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The Royals might have the best defensive infield in baseball

This infield has been special since trading Dozier for Garcia

Detroit Tigers v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

With the departure of Hunter Dozier, the Royals infield is starting to solidify into something that might be exciting. So far, Bobby Witt, Michael Massey, and Maikel Garcia have all been very good defensively in 2023. With the potential of Nick Pratto and Nicky Lopez as the utility guy, this might be the best infield in baseball.

All of the usual sample size and defensive statistical noise caveats definitely apply here, so do not take this article as saying this is definitely happening. Rather, you should take this as something to watch over the course of this year to see how the trajectory shifts and changes. I will also be focusing on OAA, as it is the best way to gauge infield defense, and this will correspond to defensive runs saved (Def) at Fangraphs since they switched to OAA/RAA for their WAR calculation last year.

I want to start with aforementioned Witt, Massey, and Garcia who have all been very good defensively thus far. If you do a direct extrapolation, which I do not recommend, it makes it look as if they are possibly the greatest infield of all time.

Infield Defense

2023 Defense Massey (2B) Witt Jr. (SS) Garcia (3B)
2023 Defense Massey (2B) Witt Jr. (SS) Garcia (3B)
OAA 2 6 5
Def 2.2 6.6 4.1
Innings 330.1 431.1 148
OAA per 1000 6.06 13.92 33.78
Def per1000 6.66 15.31 27.7

Only two players have posted over 30 OAA in a season since the stat was created, so again, extrapolating directly is probably a bit much for Garcia here. Especially since he has not played a lot of third yet, but he has been terrific so far. Still, if I cut those numbers in half, these three could accumulate 24.84 Def and 26.88 OAA at half the pace they are on. Both of those numbers would have led MLB for team infield defense in 2022, and that is without a first baseman and Nicky Lopez who is an awesome defender filling in when these guys are out. Lopez has chipped in another 4 to 5 OAA over the three positions so far this year. If they can manage to all four be just zero OAA the rest of the way, they will be above any other infield team last season without adding to their totals at all.

The potential here is pretty large, and if Nick Pratto can be what a lot of people think he is, then the picture is even brighter. Everyone seems to think he is a plus defender at first, though the statistics are not backing that up to this point of his career. Last year he was -1 OAA at first, and so far this year it is -2. That is still over just his first 461 innings at the big league level though, so no reason to call all the scouts wrong yet. Also, he will not play first base full time unless something changes, and no one really thinks Vinnie Pasquantino is going to ever contribute defensively. That makes first base the wild card in the infield for now.

I would like to see this turn into a lower BABIP rate for Royals pitchers, but it is hard to disentangle things at that level. The Royals pitchers have a BABIP of .303, which is the fourth-highest in baseball, not good. That is not really a fair way to measure in this case though, which is why I prefer OAA, because they have the highest average exit velocity and hard hit rate of any pitching staff so far this year. Royals defenders have had to deal with a lot of difficult plays to make, so converting the tough plays at a higher rate than expected still might not lead to an overall higher than average conversion rate for all balls in play. This also reminds me that I need to buy a Stathead membership at some point so I can isolate this sort of thing to just ground balls.

This is an evaluation year. What the Royals really need is a core of everyday players to build around, and I think the infield is the only place I feel is somewhat close to that. There is a chance that with the weakness in the rotation, and complete lack of depth, that some of this strength may have to be traded to fill other holes in the team. Especially someone like Lopez, who would be a nice bench piece for pretty much any team, might be a luxury that the Royals can’t afford to keep. Either way, parts of the next contender or parts to find what is needed for the next contender, there should be some optimism around this bunch.