The idea is to quantify the Royals’ biggest strength, the one that shows up night after day after night, and we can try to do this a few ways.
The first is the most obvious, and the most fun, and that’s to watch some of their best plays. You probably remember most of these, starting with what might be the catch of the year in baseball so far, the time that Alex Gordon sprinted directly into a White Sox fan, jumping into the second row to make a catch that had to be retired after 50 days as the reigning Web Gem on “Baseball Tonight.”
Of course, there was also Alcides Escobar no-look flipping, or Escobar bare-handing, or Lorenzo Cain sprinting 100 feet or so into the right-field wall, or Gordon crashing into the fence hard enough that a teammate swore his nose poked through.
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There are other ways to do this, too. Because the Royals’ defensive brilliance is about more than highlights. It is also about a steady and often subtle consistency that helps a team with a duct-tape rotation and without much power lead the American League Central as the season nears the halfway point.
At the end of June, the Royals stood 4 1/2 games ahead of the Twins and had 38 Defensive Runs Saved. The Twins were at minus-13, meaning that with the standard 10-runs-per-win rule applied to advanced metrics, the entire difference between the teams was in defense.
All other things being equal, with an average defense, the Royals would’ve entered July with a record of 40-34 instead of 44-30. That’s a full-season pace of 88 wins instead of 96. A year ago, Oakland took the second wild card with 88 wins. Baltimore won the AL East and had the league’s second-best record with 96 wins.
There are other ways to do this, too. Entering July, American League teams had given up, on average, 25 unearned runs. The A’s had the most, with 40 The Royals had given up just 12.
The Royals defense also leaves indications of its greatness hidden in the team’s pitching statistics. It’s not just the unearned runs that aren’t scoring, but the earned runs that never have a chance.
A metric called xFIP is an indication of what a pitcher’s ERA should be, zeroing out everything out of the pitcher’s control. A lucky pitcher or one who pitches in front of a great defense will have a higher xFIP than his ERA.
Among American League clubs, entering Thursday’s games the Royals ranked fourth in ERA (3.56) but 13th in xFIP (4.15). That’s more than one run every two games that isn’t scoring against the Royals, and the biggest difference of any team in baseball.
No wonder Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie and Chris Young all talk about the Royals’ defense as a key reason they signed free-agent contracts, and others constantly reference the defense when they do well.
Toward that point, it’s worth noting that of the 18 men who’ve pitched for the Royals this year, only five — Yordano Ventura, Danny Duffy, Aaron Brooks, Luke Hochevar, and Guthrie — have a higher actual ERA than expected ERA.
Young (5.02 xFIP and 2.71 ERA) and Ryan Madson (3.38 xFIP and 1.72 ERA) are among the biggest benefactors, which shines a light on another important but often overlooked point.
The defense not only helps draw pitchers to Kansas City, but makes them better once they’re here. Madson, in particular, has talked about feeling like he’s grinding much harder than his terrific numbers — 1.72 ERA, 30 strikeouts and nine walks in 31 1/3 innings — indicate.
Everyone benefits. Average pitchers can be good, and good can turn into very good. This means the Royals get more and better production for what they pay their pitchers, a subtle but critical advantage for a franchise whose record opening-day payroll ranked 17th in baseball.
In many ways, the Royals owe their June success to their run prevention. They went 15-11, extending their division lead from a half-game to 4 1/2, despite scoring just 3.6 runs per game.
The pitchers have been the stars, and the Royals do have a lot of talent. Greg Holland struck out 12 of the 35 batters he faced in June. Wade Davis continues his robotic domination. Madson and Franklin Morales combined to give up just three run in 23 games. Kelvin Herrera gave up nine baserunners in 13 games.
On and on it goes, each man’s specific talents shining in baseball’s most flattering light, a Royals defense that is something like photoshop for pitchers’ statistics.