Defense doesn’t earn anyone an entrance song, and historically, it hasn’t been a great way to get paid. Nevertheless, the Kansas City Royals’ recent opponents have learned to dread the appearance of defensive replacement Jarrod Dyson.
With three-time Gold Glover Alex Gordon in left field and Lorenzo Cain in center, the Royals always have the foundations of an excellent defensive outfield. When they’re tied or leading in the late innings, though, they insert Dyson, tightening up their defense like a constrictor coiling around its prey. In every game of the 6-0 Royals’ postseason run, Dyson, a self-proclaimed master of anticipation, has taken over center no later than the seventh, helping the Royals solidify their lead or prevent their eventual victim from taking one. His presence pushes Cain to right, displacing regular right fielder Nori Aoki and giving Kansas City a surplus of speed. Call it the ultimate outfield.
“Those guys catch everything that’s hit out there,” manager Ned Yost said in his ALDS Game 2 postgame press conference.
Yost was exaggerating the ultimate outfield’s prowess, but only slightly. Royals outfielders collectively led the league in both DRS and UZR this season, and Gordon, Cain, and Dyson ranked third, fourth, and ninth, respectively, among individual outfielders in DRS. The Royals outfielders’ arms account for some of the strength of their defensive ratings, but they nearly doubled the closest club in UZR Range Runs, which measures only how good they were at getting to balls. “We’re not just talking about a good outfield, or a great outfield,” wrote Baseball Prospectus’s Sam Miller on Monday, noting that the three outfielders’ 2014 DRS totals at the positions they play would prorate to a combined plus-80 over 135 games. “We’re talking about what one might decide to argue is the greatest defensive outfield of all-time.” It’s certainly looked like it lately, as all four Royals outfielders have taken turns topping each other with increasingly spectacular grabs.
Consider some simpler stats. In 172 combined regular-season and postseason games this year, the Royals have logged 1,512.2 defensive innings. The ultimate outfield has been in effect for almost a quarter of those innings — 360.1, or the equivalent of roughly 40 nine-inning games. In those innings, Royals pitchers have allowed 256 fly balls in play. And of those, 15 have fallen for hits, 11 of them for extra bases.
The image below, a composite created from individual heat maps of all outs recorded by Gordon, Dyson, and Cain,1 conveys how much ground the trio can cover. Red blotches indicate areas with the highest catch concentration.
From any 2014 games in which they were in left, center, and right, respectively, and not only games in which the three were on the field at the same time.
All teams catch the vast majority of outfield flies, so the heat map and the 241-for-256 fly ball success rate are tough to contextualize. To get some sense of how the ultimate outfield stacks up, we can compare the Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) and Slugging Percentage on Balls in Play (SLGBIP) that the Royals have allowed on fly balls with and without the ultimate outfield.2 These numbers are subject to random variation over small samples, as well as ballpark effects and team-to-team differences in batted-ball classification and quality of contact. Still, the stats support the ultimate outfield’s rep.
Outfields have an effect on line drives, too, but it’s a little more muddled: Infielders can corral some line drives, and the league batted .690 with an .880 slugging percentage on liners this season, which means that most of them are out of even elite outfielders’ reach.
With any outfield alignment other than Gordon in left, Dyson in center, and Cain in right, the Royals have allowed a higher-than-average fly-ball BABIP and SLGBIP. But with the ultimate outfield deployed, the Royals have allowed what would have been baseball’s second-lowest fly ball BABIP and third-lowest fly-ball SLGBIP had they sustained it for a full season. That’s particularly impressive considering that the Royals play their home games in Kauffman Stadium, which according to previously published reports has the most outfield square footage of any big league ballpark.3 Even though Gordon, Dyson, and Cain have extra ground to cover in their innings at home, they’ve allowed flies to drop and do damage less frequently than almost every other major league outfield alignment. And if we expand the sample to include an additional 154.2 innings in which Gordon, Dyson, and Cain overlapped in 2013, their stats actually improve.4
And which according to other published reports doesn’t.
To a combined .059 BABIP and .105 SLGBIP allowed on fly balls in play, relative to the Royals’ non-ultimate .096/.162 and the league’s .097/.166. The ultimate outfield’s combined 2013-14 BABIP and SLGBIP marks, had they been sustained over that full two-season span, would have been the best and second-best in baseball, respectively.
All of which made me wonder: When Gordon, Dyson, and Cain combine to form the ultimate outfield, what does have to happen for a fly ball to fall?
Let’s watch some GIFs to find out. The 15 fly balls that have eluded the ultimate outfield this season are plotted on the following field diagram at the locations where they were first touched by fielders, according to data from MLB.com Gameday. Place your cursor on each numbered square to see a GIF of the hit that corresponds to each point.
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Those videos, which are also embedded below, reveal seven secret routes to defeating the ultimate outfield. If Kansas City already eliminated your team and you’re feeling bitter about it, focus on the following outfield failures and reimagine the Royals as a club that can’t catch anything. If your team hasn’t succumbed, there’s still time for it to put these tips to use. It’s the only way to avoid spending the offseason watching Gordon, Cain, and Dyson diving, leaping, and sliding in your sleep.
Pray for Miraculous Miscommunication
Erick Aybar, June 29 (almost certain; 90-100 percent makeable):
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The numbers in parentheses after the date of each batted ball are estimates of the likelihood that each play would be made according to Inside Edge, which assigns out probabilities to every batted ball. This is the only one of the 15 non-catches that Inside Edge deemed makeable a majority of the time. On replay, it appeared that Cain, who had called for the ball, got distracted by Dyson at the last second and either lost sight of the ball or assumed that Dyson would snag it. This was the only error Cain committed in right. So that’s option one: hit a routine fly ball and hope for something extraordinary.
Make a Display of Dominance
Yonder Alonso, May 5 (unlikely; 10-40 percent makeable):
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Evolution tells us that the best response to a threat is to try to look threatening. The great horned owl, for instance, fluffs up its feathers when it faces a foe. It’s no more dangerous with fluffy feathers than it is without, but a more imposing appearance can fool potential predators. In this clip, Alonso fluffs his feathers on a lazy fly ball, taking a deceptively big cut at a 3-2 pitch from sincerely small Tim Collins. With the tying run on second in the bottom of the 12th, Gordon wasn’t playing too deep, but we can infer from the late jump that his first instinct was to freeze or retreat, all because of Alonso’s exaggerated follow-through. So that’s the second strategy: Do what Alonso did or try to top him. Take a knee like Adrian Beltre does after big swings. Flip your bat and skip out of the box like Sammy Sosa. Grunt loudly at the moment you make contact. Do whatever you can to disguise the fact that your fly ball is easy prey and you’ll stand a better chance of survival in baseball’s Darwinian world.
Aim for the Foul Line
Joe Mauer, August 15 (remote; 1-10 percent makeable):
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Mauer flied out to Gordon three times in this game before he hit on the obvious solution: aim for the spot closest to the stands that’s still in fair territory. Ideally, the ball should hug the line so closely that it looks like it’s foul until you see it from a second angle.
The ball was hit fairly shallow and likely would have landed on the line had Gordon not gotten a glove on it. In other words, Mauer executed the foul-line strategy to perfection and still nearly went 0-for-4.
Hit a Chip Shot
Xander Bogaerts, September 13 (impossible; 0 percent makeable):
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Xander Bogaerts, September 14 (impossible; 0% makeable):
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Jordan Schafer, August 28 (impossible; 0% makeable):
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Inside Edge deemed all of these plays impossible not because the balls were hit hard, but because they were struck softly. If you’re not blessed with big power, thwarting the ultimate outfield takes a gentle touch. Get jammed, inside-out one, maybe break a bat. If the resulting fly isn’t too high, it might fall in front of someone.
Walk the Thin Blue Lines
Endy Chavez, June 20 (impossible; 0% makeable):
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See those blue slivers between the big blobs on the heat map? Those are the few square feet where a ball might beat a speeding Dyson even if he gets a good jump. Sadly, splitting those slivers takes as much finesse as aiming for the foul line.
Have Warning-Track Power
Michael Bourn, July 4 (impossible; 0 percent makeable):
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Oswaldo Arcia, August 28 (remote; 1-10 percent makeable):
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Robinson Cano, June 20 (impossible; 0 percent makeable):
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Hanley Ramirez, June 23 (remote; 1-10 percent makeable):
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Joe Panik, August 9 (impossible; 0 percent makeable):
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Jose Ramirez, August 30 (remote; 1-10 percent makeable):
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Aoki may be brave enough to risk life and limb on the warning track, but most outfielders slow down when they’re running out of real estate. Keep your warning-track flies low enough that the Royals can’t camp under them and you’ll earn an extra base — or two, if you’re as lucky as Ramirez, who recorded the only triple against the ultimate outfield in 2014.
Play Wall Ball
Nick Castellanos, June 18 (remote; 1-10 percent makeable):
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Adam Rosales, August 22 (impossible; 0 percent makeable):
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Balls that clear the wall are the only flies that the ultimate outfield reliably can’t catch (although even that doesn’t always work). If you can’t quite go yard, fly balls off the wall sometimes work just as well.
If you have to hit a fly ball when the Royals are employing the ultimate outfield, you’ll have to beat the odds by placing it perfectly, so commit the above tips to memory. Aim for the foul lines, mark the minuscule gaps, and pepper the most distant (or closest) parts of the park. Try trickery. And remember to run it out, because once every season or so, someone might screw up.