How the Pieces Fit, Part 3: Kansas City Royals Infield


Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

In part 1 of this series we looked at the inexhaustible Kansas City Royals bullpen during the home stretch.

In part 2, we looked at the Royals outfield and how they complimented each other.

In this part, we finally get to the meet and explore options on the infield.

In what appeared to be a series of confusing moves to acquire every available utility infielder, Dayton Moore constructed an expanded infield that has a player for nearly every situation. When rosters expanded on September 1, the Royals called up Carlos Pena, Pedro Ciriaco, and Johnny Giavotella to bolster an already packed infield of Eric Hosmer, Chris Getz, Alcides Escobar, Mike Moustakas and Emilio Bonifacio.

If the Royals somehow make the playoffs, and their assets are handled with more thought than Ned Yost has given lately, they would be one of the most well-rested teams, with one of the most well-rounded benches, in the majors.

Salvador Perez (C): Catcher is the easy part. Perhaps the only thing easier to figure out on this roster is Designated Hitter. Salvador Perez was selected for the All-Star Game this year more for his defense than his offense. He’s saved somewhere between five and eleven runs behind the plate, for which Baseball-Reference.com rewarded him with 2.2 dWAR. He’s fourth in the league for caught steals at 35% (after leading the league last year with 42%) and picked off a runner (after leading the league in that too last year). Perez often forces runners to scramble back to first base or third base (or even second base) in pickoff attempts. Even though he doesn’t pick up the out, it disrupts the running game like nothing we’ve seen in Kansas City. Buster Olney picked Perez as the best defensive catcher in the American League for 2013. Perez doesn’t just disrupt the running game. He curb-stomps it, rolls it up in a rug, and throws it off a bridge into the nearest bay. This could play a crucial role in against the Rangers who have five players with at least ten steals–40 by Elvis Andrus and 32 by Leonys Martin.

He has a bat too.

And that bat hits the ball about as hard as any bat in the majors. For most of the year, he has been drilling line drives, but recently, his line drives have turned to fly balls that carry right over the fence. Perez had a terrible power drought, not hitting a home run from June 27 to August 16. His defense was so good that it didn’t matter, but fans were wondering when the power would reemerge. From August 17 to now, he’s hit .351/.382/.617 with seven homers in just over 100 PA. Oh, there’s that power.

Perez will likely play every game from here on out, but if he takes another foul ball off the mask, he may need some R&R. As long as it’s only for a couple of days, the Royals have George Kottaras, who has been a magnificent backup and pinch hitter, getting on base more than 35% of the time he steps in the box. The Royals also have right-handed Brett Hayes who frames pitches better and is generally regarded a better defensive catcher than Kottaras.

Eric Hosmer (1B): Since the beginning of June, Hosmer has hit .326/.377/.509 and has become the monster we all thought he would be. His defense is above average and pretty much nothing else matters. He rakes. He has overtaken Billy Butler as the team’s leader in OPS by crushing an incredible amount of line drives in September. His BAbip is .450 and almost none of it is luck. He’s had five extra-base hits so far this month, but more impressively, he’s had 19 hits in 53 at-bats. Pitchers are starting to appreciate how dangerous he is and pitch around him.

He’s His slash so far for the month is .358/.433/.509.

Emilio Bonifacio (2B-Utility): Bonifacio got the second base job out of desperation and has made the most of it. Since joining the Royals he has hit .297/.373/.378, which has been an drastic upgrade over other second-base options since Miguel Tejada‘s suspension/injury.  Getz at second has hit .225/.288/.279. Elliot Johnson at second, before his release, hit .205/.246/.283. Johnny Giavotella (in 41 PA) had a slash of .189/.268/.243.

Bonifacio’s offensive performance is largely dependent on his good eye and everything else is luck. His walk rate is usually somewhere around 8-9%, which has given him a difference in AVG to OBP of 60 points for his career. Luck dictates if the balls he puts in play will drop 30% of the time or 22% of the time. If they fall somewhere in the middle, he’ll be valuable enough for the rest of the season to start every game.

Mike Moustakas (3B): Moose’s struggles with the bat since he joined the major league roster have been pretty close to catastrophic. In the three years that he’s been a big league third baseman, he’s posted an OPS+ of 86, 91, and 76. He’s now past  1400 plate appearances and has only hit 36 home runs. Last year, his glove carried him through a 300 at-bat slump, but this year, his glove is slumping too. He’s worth negative runs saved according to every metric and has made 14 errors.

For a while, it looked like Moose had really been helped by George Brett‘s tutelage during his tenure as interim hitting coach. Through July and August, Moose hit .284/.337/.446 and looked like a legitimate weapon. He stopped hitting home runs in August and stopped hitting for extra bases altogether in September. So far in this month, he’s hit .163/.212/.286. He is streaky and has hit well in the past week, so he may be rebounding after another slump.

If he again starts sending inside pitches down the right-field line, he will stay in the lineup every day. However, he’s so inconsistent, it is difficult to tell if he has actually rebounded. Another collapse certainly isn’t out of the question. It appears that Dayton Moore prepared for this possibility as best he could by acquiring Pedro Ciriaco and Jamey Carroll.

Ciriaco was acquired off waivers from the Padres. The Padres got him to fill some holes while their shortstop and second baseman simultaneously hit the disabled list. Once their infield was healthy again, they chucked Ciriaco to the curb and the Royals scooped him up in a shrewd low-cost move. Carroll was claimed off waivers and the Twins decided that they could part company with him. He is also supposed to be a good veteran clubhouse presence, which is a welcome bonus since Miguel Tejada got himself suspended again.

Moustakas has an ok career .706 OPS against righties. Sure, he has the pedigree to improve in the future, but it’s do-or-die time right now. If he starts slipping again, he could easily be replaced by Ciriaco, whose .716 OPS against right-handed pitching is better. Moose has struggled against left-handed pitching since making the major league roster. His .223/.275/.335 slash is unacceptable from a power-position. Carroll, on the other hand, has always hit lefties well. In the past three years, he’s hit .310/.374/.393 against them, and even through he’s slumped since switching teams, his .322 OBP vs. lefties is still 38 points better than Moustakas’s. If the Royals want to stay in this race, at the first sign of trouble from Moustakas, they should consider a Ciriaco/Carroll platoon as a viable backup plan.

Alcides Escobar (SS): He’s hit so badly that his stellar defensive range has barely kept him above replacement level. In other words, his bat is hurting the team enough that the Royals could plop some scrap-heap utility player in his place (of which they have many) and generate similar value for the team. Escobar is dead last in American League OPS. The next worse qualifying player has an OPS FORTY-THREE POINTS higher. If Escobar moved over to the NL, he’d bat better than only Adeiny Hechavarria, who is a true-blue replacement player only placed on the abysmal Miami Marlins roster because they traded away anything and everything of value in the off-season. There’s probably room to work with Escobar next year, but down the stretch the Royals need to do something to soften his terrible offensive output. Yost has at least started pinch-hitting for him (at the beginning of the year, Yost had Escobar batting second, costing the Royals who knows how many runs).

The problem is, the best the Royals can probably do is pinch hit for him in crucial situations because his defense really is that good. According to Fangraphs, his 10.5 fielding runs at shortsop ranks him second in MLB, behind only Andrelton Simmons. Escobar’s range is possibly unparalleled (even by Brendan Ryan at this point), but his lapses in judgement cause a fair number of boneheaded boots. His arm is as strong as anyone’s except Simmons, but he makes wild throws WAY too often. Escobar has 13 errors on the season and seven throwing errors.

The Royals should consider starting Ciriaco against teams that hit the ball in the air more often, like the White Sox and Tigers. It would allow the Royals to work Ciriaco’s bat into the lineup and limit the damage he can do with his poor defense. Ciriaco only has a .936 fld% at shortstop this season even though he does have the range to play the position.  Escobar can come back in the late innings as a defensive replacement.

Ciriaco has kept a 21% line drive rate over the past four years, but may put the ball in the air too much because he pops out 17% of the time. He’s fast too, which has boosted his career BAbip to .336–a definite threat on the basepaths. In 441 career plate appearances, he’s posted a .390 SLG with 22 doubles, 6 triples and 4 home runs. He’s stolen 27 bases while only being caught 5 times, so the Royals won’t miss Escobar’s speed.

Still, it’s pretty sad when a team has to work Pedro Ciriaco’s bat into the lineup.

This is a great defensive infield, even with Moustakas’s woes. The Royals just need to make sure the defense isn’t diminishing returns by ignoring clear offensive shortcomings. If Moore can force Yost to optimize the offense where possible, it will increase the team’s chances at winning these important games.