The Royals committed three errors in the first inning of yesterday’s game.  These things happen, especially in spring training and especially to young teams (or really old ones, I suppose). 

Anyway, it got me to thinking about defense, which invariably leads us down the winding path that has become defensive metrics.   Here’s one thing baseball traditionalists and baseball sabermetricians have in common:  they delight in thinking up variables that are not factored into whatever defensive metric might be up for discussion.   I cannot wait for the day when (if) Fielding F/X data becomes available to the public and the discussion over whether it is properly taking into account the angle of the sun versus the direction of the breeze versus the orientation of the moon.   It all won’t matter to us here in Kansas City who ‘just know’ that Chris Getz does all the little things and Yuniesky Betancourt really is a good fielder.

I digress…

While individual defensive metrics are likely to never fully satisfy the appetite of everyone, team defensive measurements are a little easier.  Bill James, long ago and before he was somewhat banished to the peninsula of the uninformed by the newest generation of sabermetricians, came up with a rather simple Defensive Efficiency.   Nothing fancy here, Defensive Efficiency simply measured the percentage of time a team converted balls in play into outs.   Of course, outs generally come easier with Roy Halladay sawing off bats as opposed to Kyle Davies serving up rockets, so this metric does have a pretty fair pitching component hidden within it.

That’s okay, however.  Dayton Moore’s mantra has been ‘pitching and defense’ since day one.   While it is humorous (and also quite exciting, by the way) that the Royals current greatest strength is a potentially dynamic offense, we know that Moore is still focused on his original mantra.   You need look no further than trading an offensive centerfielder with suspect range (Melky Cabrera) for a talented, but inconsistent, swing and miss pitcher (Sanchez).

So while Defensive Efficiency does not separate pitching from the equation, it does serve the purpose of defining the defensive side of the game, of which pitching is probably certainly the most important component.  However, one thing the original metric did not account for was ballparks.   As is so often the case, size matters. 

Since 2007, the high mark for the Royals was converting 70.2% of balls in play into outs and that actually occurred in 2007 and almost tied (70.1%) last season.  The league leader in this category usually resides up around 72.5%, with Tampa leading in 2011 with a robust 73.5%.   Those numbers, however, do not take the spacious confines of Kaufmann Stadium into account.

Baseball Prospectus took care of that for us, by adding a park adjustment to Defensive Efficiency and giving us PADE.  This metric is produced in a form where 0.00 is league average and 1.00 mark would indicate that a team converted one percent more balls in play into outs than an league average.   

Here are the PADEs of the Dayton Moore era:

  • 2007: -0.25
  • 2008: +0.34
  • 2009: -1.60
  • 2010: -2.24
  • 2011: -0.98

Last year, Tampa led baseball in PADE with a sky high 4.80 rating.   The second best was San Diego way down at 1.79.  In 2010, Oakland (2.72) narrowly edged Tampa (2.59).   The Twins were worst in 2011 with a -2.63 mark, while the Royals’ -2.24 in 2010 was last.

In the span of one season, Kansas City went from the worst defensive team in baseball to 21st overall.   They did so playing Aviles, Betemit and Mike Moustakas at third and with two months worth of Johnny Giavotella at second.   Not to mention a rookie first baseman who, despite some rather obvious defensive skills, did commit seven errors at first.   Advanced metrics are advanced metrics and eyes tell another story, but an error is still an error…..especially at first base.

Given that the Royals were running the second worst rotation in the American League out there every day, that level of improvement is a hopeful sign.