pos Inn DRS UZR AVGDEF AVGDEF/1000
Rosell Herrera RF 243.1 8 4.4 6.2 25.5
Brett Phillips CF 412.1 8 8.2 8.1 19.7
Billy Hamilton CF 716.1 11 8.8 9.9 13.8
Martin Maldonado C 604.2 8 N/A 8 13.2
Cam Gallagher C 636.1 8 N/A 8 12.6
Ryan Goins 2B 224 4 1.4 2.7 12.1
Jon Jay LF 235 2 3.6 2.8 11.9
Nicky Lopez 2B 976 10 5 7.5 7.7
Alex Gordon LF 2685 18 17 17.5 6.5
Whit Merrifield CF 532.1 4 2.8 3.4 6.4
Adalberto Mondesi SS 1797.1 8 12.3 10.2 5.6
Whit Merrifield 2B 1695.2 7 1.8 4.4 2.6
Mike Moustakas 3B 655.2 0 3 1.5 2.3
Cheslor Cuthbert 1B 428.1 1 0.5 0.8 1.8
Maikel Franco 3B 375 1 -0.8 0.1 0.3
Salvador Perez C 1037 0 N/A 0 0.0
Lucas Duda 1B 653 1 -1.7 -0.4 -0.5
Brian Goodwin CF 214.1 -3 2.4 -0.3 -1.4
Hunter Dozier 1B 650.2 -4 0.5 -1.8 -2.7
Jorge Bonifacio RF 498.2 -4 1.1 -1.5 -2.9
Hunter Dozier RF 320.2 -3 0.7 -1.2 -3.6
Whit Merrifield RF 698 -2 -5 -3.5 -5.0
Bubba Starling CF 419.1 -4 -0.4 -2.2 -5.2
Nicky Lopez SS 281 -4 1 -1.5 -5.3
Abraham Almonte CF 279.2 -2 -1.2 -1.6 -5.7
Ryan O'Hearn 1B 1243.1 -10 -4.6 -7.3 -5.9
Alcides Escobar 3B 245 -5 0.7 -2.2 -8.8
Hunter Dozier 3B 1165.2 -14 -8.1 -11.1 -9.5
Alcides Escobar SS 905.1 -16 -1.6 -8.8 -9.7
Meibrys Viloria C 488.2 -5 N/A -5 -10.2
Jorge Soler RF 959.2 -19 -4.7 -11.9 -12.4
Cheslor Cuthbert 3B 418.2 -6 -5 -5.5 -13.2
Humberto Arteaga SS 286.1 -6 -1.7 -3.9 -13.5
Drew Butera C 376.1 -9 N/A -9 -23.9

The first thing you’ll probably notice are all the weird names that you have already forgotten were a Royal—Ryan Goins? Abraham Almonte? Rosell Herrera? Jon Jay? Once you get over that, you’ll see that the names at the top are mostly guys with only a few hundred innings played (the aforementioned Herrera, Goins, and Jay, as well as Brett Phillips). None of the guys at the top are regulars, and other than Cam Gallagher they’re not even with the team anymore.

The second, and most important, thing you’ll notice is just how many players are deeply in the negative in defensive metrics. Between 2013 and 2015, only 7 players with at least 200 innings at one position had a negative AVGDEF. Between 2018 and 2020, the Royals have played more than two and a half times that many—18 players.

If the Royals are going to return to relevance, they simply must also improve their defense. Currently, the Royals have a solid middle infield—Adalberto Mondesi is a wildly talented athlete, and Nicky Lopez is a Gold Glove candidate. But beyond that, they have a lot of question marks. Hunter Dozier has poor defensive numbers everywhere. Whit Merrifield’s weak arm limits his right field upside. The long-term third baseman is a question mark, as is the long-term, well, outfield.

The lack of defensive talent is also somewhat reflective of the lack of position player talent in general. But it is particularly frustrating to watch the Royals preach defense, defense, defense while they field a team of players that don’t produce much value when they’re out of the batter’s box. We can only dream of what Brad Keller, Brady Singer, and Kris Bubic can do with a good defense, because they’ve done remarkably well with a bad one.