by John Viril—The biggest change in the Kansas City Royals roster this winter has been their complete overhaul of their starting rotation. One of the major questions regarding the wisdom of these moves relates to how they will perform in front of the Royals defense. The Royals have brought in James Shields, Ervin Santana, and Wade Davis. They also re-signed mid-season acquisition Jeremy Guthrie. In the end, they replaced 4/5ths of their starting rotation.
The makeover could improve more than the team’s pitching statistics. It could also address one of Kansas City’s more puzzling sabermetric deficiencies: team defense. Though individual defensive metrics are well-known to possess many inaccuracies, team ratings are thought to be much more reliable. By that measure, the Royals defense ranked a disappointing 28th in Baseball Prospectus’ defensive efficiency ratings. Kansas City was also dead last in the American League. That ranking in no way matches up with the defensive reputation of the Royals’ individual position players.
In the infield, shortstop Alcides Escobar frequently makes spectacular plays by the eye test. He regularly appears on Baseball Tonight’s web-gem segment. Third baseman Mike Moustakas worked hard on his defense in the winter of 2012, and led all 3B in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR 15.8) this past season. Eric Hosmer is generally rated poorly in advanced defensive metrics, but is considered skilled at digging up errant throws at first base. Hosmer was talented enough to be Royals 2010 Minor League defensive player of the year. Salvador Perez is considered by many a top defensive catcher coming off his age-22 season. Moving to the outfield, LF Alex Gordon won his second straight Gold Glove, while center-fielder Lorenzo Cain’s defensive abilities are well regarded both by scouts and UZR (20.3 UZR/150).
The only problem spots with the Royals defense seem to be at 2nd base and right field. At second, the team has used a number of players. Chris Getz and prospect Johnny Giavotella were the most prominent options. The team considers Getz a good defensive player while UZR considers him slightly below average (UZR/150 -0.4). Johnny Giavotella is generally recognized as a offense-first prospect whose defense is below par. In right field, Jeff Francoeur led all major-league outfielders with 19 assists. He still had a terrible UZR rating (-5.8) due to atrocious range (-13.8 Range Rating).
With six seemingly “good” fielding players, the Royals defense should have been above-average in 2012. As we know, the team defensive numbers don’t bear out this common-sense analysis.
The discrepancy might be due to Kansas City’s horrible starting pitching in 2012. In a fascinating 2005 study, Baseball Prospectus’ Clay Davenport explored the question of whether holding batters to a low batting average balls in play (BABIP) was a skill which could separate future major-league pitchers from career minor-leaguers. This question rose from the conventional wisdom that career BABIP varied very little between pitchers at the major-league level. Significant variations from a BABIP of .300 are often construed as “luck” by sabermetric analysts when analyzing major-league pitchers. Davenport, however, reasoned that pitchers with sub-standard “stuff” would give up much harder contact, leading to higher BABIPs.
Davenport examined the minor league statistics of pitchers with major league futures and compared them to pitchers at the same level who never made it to The Show. He found that pitchers with a major-league future showed an ability to limit BABIP by 3% over career minor-leaguers.
Before the July 31 trading deadling, Kansas City’s starting pitching was so bad that one could reasonably consider them minor-league arms playing in MLB.. Through July, the team ranked dead last among MLB starting rotations with a cumulative 5.45 ERA. The rotation recovered somewhat after the trading deadline when Jeremy Guthrie posted 12 strong starts (2.67 ERA in 70.2 IP) and Will Smith and Luis Mendoza settled into the rotation. However, the starters still finished with an uninspiring 5.01 ERA in only 890 IP for the season. Significantly, the Royals starters surrendered the 2nd highest BABIP in MLB (.313 with the relievers at .308) The only worse staff was the altitude-compromised rotation in Colorado (BABIP .327).
If we apply Davenport’s work to Kansas City’s starting rotation, we could expect that the 2013 staff would reduce the rotation BABIP to .304. This rating looks much more in-line with expectations for a typical group of major-league starters. Of course, the analysis rests on the presumption that poor starting pitching caused the Royals’ low ranking in team defensive metrics.
While we cannot extrapolate defensive efficiency from BABIP alone, Baseball Prospectus considers it such a key statistic that its glossary states team BABIP can be used as an approximation for overall DEF EFF. However, even if we assume that the new pitchers will reduce the BABIP to .300, that would still only put the Royals in the range of the Astros or Indians—who ranked 24th and 25th in DEF EFF. While the ranking improvement is small, the overall number improves from -2.84 (horrendous, according to Bill James) to the -1.00 to -1.10 range (poor).
Even with optimistic presumptions, poor starting pitching seems to have caused only some of the Royals’ defensive problems in 2012. If the Royals defense is to improve in 2013, it will require progress from poor performers like Eric Hosmer and Jeff Francoeur as well as better pitching from the rotation.