Royals' confidence high in acclaimed defensive crew
Trio of Gold Glove Award winners highlights one of game's best fielding corps
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Eric Hosmer, the Gold Glove first baseman, isn't alone in the Royals' clubhouse.
Catcher Salvador Perez, a few lockers down, also won his first Rawlings Gold Glove Award in 2013. Left fielder Alex Gordon, right next to Hosmer, won his third straight American League award for fielding excellence.
Hosmer glanced around the large room that houses the training camp's 60 players.
"With our defense anyone is capable of winning a Gold Glove, honestly, at any position," Hosmer said.
A case of Kansas City pride bubbling over? Perhaps. Even so, it's an indication of the importance of defense to a 2014 Royals team that has designs on its first postseason berth in 29 years.
MLB.com columnist Anthony Castrovince rated the Royals as the No. 1 defense in the Major Leagues, ahead of the Orioles and the Rays.
"Yeah, why not?" Perez said. "We've got some good position players here."
Who could argue?
Well, probably the Orioles, who also had three AL Gold Glove Award winners and the fewest errors in the Majors last season. The Royals, as Castrovince pointed out, led baseball in defensive runs saved "and they don't have a defensive weakness at any position."
Let Gordon take it from there.
"I think people saw our defense last year and really appreciated it," Gordon said. "Our pitching staff and our defense kind of go hand in hand. When they're working good together, we're a hard team to beat. We definitely take pride in every position being solid. We made two good acquisitions to go along with what we had and hopefully it'll make us even better."
The two acquisitions are second baseman Omar Infante and right fielder Norichika Aoki, players with solid defensive reputations who'll fill the two most unstable field positions of last season. The Royals used six different second basemen and six different right fielders, no one playing even half the games at either spot.
"Last year we had three Gold Glove winners and five finalists," manager Ned Yost said. "I just truly believe there's going to be a point one year when we're going to have four or five Gold Glove winners. I just think we're that capable."
Shortstop Alcides Escobar and center fielder Lorenzo Cain were also nominated last year. And third baseman Mike Moustakas was a finalist in 2012.
"That's what wins championships -- defense and pitching. With the defense we've already got and the addition of Omar and Aoki, it just makes us that much better," Moustakas said. "It just helps our pitchers when we have a defense out there that's able to turn those double plays and get to those balls that guys normally don't get to."
Royals pitchers led the AL in ERA in 2013 and reliever Luke Hochevar (1.92 ERA) believes they couldn't have prospered without a superb defense.
"It's comforting when you turn around and you've got speed and really good arms in the outfield and in the infield everybody's a potential Gold Glover," Hochevar said. "And with Salvy behind the plate, it just gives you that much more confidence to attack the hitter and attack the strike zone because you know if there's a play to be made, our defense is going to make it."
There was something else that struck Hochevar.
"There's not only the athleticism, but also the heads-up of the defense. That's what really impressed me last year," Hochevar said. "We weren't just making great plays all the time -- which we did -- we were making smart plays all the time. We were cutting runs, not letting them advance, not letting them take the extra base. Just constantly making smart plays which prevented a lot of runs. It was really good to see that, especially from a pitcher's standpoint."
The three Gold Glove winners are naturally at the forefront and Perez, the smooth strong-armed catcher, is the pitchers' pet. Not only did he toss out 23 of 69 larcenous runners, he had just three passed balls and a billion blocked pitches.
"Aside from what's obvious, he's a big target and he's athletic, he controls the running game, blocks balls in the dirt," closer Greg Holland said. "Aside from all that, his intangibles are really good. For a young guy, he really understands the game, the situations, he knows hitters well, he knows what they're looking for and he kind of keys off that. He takes a lot of the guesswork out for a pitcher as far as calling pitches and stuff."
Perez also keeps runners close because of his ability to snap off a quick throw.
Gordon earns a lot of ink with his throwing accuracy. Since moving from third base to become a full-time left fielder in 2011, he has more assists (54) than any outfielder in the Majors. He had 17 last year. More than that, he has a knack for making dazzling diving and leaping catches all over his territory.
A team that had trouble scoring runs last season, the Royals needed to win the tight games. And they did, notching the most one-run victories in the AL with a 31-25 record.
"If our defense wasn't doing what it was doing, we probably wouldn't have won a lot of those games," Gordon said. "Our defense definitely picked up our offense last year but we're working right now to get our offense going and maybe make our pitching staff's life a little bit easier instead of having close games all the time."
When Hosmer took over at first base three years ago, life suddenly got easier for the other Kansas City infielders.
"Having Hoz over there is like throwing to an 8-foot target," Moustakas said. "You just have to get it close to him and he's going to make the play. It takes so much pressure off of you at third, at short, at second, to make that perfect throw. You can bounce one or short-hop 'em or you can get rid of it quick and you're still going to record the out because Hoz is going to make that play."
Another point: The Royals had three pitchers last season that exceeded 200 innings, starters generally went deeper into games thereby keeping the bullpen fresher, and certainly the defense helped make that possible.
"Mentally for the pitchers, they know what's behind them and they can go out and not feel like they've got to strike every guy out," Hosmer said. "They can eat up innings, pitch to contact and get ground balls. Trusting your defense limits pitch counts and saves the bullpen and it just helps the whole entire team."
Defense is often one of baseball's overlooked departments but, certainly in the case of the Royals, notoriety has bloomed in the last couple of years. Defense has gotten its due, but...
"I'm positive you can ask each one of those guys," Moustakas said, "and to a man, they'd trade their Gold Glove in a heartbeat for a World Series ring. That's what we're looking for."