Judging the Royals

Defense: Why the most important play is the routine one


When we think of defense we usually think of great plays, but great plays are considered great because they don’t happen very often; you need 27 outs to win a game and the vast majority of those outs will be routine.

Playing good defense is a grind. It’s learning to do things right and then doing them right over and over again.

Over the past two nights the Detroit Tigers have made some serious, fundamental mistakes on defense; mistakes that shouldn’t happen at the big-league level. Detroit’s mistakes kept Kansas City in the game on Friday night and helped the Royals win on Saturday.

Sloppy defense allows runs to score

Let’s start by looking at the fifth inning of Saturday night’s game: Cheslor Cuthbert led off with a single and then Tigers pitcher Dustin Molleken threw a wild pitch. At that point the score was 5-3 and Detroit was still in the game.

Christian Colon singled to right center. Cuthbert scored and the throw to the plate from right fielder Mike Aviles was off-line and too high to be cut off. That was a mistake. The high throw allowed Colon to take second base and move into scoring position.

Next, the Tigers brought in lefty Kyle Ryan to face Jarrod Dyson and Dyson also singled to right field. This time Aviles’ throw was low enough to be cut off by second baseman Ian Kinsler, but it appeared the Tigers did not communicate on the play. Kinsler had a play at the plate but didn’t seem to know it and never made a throw. Colon scored.

With Dyson on first base, but thinking about stealing second, Ryan guessed right and picked Dyson off. Dyson did the right thing – he kept running hard toward second – but first baseman Miguel Cabrera stayed on the bag to take the pickoff throw; yet another mistake.

When a pitcher picks off a runner who’s stealing, the first baseman has to take a couple of steps toward the pitcher as he receives the throw. That gets him out of the base line and clears a throwing lane to second base. But Cabrera stayed on first base so his throwing lane to second base was blocked by Dyson. Cabrera tried to throw around Dyson and it didn’t work – the throw was wide and Dyson slid in safely and later scored. Dyson was credited with a stolen base, but it was actually bad fundamentals by Cabrera.

Detroit mistakes were leading to Kansas City runs and – with the exception of the wild pitch – not one of these mistakes showed up in the box score.

And the same thing happened on Friday night

The Royals lost to the Tigers 4-2 in the first game of this series, but the only reason Kansas City had two runs was due to more sloppy defense from Detroit.

In the top of the sixth inning with runners on first and second, Salvador Perez hit a catchable fly ball to right field and that set off a series of Detroit mistakes.

When an outfielder has a play anywhere near the wall, he’s supposed to hustle back, find the wall (outfielders find the wall by sticking a hand out while they watch the ball) and then make any adjustment necessary. But Detroit’s right fielder Steven Moya didn’t hustle back and pulled up when he hit the warning track; he had no intention of coming anywhere near the wall.

The Perez fly ball dropped (it was scored a double) and Eric Hosmer scored while Moya chased the ball down. Kendrys Morales, the runner on first, was headed for third base and Perez was headed to second. Moya retrieved the ball and threw it to Kinsler, but the Detroit second baseman made a bad relay throw; when he tried to throw Perez out at second base, Kinsler bounced the throw.

The ball skipped past second and continued on into foul territory down the left field line. Now Tyler Collins got in on the act. The Detroit left fielder was supposed to be backing up the throw to second base, but he was late getting there and that allowed Morales to score and Kinsler got tagged with an error.

They’re called fundamentals for a reason

Think about the plays we’re talking about: failure to hit the cutoff man, failure to communicate, failure to back up bases. All these plays are makeable, even without extraordinary talent.

Former Royals coach Doug Sisson once said all kinds of team had won the World Series: teams that fought each other, teams that loved each other, teams that hit home runs and teams that hit singles.

But nobody wins without good fundamentals.

If Detroit keeps making the fundamental defensive mistakes we’ve seen in the first two games of this series, they’ll have a hard time making the playoffs and a harder time going deep in the postseason if they do.

When I first started covering the Royals in 2010 they made these kinds of fundamental mistakes all the time. Now they don’t. (And by saying that I’ve increased the chances of them throwing the ball all over the yard in Sunday’s game…baseball’s funny that way.)

But when there’s a routine single to right field and Alex Gordon is backing up the throw to second base or Eric Hosmer handles a pickoff flawlessly or a throw from the outfield is low enough to be cut and keeps a double play in order, we ought to appreciate it more than we do.

And watching the Detroit Tigers screw this stuff up should increase your appreciation.