The Royals are showing progress defensively…but there still are holes

Early on in the season, it seemed like the Royals had taken a step back defensively from the previous year, a stark contrast to the “Royals Way” of winning with speed and defense. Royals Review writer Matthew LaMar pointed this out in a May article, where he highlighted the Royals having one of the worst infield defenses in baseball, which can be found below:

Since then, the Royals infield defense, and defense overall has improved, which has benefited the club as a whole overall as they sit 29-26 entering Saturday afternoon’s game. Let’s take a look at three insights from the Royals defensive numbers as we begin the month of June, and what Royals fans can take away going forward, both good and bad.

The Royals’ middle infield has made substantial gains this May

In April, the Royals middle infield was a major area of concern, especially since it was such a strength of the club in 2020. Nicky Lopez ranked in the lower percentiles, and Whit Merrifield was known more for his blunders than his play at second base. While it was expected that the Royals would miss the athleticism and range of Adalberto Mondesi, who has struggled with injury so far in 2021, it was surprising to see the Royals middle infield as bad as it was, especially considering Lopez was a Gold Glove candidate a year ago.

However, as the Royals begin the month of June, the middle infield, especially Whit and Nicky, have made tremendous growth in their defense. According to Baseball Savant’s Outs Above Average, Whit and Lopez both rate as the best defenders on this Royals roster, along with outfielder Jarrod Dyson. Here is a look as well of the top-seven Royals fielders according to OAA, as these seven all rate higher than average on an OAA basis (with average being zero).

While Whit and Lopez’s progress is encouraging, the Royals have also seen contributions from Hanser Alberto as well as Mondesi. The latter is surprising because Mondesi has not played that much this season. And yet, despite his limited contributions to the Royals lineup overall, when he is on the field, he is having a tremendous impact, which is a good sign for the Royals’ middle infield in the near future. When Mondesi is fully healthy, the Royals will be in good hands, especially with Whit and Lopez being so solid up the middle this season thus far.

On a Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) basis, Whit and Lopez aren’t as impressive, as Whit only rates as one run above average at second base, and Lopez actually rates as one run BELOW average at shortstop. But, Nicky makes up for it with his work at second base, as he is one run ABOVE average when he plays the keystone position this year, although he has only played 12 innings overall at that spot in the field.

Overall, the Royals up the middle are in solid shape, and the surprising contributions of Mondesi and Alberto mean that the Royals have depth up the middle as well on a defensive end. While Whit hasn’t been as consistent with the bat as in years past (though he is heating up in June), his defense at second base, which has been suspect in the past, has made tremendous progress this year. Furthermore, the continued play of Lopez, despite a slow start and adjustment at shortstop early on, has cemented him a spot on the active roster, even if it may only mean a utility role when Mondesi returns to the lineup fully healthy.

Taylor and Benintendi continue the Royals legacy of good defense in left and center

Andrew Benintendi has arguably been the Royals’ hottest hitter (though Salvador Perez is certainly making his case in June), as he was named the Royals’ “Player of the Month” for the month of May (Scott Barlow was named “Pitcher of the Month”):

While Benintendi is providing value with his bat in year one of the “post-Alex Gordon” era, he has also done a good job with his glove in left field in the wake of Gordo’s retirement, which is not an easy feat. So far this year, Benintendi is producing an OAA of 2, and has a success rate added of 2 percent as well, which are both solid marks. On a UZR end, Benintendi is less impressive, as he is posting a -1.4 UZR, which roughly means he is 1.4 runs below replacement level. This is an interesting split, as Gordo tended to be the opposite, as he rated worse in the latter years of his career in OAA, but rated really well in UZR, according to Fangraphs. Thus, while Benintendi’s profile isn’t exactly like Gordo’s metrically, Benintendi is providing value with his glove in left field, which has been much appreciated by Royals fans (and Benintendi’s bat has been MUCH better than Gordo’s in 2019 and 2020).

As for Taylor, he has been a streaky hitter, as he is currently posting a 92 wRC+, according to Fangraphs. However, Taylor was acquired for defense, and so far, he has delivered. He is posting a 2 OAA and he has a 91 percent success rate on possible plays, which is a solid number for a center fielder. Additionally, Taylor also looks good in UZR data, as his 1.1 UZR is only 0.1 point behind Dyson’s mark, with the latter leading all Royals outfielders in that category. The Royals were looking for a defensive upgrade in center field in 2021, as Whit didn’t really handle the position well after being thrust into it a year ago. Thankfully, Taylor has been a solid fit in Kauffman’s spacious grounds, and Dyson has also been excellent as well filling in when Taylor has a day off.

It’s not exactly Gordo and Lorenzo Cain in left and center field in 2021. That being said, the pair of Benintendi and Taylor has probably been the best Royals combo in left and center field since 2018, both on a defensive AND offensive end.

The corner infield spots (and right field) are serious question marks

While the middle infield and left and center field positions have been bright spots defensively for the Royals over the first two months of play, the same cannot be said of their corner infield positions, as well as right field. Let’s take a look at the OAA data of all fielders who rated as below average on an OAA end:

As Royals fans can see, that is a pretty uninspiring four-some. Gutierrez has been a bit of a surprise because the potential and athleticism is there, but he has made a few blunders, especially with his arm, which explains his -2 OAA mark. As for the other three, it is not surprising to see them rate so low. Carlos Santana has revitalized the Royals offensively, as he has been a true walk and OBP threat that the Royals haven’t had in quite some time. However, defensively, he has been pretty mediocre, and he isn’t making anyone forget about Eric Hosmer’s Gold Glove ability anytime soon.

The worst defensive offenders for the Royals have been Soler and Dozier, who are the two worst players on the Royals on an OAA basis. Soler holds the Triple Crown in terms of being analytically bad defensively, as he is not only a negative player on an OAA basis, but he also holds negative DRS (-5) and UZR (-2.4) marks as well. Dozier rates a bit better defensively in the outfield on a UZR basis (0.5), but he does have a -3 DRS in the outfield, which unfortunately overshadows his positive UZR mark.

Thus, the big issue for manager Mike Matheny is this: where does he play these two, if defensive is a priority?

It is possible that the Royals can maybe have one in the field and be okay, but it’s obvious that having both out there in the field is a major detriment to the Royals’ defense as a whole. It does seem like Matheny has been gradually moving Doz to right field, where he profiles a bit better on an OAA basis. At third base this year, he is six outs BELOW average, while in right field, he is only two outs below average, which is better than Soler’s -4 OAA mark. Unfortunately, Matheny has been keen on getting Salvy at-bats at the DH spot, which unfortunately pushes Soler to right and Dozier to third, which is lose-lose for the Royals defensively.

One has to wonder with Doz and Soler struggling so much defensively, and no really great options at third beyond Gutierrez (who’s been inconsistent), if Matheny will get creative in the next couple of weeks, in order to enhance the Royals’ defensive value. While offense will always trump defense when it comes to playing time, both Doz and Soler have struggled on both ends, which may mean that Matheny and Dayton Moore may need to make a tough decision going forward.

At this point, Doz and Soler may be BOTH designated hitters at this point in their careers, and the Royals may need to just set one as the Royals’ DH of the future in order to minimize their harm to the Royals defense long-term. As of now, Doz makes the most sense for the Royals to anoint as DH, especially after Moore signed Doz to a long-term deal this off-season. However, the Royals probably don’t want to part with Soler for nothing, especially this early into the season, and they need him to get going if they want to explore a trade for him soon, if at all, before the Trade Deadline.

The Royals overall have improved defensively over the month of May, which is a good sign for June and beyond in 2021. That being said, the Royals have serious holes in the corners and in right, and it will be interesting to see what Matheny and Moore will do to alleviate these issues.

While defense may not win them a division crown or earn them a spot in the Wild Card race, poor defense certainly will take them out of contention sooner rather than later.

Photo Credit: Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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