There is not a good defensive stat in the game of baseball. The most commonly used one is fielding per cent, the ratio of total chances minus errors to total chances. But this is misleading for a number of reasons. The first is the fact the obvious matter that an error is a judgement call by the official scorer and there are few decisions that are universally agreed-upon. It’s not hard to find almost the exact same play be given as a hit by some scorers and an error by another. Then there is the fact that a good fielder can actually turn a hit into an error (a harsh one, admittedly) by coming much closer to making a play than one with less range or ability. But it is the rules which are the biggest problem. There can be no error on a botched double play, which is ridiculous. A ball lost in the lights or sun goes as a hit even when it is a play that could have and should have been made. The upshot is that fielding per cent is more of a mark of how reliable a team is at the absolute basics. It’s not worthless, but it isn’t particularly helpful either. There have been attempts to rectify this, but until baseball changes the error rule and introduces a positive fielding stat as a counter there is unlikely to be an clear defensive metric. (For what it’s worth, I think the best way is to give fielders a defensive WPA. It’s a bit labour-intensive though.)
It’s too bad, but it does mean that an analysis of defensive ability is largely subjective and a lot depends on watching all the players on all the teams. Still, there are some clear conclusions that can be drawn and they show that the Kansas City Royals are the best defensive team in baseball right now.
Starting with the outfield, they have Alex Gordon in left field who lead MLB in outfield assists last year with twenty and is fourth this year with twelve. Over in right field is Jeff Francoeur who was second in the league last year with 16 outfield assists and so far leads this year with 18. (The next man on the list, the A’s Josh Reddick, only has 14.) It’s amazing that any team even gives them a chance any more; one would think the league would learn by now. But even as recently as last Sunday we saw Albert Pujols thrown out at third in a close game. It was the second time he had been thrown out by a Royal outfielder in just six games!
Behind the plate is now, after his injury, Salvador Perez. Perez rather burst onto the big league scene last year when he picked two runners off on his debut. This year he has missed half of the year with injury and yet still has four pickoffs. It may not sound like a lot, but pickoffs for a catcher are quite rare and Matt Wieters, one of the better defensive catchers and a deserved All-Star, has just one all season. Perez also has the highest caught stealing rate in the league at 47% (the league average is under 30%). If he had not missed three months with knee surgery at the start of the year there is a good chance that he would be nailed on for a gold glove. As it is he will have to wait until next year.
On the infield, the Royals’ only weakness is at second base. Alcides Escobar is arguably the best defensive shortstop in the American League, though a very good case could be made for Asdrubal Cabrera of the Cleveland Indians. (Don’t be fooled by the fact that those two lead AL shortstops in errors. In both cases it is a by-product of their above average range and throwing arms.) Escobar has more than once saved the Royals by making a seemingly impossible play in the hole between short and third in the late innings of a close game. At the corners are Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. Both are more known for their offensive production, but both are very skilled with the glove as well. Moustakas in fact leads AL third basemen in assists and put outs.
There are other teams who have better individual players at some of the positions, but none who possess the all-round talent of the Royals. Of the eight regular defensive positions the Royals are well above average in seven of them and at or slightly below at only second base. It is a remarkable achievement and one which no other team can boast. It has been a poor year for the Royals overall, but they are the best in baseball in this regard.
Bandon Decker is on Twitter, for those who wish to see his rambling about various sports in real time.