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Half-A-Step Better: How The Twins Are Reinventing Infield Play

When Baseball Savant published their end of the year fielding stats, the Minnesota Twins infield unit finished 25th out of the 30 teams according to their Outs Above Average metric.

For a team that aims to be complete in all areas of the game, it was an opportunity for improvement. They may have finished near the bottom of the league but they expect to be closer to the top going forward.

Here’s how they are going to do it.
Image courtesy of David Dermer-USA TODAY Sports
In terms of runs prevented, last year’s World Series-winning Washington Nationals’ infield core stopped 17 additional runs from scoring. The World Series participation trophy winners, the Houston Astros, finished second with 8 runs prevented. The Twins? Their infield defense cost them 5 runs according to Baseball Savant’s system.

For a team that won 101 games, it’s hard to say this aspect of their game was actually costing them yet the fielding metric is a significant decline from just two seasons earlier when the Twins’ infield finished with 25 runs prevented, the best in baseball.

Tony Diaz is the Twins’ third base coach but he also manages the infield instruction. He’s seen the numbers. He’s seen the publicly available ones. He’s seen the team’s proprietary ones. He believes the team is much better than what the numbers say.

“Obviously BaseballSavant, Fangraphs, and all of that, you have to definitely honor what they do, it’s objective data, but I thought we played better than the numbers show,” Diaz said this spring. “I think you can ask any member of our team and they feel the same way but that being said, we definitely have to get better and we are working towards it.”

In Diaz’s first season with the team, he oversaw projects around the diamond. There was trying to improve Miguel Sano’s defense at third base. There was working with shortstop Jorge Polanco’s arm action as he went back to firing balls from a sidearm slot rather than over-the-top. He managed a shift strategy that saw the team shift right-handed hitters in 35% of their plate appearances (second highest only to the data-driven Dodgers).

Now the focus is to get to more batted balls.

“One of our main themes is ‘half-a-step better’ and we are working on that consciously and hopefully our range numbers increase, I think they are already increasing based on the spring training sample,” said Diaz. “It’s a conscious effort by everybody and adding Donaldson to the mix is going to help tremendously as well.”

If 2019 was any indication, Donaldson should be a tremendous help. He prevented 7 runs last year, third best among qualified third basemen. One of his strengths was ranging to his left (3 runs prevented) which may help Polanco’s numbers at short. Plus, Donaldson allows for the Twins to transition Sano to first base where he can develop as a cornerstone.

The veteran has already ingrained himself within the clubhouse’s culture and has embraced being a role model. “He likes to share his knowledge and experience,” Diaz said of Donaldson. “It’s been a blessed addition, for sure.”

In order to improve overall, the Twins changed their routines. For starters, during infield work, Diaz uses a standard baseball bat rather than a traditional fungo. He also takes soft-toss feeds from another coach instead of tossing them up in the air himself.

“It’s about replicating the ball coming off a real bat, which I’m using - a real bat - so try to replicate that as much as we can so hopefully that translated to better prepared infielders,” said Diaz.

Fungo reps don’t provide the fielders with the game-like reads. While Tom Kelly’s infamous Good Morning rapid-fire fungo ground ball session that would last for two hours provided the players with excellent cardio, the reps were not mirroring what happens in game action. The ball spins differently off of the thinner fungo bat than it would during a live swing. It tends to have more top spin as a coach cuts down on the ball -- vastly different than an in-game swing. The soft-toss feed also helps close the gap in creating more game-like swing speed for fielders to get their timing down (more on that in a moment) and batted ball spin.

If even a minor change like that can help players improve by one percent, the Twins are all in.

On the player development side of the system, infield instructor Billy Boyer has been scheming ways to improve the overall play. Like Tanner Swanson’s approach to catching that disrupted the industry last year, Boyer and his staff have been rethinking how to do the same for the players on the dirt.

They have introduced dailies that warm-up the hands long before they put spikes on the field. They bring out a junior hack attack pitching machine, having players take ground ball reps on their knees, using different sized gloves and different weighted balls, giving the players alternating feels in order to be more connected with their hands.

“It's something we do every morning, we call it our tee work,” Boyer said, referencing how hitters will take multiple swings on a tee before seeing live pitching. “A lot of fielders will go right out to the dirt and start taking full length ground balls, we start in and just do a lot of routines that are fun, challenging and different. We're just trying to get the hands working. And then we add the feet, then we go full distance.”

The Twins also train all of their infielders at each position to increase flexibility but also because of the reliance on shifts. Infielders like prospect Travis Blankenhorn will receive reps at multiple positions to make him more fungible if needed at the major league level.

They have instituted some vision training, hoping to get players to fixate on the contact zone earlier and gain that half-step as the ball leaves the bat. Improvements in these areas should help increase the infield coverage.

There is an emphasis on moving at the right time. The Twins found that being in the air at contact can help a player react better. If you watch closely, a third baseman might not even be touching the Earth when the barrel meets the ball. This can help players gain that vital half step.

“I think technique can enhance [range],” says Boyer about using various prep steps. “I don't think it can astronomically advance it. One's ability to move laterally is one's ability. But there are techniques that we are trying to tap into to open up, again, the brain processing power and the ability to ready direction and adapt and move directionally.”

Diaz said he enjoyed working with Boyer and discussing techniques.

“We got a very good flow for communication, up and down and down and up,” said Diaz in regards to how the team values input from all levels. “Billy was here in the big league camp for the first couple of weeks. We’ve had numerous conversations and he’s got really good ideas.”

There’s a lot that goes into infield play but getting the as many balls as possible is the organization’s number one priority.

“Everyone is different so we make sure that we tailor our approach to the differences too,” Diaz said. “And whatever maximizes that first-step quickness, prep step, traditional or maybe walking into it, whatever they are comfortable with, we just have to maximize that on an infield basis.”

Half a step better. Everyday.

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16 Comments

Personally, I don't much doubt the external stats about the Twins' infield defense last year, though I understand why Diaz would disagree to some extent. Just the eyeball test saw Polanco with somewhat limited range and at times an erratic arm, Arraez clearly with limited range, Sano unpredictable. Cron was pretty decent at snaring off-target throws, but nothing as good as Herbie, Dougie M., or the M & M boys. Marwin is a decent substitute but also lacks elite mobility and at times looked out of position at first base.

 

Of course all of the four regular infielders (counting Arraez) more than made up for their less than average defense with elite batting, and often with power.

    • birdwatcher, JoshDungan1, Tom Froemming and 1 other like this

Great insights.Loved the essay.I sure hope it works because I am a big fan of fielding.I know that OF has now caught up with infield in value, but I loved the Mark Belanger, Bobby Grich, Brooks Robinson infield - so fun to watch, so hard to hit against. 

    • birdwatcher, Michael (ClassicMNTwins) and Melissa like this

Love how Twins are willing to look out of the box to improve, not just relying on traditional methods.

    • DocBauer likes this

I like the approach of using soft toss, real balls, and real bat to hit fielding practice.As a coach that hit grounders to fielders I agree it is not like a real hitter.Will this make a huge difference, no, but it will make a small one I believe.I really fear how bad Sano will be at first.I have long advocated that first base is an underrated important defensive spot.

 

Many think first is just there to catch the ball, which for most part is true in most plays, but they can save so many errors and make outs that many not have been one.In a perfect world the throw will hit the first baseman in the chest every time without a need to stretch.However, all too often even in a routine play the throw may sail some or hit the dirt.A bad first baseman will not catch it, and yes the error goes to the thrower, but a good first baseman will make the play and save the error from happening.  

 

In plays were the other infielder makes a good stop but needs to make off balanced rushed throw this increases the chance the throw will be off target.This again will be affected by the guy at first ability to get the out.  

 

As much as I love to see Sano hit, I cringe to watch him field, and now he should be involved in most of the ground ball plays and that scares me.  

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Michael (ClassicMNTwins)
Jul 22 2020 08:51 AM

 

Great insights.Loved the essay.I sure hope it works because I am a big fan of fielding.I know that OF has now caught up with infield in value, but I loved the Mark Belanger, Bobby Grich, Brooks Robinson infield - so fun to watch, so hard to hit against. 

The Orioles were the gold standard of the late 1960s and early 70s, definitely. Their infield was a rock wall against batted balls, so outstanding!

    • birdwatcher likes this

Do they split up the stats by position within the infield? Do we know, for example, that Polanco struggled the most? Or Sano? It would be interesting to see which one had the most difficulty making a play. I would assume Polanco as he'd get more opportunities but I don't know that for sure.

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Parker Hageman
Jul 22 2020 09:18 AM

 

Do they split up the stats by position within the infield? Do we know, for example, that Polanco struggled the most? Or Sano? It would be interesting to see which one had the most difficulty making a play. I would assume Polanco as he'd get more opportunities but I don't know that for sure.

 

The OAA metric at statcast not only breaks down each player but which direction is their strength/weakness. 

 

https://baseballsava...roles=&viz=show

 

For the Twins, the bottom three go:

 

3. Sano -5

2. Arraez -6

1. Polanco -14

 

Arraez was good in almost every direction but was poor at making plays going to his right (up the middle -6). I think just experience will help make him better in that area. Polanco was especially bad at plays in which he had to come in on (-9) but ranging to his right (toward 3B) was also not good. Donaldson's addition should help in the latter but it will take work to improve on balls he has to move in on.

    • Minny505 and rdehring like this
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theBOMisthebomb
Jul 22 2020 10:17 AM
Yes, brilliant of them to try to copy actual ground balls that players might see in games as opposed to just hitting off the fungo. Then, rethinking fielding with the tee work sounds great. Anything to gain that sliver of an advantage. I know coaching youth baseball that fielding drills were always the toughest to duplicate reality and actually increase skill.
    • Minny505 likes this
I like our bats. I haven't liked our infield defense for several years. And flexibility is good with all of the shifts, but I'd love to see guys playing in their very best positions. Donaldson is our only guy foing that. Polanco is dot a solid as. Arraez is not a very good 2b. And who knows what Sano will be at 1b. It's a good thing they hit.
Sorry. Donaldson is our only guy doing that. Polanco is not a solid ss.

 

The OAA metric at statcast not only breaks down each player but which direction is their strength/weakness. 

 

https://baseballsava...roles=&viz=show

 

For the Twins, the bottom three go:

 

3. Sano -5

2. Arraez -6

1. Polanco -14

 

Arraez was good in almost every direction but was poor at making plays going to his right (up the middle -6). I think just experience will help make him better in that area. Polanco was especially bad at plays in which he had to come in on (-9) but ranging to his right (toward 3B) was also not good. Donaldson's addition should help in the latter but it will take work to improve on balls he has to move in on.

Another point in Arraez' defense is that he actually didn't play all that much second base last year. Didn't he have more games in left? Along with more than a handful at third. Hard to improve at your base position when you play it so little.

 

Should be different this year and I suspect his performance will be better.

Arreaz started 42 at second, 18 in LF, and 15 at third. In the last two games I have recently seen he has cost a run by not catching a grounder cleanly, tho he got the out at first. I hope that doesn't become or remain a problem.

    • birdwatcher likes this

From the article: 

The Twins found that being in the air at contact can help a player react better. If you watch closely, a third baseman might not even be touching the Earth when the barrel meets the ball.

 

 

Is there any video of this? It sounds simultaneously fascinating and counter-intuitive.

But baseball broadcast production teams are not in the habit, much to my constant chagrin, of showing anyone other than the pitcher, batter, catcher & ump as the pitch is hurling toward home plate. 

I'd love to see this in action!

    • Longdistancetwins likes this
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yarnivek1972
Jul 23 2020 04:59 PM
IMO that the second best infield defense and the 5th worst had a difference of 13 runs over 162 games kinda tells me that unless your guys are absolute butchers, infield defense is fairly unimportant.
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Parker Hageman
Jul 23 2020 07:46 PM

 

IMO that the second best infield defense and the 5th worst had a difference of 13 runs over 162 games kinda tells me that unless your guys are absolute butchers, infield defense is fairly unimportant.

 

It's like catcher framing. The more you do it, the more opportunities you have for gaining outs and reducing bigger innings.

 

In infield play, the more balls you get to, the more outs you make, the less opportunity you give other thumpers a chance to hit. 

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Parker Hageman
Jul 23 2020 07:57 PM

 

From the article: 

 

Is there any video of this? It sounds simultaneously fascinating and counter-intuitive.

But baseball broadcast production teams are not in the habit, much to my constant chagrin, of showing anyone other than the pitcher, batter, catcher & ump as the pitch is hurling toward home plate. 

I'd love to see this in action!

 

There is a third or fourth replay which shows the batter and third baseman down the line. In it, the third baseman is in the air(*) while the ball is hit.

 

 

This is something movement people discovered from tennis players. Tennis players are often in the air at contact so they can react. 

 

Boyer came to Minnesota last winter and gave a presentation at our baseball conference. He showed a clip of some minor leaguers trying to race a clubhouse guy 10 yards in a meeting room. They were both looking at a screen that had a countdown that would say which way to run (left or right). 

 

The clubby was instructed to hop on the countdown of 1 before the direction would be revealed while the player was supposed to remain in a ready position with feet on the ground. 

 

When the direction flashed and they both ran left, the slower clubby beat the player by like 3 steps.

 

The notion is that when you come down you are balanced and able to move any direction quickly because your brain processed what is happening as you are coming down. If you are static, your brain first has to process which direction to run and then begin momentum. 

 

This is an especially helpful technique for corner infielders who have to read and react quickly. 

 

*air might be misleading, he's off the ground a bit. 


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