by John Viril—One of the more interesting questions regarding the Kansas City Royals this winter was their defense. As I wrote about earlier, their poor defensive metrics did not match up with apparent fielding abilities of their individual players. Taking a quick glance at Baseball Prospectus’ Defensive Efficiency metric, we see the Royals defense is again rated below average through their first nine games (19th).
What’s the deal?
Well, it’s only nine games—which is about 6% of the season. Aside from that caveat, the Royals defense no longer has the excuse of limited games from standouts like C Salvador Perez and CF Lorenzo Cain. In fact, the team has been completely healthy through the first nine games. We can’t blame sabermetric whipping-boy Yunieski Betancourt—who disappeared into the aether last season.
During the winter I explored the possibility that the Royals poor defensive ranking was due to terrible starting pitching. The Royals defense can no longer make that claim, since the remade pitching staff has performed well above average so far this season. As of Friday morning, the Kansas City staff ranks 3rd in MLB with a 3.20 ERA and 28 runs surrendered. They have an outstanding K/BB ratio of 4.09 and a solid .247 batting average against.
The staff has surrendered the 2nd most gopher balls in MLB with 11 (second only to the Red Sox, which have given up 13). It is possible that they are giving up a high quantity of solid contact which is driving down their defensive metrics The low ERA could be explained by their 86 strikeouts (nearly 10 a game!) and low number of walks (21). In fact, one of the most pleasing trends of the early going has been the staff’s performance in this area. They are tied with Milwaukee for 2nd fewest walks in baseball and rank 3rd for most strikeouts.
Keep that up, and even 9 Yunieski Betancourt’s couldn’t ruin a good staff ERA.
I tried to examine the UZR of individual Royals players on fangraphs.com, but immediately saw the inaccuracy driven by small sample size with that approach. The projected yearly totals for most players are pretty extreme right now. For example, LF Alex Gordon—who has won 2 consecutive gold gloves—is projected to surrender nearly 25 runs more than the average left fielder on a 150 game basis (UZR/150 of -24.7). 2B Chris Getz is also another “sinner” according to these early returns with a UZR/50 of -31.8). On the high end we have Lorenzo Cain with a UZR/150 of 51.6 and CF Lorenzo Cain at 44.1. Such extreme totals won’t occur over a full season.
These results make a pretty good case that it’s too early to rely on the defensive metrics to evaluate the Royals defense in 2013. Even so, I think the ability of the Royals to turn batted balls into outs is an issue that bears watching throughout the season.
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