From an outsider’s perspective, the Royals are in need of some sort of spark; something that will steer them out of this uncharacteristic funk that has seen the team drop 12 of their last 15 games.
You can really point the finger at anyone right now. The starting pitching has been awful, stretching out a bullpen that is starting to crack from overuse. The offense has been spotty, downright non-existent at times (but notably now starting to come around).
Most surprising is the defense. The thing that is never supposed to slump appears to be slumping hard. On the surface, “the best defensive team in baseball” is having a rough go so far this year. We’re used to watching our long athletic fielders make every routine play, almost all of the hard plays, and a lot of spectacular plays. This has become our expectation.
Maybe it’s the fact Esky’s error in New York last night seemed to incite a game winning three run rally for the Yankees against one of the top 10 relievers in baseball. Maybe we are all hyper sensitive to every little mistake Infante makes as he continues to get the nod at second base. Maybe we have flashbacks of #Aoki when Dyson takes mysterious routes to the ball in right.
Whatever the case may be, I started this post thinking it would be a “what’s wrong with the Royals defense” kind of thing. I was actually going to write an eloquent and fantastical account on why we might be stronger with Dyson in center and Cain in right (like the home stretch of 2014).
But those pesky numbers and stats and math indicate I was dead wrong. Ya know, like most times probably.
According to Fangraphs, here’s how the 2016 Royals currently sit in various defensive rankings:
3rd in MLB in DEF
4th in MLB in UZR
5th in MLB in total errors (only 12 on the season so far)
8th in MLB in overall Fielding % (.989)
So as a team, the Royals have actually had an excellent defense in 2016. Not the best in the MLB like they were in 2015 (which wasn’t even a close discussion) or 2014 (same story here), but certainly not something that would be a huge factor in the .200 winning percentage we’ve seen over the past few weeks.
However, digging into positional numbers, we can address a few popular fan theories.
Move Cain to RF and Dyson to CF
This was common practice for the Royals during the 2014 late season and playoff run. The thought was whereas Cain was a better CF, he was also a better RF. Coupled with the fact that Dyson was a natural CF with very little RF experience, this line up led to a better overall defense. Surely it still makes sense, right?
Kind of, but not really. By those same Fangraphs metrics, Cain has been the 6th best MLB CF by both DEF and UZR in 2016. This is a slight decline from the 2nd & 3rd he was in 2015, but slightly better than the 8th & 8th he was in 2014.
As for Dyson, he has been the 4th best RF in 2016 in terms of both DEF and UZR. He has had a couple “uhhh, what?” moments, but overall has been very good out there.
IIIIIIIFFFFF there are any legs to this thought, it is the following: Dyson was a substantially better CF in 2014 than Lorenzo Cain. By those same metrics (again DEF and UZR), Dyson was the 3rd best CF (18.8 & 17.7) versus Cain’s 6th & 6th (11.3 & 10.1).
However, on the pecking order of “things that need to be done to fix the Royals”, this probably ranks down near worrying about whether Gatorade baths and Instagram videos are to blame. Overall, no reason to make a move here.
Second Base – Anyone but Infante
Clearly this wormhole of awful must be to blame and changed immediately. Again, perhaps not so fast.
Infante has not been an elite defender in 2016. He hasn’t even been particularly good. So far the numbers indicate an average defensive performance (17th in DEF and 16th in UZR).
True, this is actually a pretty far tumble from his above average defensive performance of 2015 (6th & 7th respectively). But purely from a defensive standpoint, everyone’s favorite “backup quarterback” Christian Colon is definitely not an upgrade.
In limited time in 2016, Colon has a -.1 UZR and a -.2 DEF. Over 90 innings in 2015, he had a -.2 DEF and -.4 UZR. He has shown to be a (albeit very slightly) less than average defensive second baseman in the major leagues.
Perhaps that is something even Ned Yost would tolerate if he was hitting the cover off the ball. But since he is only a slight upgrade to Infante there at the moment, the skip will stay with his “proven” veteran.
Shortstop – What has happened to our Esky?!?!?!?
In 2015, Alcides Escobar was the 7th best defensive MLB shortstop in both DEF and UZR. In 2014, he was 8th in DEF and (quite surprisingly) 21st in UZR. In 2013, he was 2nd in DEF and UZR.
To this point in 2016, he is 26th in DEF and an astonishing 51st in UZR. He leads the team with 6 errors in 32 games. Yes, it is customary for SS to lead a team in errors as they usually have more chances in the field than any other position, but that ratio of an error every 5.33 games is drastically worse than his career 9.39 mark.
What to do about this? Well … nothing. Esky is our shortstop. He will be for quite some time barring injury. He simply has a case of the yips. He has always had a tendency (like many shortstops before him) to make the near-impossible highlight reel play but occasionally boot the easy ones. The season will even this out somewhat.
Still, this is something to watch moving forward for sure.
In the end, our defense is fine. By the end of the year, I would fully expect to find us back in the top 3 of any of the defensive categories.
Blame the pitching (which is what you should), blame the hitting (which is becoming less an issue as our slumping players are starting to heat up), but don’t blame the leather.