One of the hallmarks of the last postseason Royals team was defense. Fans will remember Lorenzo Cain diving and sliding all over center field to take away hits, Alex Gordon’s consistent excellence in left field, Alcides Escobar’s stellar defense at short, and Mike Moustakas doing this. Great defense is not a prerequisite to being a contender, but it saves runs and is undeniably fun to watch. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how the 2022 Royals might look defensively.
As far as baseball analytics have enhanced our understanding of the sport, defensive metrics remain tricky. The exact minutiae of this issue is a topic for another day, but for now we will look at three of the most popular flavors of defensive metrics: defensive runs saved (DRS) provided by Baseball Info Solutions, ultimate zone rating (UZR) from Fangraphs, and outs above average (OAA) from Statcast. Rather than debate the merits of each statistic, I prefer to look at all of them and try to glean a conclusion from the collective. Here is how the 2021 Royals fared in each stat:
- DRS: +23, 14th in MLB
- UZR: 22.1, 5th in MLB
- OAA: 23, 7th in MLB
Based on these three stats, it’s safe to say the Royals were above average defensively last year, and they were likely top ten. Let’s take a position-by-position look at this year’s Royals team and try to evaluate how they’ll perform with the glove. I’ll assume starters based on the Royals depth chart on Fangraphs.
As if evaluating defense in general weren’t difficult enough, catcher defense is even more tricky. UZR and OAA do not evaluate catchers, but DRS does and there are various other catcher-specific defensive stats. Catcher defense can be broken down into four components: throwing, blocking, receiving (or framing), and game calling. DRS ranked Salvador Perez 30th out of 36 catchers with at least 500 innings caught last year with -5. Salvy is outstanding at controlling the running game, with only 41 runners daring to attempt a steal against him and Perez gunning down 43.9% of them. He graded out roughly average in terms of blocking, while game calling remains near-impossible to properly evaluate. The downfall of Salvy’s defense is framing. Whether you prefer Fangraphs or Statcast framing metrics, the numbers agree: Perez’s framing ability is abysmal. You can debate how important framing is, but the metrics indicate that where he excels on defense is negated by his shortcomings.
Cam Gallagher is a perfectly competent backup catcher that frames the ball well and can keep it in front of him, but doesn’t excel at controlling the running game, throwing out just 4 of 17 base stealers in 2021. Fangraphs projects MJ Melendez to get just 70 plate appearances as a catcher, and how much he’ll play behind the dish for the Royals this year is an open question. We don’t yet have any defensive metrics to look at for him, but per Jake Martin at Prospects Live:
Field: Melendez has received mixed reviews behind the dish. He generally catches off of one leg which is more conducive for framing pitches. He also has solid footwork on throws with athletic and agile movements. Athleticism helps with blocking skills. I am more impressed than skeptical so I will take the high side. Grade: 55
Arm: Strong footwork definitely contributes to plus pop times down to second base. However, Melendez also gets strong force into his throws thanks to plus arm strength. Throws have good strength, carry, and accuracy. Plus arm but unfortunately catcher throwing is typically overrated. Grade: 60
Nick Pratto will hopefully get regular reps at first when Santana’s production inevitably tails off. Defense has been considered a strength of his since he was drafted and that remains true as Pratto took home a minor league Gold Glove in 2021.
Depending on your preferred flavor of defensive metrics, Nicky Lopez was either the best defensive player in baseball, the best defensive shortstop in the AL, or a competent but unexceptional defender. Whatever the case, Lopez has been a plus defender throughout his brief major league career and there’s no reason to think he won’t be a plus at the keystone this year.
Whit Merrifield is projected to get about a third of available playing time at second base, where he is elite according to DRS and UZR and plus according to OAA. Barring a series of cataclysmic injuries, second base should defensively be a position of strength for the Royals.
Based on the eye test, Adalberto Mondesi is a very strong defensive shortstop. UZR and OAA agree, though DRS rates Mondesi as a minus throughout his career. Given that he looks the part and two of the three stats agree, I believe it is safe to say Mondesi is at least a solid defensive shortstop. Defense at short is far from the biggest question mark when it comes to Mondesi.
Next up at the position would be Lopez and Bobby Witt Jr. We discussed Lopez already, and speaking of Witt...
All signs point to Bobby Witt Jr. being the nominal third baseman for the Royals this year. ZiPS already projects Witt as the best player on the team this year and part of that is coming from his defensive ability. Per Tyler Henninger at Prospects Live:
Field: Makes the routine play and more. Shows good action with glove. Above-average body control. Soft hands, catches the ball well. Shows instincts, good first step and reads. Above-average lateral speed, covers a lot of ground both ways. Has ability to make highlight reel play. Grade: 60
Arm: Plus arm with good mechanics. Accurate. Usually on target with carry through the bag. Ability to throw on run and from multiple angles. Quick transfer and release. Can make throw from hole. Easily playable at SS. Grade: 60
Given Witt’s athleticism and the fact that he’s a natural shortstop, it’s hard to imagine he won’t be at least an above average defensive third baseman.
It’s unclear who would take over at the hot corner should injuries pop up forcing Witt to move, but Hunter Dozier and Emmanuel Rivera don’t exactly inspire confidence with the glove. Overall, the Royals should field one of the better defensive infield units in baseball this year.
Andrew Benintendi doesn’t immediately strike you as a premier defender. He’s not the fastest guy and doesn’t have a great arm, especially compared to his predecessor. Nonetheless, Benintendi took home the Gold Glove as the best defensive left fielder in the AL last year. He grades out quite well by both UZR and DRS, but OAA rates him as average. I imagine part of the reason he took home the hardware was by playing more innings in left than anybody else in the league. Like the rest of his skill set, Benintendi is at least above average in the field, even if I wouldn’t call him an elite defender.
Benintendi should get the bulk of playing time in left, with Hunter Dozier projected to get the second most appearances there. We know what he is defensively at this point in his career: whether you prefer UZR, DRS, or OAA, Dozier is not a plus defender in the outfield.
Like Benintendi, Michael A. Taylor also took home a Gold Glove in 2021 for his work in the pasture. Gold Glove voting can be silly, but Taylor absolutely earned it. He led all defensive players in UZR, was 5th in DRS, and was 7th in OAA. Again, this was among all defensive players, not just outfielders. He was genuinely elite last year and there’s no reason to think he won’t be again this year.
Kyle Isbel and Edward Olivares are the next guys up in CF. Isbel is a good raw athlete that’s shown the ability to be above average in a corner spot, but he might be stretched playing center in the spacious Kauffman outfield. I’m wondering if it’s worth discussing Olivares. I’m convinced at this point that the organization just doesn’t believe in him and won’t give him the chance to lock down consistent playing time. His defense has been a bit of a mixed bag at the major league level. Like Isbel, he could probably play a solid corner spot but would likely be below average in center.
Whit Merrifield is slated for the bulk of right field duties, followed by the aforementioned Isbel and Dozier. While Merrifield is outstanding at second base, the same cannot be said about his ability in the outfield. While he isn’t a disaster out there by any means, UZR, DRS, and OAA all rate him as a negative in the outfield.
As mentioned previously, Isbel should provide a good glove in the corner outfield, while Dozier doesn’t excel defensively everywhere. All I hope is that we don’t see Ryan O’Hearn starting games there again.
Overall, the Royals should be a very good team defensively. There’s no clear weak spots on the diamond and they look especially strong at those crucial up-the-middle positions. While I still have questions about this team’s ability to score runs, they should excel at taking them away. Place your bets now: who will produce the most highlight-reel plays on defense this year?
Who will make the most highlight reel defensive plays for the Royals this year?
This poll is closed
Bobby Witt Jr.
Michael A. Taylor