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Defense winning games for Royals

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Sunday, August 11, 2013, at 7:47 a.m.
  • Updated Thursday, August 15, 2013, at 6:34 p.m.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

What does a nine-game winning streak mean for the Royals?


— James Shields puts his palm on his face, rubs a bit, stares into the ground. The Royals’ ace is thinking.

“Give me a second,” he says. “That’s tough.”

Shields has spent the last few minutes talking about the home run Lorenzo Cain brought back in Minnesota, Miguel Tejada’s barrel roll at third, David Lough’s game-saver in Chicago, Sal Perez’s circus play on Aaron Hicks’ bunt … the highlights are running through his brain.

But to put a number on the impact? To say how many runs the Royals’ defense has saved? Shields has never thought of it this way. He’ll take a guess.

“Something like 30 or 50 runs?” he says. “Something like that?”

Same question for Alcides Escobar. He’s playing shortstop and signed through 2017 because of his defense, of course. The Royals would love for him to hit more, but they’ll look the other way because he fits their grander plan. Athletic. Game-changing talent. Might win a Gold Glove someday.

“Fifty runs?” he says. “Maybe 60?”

The answer, according to The Fielding Bible’s Defensive Runs Saved statistic, is 72 through Friday — more than a run every two games or, if you prefer, about as many runs as Wade Davis has given up. Baseball’s best defensive metric examines every play in every game and ranks the Royals the best in the American League by a wide margin. Actually, it’s tracking as the best since a Chicago man named John Dewan started the statistic 11 years ago.

Using the 10-runs-saved-equals-a-win rule, that means the Royals have won between seven and eight games more than they would have with an average defense, and 14 or 15 more than they would with the league’s worst defense (which they had as recently as 2010).

That’s roughly the difference between 60-53 (through Friday) or 53-60 with an average defense. Or 46-67 with the worst. That’s the difference between the Royals contending and preparing to fire the front office.

The difference between record TV ratings and angry protests.

Everyone can remember a moment. I did an informal poll in the clubhouse last week, asking seven players their favorite highlight on defense.

The runaway winner, of course, was Cain sprinting some 30 yards and perfectly timing his jump to reach over an eight-foot wall and rob Trevor Plouffe of a home run in Minnesota.

“Ha, yeah, the home-run catch,” Cain says. “That was fun. As you saw, the team went crazy, bullpen went crazy. I did, too.”

There are others. Cain is the Royals’ best defensive player this year, and before going on the disabled list Saturday was building a good case as the team MVP because of it. But it’s not just him. Nearly every position got a mention when the guys were talking of their favorite defensive moments.

Alex Gordon’s diving catch along the foul line. Perez throwing out base stealers from his knees. Mike Moustakas charging slow rollers. Eric Hosmer’s leaping catch to save a double. Jarrod Dyson throwing out the walk-off run at home plate. You get the idea.

Highlights are fun. The Royals have been on ESPN’s “Web Gems” more than any other team in baseball. The athleticism is beautiful to watch. The dugout goes nuts. The other side is deflated. These are all good things.

But what really matters is the impact.

And the impact is enormous.

The Royals’ defense has been something like a slimming mirror at a department store, making everything in its reflection look better — the girl next door turning into the girl in the magazine.

Subtract those 72 runs saved by the defense and the Royals’ team ERA plunges from second in the league (3.56) to 11th (4.20). Just on the most recent road trip, the Royals won games in each series that you could imagine them losing without specific, outstanding plays on defense.

But just like memory can be misleading about hitters or pitchers or where you put your car keys, it tends to distort the impact of defense. That’s why this recent revolution in defensive metrics is so important, especially to small-money teams like the Royals.

Defense might be the game’s most undervalued commodity at the moment. The Royals can’t afford Miguel Cabrera. They can’t afford Justin Verlander. But they can build the game’s best defense, and as it happens, they’ve gone all-out in recent years.

Their top priority in the draft and international scouting has been to collect as many good shortstops as possible in a farm system previously devoid of them. Their draft profile centers around athleticism. In trading Zack Greinke, they covered shortstop (Escobar) and center field (Cain) with potential Gold Glovers.

“It’s what we want to target in the draft, and all our acquisitions,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore says. “And to be good defensively, you have to be athletic and have the ability to concentrate.”

Defensive metrics have made significant progress in the last decade or so. Dewan guesses statisticians have gone from illustrating 10 percent of the full picture to 60 (compared with 90 percent of hitting and 75 percent of pitching).

The Royals are not the first small-money team to focus on defense. Perhaps most notably, the 2011 Rays had one of the best defenses in recent history.

“It’s not as much of a hidden secret as it used to be,” Dewan says. “But this is a place where teams can get a leg up by really understanding who the players are with defensive value, compared with other teams. So it does give small-money teams an advantage if they’re really using it.”

Toward that end, the Royals have played above-average defense at every position except pitcher — virtually unheard of in baseball. Cain, by himself, has saved 22 runs — 17 in center field, five more in right.

The importance of this goes beyond the raw numbers. Jeremy Guthrie usually mentions the Royals’ defense first in explaining why he signed a three-year contract here. Shields raves about it, too. Ervin Santana will be a free agent this offseason, and it has to help that he knows Kauffman Stadium and the outfielders behind him are a perfect match for his skill set. Money is the most important thing, but maybe a much improved defense can give the Royals an advantage they’ve lacked.

Either way, they may have really hit on something here: an undervalued part of the game that makes the pitchers better and over 113 games so far has turned an otherwise mediocre team into one on the fringe of a real playoff race.

So much analysis about the Royals has centered on the pitching, which, particularly compared to recent disasters, has been quite good. But that analysis misses that the defense has been historically terrific, and the bigger reason the Royals are having their best season in nearly two decades.

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