The Kansas City Royals Defense Is Better Than You Think


Defense is so hard to quantify in the majors leagues. Old measurements, like the error, only tell part of the story. Some folks (including myself at times) like to use the scientific eye ball test sometimes, too. Now, people and sites around the web try to grade stuff like range and arms, and fielding zones, and come up with stats to measure overall defense. These tools all help measure defense better than ever. So, how do the Kansas City Royals hold up.

Apr 28, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon (4) catches a fly ball against the Cleveland Indians during the first inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

If you look at the old standard – errors – the Royals stand tied for second worst in the American League with the Los Angeles Angels and Chicago White Sox with 37, only 1 less than the Houston Astros. According to MLB.com, only the White Sox have a worse Fielding Percentage at .982. Also according to MLB.com, the Royals fare better in DER (Defensive Efficiency Ratio, which is a stat that figures in defensive outs recorded in defensive opportunities). The Royals rank in the middle of the AL pack at 8th with a DER of .695. Only one team, the Astos, have allowed more unearned runs that the Royals 20.

So, where are the weak spots in this Kansas City defense. At catcher, Salvador Perez has 4 errors in 320 chances, no passed balls, and has thrown out 35% of the base runners trying to steal against him. His back-ups, primarily George Kottaras, haven’t fared nearly as well. Kottaras and Adam Moore have committed 5 errors in 111 chances, have 2 passed balls, and have thrown out only 25% of the base runners. When Salvy plays, catcher is solid.

At first, Eric Hosmer has 3 errors in 435 chances and his back ups, mainly Billy Butler, haven’t committed any in 54 opportunities. First base isn’t the problem, even though Hosmer tends to whiff at balls in the dirt sometimes. .

Chris Getz at second has only 1 error in 158 chances and all other second basemen have 1 in 106 tries. Looks terrific on paper.

The left side of the infield is where most of the issues occur. Mike Moustakas has 6 errors in 126 chances and other third basemen have 1 in 26 chances. Hey, we knew Moose was struggling.

At shortstop, Alcides Escobar has 8 errors in 225 opportunities. Elliot Johnson, none in just 5 tries. Escobar still makes plays most shortstops couldn’t.

Alex Gordon has yet to make an error in 99 chances, Lorenzo Cain 1 in 125 chances, Jeff Francoeur 1 in 83 tries, Jarrod Dyson 1 in 24 chances, and Davis Lough 1 in 12 chances. The outfield does have 14 assists, led by Alex Gordon with 5. Not too bad as a unit, as long as no one hits a ball over Francoeur’s head.

May 10, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; New York Yankees shortstop Jayson Nix (17) slides into home with a run against Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez (13) during the fourth inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Looking at these numbers, one would think Chris Getz much be very good. If the Royals are only looking at this kind of out dated data, which many folks believe is the case, then Getz is great at second. According to Fangraphs.com, Getz is carrying a UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) of 2.7 this season (projects to about 8 over a season – good, not great), but sports a low career UZR mark of 5.0. (Note – For a more in depth look at UZR check out this page at Fangraphs.) Alex Gordon, by comparison, is at 3.4 this season thus far, on pace for 13 or so.. (For any given year, 0 is average, 15+ Gold Glove caliber.) In 2011 and 2012 Gordon average a UZR of 13.4 average, which is absolutely terrific.  Getz, on the other hand, has 1.8 average over the past 2 years, which is barely average.

Judging defense is so hard. If you watch Alcides Escobar all season long, and we are now in our third season of getting to see him play, there are few defensive shortstops who are as exciting to watch. Escobar makes some absolutely phenomenal plays; he also makes quite a few lazy or bone headed plays as well. Still, I would never dream he would rate out as poorly in 2012 as he did via UZR. His -13.4 rating last season was almost as bad as it gets for that particular rating system. Even with 8 errors this years, he is at 3.2 this season, which is still very good.

As inaccurate as UZR seemed to be toward Escobar, it was right on with Mike Moustakas. Last year, he graded out at a Gold Glove caliber 15.8, but he has slipped considerably to 1.6 in 2013, on pace for about a 5.0. UZR also holds up for Eric Hosmer. He graded out at an average of -11.7 in 2011 and 2012, but has recovered to a 2.4 this year, on pace for around 7.5. UZR also dislikes Jeff Francoeur almost as much as everyone else, -4.2 last year, barely better this year at .7.

The other player, other than Escobar, that UZR seems to underrate is Lorenzo Cain. In limited chances last season, Cain earned just a .5 and is at a -.3 this year. That certainly doesn’t seem correct.

May 17, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Kansas City Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar (2) fields a ground ball during the second inning against the Oakland Athletics at O.Co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, the least scientific of methods for judging defense is the old eye ball test. To show you just how inaccurate it is, a certain General Manager we know and love may have thought Yuniesky Betancourt passed the eye ball test. Be that as it may, I watch nearly every single Royals game every year. Using the eye ball method, some positions appear strong – catcher, left field, and center field. Eric Hosmer looks much improved and more comfortable. Moustakas looks like his hitting is affecting his fielding. Escobar looks great most of the time but he gets these little brain burps when he may not be focused enough. Chris Getz has only made 1 error, and he turns a double play as quickly as anyone, but he seems to miss, or not get to, balls he should, if he were a top notch defender. Jeff Francoeur…well, Jeff Francoeur can throw.

The thing about the eye ball test, though, is except for Moustakas and Escobar, who are better fielders than they perform sometimes, and George Kottaras, who is NOT a good defensive catcher, as this past week has proved, the Royals don’t look like a terrible defensive team most of the time. Out of sheer curiosity, I wondered what UZR would say about the Royals, as a team, defensively. The old methods like Errors and Fielding Percentage show that they are awful. The Eye Ball method was more ambivalent –  they do great thing on the field, followed up by dumb things.

UZR, interestingly enough, have the Royals ranked FIRST in defense, not only in the AL, but in all of Major League Baseball, and by quite a margin. Their team score right now is 21.0 and the next highest team in the majors is the Arizona Diamondbacks at 15.9. The second best AL team is the Baltimore Orioles at 13.1. The Minnesota Twins, a team with a long time reputation for excellent defense, is ranked last at -18.5. Surprised by this data? So was I. UZR had the Royals rated 10th in the AL in 2012, and 20th overall with rating of -15.5, which seemed about right.

UZR isn’t the only other systems or stat method to have the Royals ranked first. DSR (Defensive Runs Saved), with a score of 17, also has the Royals ranked first in 2013.

Again, defensive metrics are very hard to understand and quantify. Old methods like Errors and Fielding Percentage are outdated because they can’t measure range, or anything else for that matter, other than catching and throwing, or not catching and throwing, as the case may be. Methods like UZR and DSR are not the end all, be all of defensive rankings either. They are merely tools to grade out defenses in a more scientific manner than in the past. Take all of these numbers with a grain of salt, but it is good to know that maybe, just maybe, the Royals are better defensively than we thought.

Thanks again to Fangraphs, MLB.com, and baseball-reference.com for providing tools and information so people like myself can do a bit of amateur analysis every now and then.

Below is the Fangraph’s chart for defensive rankings, based on UZR, for the American League

Custom Reports Export Data

5Red Sox4596.0167105996.04.4
6White Sox4386.0-97165975.83.4
10Blue Jays4656.04818677-7.2-0.6