The Kansas City Royals have not quite had a season to forget, but it’s certainly not gone according to plan. But there has been one massive bright spot: the outfield. The Royals’ outfield not only have had a decent year of offensive production, but their defence has been excellent as it was last year. The Royals lead MLB in outfield assists for the second year in a row, but also have the individual leader in assists in Jeff Francoeur. He has nineteen on the season which is a lead of five over his nearest competitors (teammate Alex Gordon, Josh Reddick of the Oakland Athletics and Jason Kubel of the Arizona Diamondbacks all have 14). It is very unlikely that he will be caught and there is even a chance that he will break Gordon’s team record of twenty.
This is significant as Gordon set his record last year and in so doing lead the majors in outfield assists in 2011. For Francoeur to lead the league this year would then mean that the Royals have had the league leader in outfield assists in back-to-back seasons. This doesn’t sound like a major achievement and it isn’t, but it is remarkable. The last time a team had back-to-back outright leaders in outfield assists was in 1898-9. Put another way: no team in the entire twentieth century managed to do what the Royals look mailed on to do. In 1898 Dick Harley of the St Louis Browns led the majors and then in 1899 Emmett Heidrick did the same, though the team in question had changed their name to the St Louis Perfectos. (Now, of course, they are the Royals’ cross-state rivals the St Louis Cardinals.) But that was the last time, 113 years ago.
What is slightly baffling about this is that Francoeur keeps getting opportunities. This is not the first time Francoeur has had a good season in outfield assists; in 2007 as a member of the Atlanta Braves he was tied for the league lead with 19 assists and last year he was joint-second in the league with 16. The fact that he has a good arm should thus not be a surprise to any team that employs scouts. And yet teams and even individual players keep running on him. Jhonny Peralta has been thrown out by Francoeur trying to go first to third three times in the past two seasons. One would think he would learn by now.
This is a phenomenon that actually extends to the Royals outfield in general. Albert Pujols has been a victim twice this year despite having plenty of experience with the Royals. The Milwaukee Brewers seldom play the Royals, but some advance scouting might have told Ryan Braun not to try to score on a fly ball into left field for which Gordon actually had to come in. Time and time again we see teams try to get an extra base against the Royals outfield and time and time again, almost fifty times now this year, they fail. And yet they don’t seem to learn.
The Royals will be happy to fly under the radar, of course, and as long as opposing teams aren’t being cost important victories they won’t to have an incentive to learn better. (Though that is fuzzy. If the Brewers finish one game out of a Wild Card spot I doubt they will want to be reminded that the potential tying run was thrown out by some distance at the plate late in a midseason game in Kansas City.) But as the Royals improve in other areas in the next few years other teams might start to really rue their profligacy.