Defense Wins Championships, or Maybe Just an ALDS

The Kansas City Royals first-place surge in the AL Central is due to their defense. Can they keep it up?

The last time the Kansas City Royals were in the playoffs, MacGyver debuted on TV.

September 29, 1985 (the precise day the aforementioned TV show debuted), the Kansas City Royals face off against the Minnesota Twins, and to their misfortune, they lose the game 6-3, although George Brett batted in two runs boosting him over the coveted 100 RBI mark for the first time since 1980. Brett went on to finish second in the MVP voting, and the Royals went on to win the World Series.

It's been 28 years since the Royals beat the Cardinals to claim the 1985 World Series. It's also been 28 years since the Royals have made the playoffs. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Royals have a 68.2 percent chance of making the playoffs this year, and the way they're going about their winning are by measures that are known to work more commonly in the NFL…defense.

Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Jarod Dyson make up the best defensive outfield in the American League, and arguably the entire MLB. According to FanGraphs, the Royals outfield has combined for 39 DRS (defensive runs saved) this season, which sits atop the American League, six better than the second place Red Sox and 18 better than the third-place Athletics.

Alex Gordon218.223.9
Jarrod Dyson151.516.7
Lorenzo Cain 11-1.17.6

An even more impressive testament to how spectacular the Royals outfield has been from a defensive standpoint is found under the advanced statistic UZR. Ultimate Zone Rating combines four different aspects of defensive metrics to "quantify how many runs a player saved or gave up through their fielding." The Kansas City Royals are currently posting a UZR of 47.0, while the Tampa Bay Rays are over 20 points back, in second place, with a UZR of 25.6. To put the UZR in perspective, the league UZR average is 1.7 and FanGraphs lists plus-15 as “Gold Glove” quantity.

The outfield is carrying the defensive weight, but the infield has been holding their own as well. Salvador Perez, Kansas City's catcher, has saved nine runs this season, which places him only one behind league leader Russell Martin of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Rany Jazayerli of wrote about the recent surge of the Kansas City Royals, right after they over took the Detroit Tigers for first place in the AL Central. “That’s been the Royals’ approach all season: In the field, throw strikes and let the defense make plays; on offense, put the ball in play and force the opposing defense to make the plays. If the game comes down to a battle of fielders, the Royals have the edge.”

Kansas City774
NY Yankees906
St. Louis907

As you can see in the chart above, the Royals have continuously put the ball in play and as impressive as their defense has been, there contact on the ball has been equally outstanding. The Royals have struck out only 774 times this season, which puts them atop the major league leaderboard, and while good, playoff-caliber baseball teams do not strikeout often, the Royals have over 100 strikeouts less than the second-place Oakland Athletics.

The Royals are playing a unique game of baseball and it has done nothing but work as we inch closer to the playoffs. The major issue concerning this team is their lack of offensive production, and if they are to face a rotation like that of the Oakland A’s or Detroit Tigers in the playoffs, they're likely to strikeout more often then they have during the regular season thus far. There has not been a team like the 2014 Kansas City Royals and a World Series title with James Shields and Alex Gordon leading the way does not seem so likely, but a playoff berth is at lease a step in the right direction.