KC Royals fans, things are looking pretty bleak right now for the team. The team has only one series win in 2023, the second-worst record in the American League, and is six games back in the AL Central. All this at the season's 15-game mark. It is enough to cause boos, negative chants, and more during the Royals' home series against the Atlanta Braves. The situation is frustrating because so many things are going wrong, and you can't savor the things that are going right.
The KC Royals have not been putting up numbers in the win column, but let's look at some individual defensive performances.
Royals fans cannot jump into the pessimism pool yet if they haven't already. There are some good things going for this team at the 15-game mark. Kansas City succeeded nearly a decade ago behind a small-ball offense and stellar defense. While the offense has clearly been sputtering, there are some things worth noting on the defense. Some are good, and some are bad. But why should fans monitor these stats, and how have they affected the Royals so far this season?
Not Good: Edward Olivares' worst outfield jump in the MLB
When the Royals signed veteran outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. ahead of spring training, one of his calling cards was an elite outfield jump. According to the MLB Glossary, “Jump is a Statcast metric that shows which players have the fastest reactions and most direct routes in the outfield. It's defined as: ‘How many feet did he cover in the right direction in the first three seconds after pitch release?’” It quantifies the fans' eye test of a fast-reacting outfielder versus a slower one. The Jump metric is not kind at all to Royals outfielder Edward Olivares.
Among all qualified MLB outfielders, Olivares has the worst Jump, at -6.2 feet. He is tied for the slowest reaction time, but then his burst after the initial reaction is by far the worst. He edges out former Royals top prospect Wil Myers for that distinction.
Olivares has had some brutal plays in left field this season, and fans have noticed. He only has nine starts in the outfield this season, but his poor defensive metrics might force the Royals to go in another direction. This could be a number of things, from Nate Eaton getting more time to even Bradley becoming a regular in left field. The 27-year-old has decent batting metrics. and his 72-percentile sprint speed makes up for a lot in the field. But fans should not be surprised if the Olivares experiment ends in left field soon.
Good: Eaton's team-leading outfield arm strength
Speaking of Eaton, the rookie is still succeeding defensively when opportunities come his way. He only has 45 innings of work in the outfield this season, but his arm is clearly the best on the team. FanGraphs, besides writing a great piece after Eaton's shutout inning as a reliever, is very kind to the former 632nd overall pick.
Eaton has two defensive runs saved (DRS) as an outfielder in 2023, according to Fielding Bible. Both of those can be attributed to his cannon of an arm in right field. His rARM metric, part of Fielding Bible's DRS calculations, leads all Royals outfielders and could lead the league if Eaton has more opportunities. After all, he did lead all MLB players in arm strength last season, according to Baseball Savant. He had the hardest throw among qualified MLB players in the 2022 season, a 103.3-mph scorcher from the outfield. His 98.1 average throw speed narrowly edged out Atlanta Braves' Ronald Acuña Jr.
In addition to his arm strength, Eaton has also shown great speed and agility in the outfield, making difficult catches look easy. His defensive prowess is a valuable asset to the team. If the Royals want to focus on building a defensive outfield to help the pitching, Eaton needs to get more playing time.
Good: Bobby Witt Jr.'s average defense
This is perhaps the most underappreciated metric here. Royals fans started doubting shortstop Bobby Witt Jr.'s future at the position in the 2022 season. The rookie showed a solid glove in the minors but had a horrendous -9 outs above average (OAA) in his debut season. For every highlight throw he made, there were two or three plays with mental errors. Calls for him to move to third base were met by new manager Matt Quatraro committing to Witt at shortstop.
"I think there was some technique things — footwork, body position. I think really it just came down to reps, and I think getting more reps at the big-league level is going to be the thing that helps him the most."- Royals manager
So far, Witt has looked average as a defensive shortstop, and fans have been criminally overlooking it. He has 1 OAA in 2023, a ten-point shift from his 2022 performance. It is only 15 games, but this is what fans wanted to see from Witt in the 2023 season. Everyone knew he would be an annual contender for the 30-30 club, but seeing an even average defender at shortstop is welcome. Royals fans should watch Witt in the field closely because his making the simple plays could lead to more career-defining highlights for years to come.