Half-A-Step Better: How The Twins Are Reinventing Infield Play
Image courtesy of David Dermer-USA TODAY SportsIn 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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