Thanks to the help of Daren Willman at baseballsavant.com, each dot in the graphics below represents where the Royals’ expected outfield alignment of Alex Gordon in left, Lorenzo Cain in center and Alex Rios in right made every one of their outs during the 2014 season.
As you can see, there’s not a lot of space in left field that Gordon couldn’t reach to make a catch.
In 2014, Cain started most of his games in center field but often moved to right field in the later innings as manager Ned Yost deployed speedy reserve Jarrod Dyson in center and opted for Cain’s dependability in right over the sometimes shaky fielding of Nori Aoki, who left via free agency this offseason.
The Royals signed Rios this offseason as an offensive (and defensive, they believe) upgrade over Nori Aoki. During spring training, manager Ned Yost said his late-inning maneuver of bringing Dyson into the outfield would become “quite a bit less” of an automatic decision. The Royals want to see how Rios handles right before reverting to last year’s formula.
Measuring defensive greatness
Whether the 2014 Royals had the best defense in baseball is difficult to quantify statistically, but there are some numbers out there in their favor.
Baseball is beloved by many because it’s easy to compare players and teams through the generations via statistics, but advanced defensive statistics are relatively new compared to traditional measurements such as batting average or fielding percentage.
Here’s a look at three metrics that attempt to measure defense and how the Royals fared:
▪ Ultimate Zone Rating: FanGraphs uses Ultimate Zone Rating to measure how many runs a player saved because of his fielding excellence. A search of defensive UZR goes back to just 2002, but last year’s Royals defense was the third-best in that span.
The 2005 Braves led the way at 72.1 runs saved, followed by the 2009 Mariners (62.4), the 2014 Royals (59.8), the 2007 Braves (56.7) and the 2013 Royals (52.5).
▪ Defensive WAR: Baseball-Reference’s Play Index is a wonderful tool for comparing players of different eras.
The search criteria was simple: players in the expansion era (from 1961 to present) who had a defensive Wins Above Replacement of 1.9 or higher. Wins Above Replacement is a statistic that measures a player’s value compared to a Class AAA replacement at his position. It’s generally thought that 10 runs saved equals a win for a player’s team.
A total of 126 players had 1.9 or more defensive Wins Above Replacement since 1961. But only one team had three players meet that criteria in a single season: the 2014 Royals, with Lorenzo Cain (2.7), Alex Gordon (2.6) and Jarrod Dyson (1.9).
▪ Baseball Info Solutions: This company provides statistical information for BillJamesOnline.com, and the 2014 Royals ranked second in the American League with 41 runs saved. But the outfield alone saved an AL-best 46 runs.