In 2011, the Royals had a terrific outfield. Alex Gordon, Melky Cabrera, and Jeff Francoeur – along with a few others – combined to produce the 4th best fWAR total in MLB. That outfield was among the best in baseball offensively, producing a wRC+ of 121, which was the source of nearly all of their value, as the group’s Defense rating (their combined UZR plus positional adjustments) was 3.2 runs below average. They were also valuable on the basepaths, but that unit did their work at the plate, and they ended up being worth 13.7 fWAR.
Through 80 team games in 2014, the Royals’ outfield is on pace to shatter that number.
Following yesterday’s loss, the combination of Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, Nori Aoki, and Justin Maxwell have produced 8.6 fWAR, meaning they could top 17 WAR before the season is over. Unlike that 2011 unit, this year’s outfield is much more balanced, providing slightly above league average offensive numbers (101 wRC+), along with elite defense and baserunning.
About that defense: the Royals current Defense rating is 37.5 runs above average. That leads all of MLB. The next closest team, the Braves, have an outfield Defense rating of 12.3.
That suggests the Royals’ outfield defense has been worth 2.5 wins more than the second-best outfield defense in baseball.
Granted, defensive statistics in partial seasons can be deceiving, but the general point remains, regardless of the metrics: the Royals’ outfield has been tremendous.
If you are a believer in defensive metrics, you’ll want to look at this leaderboard, which shows the highest Defense rating among outfields since 2000. The 2014 Royals aren’t in first place, but they are in 9th place, just behind the 2013 Royals. If 9th place doesn’t seem impressive to you, remember that this rating is cumulative. The 2014 Royals have done in 80 games what only 8 other teams in the last 14 years did in an entire season. If the Royals can maintain their current pace, they’ll set the record for the highest Defense rating ever, surpassing the 1991 Padres’ outfield, at 70.6 runs above average.
The effects of having an elite outfield defense can be seen in the team’s ERA-, which currently sits at 93, ranking 4th in the league. Some of the credit for that run prevention should go to the pitching staff, of course, but the rotation hasn’t been piling up the strikeouts this season, which means they’ve allowed more balls to be put in play. Since only one starter has a ground ball rate above 46% (Yordano Ventura), a lot of those balls in play are going to the outfield. And with this current group of Royals outfielders, those balls are falling into gloves at a very high rate.
Looking back at the 2011 team, the only high-level defender was Gordon. Cabrera had next to zero range, and not much arm strength, while Francoeur relied solely on his arm for defensive value. This year, the Royals are getting contributions from all over. We know that Gordon is likely going to win his 4th consecutive Gold Glove, and an argument could be made that both Dyson and Cain should have a good chance to win, as well.
Oddly enough, Cain’s chances of winning one may have actually gone down after he moved to right, since voters may think he didn’t play enough innings at either position. I’m sure Cain would love to have that award on his mantle, but I’m guessing he would also be fine not winning it, if his move made the team a better contender for the postseason.
Yesterday, I talked a bit about Dyson, and why the Royals should platoon him with Aoki when the latter returns from injury. This platoon would maximize both players’ skillsets, and allow the superior defender to have more time in the outfield. Remember, the outfielders have been on this torrid pace with an underperforming Aoki in right field for much of the season. Replacing his bat and glove in situations in which he’s not normally successful should allow the team’s outfield to produce at an even higher level.
The 2014 Royals are an elite defensive team, but their outfield takes that eliteness to a whole new level. They each have excellent range and above average arms, at minimum. They can track down fly balls in the gap, at the warning track, or charging toward the infield. Because of the outfield’s defensive performance, they’ve turned a good pitching staff into a great one, and a below average team into a team fighting for a playoff berth.