On Monday, we took a look at the bullpen after roster expansion. Now, we take a look at the Royals outfield, which is downright studly for an outfield without much power. Even though the Royals don’t have Jose Bautista or Adam Jones bashing 30 home runs at a corner position, the outfield is great with their secondary baseball skills. They rank first in the majors on defense by a considerable margin (and by any metric) and seventh in baserunning. And while no Royals outfielder is going to lead the league in RBIs, they do have an All-Star. Factoring in baserunning, fielding, and offense, the Royals have one of the more valuable outfields in the league. They rank fifth in the MLB overall according to Fangraphs, which includes Jeff Francoeur‘s negative value from early in the year. If we look at bWAR (which we’ll use because it’s handy for comparison), the Royals are cruising down the home stretch with three high-quality starters and exceedingly valuable secondary outfielders.
Alex Gordon: 3.8
Lorenzo Cain: 3.4
David Lough: 2.7
Jarrod Dyson: 1.8
Justin Maxwell: 0.5 (0.4 with the Royals in 80 PA)
Gordon is a unique Royals outfielder because he’s the only one with an everyday gig. The other four outfielders play musical chairs with right field and center field, rotating in and out, taking advantage of various platoon and fielding advantages depending on the matchup.
Gordon isn’t pounding doubles like he has in the past, but he still has pop to his bat. He might even be the only Royal to hit 20 or more home runs this season. That’s sad overall, but good for Gordon. He has struggled with off-speed pitches since early June and hit an ice cold streak that took nearly half the season for him to overcome, dropping his batting average from .329 to .262. After sweeping a double-header against Detroit, Gordon is back to being a stellar run producer, hitting .306/.336/.546 in his last 113 plate appearances. He’s not getting on base as frequently because of his troubles with off-speed stuff, but he has been slugging .494 since the beginning of August. He’s providing power from the leadoff position, which is never a bad thing.
He still plays gold glove defense and is once again the most valuable left fielder in the American League. According to Baseball-Reference.com his arm is worth about five saved runs, which is roughly on par with his totals last year at this point. He leads the league in outfield assists (again) with 14 because opponents still mindlessly test his arm.
Mathematically calculating outfielder range can be a perilous and inconsistent business. With that caveat, once again, Gordon leads the league in Rdrs, a fielding stat that Baseball Reference uses to calculate WAR. He also hasn’t yet made an error this season.
The team and fans have been waiting for Gordon to finally break out of what seemed like an endless slump, and it looks like he will again be a key to the Royals’ success, offensively and defensively.
Similar to every other player on the team last year (except Hosmer), Lorenzo Cain has shown a drop in offensive production this season. Defensively, he is game-for-game the most valuable outfielder in the AL according to every advanced metric. He was ESPN’s defensive player of the month in July, and well on his way to a repeat of the honor when he pulled his oblique muscle and was placed on the DL. It would be nice if he produced more with the bat but he’s done so much with the glove, from web gem plays, diving catches, and robbing home runs, that he’s worth it to keep in the lineup everyday.
Cain is a somewhat rare righty because he is better against right-handed pitching. He likes balls out over the plate or on the outside of the strike zone. He doesn’t like swinging at inside pitches and takes quite a few strikes, so it makes sense that he’d hit better on pitches that break away from him. This, of course, also limits his power potential because he rarely turns on pitches. Over 20% of balls he puts in play go to right field. It does no good to platoon him with Jarrod Dyson, because they share the same platoon advantage.
Career against right-handed pitchers:
What would be more beneficial in these situations is to platoon Cain and Justin Maxwell. Maxwell was acquired by the Royals for his success against left-handed pitching.
Career against left-handed pitchers:
Maxwell has shown that he can be more than just a left-handed specialist. This year, he is actually mashing against righties with an .808 OPS (reverse-splits are going around the Royals roster this season; Gordon and Hosmer both unexpectedly have them too). Maxwell can play center field. He is fast, fearless, and has a good arm. He’s been a good defender since learning Kauffman’s quirks, like the slingshot corners he misplayed upon arrival, but he’s a more natural fit for right field. This creates a bit of a conundrum for the manager, because he’s platooning a center fielder with a right fielder.
Enter David Lough.
Even though Lough is a left-handed batter, he had a slight reverse-split in the minor leagues (.760 OPS vs RHP and .784 OPS vs LHP), so putting him up against lefties isn’t a problem. Since coming to the majors, his reverse-split has become more pronounced, as shown below. He’s also proven that he’s not just a corner outfielder. Lorenzo Cain is game-for-game the most valuable outfielder in the game, but Lough has a good case for being #2.
According to Rdrs, he is ranked third behind Lorenzo Cain and Shane Victorino. However, he’s only played in 3/4 as many games as Victorino. He’s ranked fourth according to John Dewan’s +/- defensive evaluation system and 11th according to BaseballProjection’s Rtot. He has played five games in center-field and has shown above average range there, as well. He can easily platoon center-field with the speedy Dyson while continuing as fill-in corner outfielder and pinch hitter.
Career against left-handed pitching:
Against righties, the Royals could march out:
LF: Gordon – .277/.355/.448
CF: Dyson – .272/.339/.375
RF: Cain – .277/.326/.402
And against lefties:
LF: Gordon – .254/.324/.418
CF: Lough – .292/324/.431
RF: Maxwell – .242/.358/.435
Those two lineups give the Royals above average run production from the outfield against either lefties and righties. Combined with exceptional range and defensive ability, this is one of the more competitive outfields in the AL. Its unconventional splits will undoubtedly help the Royals down the stretch.
The tools are available if Ned Yost decides to use them. He has shown more openness to advanced statistical analysis this season, so it is possible that he will believe what he reads and not make decisions according to traditional lefty/righty matchups. He has always looked carefully at matchups. Every once in a while he will mention the stats behind a matchup that even I didn’t know about. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how many stats he looks over, though. The moves he made in the ninth inning of Monday’s game against the Indians make it very clear that he often draws detrimentally flawed conclusions about the statistics he sees. If Yost uses his assets properly, this outfield is dangerous as a unit. All fans can do is cross their fingers that Yost will make better decisions in close games, but they can at least take comfort in knowing that the pieces are readily available if he even slightly recognizes their optimal value.