The crisp fall air brings back memories of October baseball in Kansas City, and a Royals team that lapped the league in defense. With Lorenzo Cain tracking down flyballs like a hawk in center, Alex Gordon playing the left field position perfectly, Alcides Escobar making ridiculous plays from the shortstop position, and Salvador Perez gunning down those foolish enough to attempt a steal, the Royals defense was the envy of the league.
Having a defense that turns so many plays into outs relieves a lot of pressure on a pitching staff, particularly one that isn’t adept at missing bats. The Royals have tried to recapture that defensive magic since their championship days, but have become surprisingly bad this year, putting even more stress on a young pitching staff that has struggled with consistency.
The Royals have been capable of some defensive highlights, but the data shows they have been quite poor overall. Sports Information Solutions compiles defensive data in their SIS Defensive Metric, and the Royals rank 24th among all teams in Defensive Runs saved (DRS).
Bottom 10 Teams in Defensive Runs Saved— SIS_Baseball (@sis_baseball) September 29, 2022
21. Red Sox
25. White Sox
T27. Phillies, Giants, Reds
It's very hard to make the postseason when you're not a good defensive team
Full leaderboard: https://t.co/mvLsGHDKba
A positional breakdown reveals that they have ranked poorly despite an outstanding performance from Michael A. Taylor. Last year’s Gold Glove winner in centerfield has continued his defensive prowess with +20 Defensive Runs Saved, most among all outfielders and fourth among all players in baseball. Kyle Isbel has also been a standout, albeit in limited playing time with +9 DRS, and could be a valuable defensive asset in the outfield mix next year. Overall, Royals centerfielders were +19 in DRS, tops in baseball. The Royals also received solid performance from last year’s Gold Glove-winning left fielder, Andrew Benintendi, before he was traded to the Yankees in July.
But the rest of the defense has been a disappointment, starting with rookie phenom Bobby Witt Jr. While he has had a solid season at the plate which will earn him some Rookie of the Year votes, the 22-year-old has been plagued with errors and miscues on the field. Overall he has been worth -21 DRS, second-worst among all players. His -17 DRS at shortstop is worst among all shortstops. The team has tried moving him to third base in an effort to take some pressure off, but his numbers have been below-average there as well. Witt still shows some highlight reel plays, and he appears to have the tools like range and arm strength necessary to play shortstop. His problem has been consistency, with occasional errors and lapses in judgment affecting his play. That could improve with more experience, but there is some doubt as to whether he can stay at the shortstop position long-term.
Much of the poor Royals defensive metrics are due to poor catcher framing. Last week I wrote about how Royals pitchers have been screwed by home plate umpires this year, but another way to look at it is Royals catchers have been abysmal at framing pitches to get those calls. Perhaps one day, with an Automated Ball-Strike System like the one baseball is experimenting with in the minors, catcher framing will no longer be a valuable defensive skill. But until then, the Royals are hurting their pitching staff with -24 DRS, worst in baseball at that position. Salvador Perez has long been dinged for his framing, but he is only a bit below-average this year at -4 DRS. Melendez has been far worse with -18 DRS at the catcher position, worst among all catchers. He has played some outfield, and while he has given it a good effort with some good players, he has been below-average there as well. His -23 DRS overall makes him the least valuable defensive player in baseball by SIS metrics.
The biggest surprise with the defensive metrics is the poor showing by Nicky Lopez. The 27-year-old was a Gold Glove finalist at second base, and has generally been regarded as a good glove man, even when pressed into duty at shortstop. His offense regressed badly this year, and perhaps his defense has regressed with it. He has been worth -8 DRS at second base this year - only four second basemen have been worse.
The Royals also continue to employ players with little defensive (or offensive) value in Hunter Dozier and Ryan O’Hearn. Dozier has played poorly wherever he has been on the field, and was worth -13 DRS this year. Edward Olivares and Vinnie Pasquantino also ranks as subpar defenders, raising questions about where they will play on the field, or if their future lays with the designated hitter position.
The Royals exploited a market inefficiency by employing the best defense in baseball in a big ballpark where defense matters. Perhaps defense matters less now, with fewer hitters putting the ball in play overall, and defensive shifts demanding less range of defenders (until shifts are banned next year). But every little edge helps, and fielding a team that can convert more balls in play into outs can be a big help in developing a young pitching staff. Perhaps young players like Michael Massey, Drew Waters, Kyle Isbel, Nick Pratto, and potential improvement from Bobby Witt Jr. can make Royals gloves golden again.