KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Defense may be the most unappreciated aspect of baseball.
Just don’t tell Royals pitchers that.
“One of the main reasons we’ve been as good as we have been,” ace James Shields says, “is our defense. Those guys have been phenomenal.
“It’s not unappreciated to us.”
Sure, there have been some Royals hiccups in the field of late. Misplays here and there — such as outfielder Justin Maxwell misjudging a liner Saturday that allowed two runs — are bound to happen to even the best defensive teams.
But overall, the Royals’ defense has not only made the average play, it has taken hits away. And prevented runs.
Baseball-reference.com, in fact, estimates the Royals’ defense has saved 76 runs to date, tops in the American League. The Yankees are next closest with 33 runs saved.
“Almost every game we’ve had at least one great play, and in every win I think you can come up with a play or two that saved us,” left fielder Alex Gordon says. “We play so many tight games, it usually comes down to a big defensive play by someone and then a big hit.
“Pitching, bullpen and defense — that’s been our formula.”
And that’s exactly the formula general manager Dayton Moore sketched in his mind when he took over the Royals seven years ago.
“When you play in a ballpark as big as ours,” Moore says, “you better be athletic and you better be able to chase balls down. That’s just a fact. You can’t have slow guys defensively.
“One of the areas we wanted to improve immediately, for sure, was our team defense. When we made that deal (the Zack Greinke trade), we were looking specifically at position players who could be exceptional athletes and who could play defense. We found them.”
The Greinke deal landed Moore a top-notch shortstop in Alcides Escobar and a promising center fielder in Lorenzo Cain.
Unfortunately, Cain was just put on the disabled list with a strained oblique and likely will miss a month.
But before he was injured, perhaps no Royal provided more highlight-reel catches than Cain. And you can start with his homer-robbing play on Aug. 1 in Minnesota on the last road trip.
With the Royals leading 5-2 and the Twins threatening in the fifth inning, Trevor Plouffe sent a blast that appeared to be headed for the Royals’ bullpen in center field.
”We couldn’t really see where Lorenzo was,” reliever Tim Collins recalls. “We saw Alex come to the ball and we saw the ball coming at us, then right at the last minute we saw Lorenzo and his glove coming over the wall.”
Cain leaped and pulled the ball back from over the top of the fence, robbing Plouffe of a two-run homer. The entire Royals bullpen leaped in celebration.
“I think we were all just kind of stunned,” Collins says. “We didn’t know what to think. Then we all got up and started cheering. It was pretty cool.”
But here’s the thing: That amazing play wasn’t even Cain’s favorite this year.
“That catch was good, but I think my favorite was the one against Baltimore,” Cain says. “The bases were loaded and it saved a lot of runs.”
That catch against the Orioles came during the first homestand after the All-Star break. The Orioles already were leading 2-0 when Adam Jones, with the bases loaded, ripped a shot toward the right-center-field gap and over Cain’s head.
Or so we all thought.
Cain raced back and then dived — fully extended and back to the infield — and made the OMG catch.
“He misses that and we’re down 5-0 and it’s the game, probably,” Gordon says.
The Royals went on to lose that game, but it wasn’t because of the Royals’ defense.
Cain also remembers a recent game in Chicago when he made three or four fully extended catches to help preserve a 1-0 win for right-hander Wade Davis.
“I kind of took a beating that game,” Cain says with a smile. “Hit the wall a lot, hit the ground a lot.”
But that kind of all-out effort from everyone on defense doesn’t go unnoticed.
“Lorenzo is a Gold Glove-caliber player,” third baseman Mike Moustakas says.
The pitching staff would agree.
“Oh, man, he saves us all the time,” starter Ervin Santana says. “They’re all good. You always feel good knowing they’re behind you.”
Other teams notice, too.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who has always had praise for the Royals’ young talent, said late last season that the Royals were emerging as one of the best defensive teams in the league.
“A lot of speed and a lot of guys who get after it,” he said.
The outfield may draw the most praise from those who see the team regularly, but the infield defense is equally adept.
Escobar’s range is as good as any shortstop in baseball. His only flaw is he sometimes lets his concentration lapse on the routine play.
“But he is aggressive going after balls,” says newcomer Jamey Carroll. “There are a lot of good shortstops in baseball, but he ranks right up there.”
Moustakas, who wowed fans with his defense last season, struggled in April and May in the field. But he has raised his level of play at third base the last two months, including the sensational double play he started Friday night against the Red Sox to help preserve a 9-6 win.
With runners on first and second and none out, Moustakas fielded a sharp grounder cleanly from Dustin Pedroia, stepped on the bag, and fired a dart to second base for an unusual 5-4 double play that essentially thwarted Boston’s comeback bid.
And any discussion about the Royals’ defense has to include catcher Sal Perez — without question a Gold Glove candidate — and first baseman Eric Hosmer. In fact, a recent poll of major league managers by mlb.com put Perez and Hosmer at the top of the list in the league in terms of tools at their positions.
Indeed, defense is an area of the game that virtually every single Royal takes pride in.
“We know what kind of pitching staff we have and we also know we’re not going to score a ton of runs every night,” Gordon says, “so we better play good defense.
“But it’s kind of who we are. We have great pitching and we play solid defense. We play tight games and to win, you’ve got to take hits away now and then. We take pride in that.”
You can follow Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter at @jflanagankc or email him at email@example.com.