Judging the Royals

Why the three Royals deserved to win a Gold Glove award

Kansas City Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar threw out the Mets’ Kelly Johnson during Game 1 of the World Series.
Kansas City Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar threw out the Mets’ Kelly Johnson during Game 1 of the World Series. jsleezer@kcstar.com

In 2011, the tide started to turn for the Kansas City Royals.

The core of the team that would win a World Series started to arrive: Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain played their first games for the Kansas City Royals that year (although Cain only played in six games because of health issues.)

Alex Gordon also became a fixture in left field.

The improvement in defense was my first clue that the Royals were about to become a very good ball club. Once Cain established himself in center field, six of the eight position players were now at least part of the Gold Glove conversation.

On Wednesday, I looked at three Royals who did not win the Gold Glove this season — Gordon, Moustakas and Cain. Today I’ll take a look at the three Royals who brought home gold.

The three Royals who won a Gold Glove

Eric Hosmer: The day Eric Hosmer showed up in the big leagues a teammate said: “(Forget) his bat, I want his glove.”

The teammate was an infielder.

First basemen make everyone else on the infield better or worse. Hosmer is 6 foot 4 and mobile; Billy Butler wasn’t either of those things. With Hosmer over there, infielders could take chances; just let the ball go in the general vicinity of first base and Hosmer would take care of you.

When Butler was playing first base, his fellow infielders felt like they had to hit him in the chest or they might be looking at an error.

When we think of good defense we tend to think of hands, but if your feet don’t get your hands to the right spot, good hands won’t help.

Hosmer’s footwork around the bag is excellent; he’ll use the width of the bag to extend his reach to his left or right and the height of the bag to go up; Eric will sometimes stand tiptoe in the middle of first base to catch a high throw.

If that trick doesn’t work, Hosmer will go over the bag into foul territory and extend his reach that way. And a first baseman stepping into the base path — especially when you’re Hosmer’s size — can convince a base runner to pull up to avoid a collision.

Early on, Eric would get a bit enthusiastic with his scoop of short hops and if the ball didn’t stick in his mitt, Hos could knock it back to the pitcher’s mound; this season he’s cut down on that scoop and it’s paid off.

He also throws well. First basemen have some unusual throws to make — hitting the pitcher on the run when the pitcher covers first base, throwing around a runner after the runner is picked off — and Hosmer handles all those throws well.

If you spend much time watching the assortment of DH candidates who get sent out to play first base, you really appreciate a first baseman who’s an artist around the bag.

I didn’t see all the first basemen in the league, but I also didn’t see anyone better than Eric Hosmer.

Alcides Escobar: To my eye, Alcides Escobar made fewer highlight reel plays in 2015 than he has in the past — and that might be a good thing.

As players get better at positioning themselves they have to make fewer diving stops; they’re in the right place to begin with. So fewer circus catches might indicate Alcides is getting better at positioning.

Escobar is so good that it’s a surprise when he doesn’t make a play, but if you pay attention to him before the ball is delivered, you might see why that happens.

In the final game of the 2015 World Series, Royals pitchers threw a total of 169 pitches. Infielders are supposed to get up on the balls of their feet and shuffle forward each time a pitch is thrown — it puts the infielder in a better position to field a ball.

In reality, some infielders will take a pitch off; especially if they’re playing shortstop and they see the sign for an off-speed pitch to a left-handed hitter. The odds are good that the ball will be pulled to the left side of the field and the guys on the right side might choose to take a break — even though they shouldn’t.

When a ball gets past Esky that you think should have been caught, go back and look at how he started the play. If you see him standing flat-footed, don’t be surprised.

But when he’s focused and ready to go, Alcides Escobar is about as good as it gets.

Salvador Perez: The Royals catcher is immensely gifted; especially when it comes to throwing a baseball. After receiving a pitch the average big-league catcher can get a ball down to second base in about 2.0 seconds flat; when Salvy’s at his best, he can do it in 1.8 seconds.

Small wonder base runners might not want to challenge that arm.

But there’s a lot more to catching than throwing a baseball and that’s where things get interesting. This season Perez’s pitch-blocking technique showed some holes — specifically, the 5-hole. A catcher wants to drop to his knees in front of the baseball and fill the area between his legs — the five-hole — with his mitt.

Perez developed the habit of dropping to his knees and then coming right back up and that allowed some wild pitches to go under his mitt and through his legs; pitches that could have been blocked with better technique.

Salvy’s size can hurt and help the pitcher; Perez is wide and balls caught between the shin guards have a better chance of being called a strike. But Sal’s size also means the umpires have a hard time calling pitches at the bottom of the zone; they just can’t see the ball. And they can’t get on top of Perez to get a better view of that low pitch because he’s so quick coming out of his stance; an umpire leaning over Salvy has a good chance of interfering with a throw.

But the biggest concern about Salvador Perez might be his pitch calling.

On Sept. 5, 2013, the Royals had a one-run lead against the Seattle Mariners going into the top of the ninth inning; Greg Holland was on the mound. Hollie got the first two batters he faced while throwing eight sliders in a row.

With two down, Raul Ibañez pinch hit. Ibañez was 41 years old at the time and guys who are 41 tend to develop slider-speed bats. Holland started things off with a 99-mph fastball and blew it past Raul. He then threw a guy with a slider-speed bat five sliders in a row and Raul hit the fifth one out of the park. (Don’t worry: the Royals won the game in the 13th inning when Mike Moustakas homered.)

On opening day of 2014, it appeared the slider-speed bat lesson was lost on Perez when the Royals got beat by another guy with a slider speed bat: Alex Gonzalez.

Holland threw a slider to a guy in his late 30s and the Detroit Tigers walked off the field as winners.

This postseason Perez fell into a first-pitch fastball pattern with Kelvin Herrera. The Toronto Blue Jays broke open a playoff game when Troy Tulowitzki hammered a first-pitch fastball for a double with the bases loaded. Tulowitzki was the 13th batter Herrera had faced in that series; all 13 saw first-pitch fastballs. After the Tulowitzki double, Perez started mixing in first-pitch off-speed pitches.

Salvador Perez has a good reputation as a catcher because he throws runners out and most of us don’t pay enough attention to pitch-calling.

At one point, Johnny Cueto tried calling his own game from the mound; he was actually using the hand holding the ball to signal the pitch he wanted to throw. Apparently the Blue Jays saw it too, because they lit him up.

There’s no reason Salvador Perez can’t become an excellent game-caller, it’s just a matter of hard work and focus. He’s already got all the physical tools; it would be nice to see the mental side of his game match what he can do physically.

Until then he’ll just have to settle for another Gold Glove.