03/30/10 10:00 AM ET
Improved defense is priority for Royals
Winter additions should help cut down on unearned runs
By Dick Kaegel / MLB.com
"A good defensive team is the one that you don't notice," Kendall said. "You don't even think about it, you don't worry about it. When the game's done and you look up and you've had a nice, good, crisp game and there's no errors, no wild pitches -- it's smooth and nobody even notices it. That's the goal -- the goal is not to be noticed."
Trouble was that last season everybody seemed to notice the Royals' defense. It had more holes than Swiss cheese and smelled like Limburger.
Zack Greinke, a pitcher of some note on that team, certainly wrinkled his nose a time or two.
Greinke noted that the three basic elements of baseball are offense, defense and pitching and he has a theory.
"If you do one of those three things, you won't be awful. If you can do two of those things, you'll be in the playoffs," he said. "If you can't do one ... that's why we were as bad as we were last year. Our defense was bad, our pitching was bad, our hitting was bad."
You could look it up. Of 14 American League teams, the Royals ranked 12th in hitting, 12th in pitching and last in fielding.
And the club won 65 games while losing 97, which tied it for the 12th-best record in the AL.
So the powers-that-be resolved to improve all three departments. They figured more speed would help score more runs. They figured healed arms would hold down the opposition a bit better. But they really went nutsy about not giving runs away.
No AL team coughed up more unearned runs last year than the Royals' 77.
So general manager Dayton Moore went to work and brought in second baseman Chris Getz, outfielders Rick Ankiel and Scott Podsednik, and Kendall to catch.
Getz was deemed rangier and more sure-handed than Alberto Callaspo. Ankiel and Podsednik teamed with David DeJesus would give the Royals three center fielders on the grass. And Kendall would stop those annoying balls that kept skipping toward the backstop and throw out some people, too.
"We've drawn the conclusion that our defense should be much improved," Moore said. "But that's all predicated on our pitchers throwing strikes and being aggressive and pitching to contact so we can utilize the defense in the flow and the rhythm of the game."
Defense is a difficult commodity to evaluate. Beyond the basic compilation of putouts, assists and errors, various complex formulas have been developed and have become trendy and useful in the game. But there's also the old-fashioned method of input from scouts and good ol' horse sense. Moore says the Royals used a combination of those factors.
Kansas City Royals
|Projected Opening Day lineup|
"Statistics are something to look at, but they are not the most important part of evaluating a player," he said during the winter. "You want defensive players that are very sure-handed, players that are instinctive to position themselves appropriately, players that are two or three steps ahead of a certain situation -- that's all part of the defensive player."
So the outfield will be different and the guys at second and behind the dish are new. What about the other positions?
"I think we're going to have a better defense at every position on the field," first baseman Billy Butler said. "We've all worked on it very hard and we're all improving."
Butler, of course, is just starting his second full season at the job and is still learning. But he's come a long way and while he tied for the AL high with 10 errors at first base, he also had the third-most chances at the position, 1,243.
At the other corner, Alex Gordon's repaired hip should help an already good fielder. Although his broken right thumb will delay his 2010 debut. So the quick if not rangy Callaspo will start the season at third, which is considered his best position.
At the crucial shortstop position, the Royals put their conditioning staff to work on Yuniesky Betancourt in an effort to bring his range back to its original state. Manager Trey Hillman believes he's moving better. But if that doesn't pan out, in the background is Mike Aviles who was a pleasantly adept shortstop as a rookie in 2008. When Aviles shows he can cut loose from the hole with his surgically repaired elbow, he'll be ready.
All things considered about the Royals "D," as Moore put it: "It's not perfect, but it's better."
Certainly there's been intense concentration on defense during Spring Training and it seems to have paid off.
"They've played really solid behind me," said pitcher Brian Bannister. "The guys are obviously working hard at it, very aware of trying to improve and I think we're going to see a big step forward this year."
Greinke, one of the league's most athletic defenders on the mound, knows the pitchers have been working hard at fielding. But, while surveying the camp drills, he saw that all was not the fielding of dreams.
"There are still guys on our team that make the same fundamental mistakes as they always do because they don't value it," Greinke said. "If someone thinks it's important, they'll do it better, but there's still a couple people that don't truly feel it's that important to their game."
So, apparently, there's a bit of attitude adjusting that needs to be done.
Getting back to the three essentials of hitting, pitching and fielding, Greinke thought about the 2008 season when the 75 victories were the Royals' most in the past six years.
"We were a little better because our pitching was OK, our defense was bad and our hitting was bad," he said. "Our pitching since hasn't been good. None of it has been good since I've been here. We've had it OK at times but never good."
How will we know if the defense is good this year?
Simple. As Kendall put it, it'll be so smooth that we'll never notice it.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.