This Defense Doesn't Rest
The Royals championship runs were led by their gloves. The next group might be better.
When the Royals started their short run that culminated in a championship in 2015, the thought was that it would be led by the bats of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, the arms of any of their young pitching (and then James Shields after the 2012 season) and some solid defense. I don’t especially remember big talk about how great defensively they might be.
At the time, we didn’t know how good Alex Gordon might be in left field and while they acquired Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain following the 2010 season, I don’t seem to remember their defense being talked about as much as it should have. Maybe I’m wrong there, but I remember the defense being mentioned as a positive, but not the be all, end all.
As it turned out, the champion Royal were identified by their defense and their bullpen. The 2012 team had zero defensive runs saved, according to the Fielding Bible. They were perfectly average, but like the 2021 Royals, they didn’t get there in a perfectly average way. The whole infield other than third base was negative. Center field and right field were negative.
At third base, they were +14 and in left field, they were +25. That’s mostly Moustakas and Gordon, of course. In 2013, things started getting much better. They were +67 as a team, two behind the Diamondbacks in first and 22 ahead of the Pirates in third. The only negative was actually third base, lending some skepticism to defensive stats.
They actually weren’t quite as good in 2014 and 2015 as they were in 2013, but they were still obviously good enough to make highlight plays all the time to lead them to consecutive World Series appearances and their one title in 2015. Then the decline began. They were +10 in 2016 and an egregious -55 in 2017. As the team turned over, they stayed bad for a few years and even started 2021 poorly before turning things around and finishing the year +23.
And again, like the 2012 Royals, the path there was uneven, though less so. They had positives all over the field with pitcher, third base and right field as the exceptions. The pitcher fielding is an issue that needs to be figured out, but third base and right field might have some solutions already. The 2021 season started with Hunter Dozier, a notoriously terrible defender at third and saw Jorge Soler, an average defender at DH, playing a lot of right field after Kyle Isbel’s demotion.
This isn’t DRS, but Baseball Savant’s outs above average (OAA) shows a visual of how the Royals fared all around the field.
After Andrew Benintendi and Michael A. Taylor became the first outfield duo in club history to win a Gold Glove in the same season, the Royals look to boast one of the best defenses in all of baseball in 2022. Putting the pitchers aside because that’s a different animal entirely, the only spot on the field that might be a negative based on what we saw in 2021 is right field and that’s just dependent on who plays there. Okay, so there is another spot and I’ll just hit it first.
The metrics don’t love Salvador Perez, almost entirely due to pitch framing. Among catchers with at least 500 innings caught in 2021, he rates the worst and it’s not especially close. While I think that a stat based on tricking an umpire is one that probably shouldn’t matter as much as it does, the reality is that it does matter because the best can steal a lot of strikes for their staff, which does more than just turn a ball from a strike. If you really want to dig in, it can stave off injury by lessening both pitch count and stressful pitch count. If you get down into the real nitty gritty, you’ll see that he’s actually pretty good at framing on either side of the plate, but not high and low.
I also personally think Perez gets a little lazy blocking pitches behind the plate. He also has to do it more than any other catcher, so maybe that’s part of why, but when he’s not as focused, he can struggle there.
That said, it’s not that Perez is a complete zero behind the plate. His arm is elite. Among catchers with at least 20 stolen base attempts against them, only Thomas Nido threw it a higher percentage than Perez in 2021. A lot of caught stealing is based on the pitcher, but that doesn’t mean the catcher doesn’t have a say in it. And back to the pitch blocking, he gets lazy, but when he is truly focused, it doesn’t seem like a lot gets past him. I think back to Daniel Lynch’s big league debut in May and he was on absolutely everything.
And to add to the catchers, the Royals are in a position where they have very good backups right now in both Cam Gallagher and Sebastian Rivero and MJ Melendez, who will likely catch some games in 2022 is also a very good defensive catcher. So while Perez’s DRS in 2021 was -5, the Royals catchers were +1, and I think Perez will catch less moving forward with better defenders catching more, so that should only go up.
As a team, the Royals were +1 at first in DRS, led mostly by Carlos Santana who was +1 himself. To start the year, I anticipate he’ll be there at first and from a defensive standpoint, he’s fine. His range is lackluster and he doesn’t do great to his right, but the Royals shift enough that he shouldn’t have to worry too much about that moving forward.
Plus, I think there’s a pretty good chance that he loses time to Nick Pratto fairly quickly in the season and Pratto is as good a first baseman as the organization told you Eric Hosmer was. He will instantly be one of the best out there and improve the infield defense significantly.
This is where things get a little murky. Whit Merrifield handled second mostly for the Royals in 2021 and was outstanding. He probably should have won a Gold Glove and he did win the Fielding Bible Award with 14 defensive runs saved. It was a remarkable season, especially with how poorly it started for him defensively. The team was the best in baseball at second with 16 defensive runs saved. And that’s a good thing.
Moving forward, while Merrifield was outstanding in 2021, the Royals infield logjam may send him out to right field, which isn’t great for the right field defense (though not horrible), but likely doesn’t change much at second. The player moving to second would likely be Nicky Lopez (who I’ll get to in a second), and all he did in 2020 was put up nine DRS in a 60-game season at second in 2020. So no matter what, they’re likely looking at some elite defense there moving forward.
Again, this was a big issue for the team, tied with the Mets for the worst third base DRS in all of baseball. The main culprit was Dozier with -12 DRS in just 422 innings at third. That’s actually kind of incredible. And while he might play there for a game or two moving forward, with the current roster it’s a bit hard to see how he sees more than occasional time at third unless something terrible happens.
In 2022, the two top candidates to handle third base are Adalberto Mondesi and Bobby Witt Jr. The latter is obviously one of baseball’s top prospects and would be perfectly at home at shortstop where he’s spent plenty of time in the minors, but likely will be an elite defensive third baseman given his shortstop skills. The former could be the shortstop or might be at third with Witt at shortstop. Either way, they’re looking at an incredible athlete at the hot corner with the arm to handle the spot. In 175 innings, Mondesi put up -1 DRS, but he was learning the position and at times looked like he had a chance to be elite once he got used to the quickness required.
And if neither one of them are healthy, Emmanuel Rivera could handle the spot. He didn’t get the audition he probably should have after getting hurt in his second game, but he’s a solid defender who was +1 in 222.1 third base innings. No matter what, this appears to be a HUGE improvement for the Royals in 2022.
This is where the OAA stat at Baseball Savant and DRS differ in a big way. By OAA, Lopez was the best defender in baseball, not just shortstop, with 25 OAA. That was five more than second best. By DRS, he was fine with 3. Obviously neither paints him as a bad defender, but he goes from elite to simply good. The organization (and me too honestly) believe the OAA stat a little more from what I believe to be true. Maybe that’s me being a homer, but I saw an excellent shortstop in 2021.
But even if he’s not there, Mondesi was +4 in 2020 in 497 innings and +5 in 2019 in 852.2 innings. If he’s the shortstop, the defense continues to be very good. If Witt is the shortstop, I could actually see him not faring as well in DRS, but some of that might be skewed by him looking a bit slower late in the season at Omaha. That could simply be fatigue from his first full season. The reports are that he can get it at shortstop as well. So the point is that the Royals were good at shortstop in 2021 and have a very good chance to be better in 2022.
When Benintendi won the Gold Glove, I wasn’t surprised, but it was only because I was looking up some defensive stats a few weeks earlier and realized how good of a statistical season he had. Throughout the year, I found myself wholly unimpressed by him, but the numbers didn’t agree with that. And looking back, I think he played considerably better down the stretch than he did to start the season. It probably shouldn’t be a huge surprise that Benintendi was good defensively as his only negative season in his career was 2019. And barring anything weird, he’ll be the left fielder in 2022, so Royals fans should expect more of the same.
You may not like Taylor’s bat (and why would you?) but he’s outstanding defensively and put up his best season in 2021. The last time he played more than 160 innings in CF was in 2018 and he put up 14 DRS that season and 12 the year before, so I think he did basically what the Royals were expecting from him. While his two-year extension drew some ire, it’s still inexpensive enough that he could be a fourth outfielder at some point. I don’t think that point will be 2022, so regardless of the bat, at least there’ll be some fantastic defensive in center. And if you had forgotten about his arm, well…
This is the spot that could go a number of different directions. Right now, I’d guess Isbel is the guy. He didn’t play enough to make much of a dent, but I also know that he’s at worst a solid defensive outfielder and at best, I think he can adequately handle center field. Where it gets dicey is with the other options. Dozier was terrible at third and almost as bad in right field with -9 DRS in 2021. Edward Olivares, the fan favorite as the backup QB, didn’t show much in the way of instincts, but the numbers thought he was pretty neutral in 135 innings.
The other options are either outside the organization, Merrifield or Mondesi. Merrifield had a solid year defensively in right in 2020, but wasn’t good out there by the numbers in 2021 while Mondesi has never played there before. I have a hunch that if you put Mondesi in the outfield and he stays healthy that he’s an elite defender, but we can’t know that until he tries it and he may or may not get that opportunity to try it. The most likely free agent target for the Royals is Avisail Garcia, and he was excellent there last year and has been for a few years, so that would fit. And if you want to dream on Michael Conforto like I do (even with the QO), he was bad in 2021 but has been neutral to solid in previous years.
Unless Dozier gets a ton of time in right field, this should at least be an average spot that’s brought up by Taylor covering ground next to them in center.
The 2022 Royals have a chance to truly be one of the best in the league at catching the ball. We saw what that can do for a pitching staff nearly a decade ago, so it’ll be fun to see more batted balls turned into outs. One of the first things I wrote here on Inside the Crown was about the idea of getting more strikeouts to limit the impact of the defense, but a great defense isn’t something I’ll ever complain about too much.