Judging the Royals

Are Royals better off with Alex Gordon’s great glove (and poor bat) in the lineup?

Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon (4)
Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon (4) TNS

In the fourth inning of the Royals’ 7-6 win over the Tigers on Sunday, Alex Gordon went up and over the left-field fence and robbed Mikie Mahtook of a three-run home run.

Gordon’s play kept three runs off the board in a game the Royals won by a single run.

Fans get obsessed with offense, but in the big leagues, they don’t care if you put runs on the board or keep them off; robbing a hit is just as good as getting one.

To everybody in the Royals dugout, Gordon robbing a three-run homer from the Tigers was just as good as hitting a three-run homer for the Royals.

Defense up the middle, offense in the corners

Teams want good defense up the middle — catcher, shortstop, second base and center field — because those guys handle the ball a lot. A team might put up with a light-hitting shortstop if he’s making up for his offense with his defense.

But if you’re going to carry a light-hitting shortstop for his defense, you better get offense from somewhere else; so the guys who play the corners — third base, first base, left and right field — need to hit.

That’s the theory, but in real life things aren’t always quite so clear cut.

The Royals have three guys playing up the middle who also do pretty well at the plate: Lorenzo Cain, Whit Merrifield and Salvador Perez. Does that mean they can afford to have a left fielder who’s currently hitting .198 and slugging .283?

Entering Tuesday, the Royals were second-to-last in the American League in runs scored so you might think the answer is no, but remember: in real life, Ned Yost has to choose between the players he has, not the players he wished he had.

The Royals’ choices for a third outfielder

When Ned makes out a lineup, as long as those two players are available, Lorenzo Cain and Melky Cabrera are probably going to be in it. Right now Ned’s choices for a third outfielder are Alex Gordon, Jorge Bonifacio, Paulo Orlando and Terrance Gore.

Despite his speed, Gore does not have the reputation for being a great defender; his main worth is as a late-inning pinch runner who can steal a bag and score runs.

Orlando got hurt in the minors, but when he was healthy, hit well and has appeared in three games since being called back up to the Royals.

Bonifacio has hit .254 while slugging .432, but Bonifacio’s defense has been suspect.

Back at the beginning of August, when Gordon got some days off to work on his swing and Bonifacio played, I asked whether the Royals had a better chance of winning with Bonifacio’s bat or Gordon’s glove in the lineup and the question still applies.

But if Ned goes with Gordon, catches like the one Alex made on Monday will be part of the reason.

But Gordon’s best plays aren’t always spectacular

Rusty Kuntz positions the outfield defense and says he doesn’t have to worry about Gordon: Rusty can concentrate on center and right field because Gordon is able to position himself. So when we see a routine fly ball hit to left field and Gordon’s under it, he gets some of the credit.

And some of his best plays are ones Gordon doesn’t have to make.

When a ball is hit down the left-field line, hitters think double: the left fielder will be going away from second base when he fields the ball so he won’t make a strong throw back to the infield.

But Gordon knows how to run a route that has him fielding a ball down the left-field line while headed back toward second base; his reputation for having a quick release and a strong and accurate arm keeps a lot of hitters from taking second base.

Unless you pay attention and know what to look for, you might not realize how many doubles Gordon turns into singles, or how many times runners don’t go first-to-third or second-to-home when Gordon has the ball in his hands.

We might miss that, but his manager and teammates don’t.

Gordon has had a dreadful year at the plate and he’ll be the first one to say so, but because of his defense, he still might be the best option the Royals currently have.

Some fans have expressed surprise or disgust or scorn when they see Gordon’s name in the lineup, but Ned Yost and the rest of the Royals know what defense can be worth.