During his first workout as a Royal, outfielder Alex Rios pulled aside first-base coach Rusty Kuntz. In more than a decade in the majors, Rios has made more than $75 million and played on a pair of All-Star teams. But he has never appeared in the playoffs, and at 34, is fresh off one of his least productive seasons as a professional. His ears were open.
“If you see something,” Rios told Kuntz, “let me know.”
Kuntz pounced and tutored Rios on a technical adjustment in his routes. The tweak was minor. To Kuntz, the moment illuminated Rios’ willingness to adapt after 11 big-league seasons. It also displayed one reason the Royals believe Rios will be a defensive upgrade over Nori Aoki.
This belief could lead to a significant change in strategy for manager Ned Yost. By the end of 2014, Yost followed a script when the Royals held a lead in the final innings. In either the seventh or eighth innings, Yost removed Aoki from the game, shifted Lorenzo Cain into right field and installed Jarrod Dyson in center. With Alex Gordon patrolling left, the alignment rendered fly balls almost pointless.
As a new season begins, Yost explained, those late-game maneuvers would become “quite a bit less” of an automatic decision. The Royals want to see how Rios handles the position before they revert to last year’s formula.
Yost hopes to keep Rios’ bat in the lineup for the final innings, keep Dyson available as a pinch runner and still not lose any quality in his outfield defense.
“Even though Nori was really OK out there, you just knew these games were going to hinge on one run somewhere,” Yost said. “And you couldn’t take a bad route, or you couldn’t not get to a ball that would lead to that one run that would result in you losing that game. I don’t foresee that happening with Alex Rios, if he’s healthy.”
In conversations with Royals officials, the club listed a series of reasons to prefer Rios to Aoki as a defender. Rios wields a stronger arm and, at 6 feet 5, runs with a longer stride. While Aoki was an American League neophyte, Rios possesses a wealth of knowledge. He exhibits a comfort in the position that Aoki lacked, Kuntz said. Rios can converse with Kuntz and comprehend the coach’s flurry of in-game adjustments that shape the best outfield defense in baseball.
“He knows the angles, the way the ball is going to hook and tail and slice,” Kuntz said. “He brings more experience to the position. And he understands situations a whole lot better.”
“It’s an upgrade,” Dyson said. “Because, first of all, you can communicate with Rios. He’s got way more experience in the outfield. And he is somebody that Rusty can talk to, break something down to, and he’s gets it, like that.”
Cain added, “It’s definitely an improvement.”
This position contradicts the findings of advanced defensive statistics. Neither player is a darling of the sabermetric set. During the last three seasons, Aoki has cost his team 9.0 fielding runs more than the average defenders, according to FanGraphs. During that same time frame, Rios has been worth minus-19.8 fielding runs.
A survey of rival scouts revealed the difference between the two players is not considered that significant. One scout tabbed Rios as a Gold Glover in his prime, but mentioned his play appeared lackadaisical at times. Another scout cited “occasional lapses in attention” for Rios, yet still pegged him as an upgrade over Aoki.
The Royals nearly assembled this outfield last July. Before the trade deadline, they came close to acquiring Rios from Texas. The deal fell through when the team declined to pick up Rios’ $13.5 million option for 2015, and Rios invoked his no-trade clause, according to people familiar with the situation.
“That issue, it’s a personal issue that I’d rather keep to myself,” Rios said.
At the time, persistent issues with Rios’ thumb and wrist limited him. He finished the season with only four home runs, just two years removed from swatting 25. Despite his advancing age, the Royals trusted Rios’ talent enough to fork over an $11 million contract for 2015.
“He’s a jaw-dropper: 34 years old, and you look like that?” Kuntz said. “That kind of shape? You can hit the ball like that? You’re just sitting there going, ‘Oh my God. This is pretty damn good.’”
The analytical crowd panned the signing. When it comes to Rios, Kuntz suggested the discrepancy between his eyes and the metrics results from positioning. Gordon is the least agile of the club’s outfielders, yet his placement in left field is impeccable. He led all qualified defenders in Ultimate Zone Rating in 2014, and ranks second among eligible players since 2011.
The ceiling for Rios is lower. But Kuntz has been impressed with Rios’ malleability early in camp, which Kuntz believes would improve his defensive statistics. Between Aoki’s inexperience in the league, his unsteadiness in Kauffman Stadium’s right field and his inability to speak English, Kuntz found more of a challenge in 2014.
During his first two big-league seasons in Milwaukee, Aoki spent most of his time defending batters straight up, without much shading in either direction, Kuntz explained. Aoki preferred to charge in, rather than charge back, and glued himself to the same spot before almost every pitch.
The Royals operate a more fluid defense. Kuntz does not just ask his defenders to adjust from batter to batter. Sometimes he calls for shifts from pitch to pitch. Aoki was an “analytical” player, Kuntz said. He required an explanation for instructions. Kuntz would flash a signal and Aoki would hesitate before moving.
During games, Kuntz only had a brief window between innings to communicate, because his presence was required to coach first base. Soon after a sign was sent to the outfield, Kuntz would often receive a visit from Aoki’s translator, Kosuke Inaji.
“Nori wants to know why we don’t play everybody straight up,” Inaji would say.
Kuntz had to remind Inaji: “At times, I don’t have time to explain it to him. He just has to get there.”
By the end of the season, Aoki had developed more comfort with his home park. He seemed to gather more arm strength as the year progressed. He zig-zagged through Angel Stadium in Anaheim for highlight-reel catches during the American League Division Series. Yet the Royals still sought to upgrade the position. They gambled on Rios, a more classically appealing player, despite his worrisome performance in 2014.
During that first workout, when Rios asked for advice, Kuntz suggested he alter his mechanics when chasing drives over his head. Like 90 percent of players, Kuntz said, Rios executed a drop-step as his first movement, which elongated his route to the ball. Kuntz counseled him to swivel his hips instead and straigthen his line.
Two days later, as he swatted fly balls, Kuntz watched how Rios hunted for balls and noticed the difference.
“Just like that, he’s got it,” Kuntz said. “But he’s an athlete. And he’s coachable.”