It turns out there was a price for gunning down all of those base-runners from the outfield over the last two seasons. Too often, the Royals now realize, they surrendered extra-base hits because of their shallow positioning.
Cue up a new approach.
“You want to help cut off runs,” said Rusty Kuntz, who replaced Doug Sisson as the club’s outfield coach on Aug. 4. “To do that, you gravitate toward the infield. But there are some situations where you’re actually helping if you move back.
“I’m a little more conservative than what was here before. Outfield assists are great, but doubles and triples over your head produce a lot of runs. In some situations, we’re a little deeper now than before. In some situations, we’re not.”
The change should be particularly noticeable this week in a homestand against the A’s and White Sox because the more-spacious acreage at Kauffman Stadium offers a contrast to the tighter dimensions found last week in road games at Chicago and Baltimore.
“When you get to our place,” right fielder Jeff Francoeur confirmed, “you’ve got to cover a lot more ground. When the ball hits the gap there, it’s trouble.”
Sisson believed the percentages argued for shallow positioning, which enable outfielders a better shot at chasing down bloops beyond the infield and throwing out runners.
And the club’s success at throwing out base-runners skyrocketed under that approach.
The Royals led the majors last year with 51 outfield assists and are leading again this season with 30. Left fielder Alex Gordon topped all outfielders last year with a club-record 20 assists while winning a Gold Glove.
Point to note: Gordon’s positioning hasn’t changed much.
“There have been a couple of instances,” he said, “when Rusty has pushed me back, but it was a situational thing. I don’t feel like I’m playing a lot deeper. Others maybe. Me? No, not so much.”
Manager Ned Yost ordered the deeper positioning a few days prior to firing Sisson because he believed the cost of playing shallow outweighed the rewards.
Yost cited a need to protect center fielder Lorenzo Cain, who continues to nurse sore legs following surgery to repair a torn flexor; while noting Francoeur “has slowed down a little bit.”
Francoeur said he has always played shallow.
“That’s because in Atlanta, where I came up, we always played shallow,” he said. “That might be because Andruw Jones was there, and that’s just what we did. But there have definitely been a few times this year when I’ve found myself playing too shallow.”
Kuntz takes it a step further.
“At this time of the year,” he said, “you have a tendency to want to play deeper because your legs aren’t fresh like they were at the very beginning of the season. You want to move back a little bit because it’s easier to come in than to go back.
“We’re talking about the dog days of August and then September. I’ve got a couple of center fielders, with Cain and (Jarrod) Dyson, who don’t know a whole lot about September yet.
“Even though they’ve got the wheels, some of it might be left in the clubhouse because you get tired. We have a big outfield, and the better way to protect it is probably to move back a little bit because your legs just aren’t as good in August as they were in April.”
Francoeur said the revised approach is adaptable to the situation.
“When there’s nobody on,” he said, “I don’t think I play as deep. But say there’s a runner on first with two outs, I’ve moved back some just to make sure if there is a gapper, I can get there quickly.
“I like the change. You know, there’s no one right or wrong way to play. It’s funny. There was a play (last Friday in Baltimore) when Wilson (Betemit) came up, and I was playing him in the gap on his last at-bat.
“The second pitch from (Everett) Teaford was hit right there, and I caught it. I just looked at Rusty, and he started smiling.”