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Marlins want to emulate Kansas City Royals' World Series defense

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The Miami Marlins can take away one thing from the surprising Kansas City Royals run to the World Series: fielding and defense are important.

Lorenzo Cain and the Royals are in the World Series in large part due to their defensive play.
Lorenzo Cain and the Royals are in the World Series in large part due to their defensive play.
Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Royals are in the World Series after an unexpected, surprising, and surprisingly dominant run through the American League playoffs. That run began with a baserunning spree against the Oakland Athletics and ended with a sweep of both the Los Angeles Angels and Baltimore Orioles.

This sparked some discussion that "small-market" teams like the Royals can win games in baseball. They certainly can; witness some of the teams they downed, particularly the A's, who were the best team in baseball for a long stretch and held the best run differential in the game by season's end. But the Royals are small-market in a way that does not necessarily match up with the ultra-cheap ways of the Miami Marlins or Tampa Bay Rays. The Royals still spent $91 million in payroll this past season, which is closer to the league average of $114 million than the Marlins' league-low $43 million.

But the Royals did have one small-market advantage that they used to great effect this season. As Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs points out, no team did defense and fielding quite like the Royals this year.

The Royals have demonstrated the importance of team defense, and they’re doing it with everyone paying attention. They’re doing it while never losing in the playoffs, and they’re doing it without a shutdown ace or a mid-lineup slugger. The Royals are proving how far you can get as a defense-first ballclub, and while it’s not the only way to build a winner, it’s a way to build a winner.

Sullivan points out that the Royals were a poor team on offense this year, ranking last in the American League in home runs and walks. Those two things are usually pretty important. The Royals finished their year with a wRC+ of 94, which ranked 20th in baseball among nonpitchers as a team. The team also has a decent but unspectacular rotation behind James Shields. Defense is not the only thing the Royals did well this year, but it is the most obvious thing they have done well, and this has been more apparent on their road to the World Series.

The Marlins have, for years, been trying to do the same thing that the Royals have accomplished. The Fish have talked about getting back to the "Marlins way" for a long time, since their last World Series in 2003. The perception that year was that the Fish were carried by pitching and defense, and ever since then, the Marlins have clamored about emulating that design.

You know, except that they have done very little to make that a reality.

Never mind that the 2003 team was a good hitting team as well (106 wRC+ among nonpitchers, eighth in baseball) that was good, but not great, on the field. Miami has only paid lip service to the idea of "pitching and defense," but now more than ever, the team could pull off that strategy. The Marlins have a talented, deep rotation. They have a park that would reward an emphasis on strong defensive play thanks to its deep dimensions. And they have an example in the Royals, who feature the best defensive outfield in the game with Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and either Jarrod Dyson or Norichika Aoki and some of the top infielders at each position. Look at the list of Royals defenders and their UZR and FRAA this season.

Royals, 2014 Innings UZR FRAA
Alcides Escobar 1433 2/3 +2 +0
Alex Gordon 1372 2/3 +25 +12
Salvador Perez 1248 2/3 +4 -3
Omar Infante 1170 -2 -15
Mike Moustakas 1148 2/3 +3 +6
Eric Hosmer 1121 2/3 +0 +7
Lorenzo Cain 1111 2/3 +18 +7
Norichika Aoki 958 1/3 +6 -8
Total --- +56 +6

The Royals are likely to end the year with at least one Gold Glove winner in Gordon, and it would not surprise most folks to see someone like Cain get recognition as well after finishing the year with an ALCS MVP award in part due to his defense. The infield is littered with players with strong reputations as well. Perez has excellent numbers against baserunners and has a good playcalling reputation. Marlins fans know plenty about Omar Infante's defense, though that may have fallen off a bit in the years since 2011. Alcides Escobar was Adeiny Hechavarria before the latter came around. Moustakas has struggled at the plate but no one has ever doubted his glove.

The Royals made the playoffs in large part because they prevented runs with that defense. And the Marlins have the capability to start a franchise in the same way. The team already has a strong defensive outfield in Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna. This is a critically important aspect for a franchise that plays in a large-dimensions stadium like Marlins Park. Three rangy outfielders, two with fantastic arms, make for good fly ball outcomes for Miami. That success is reflected in the Marlins' pitching BABIP on fly balls. When the balls stayed in the park, Marlins pitchers allowed just a .070 batting average on fly balls, which is at least around the league average of .079 this season.

The infield is where the problem remains. The Fish feel they have a defensive anchor in Hechavarria, and that may be true depending on how you feel about his defense. But right now, Hechavarria probably profiles closer to "above average" than Gold Glove, and the rest of the infield does not approach that at all. Derek Dietrich had his struggles at second. Garrett Jones was always a bad defender. And while Casey McGehee did not commit errors, he also did not make as many plays as the average third baseman. The overall numbers support this too; Marlins pitchers allowed a .272 BABIP on ground balls, which was a lot worse than the league average .248 mark.

How can Miami improve this? The offseason provides us a few ways. Replacing Jones in the lineup is a possibility, either with a better defender like Adam LaRoche or by moving McGehee to first base and getting a better third base defender, like Chase Headley. The Marlins could purse a shortstop like Jed Lowrie and move him to second base, easing that player's load. The Fish have areas to improve in the infield, and that is even before considering just how good Hechavarria is or how poor Jarrod Saltalamacchia may be after a bad year behind the plate in 2014.

There is a way to at least approach the methodology in 2015 that the Royals have found this past season. But if the Marlins are serious about it, they need to stop paying lip service and start seeking out and properly evaluating defenders.