For Saber-heads like myself, Baseball Savant’s new metric for analyzing infield defense (infield outs above average) is fascinating, especially when applied to Royals players who took the infield last season. Defense traditionally has always been a difficult part of the game to analyze concretely: what numbers and/or metrics truly rate an infielder or outfielder’s defense properly? With the advent of Statcast technology, those answers are becoming clearer than ever before, as we are starting to see numbers that can identify the best as well as worst defenders in baseball today.
Hence, as a Royals fan and blogger, I decided to take a look at each position in the infield and come to an analysis on what the numbers meant for each player. After all, as baseball fans, when it comes to evaluating defense, one of the biggest problems is that what the numbers say doesn’t necessarily meet the eye (or at least we think the metrics don’t). So, in addition to posting the numbers and analyzing them, I will also analyze whether I agree with the metrics with each player at the corresponding position.
In addition to looking at the Royals first, second, and third basemen, and shortstops from 2019, I will also look at Phillies third basemen OAA metrics, as Maikel Franco most likely will be the Royals starting third baseman on Opening Day in 2020.
Ryan O’Hearn was rated as the Royals’ best first baseman in 2019 according to OAA metrics from Baseball Savant. O’Hearn had an OAA of two and a success rate of 95 percent, which was two percent better than 93 percent estimate success rate (meaning that he made more plays than expected). He seemed to excel on groundballs that were in and showed good lateral ability going toward first base, surprising considering he is a left-handed first baseman. Honestly, I didn’t think O’Hearn was bad defensively in 2019, but I’m a bit surprised, since his bulky frame may give off the impression that he is an offensive-only first baseman, though his metrics suggest otherwise. O’Hearn struggled offensively in 2019, but considering that he was stronger at the plate toward the end of the season, and is the Royals’ best returning defensive option, it isn’t out of the question to think that O’Hearn could experience a breakout of sorts in 2020.
Former Royal Cheslor Cuthbert didn’t primarily play first in 2019, but he did get a majority of the reps there, especially when Hunter Dozier returned from injury and when O’Hearn was sent down to Omaha. Cuthbert though wasn’t all that apt defensively, as his success rate (89 percent) was three percent lower on plays than the expected success rate (92 percent) and he was minus-two runs below average in terms of OAA. And considering he slumped in the second half, it’s not a surprise that he didn’t hold at the position long term. Lucas Duda, not surprisingly, was also sub-par defensively, as he posted a minus-one OAA and a success rate of 73 percent, nearly 3 percent lower than his estimated success rate. However, considering Duda was signed to be a DH, it’s not surprising that Duda was a sieve at first base in 2019.
Many Royals fans could not understand why some fans were clamoring for Nicky Lopez over Whit Merrifield at second base. While Whit certainly was the more productive offensive player in 2019, defensively, he paled in comparison to Nicky, especially according to OAA metrics. Lopez was SEVEN runs better than Whit according to OAA, and was six points higher than Whit in terms of success rate. Lopez seemed to excel most on plays in and going to third (he was two and three outs above average, respectively), while Whit seemed to struggle in that category (minus-one and minus-two, respectively). Hence, Lopez makes the most sense at second base over Whit, due to Lopez’s defensive prowess. Furthermore, if Lopez can transition his strong production at the plate over the last month of play in 2019 into Spring Training and the start of 2020, then new manager Mike Matheny will have no choice but to play Nicky over Whit at second base not just in 2020, but beyond as well.
Both Adalberto Mondesi and Lopez showed solid skills at the shortstop position in 2019, which is a good sign for 2020, especially if Mondesi’s injury issues carry over a bit into this upcoming season. Despite dealing with constant injuries, Mondesi still was four outs above average according to Baseball Savant, with a success rate of 90 percent, one percent higher than his Success Rate Added. Mondesi excelled in plays toward first, which is not surprising due to his athleticism and strong glove skills. However, on plays in and toward third, he was a bit below average, with minus-two out numbers in each category, respectively. I’m guessing some of those numbers may have been affected due to injury (especially on plays toward third, which are difficult plays to make overall), and his youth, as it seemed like Mondesi had a tendency to make errors on slower rolling ground balls that required him to go in.
Lopez doesn’t have Mondesi’s arm, which explains his minus-four out metrics on plays going toward third. However, Lopez was just as good at making plays when he had his momentum going to first, as he was five outs above average, only one less than Mondesi. Thus, while Lopez may not have the upside or arm strength of Mondesi, he has the glove and the instincts to hold down the position should Mondesi be slow to come back to play after he had surgery this Winter.
Surprisingly, Humberto Arteaga, who was known as a glove-guy in the minors, was actually pretty poor according to Baseball Savant, as he was four outs below average last season. Unlike Lopez and Mondesi, who excelled on plays going to their left, he struggled, as he was one out below average. Arteaga will be competing for that utility infield spot this Spring, but he will have to showcase better defense in the Big Leagues if he wants to acquire a spot on the 26-man roster on Opening Day.
Third Base (Royals)
Hunter Dozier, originally drafted as a college shortstop, has struggled to find a position at the Big League level. While he has decent athleticism, injuries has somewhat derailed his development as an infielder with the Royals. While thinking he would stick at shortstop was foolish, it was plausible to believe that with his bat and size that he could be a future option for the Royals at the hot corner, especially after last season where he finished a runner up in the All-Star voting.
However, Dozier was pretty meh at third in 2019. He wasn’t great laterally, as he was an out below average both ways. And while he was better on plays in and back, it was only one out above average, which is hardly earth-shattering. Thus, Dozier’s metrics kind of correlate to what fans thought of Dozier’s defense at third: okay, but nothing special. Hence, it’s not surprising that he’ll most likely make the move to RF with the acquisition of Franco from the Phillies.
Not surprisingly, Cuthbert was somehow worse at third, his primary position than he was at first in 2019. Cuthbert was four outs below average at third base and had a success rate of 81 percent, which was five points lower than his estimated success rate. Thus, while Cuthbert was a nice guy who played hard, Dayton Moore was in his right mind by non-tendering him this off-season. The big surprise is Kelvin Gutierrez, who was one out below average in 2019, despite his defense being the strongest rated aspect of his profile in the minors. Granted, Gutierrez had a limited sample size, and injury prevented Royals fans from seeing more from him down the stretch. It will be interesting to see if Gutierrez can showcase better defense in the Majors this upcoming year to prove that last year was a fluke. However, with Franco most likely going to be the everyday third-baseman, Gutierrez most likely won’t have a whole lot of opportunities to prove his defensive worth in Kansas City, barring injury to Franco.
Third Base (Phillies)
It seems like a foregone conclusion that Franco will be the starting third-baseman for the Royals on Opening Day. However, the decision to play Franco at third may be due to the fact that he cannot play anywhere else rather than his glove work at third.
Last year, in addition to struggling with the bat, Franco was pretty miserable defensively. According to Baseball Savant, he was seven outs below average, mostly struggling on plays laterally. He was three outs below average on plays toward third, and four outs on plays toward first. He also struggled with plays going back, as he was one out below average in that area. The only positive aspect of his defensive profile in 2019 was on plays coming in, which probably was helped by his arm, which has always rated pretty well by scouts.
It will be interesting to see how well Franco transitions to third at Kauffman. While Dozier can play positions other than third and Franco probably can’t (Franco doesn’t have Dozier’s athleticism), whether or not the Royals SHOULD do that is to be determined. Franco, according to the metrics, is a serious downgrade at third, and Franco will have to justify regular playing time at the position with his bat. If Franco can do that, and bounce back in his new surroundings in KC, then I’m sure manager Mike Matheny and the Royals can live with his defensive shortcomings.
However, if he struggles to hit, especially in the first month or two…well do not be surprised to see Franco follow a Chris Owings-like tenure in Kansas City.
Because after all, as we can see from the OAA data, at least Owings could play defense in 2019.