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The Royals are getting back to basics: Speed and defense

Those runnin’ Royals are more fun to watch.

Kansas City Royals v Cleveland Guardians Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images

The Royals have been playing a more exciting brand of baseball, more importantly, scoring runs and winning games as of late. The Royals have won 8 of their last 11 and are averaging 6.2 runs per game over that time.

A big reason for the boost in offense is the team has begun to hit. They’re hitting .294/.344/.495 with 16 home runs in 11 games over that time, a nice hot spurt of offense that may or may not be sustainable going forward. The team is hitting more home runs overall - they are averaging 0.94 home runs-per-game, the tenth best home run season in club history, and better than the 2015 team.

But another factor in the improved offense lately has been the aggressive play on the bases. The rule changes this off-season limiting pick-off attempts with slightly larger bases gave the Royals a terrific opportunity to let loose on the bases. So far they are averaging 0.97 stolen bases-per-game, which is also the tenth-best season in club history. And they have been stealing more bases as the season has gone along - since June 1 they have 1.22 stolen bases-per-game, which over a full season would be fourth-best in club history, and if they had kept that pace the entire season they would lead all of baseball by a good margin.

They’re not just stealing bases, they aren’t getting caught. Since the All-Star break, they are 36-for-39 in stolen base attempts (one of which was when Bobby Witt Jr. was picked off by the Phillies last weekend). Overall, the Royals have an 81 percent success rate in steals, eighth-best in baseball. The Royals are also ninth in baserunning runs with at 5.2.

The aggressive play on the bases has seemed to loosen up the players, allowing them to rely on their inherent athleticism to score. Bats may go into slumps, but speed doesn’t. Dairon Blanco has exemplified this approach with multiple safety squeeze bunts to drive home runs.

But speed is only part of the equation, some of the best clubs in Royals history were also marked by terrific defense, something that has eluded the Royals in recent years. With a lineup full of young players with good defensive reputations, the Royals have been flashing some leather this summer. They are third in baseball in Defensive Runs Above Average, according to Fangraphs and are second in Outs Above Average, according to Baseball Savant.

That defensive showing has been paced by Bobby Witt Jr., who struggled last year with his time split between third and short, but has excelled this year full-time at shortstop, largely due to the tutelage of infield coach José Alguacil.

“We tried to return back to the basics starting in spring,” Alguacil explained. “A lot of first step work, a lot of work on catching the ball in the glove, a lot of work on moving his feet.”

Bobby now leads all players in Outs Above Average and all non-catchers in Defensive Runs Above Average, and should be in line for his first Gold Glove Award.

But it’s not just Bobby. Maikel Garcia is third among all third basemen in Defensive Runs Above Average and is just behind Ke’Bryan Hayes in Outs Above Average. Michael Massey is tenth among second basemen in both categories. Kyle Isbel is third among outfielders in Defensive Runs Saved. Royals outfielders lead baseball in outfield assists.

That’s not to say this is the 2015 Royals. HDH is not walking through that door - the Royals have one of the worst bullpens in baseball this year. And while that team wasn’t great at getting on base, they were much better than this year’s team, which is on pace to put up the worst on-base percentage (.298) in club history with the second-highest strikeout rate for hitters (23.5 percent).

But some of the seeds are there. A speedy team that can convert balls into outs can keep you in some games if you can develop a few arms. The Royals still have a long way to go if they want to turn this franchise around. But it is at least more fun to watch a team wreak havoc on the bases and make sensational catches in the field.