The Royals and the Case for Defense

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Neil Weinberg is the Founder of New English D and a writer at Beyond the Box Score. Follow him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

One of the biggest stories of the most recent offseason was the Royals’ big deal to acquire James Shields and Wade Davis for Wil Myers and a collection of lesser prospects. While the majority of analytical thinkers in baseball considered this to be a terrible move, many others have taken the Royals’ improved run prevention this year as justification.

The case against the deal is simple and the reasons why those supporters are wrong are quite clear. First, the Royals traded a major league ready hitter who could have helped in RF this season for a pitcher who was more expensive and under team control for fewer seasons. I won’t harp on the fact that Myers is tearing it up in Tampa Bay and has been worth nearly as much, by wins above replacement (WAR), in 49 games as Shields has been all season (2.0 for Myers to 2.5 for Shields).

At this pace, Myers would easily have been more valuable this season for the Royals than Shields has been, and even if his pace slows down, the upgrade from Jeff Francouer to Wil Myers is bigger than the upgrade from the available free agents to James Shields. And that’s only this season and doesn’t even consider the long term cost of losing Myers for 2015 and beyond.

But leaving that all aside, the Royals needed a bat more than they needed pitching. Entering Sunday they stand 12% below league average using a catch all offensive statistic called weighted runs created plus (wRC+), which puts them 12th in the American League. The Royals management misjudged their team. They did not have a surplus offensive talent and a dearth of pitching options.

More importantly still, and the focus here, is that the Royals haven’t pitched that much better in 2013 than they did in 2012. They didn’t make a big upgrade on the mound, even if they’re allowing fewer runs. They’ve only improved marginally.

Their strikeout percentage is up from 18.8% to 19.6%. Their walk rate is down from 8.7% to 8.0%. In 2012 they allowed 1.01 HR/9. This year it’s 0.97. All of those are improvements, but none are terribly substantial. Using Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), which tells you how many runs per 9 they should allow based on their strikeouts, walks, and homeruns allowed, they’ve gone from 4.18 to 3.90 since last season. They’re better but not that much better if you look at raw pitching numbers.

They have nearly identical ground ball rates and are allowing about one fewer baserunner per game on average. Last year they ranked 7th in the AL in pitcher WAR. This year they’re 6th. When we look at the numbers that a pitcher controls directly, the Royals only appear to be marginally better in 2013 than in 2012.

But their ERA has dropped from 4.30 to 3.50. Nearly a full run. If you prefer to look at all runs, allowed, the story is the same at 4.62 and 3.80 from 2012 to 2013. The Royals are giving up fewer runs but only pitching a little bit better.

The answer is so obvious that it’s easy to miss. The Royals are playing dramatically better defense. Trading Wil Myers for James Shields isn’t why they’re giving up fewer runs. They’re giving up fewer runs because the defense is turning batted balls into outs much more efficiently in 2013 than they did in 2012.

Let’s just consider some basic numbers at first. The Royals allowed a .311 batting average on balls in play in 2012 and it’s down to .292 in 2013. Some of that could be because the new pitchers give up weaker contact, but the numbers I’m about to present will overwhelm that belief.

In 2012, the Royals had an Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) of -15.5, which means they were 15 runs below average on defense. This year, in three quarters of a season, they are at +49.9. That’s a 65 run swing, which roughly translates into about seven wins in the standings. Using a different defensive metric called Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) that uses the same scale but is based on human grades instead of a computer algorithm, the Royals went from +12 in 2012 to +73 through three quarters of 2012. That’s a 61 run swing and also good for about six wins in the standings.

Defensive statistics aren’t perfect, but when the two leading numbers are telling you almost the exact same thing, it’s wise to listen. The Royals have made huge defensive gains in 2013 and it’s responsible for nearly all of their progress in the standings. They are currently 9 games better in the standings than they were through 122 games last season. Defense accounts for nearly all of that and they’re still out of playoff position.

Using an even more basic statistic called Revised Zone Rating (RZR) which simply measures the percentage of batted balls in a given defensive zone a team turns into outs, the Royals are clearly better. In 2012 they turned about 82% of batted balls into outs. In 2013 that number is closer to 84%.

The Royals are doing an excellent job preventing runs this season, but it’s not because of some terrific improvement in their pitching staff. Their hurlers are better, but only marginally so. The big difference is their much improved defense. Last season the Royals pitchers gave up more runs than their FIP suggested they should and this year they lead the AL with an ERA that is 0.40 runs better than their FIP. The key to the Royals’ success is an amazing defense, not an improved staff. They could have given the ball to Kyle Lohse or Ryan Dempster instead of James Shields and the defense would still be making all of these great plays. And they’d still have Myers slugging .503.

The Royals are first in baseball in UZR and only trail the Diamondbacks in DRS. This is one of the best defensive teams in the league and it’s a big reason why they’re winning. They could be preventing runs this well even without James Shields and they could be doing it while scoring more thanks to Myers who, ironically, could end up being the difference between the Rays making the playoffs and the Royals missing out.

  • Daniel

    Great read! Two questions, though: Why did the Royals defense improve so dramatically from last to this season? And was that improvement forecastable?

    • Neil Weinberg

      Big part of the improvement is more playing time for guys like Cain and Lough who are both excellent outfielders who cover a lot of ground. Escobar and Hosmer are also both playing much better according to UZR, which I would imagine is just a case of talented defenders getting used to the speed of the game and settling in to their roles. There could also be a coaching aspect to it, or even simply some randomness at play. Defensive numbers usually need about 2-3 years to reflect a player’s true talent, but even in smaller samples they usually are a good reflection of what happened. This means that Hosmer might not have gotten a ton better, but he’s simply getting better results down at first as things start to even out.

      As for forecasting, my first reaction is that more data (ie how these players performed before 2012) and scouting reports would be helpful. The Royals almost all profile as good defenders using basic scouting reports, so it’s not all that surprising that the defense got much better.

      • Daniel

        Thanks for answering and helping me understand such a significant statistical change!

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