Is the Royals’ Defense in 2022 As Bad As Fans Think It Is?

The Royals have lost five in a row, including three straight to the New York Yankees in the Bronx (they are currently 0-6 against the Yankees this year). While the offense has certainly cooled off after the All-Star Break, the Royals’ recent string of lackluster defense has been a primary contributor to Kansas City’s second-half struggles, especially in their past two losses against the Bronx Bombers.

The Royals have always been an organization that has valued defense, even before Dayton Moore took over as GM in 2006.

Ever since the Royals debuted in Major League Baseball in 1969, the club has been known for fielding Gold Glove defenders, especially after the spacious Royals (now Kauffman) Stadium opened in 1973.

Salvador Perez, Michael A. Taylor, Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon, Amos Otis, and Frank White are just a few of the names in the Royals’ 54-year history who have collected Gold Glove honors at their respective positions. In addition, during the Royals’ most successful periods, whether it was 1971-1989 or 2013-2017, the Royals were especially known for their ability to save runs on defense.

Hence, it’s a bit of a surprise that the Royals’ defense this year has struggled so immensely, especially since this has been a calling card of the organization, and the fact that the Royals fared pretty well last year by most metrics (Andrew Benintendi also won a Gold Glove in addition to Taylor).

And it’s also not a surprise that the Royals’ struggles defensively have contributed to their 39-62 record, which has them in last place in the AL Central.

So what has been the primary reason for the Royals’ inconsistency on the defensive end, whether it’s behind the plate or in the field? Have the Royals truly deviated from their once stellar defensive reputation? Or is a small sample size coloring the perspective of the Royals fanbase?

Let’s dive into the data and see if the Royals are as bad as their reputation suggests this year, and if better days are ahead for Royals fans when it comes to seeing Kansas City make plays on the field with their glove in the next couple of months.

How Do the 2022 Metrics Fare to 2021?

In 2021, the Royals were one of the best teams in baseball defensively, and that was according to various different metrics, both standard and advanced.

On a standard metric end, the Royals ranked 12th in total errors committed and 14th in fielding percentage. While that’s not elite by any measure, it proved that on a standard defensive statistic end, they were in the upper half of the league, which is a good thing.

The advanced metrics though in 2021 paint a much rosier picture for the Royals. Here are the rankings for Kansas City in various advanced defensive metrics, according to Fangraphs.

  • 5th in Def (Defensive Runs Above Average)
  • 5th in UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating)
  • 7th in OAA (Outs Above Average)
  • 14th in DRS (Defensive Runs Saved)

When it came to defensive prowess on the OAA end, Nicky Lopez and Michael A. Taylor pretty much carried the Royals. They were the only two Royals defenders who finished with double-digit OAA marks, and Lopez certainly was a snub from Gold Glove consideration at shortstop a season ago, based on is +25 OAA mark in 2021.

Now, let’s flash forward to 2022, and see how the same metrics look for the Royals, both standard and advanced, according to Fangraphs.

  • 15th in errors committed
  • 15th in fielding percentage
  • 15th in Def (Defensive runs above average)
  • 8th in UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating)
  • 9th in OAA (Outs Above Average)
  • 29th in DRS (Defensive Runs Saved)

Based on the advanced data, DRS is the only category where the Royals are tremendously worse than a season ago. Not only are they 15 spots lower on a ranking end, but their -31 DRS mark is a 54-run difference from their 2021 mark (+23 DRS).

Of course, DRS, which is the Fielding Bible’s main metric, is a bit of a controversial metric. Some Royals fare really well on OAA, but not so much on DRS.

For example, Lopez was rated a +25 OAA defender at shortstop in 2021. According to DRS though? His mark was +3, which was lower than Whit Merrifield (+14), Andrew Benintendi (+7), and even Cam Gallagher (+6).

Therefore, while the DRS numbers are concerning, Royals fans should take that dropoff with a grain of salt. If the other metrics were just as bad, then one could say that the Royals are seriously struggling defensively. But, if anything, the lackluster DRS numbers simply show that Royals defenders aren’t as compatible with DRS’ defensive scoring system in comparison to other teams.

Who’s Been Struggling Defensively? (And Who’s Doing Fine?)

When it comes to analyzing individual Royals defenders, let’s stick with OAA. I trust OAA more as a metric, mostly because it tends to align (or closely anyways) with other metrics such as UZR and Def better than DRS. OAA is also based on official Stacast data as well, which also makes me more privy to it than DRS as well.

Here’s how the Royals individually fare on an OAA basis, with 25 attempts being the qualifier.

One has to wonder what this defense could have looked like had Adalberto Mondesi stayed healthy this year. Even though Mondesi only played in 15 games, he has the third-highest OAA this season of any Royals player with 25 or more fielding attempts.

Royals fans can certainly question if Mondesi’s bat would have held up in the lineup, especially since he was hitting only .140 before he went on the 60-Day IL due to a torn ACL. On the other hand, it is possible that Mondesi could have been a Gold Glove candidate this season if he were still playing on the Royals right now. And that defensive prowess could’ve resulted in a few more wins as well at the very least.

Lopez, Merrifield, and Taylor have continued to be above-average defenders, even though their numbers aren’t as impressive as a year ago, Lopez and Taylor especially. Lopez is 20 outs worse this season, while Taylor is 14 outs worse. While there still are a couple of months in the season remaining, it’s unlikely that they will get anywhere close to the 2021 marks, and thus, will probably not be in the Gold Glove discussion either by season’s end.

The biggest positive surprise this year has been Isbel, who was a slightly above-average defender in 2021 and now has become the Royals’ best one on an OAA end in 2022. His +6 OAA leads all Royals defenders and is a five-out improvement from a year ago. And he has done this while playing mostly center field this year, which wasn’t the case a season ago. Based on a deeper dive into the Statcast data, Isbel has been just as valuable in centerfield this year as right field.

Dozier has also seen a 14-out improvement in 2022, which on paper looks really good. However, the reality is that most of his struggles came at third base (-7 OAA) and right field (-6 OAA), based on the data from 2021. The Royals have kept Dozier from playing third base at all this year except in rare, emergency situations, and his right field time has been limited and could be even more so with Salvy back on the active roster.

On a negative end, the biggest surprise metrically has been Bobby Witt, Jr., who has the worst OAA mark on the Royals team currently with a -5 mark. The problem is not in terms of ability with Witt, as he has been able to make highlight plays on a frequent basis, as evidenced below:

Unfortunately, the mental mistakes and lapses in the field, especially at shortstop, have been plenty for Witt. His 12 errors this year lead the team by a considerable margin. The next closest Royals player in terms of errors is MJ Melendez, who has five.

Oftentimes, Witt either rushes a play or seems to just lose his focus on what should be a routine one. This was evident in this error below against the Blue Jays, as he simply misplays an Alejandro Kirk groundball, and instead of being a possible inning-ending double play, Witt’s error results directly in a Blue Jays run.

If Witt wants to live up to his full potential, those are the plays he’s going to have to clean up long-term. There’s no doubt that he can make the dynamic play, and he has certainly dazzled Royals fans with his range and incredible arm strength. And yet, if the errors do not clean up this year and next, it isn’t out of the question to think that he may move to another position (i.e. third base) by 2024.

Lastly, Rivera and Olivares have stayed pretty consistent in their defensive metrics this year, which is not necessarily great. They have been negative OAA players for the past two seasons, and the “eye test” seems to back that up as well for both players. On the other hand, most of their value comes from their bat, so if they can hit well enough, they will be able to keep their spots at third base and one of the corner outfield spots, respectively.

What Should Royals Fans Take Away From the Data?

To me, the data was a bit surprising, as I think it shows that Royals fans may be freaking out over “big” mistakes rather than a consistent pattern of defensive decline. Of course, considering the nature of Royals fans’ social media, this shouldn’t be all that shocking, especially since the majority will always tend to veer toward the negative in nearly every scenario Royals-related.

If anything, the main takeaway from all this data is that the Royals’ defense is just inconsistent. Also, the injuries have been a lot more numerous this year in comparison to 2021. That has resulted in a lot of Royals players playing multiple positions or having to go through growing pains in new roles.

Whit played right field for the first couple of months before making a move to second base recently over the past month due to Lopez’s offensive struggles. Lopez has not only played second and shortstop but third base as well. And Melendez has struggled to look comfortable behind the plate at catcher this season, and his time behind the plate may get more limited with Salvy now back and healthy (and hitting bombs to boot):

On a positive note, a lot of the struggles of the defense have been tied to young players like Witt and Melendez, and even players like Maikel Garcia in short samples.

When re-watching Garcia’s error on Friday, which should’ve been an easy double play to end the 8th inning, it’s hard not to overreact and believe that the Royals don’t “prioritize” defense anymore like they did in the ’70s, ’80s, or even during the 2013-2017 run.

But, back to Witt and Melendez, they have been thrust into the Royals lineup as the primary two run-producers this season. Thus, it makes sense why their defense has struggled in their rookie debuts, as their focus has been more on carrying this Royals offense, which was brutal back in April. Furthermore, the defensive grind in the Major Leagues is much different than what Witt and Melendez were exposed to last season in Northwest Arkansas and Omaha, so some adjustment defensively was to be expected.

And yet, take away Witt and Melendez’s rough campaigns, and the Royals defense looks a whole lot better, even if it’s not as impressive as a season ago. Nicky would be better if he had a more consistent position like he did in 2021. But even then, sans DRS (which he never rated well in anyways), he pretty much is the same defensive player he was in 2020 and 2021.

It is easy to get wrapped up in small sample sizes and brutal defensive performances like the ones Royals fans saw on Friday and Saturday (which let’s be honest, cost them the game). That being said, there is no need to panic about how this organization is developing defense at the Major League level, at least based on the metrics.

The Royals could be more consistent, and they would benefit from having more regular players who didn’t rotate as much. That responsibility falls on Mike Matheny, though the injury issues, and the Royals’ stubbornness to add guys to the IL, certainly haven’t made Matheny’s job any easier in that regard.

Nonetheless, if Witt and Melendez can clean things up (or find more suitable positions) in 2023, then Royals fans may be talking about how “good” the defense is again…

And hopefully, more wins will follow as a result as well.

Photo Credit: Chris Bernacchi/Diamond Images via Getty Images

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