I’m writing this underneath a framed ESPN magazine cover from the 2010 baseball preview. The cover features Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez, and Ichiro Suzuki, and right up top are these words: “Outs are in — and so are the Mariners”. It’s funny now, and it was given to me half as a joke, because of course the 2010 Seattle Mariners were a total catastrophe. But I remember the feeling, the state of things back then. The 2009 Mariners had set a UZR record, and then the front office brought in Chone Figgins and Casey Kotchman. The goal was to win by prevention, and the prevention was there, but what happened was the Mariners prevented their own scoring too and lost 101 times. Things changed rapidly for the organization. There was a missed opportunity to have defense front and center on a national stage.
We’ve never been real shy about WAR, and as such, we’ve never been real shy about the more advanced defensive metrics. FanGraphs didn’t exactly invent the concept of baseball players with good gloves, but statheads have argued for years that defensive players deserve more respect, that a guy can be incredibly valuable because of what he does in the field, instead of the box. Naturally, there’s been resistance, because hitting is a lot more visible, and nothing in the field is as valuable as a home run. And, absolutely, offensive value does have a higher ceiling than defensive value, just because of the limited opportunities. But defense, as a concept, needed a mascot. It needed a representation that would allow more people to understand how significant it can really be. Defense needed a team like the Royals.
The Royals, of course, have more than one strength. They have an unhittable back of the bullpen, and the defense doesn’t have to help those guys much. They have a bunch of solid baserunners, and they have James Shields, and there are a few guys who can hit a little. Salvador Perez is said to be a tremendous leader, of both the staff and the team as a whole. But, lots of teams have good relievers. The Royals’ rotation is relatively unremarkable. Baserunning tends to be a small factor. And the position players are better on defense than offense.
The Royals have captured national attention, and while the story after the wild-card game was that they ran Oakland mad, it’s since been all about the gloves. The gloves and Mike Moustakas, I guess. The Royals have played some long games, and time during those games has to be filled, and you can’t ignore what the defenders have done. The Royals, in the playoffs, have allowed a .258 BABIP, and it feels like lower than that. Every time you look up, someone in blue is either catching his breath or picking himself back up off the ground. The defenders have been everywhere.
Tuesday’s game against the Orioles wasn’t even one of the Royals’ most spectacular, defense-wise, but nevertheless, here come some clips. Here are eight plays of at least moderate difficulty. All were outs. The Orioles made 27 outs, and five of those were strikeouts.
Not easy. Alex Gordon lost his footing because he tripped, not because he had to dive.
Grounder over second base. Hard play made to look like easy play.
Sure, maybe this play is typically made, I don’t know. But is it typically made that easily? Lorenzo Cain had almost stopped by the time the baseball came down.
Cain again. Outstanding. And it doesn’t even look like it.
Also, Eric Hosmer is on the team.
Nobody blames Mike Moustakas if that gets through for a single. The ball was scalded on a line. Welp.
Everybody in love with Lorenzo Cain yet? I realize I’m not embedding these in any kind of order. That’s an incredibly difficult play from Cain’s second position of the game.
And here’s the lasting highlight. Here’s the Kansas City version of Derek Jeter going head-first into the seats. If Moustakas doesn’t make the catch, if he doesn’t even really try to make the catch, it’s a strike and the count is 0-and-2. The batter’s probably going to get out anyway. But every little gain is a gain. Every play made has value, and the Royals make so many plays.
The Royals were ninth in the American League in runs scored. They were 11th by wRC+. The Tigers led the AL in wRC+, yet their position players were just one WAR better than the Royals’, because the Royals reliably caught everything. Some of it is disguised by a spacious home environment, but the Royals tied for the lowest road BABIP allowed. The Royals were worth 61 team UZR, and the outfield was responsible for 60 of that. UZR loves the Royals, Defensive Runs Saved loves the Royals, and every metric and every eye loves the Royals. Defensively, they were great, and in the playoffs, it feels like they’ve been even greater.
The Royals feel like an exaggeration of what defense can do. In this way I can only speak for myself, but when, say, Miguel Cabrera goes on one of his tears, I see him at the plate and I feel like he could hit a dinger at a moment’s notice. I can sense the threat of a slugger, because I’m aware of the range of possible outcomes. The Royals have made me sense a defense. The feeling I get is that every ball in play is doomed. Hit a ball to the outfield and you might as well just walk back to the dugout, unless you hit it 420 feet. Not every ball in play is converted, naturally, but not every slugger plate appearance turns into a handful of bases. It just happens often enough to set the expectation. The expectation is that the Royals will make the out, if it’s in any way possible.
And that’s important. Obviously, it’s important for them to get the outs, as they try to win a World Series. But it’s also important for fans to see that. If, that is, the fans are in any way interested in learning more about the game. It can be so difficult to understand what a run saved really looks like. It can be difficult to understand how a player can be worth 10 or 20 runs better than average in the field over a year. The Royals are instructive. You can see what an elite defensive team looks like, and in every game you can estimate the bases saved. And, how often has Lorenzo Cain been running down a liner in front of him, behind him, or to the gap? Cain posted awesome defensive numbers this year, allowing him to finish with a 4.9 WAR, and if the Royals weren’t in the playoffs it would be hard to believe it. Seeing him, it makes a lot more sense. He catches everything he can. Forget the 4.9, specifically, and just focus on what it means. Cain has demonstrated how he can be an above-average hitter and a star-level player.
The Royals have demonstrated the importance of team defense, and they’re doing it with everyone paying attention. They’re doing it while never losing in the playoffs, and they’re doing it without a shutdown ace or a mid-lineup slugger. The Royals are proving how far you can get as a defense-first ballclub, and while it’s not the only way to build a winner, it’s a way to build a winner. And if you can appreciate the importance of defense on a team, you can then break that down and better appreciate the importance of individual-player defense. Mets fans get to watch Juan Lagares. Braves fans got to watch Andruw Jones, and they’ve got Andrelton Simmons. Mariners fans, for a short time, got peak Franklin Gutierrez. You can add defensive value on top of defensive value, and if one good defender is useful, a bunch can form a real weapon. They just need to be able to do enough of the other things.
I get how weird it might be to see something of a pro-Royals article on FanGraphs, given, you know. But for one thing, this isn’t specifically about the Royals. And for another, there’s no better current representation of something we all hold to be important. The Royals are like if UZR were a general manager, and while there have been great defensive teams before, the Royals are sensational and the Royals are one win away from the World Series with limited other strengths. Is defense really as important as WAR suggests? I mean, I don’t know with 100% certainty, but the Royals make a hell of an argument. Outs are in — and so are the Royals.
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