Alguacil putting Royals' infielders to test

New infield coach stressing footwork, while employing some creative drills

February 22nd, 2023

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Royals infield coach José Alguacil gathered a group of infielders around him Tuesday afternoon on Dick Howser field -- made specifically for infield practice -- at the club’s Spring Training complex. Alguacil set up a velocity machine low to the ground that launched grounders to the player, who had to field the ball quickly and cleanly.

But there was a catch: The player had to start moving before Alguacil sent out the ball. It forced each player to focus on his footwork first.

As Royals players have learned, Alguacil is all about the footwork.

“First step, making the right move, going side-to-side, reaction stuff,” third baseman Hunter Dozier said. “Which is exactly what I need. My first step is something I need to work on, and I’m glad he’s addressing it.”

As much as the focus on pitching has been since the end of 2022, there has been just as much on defense.

The Royals ranked 28th in the Majors in defensive runs saved with -40 last year, their infield specifically ranked 23rd with -8 outs above average.

When filling out manager Matt Quatraro’s coaching staff this offseason, the Royals targeted a new infield coach to help turn those stats around. Shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. had an MLB-worst -22 DRS. But evaluators are confident in Witt’s skillset, and that with small changes -- as well as more time in the big leagues -- he’ll become an elite defender.

That’s where Alguacil comes in.

“He’s got a ton of passion, ton of energy,” Quatraro said. “He’s very creative with the drills that he does, and I think our guys were really hungry for that. He really leaves no stone unturned. We’re probably going to have to back him off something before he either hurts himself or runs out of daylight out here.”

A native of Caracas, Venezuela, Alguacil played professionally for nine seasons in the 1990s. His coaching career began with a five-year stint for the Montreal Expos/Nationals from 2002-06, before spending the next 15 years with San Francisco as an infield coordinator, Minor League manager and Major League first-base coach. He developed a strong reputation and track record for his work with Gold Glove infielders.

The Royals knew about Alguacil for several years, and when Quatraro was hired, he brought up Alguacil’s name. Alguacil has brought new ideas and drills to a young infield eager to improve.

“You get these guys really young, see them grow, and hopefully some of them have a long career,” Alguacil said. “I was ready to come here and start working right away.”

Soon after joining Kansas City, Alguacil held a group video call with infielders to get to know them. He checked in periodically throughout the offseason, even as he managed in Venezuelan winter ball. He scoured through film of Witt’s rookie season and sent videos of drills he thought would help limit Witt’s mistakes.

“We’re going to get the maximum potential out of him and let him be great,” Alguacil said. “He needs to work on his footwork and first step. We’ve also talked about his release point. Help him understand what a shortstop has to do to be good at the big league level. He has the potential, no doubt about it. He’s a young kid, and things in the big leagues move faster. But he’s grasping it all and adjusting it very well.”

Alguacil’s drills aren’t what the Royals are used to; Witt quickly embraced the use of high-velocity machines to take ground balls. Quatraro also brought over a drill that the Royals did before batting practice on Tuesday: A coach flipped a ball to the manager, who hit it hard around the field -- harder than the fungoes typically hit during defensive work.

“It’s high pace,” Witt said. “It makes the game kind of slower. Last year, I sped it up too much myself. I was trying to play the game quicker than it needed to be played. My 80% is what I need to be playing at because sometimes I get going too quickly and just need to slow down.”

When infielder Matt Duffy signed a Minor League deal with the Royals this offseason, he was talking to Quatraro when he learned Alguacil was on the coaching staff. Alguacil was Duffy’s coordinator in the Giants’ system, and Duffy has sent video to Alguacil throughout the years to get pieces of advice.

“I love his mindset,” Duffy said. “He’ll go, ‘Hey, your footwork is [bad], let’s go to work.’ Instead of just letting me fail for two weeks before I go beg for his help. He loves to work, and he’s going to make everyone out there better.”