Judging the Royals

Route efficiency and Royals outfielder Jorge Soler

Kansas City Royals outfielder Jorge Soler ran down a baseball during Friday’s spring-training workout in Surprise, Ariz.
Kansas City Royals outfielder Jorge Soler ran down a baseball during Friday’s spring-training workout in Surprise, Ariz. jsleezer@kcstar.com

One day a bunch of reporters were sitting in the pressbox watching a game when one of the Royals hit a fly ball to the other team’s right fielder. It’s no use asking for details because I can’t remember the team, the Royal that hit the ball or the guy playing right field.

In my defense I also can’t remember the exact ages of my three kids or precisely how long I’ve been married, but if you ask me George Brett’s lifetime batting average, I’ll say: “.305.” Which, now that I think about it isn’t much of a defense and might explain some of my personal problems.

Nevertheless…

The guy in right field misplayed the ball badly; first he charged in, then started wandering back and finally let what should have been a catchable fly ball drop in for a hit.

Someone then tweeted the right fielder’s “route efficiency” rating and someone else said that it “seemed like a lot less than that” which made us all laugh because the route efficiency appeared to be zero. You could have hit 100 fly balls to that right fielder and if he took the same route he would miss approximately 101 of them.

At that point I realized I didn’t know how route efficiency was measured and after asking around realized nobody else did either. So I looked it up on the Internet and found this on MLB.com:

Route Efficiency is determined by dividing the length of the “optimal route” for a fielder by the length of his actual route to the ball. The ground a fielder covers before fielding a ball is known as his “Distance Covered.” Obviously, any fielder would like to have his Distance Covered be as close as possible to the length of his optimal route to the ball.

The optimal route is determined by the straight line from the fielder’s position at contact to the point where he fields the ball.

A fielder’s goal is to have his Route Efficiency as close to 1 as possible. (Route Efficiency is expressed as a percentage, meaning a fielder wants his route to be as close to 100 percent as possible.)

However, there may be times when a 100 percent Route Efficiency isn’t optimal based on game situation. Outfielders sometimes prioritize getting behind the baseball to make a throw, slightly hindering their Route Efficiency. And when a ball is hit near the wall, outfielders are taught to find the wall first, before making an adjustment if necessary.

Still, every outfielder wants to take the most direct route possible to a batted ball, and Route Efficiency measures exactly how well an outfielder does that.

A faulty assumption

I took that definition of route efficiency to Royals outfield guru Rusty Kuntz and it turns out there’s a problem: it assumes the optimal route to the ball is a straight line and that’s not true. The majority of the time outfielders do not want to run a straight line to where a ball is going to land. Most of the time, A-to-B straight lines are reserved for emergencies like screaming line drives in a gap, balls hit over outfielders’ heads or sinking line drives in front of them.

The route efficiency definition acknowledges outfielders “sometimes” prioritize getting behind the baseball to make a throw, but outfielders actually want to do that every time they can; it’s the preferred route on the majority of plays.

What makes a good route?

Alex Gordon does not have a bunch of Gold Gloves because he runs straight routes; Gordon is good because he knows how to run a route on a ball hit down the left-field line that has him fielding the ball while headed back toward second base.

Hit a ball down the left-field line and if Gordon ran a straight route to the ball, he would field it going away from second base. That would mean a weak, flat-footed throw and in that case a lot of base runners would be happy able to take the extra 90 feet and turn that single into a double. But because Gordon runs curving routes he fields the ball headed back toward second base and runners have to shut it down and settle for a single.

Running routes like this is part of what Kuntz is teaching Jorge Soler.

If Soler makes a diving catch, it’s not a good sign

When ESPN wants to show us great defense, they show us a bunch of guys making diving, sliding catches. But the fact that the player had to dive to make the catch means something went wrong on the play; the defender was positioned incorrectly to begin with or the pitcher missed his spot with the pitch.

What you want to see out of Soler is a bunch of routine-looking catches that have him headed back toward the infield; that means he was positioned in the right spot, got behind where the ball was going to land and caught it coming forward.

Bottom line: he won’t be able to do it every time, but if Soler is fielding the ball while headed back toward the infield he’s running good routes.If he’s fielding the ball while going away from the infield or sideways, the route wasn’t so hot or Soler was dealing with an emergency.

And you won’t need a route efficiency number to see it.

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