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How Much Can Minnesota's Defense Improve?

Minnesota's defense has shown some flaws in recent years. Putting Miguel Sano in the outfield was an unmitigated disaster. Other players like Danny Santana have been asked to play a posiition different than their natural position. Brian Dozier has also been below average at second base. With all of these issues, it's hard to know what to expect in 2017.

The new front office made minimal off-season roster moves. This leaves the Twins with a lot of familiar faces around the diamond. How much can Minnesota's defense improve?
Image courtesy of Brad Rempel, USA Today Sports
Outfield
Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, and Eddie Rosario have all played center field at some point during their professional careers. Buxton's five-star ability was on full display during the season's first week. According to MLB.com, Buxton made the first five- star catch of the 2017 season with his Opening Day dive.

"Us outfielders have this thing where nothing falls but raindrops," Buxton said. "We take that to heart and want to be the best outfield out there. We're trying to be aggressive to every line drive and foul ball we can be. We know we'll have backup, so it allows us to play freely."

This young trio is trying to reverse a recent Minnesota outfield trend. Over the last five seasons, the Twins outfield has accounted for a -30 defensive runs saved mark, the third worst mark in baseball. With a pitching staff that gives up a lot of balls in play, it's critical for the defense behind them to be strong.

Infield
Joe Mauer was one of the lone Twins fielders to rank well as a defender in 2016. The entire rest of the infield projects to be below average. As I mentioned before, Dozier struggles on defense. He makes some great diving stops but that's usually the result of him not being able to get to a ball. These would be routine plays for a better defender.

Miguel Sano and Jorge Polanco compose a left-side of the infield with plenty of questions. Sano's arm strength is very good but his large body size raises questions about his ability to get to balls. Questions about Polanco's defense at shortstop have followed him throughout his professional career. As the season progresses, it will be interesting to see how these two rank as the innings begin to pile up.

Even if the outfield sees improved defense, it's hard to imagine the infield helping out the pitching staff on a regular basis. They have the ability to make routine plays but there will be plenty of holes on plays with a higher difficulty.

Catcher
Jason Castro was brought to Minnesota because of his defensive reputation. As I wrote this spring, it's going to take the better part of the season to fully see what Castro is able to do with the pitching staff. No matter how much he is able to coax strikes from umpires, the pitchers still need to make pitches.

In regard to SABR's Defensive Index (SDI), former catcher Kurt Suzuki ranked second from the bottom in the American League. Castro still posted a negative SDI total but he ranked seventh in the AL. This was a steep drop-off from the 2015 season where he ranked second in the AL and he was a finalist for a Gold Glove.

If the Twins end up with a catcher who is somewhere between the 2015 and 2016 version of Castro, things will be working out very well for the club.

So what do you think? How much can Minnesota's defense improve? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.

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23 Comments

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Bill Brown69
Apr 10 2017 10:56 PM

My thoughts

 

OF defense- assuming this trio stays here for 3+ years they will be the bar to measure all others by.

 

IF- you have a legit Gold Glover in Mauer and a "looks good in live" from Dozier. Sano has the arm to equal out  mistakes.. Polànco's arm is suspect but so was this  Ozzie Smith kid!!

 

Give me a catcher and  this D  looks top 5.

    • GP830 likes this
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HitInAPinch
Apr 11 2017 01:53 AM

"Putting Miguel Sano in the outfield was an unmitigated disaster."

 

Well, let's put things in context here.Trevor Plouffe was the starter at 3rd and there was Mauer and Park.The OF at the start of the season?Logan Schafer, Danny Mastroiani, Oswaldo Arciaand Danny Santana.I think there was another guy in there that I can't remember.My "eyeball facts" say that he was improving in RF on a pretty regular basis. 

 

In the end, Sano really really has the arm for RF.But his girth would have eventually caused a switch anyway.Unmitigated disaster?No.It was an effort to get his bat into a pretty crappy lineup. 

 

We should be over that 38 game experiment by now....

 

Back to the story: 

 

Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, and Eddie Rosario:Can we go ahead and say "Elite outfield defense"?

Jorge Polanco:Still some missteps, but the footwork looks significantly better and his release quicker.

Jason Castro:Suzuki's ranking was, where, again?

Infield:I think things will change a lot this year.As Mauer moves closer to the end of his contract, I would think we'd see less of him on the field.I also think some MLB team will really be in need of a guy like Dozier for a playoff push.

 

    • gunnarthor, Dantes929, Jham and 2 others like this

Regardless of what half cooked defensive metrics suggest... Dozier is not below average defensively. 

 

 

Also...The Polanco arm thing is starting to take on a life of its own. His has arm strength... I've seen him make throws from the hole with plenty of zip.

 

Accuracy... may be the arm issue but I see many posters report it as an arm strength issue. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    • pbrezeasap and HitInAPinch like this

If Escobar keeps hitting, Sano to first might happen a bit sooner. But the OF defense looks really good.It's early and it's only one defensive stat - and it might not be the best one - but fangraphs DRS has the Twins 5th in all baseball.

    • HitInAPinch likes this

Look at Earl Weaver's Baltimore Orioles to see what defense can accomplish.  They were known for HRs and pitching, but the defense made the pitching staff better than expected.  When we look at the cubs the talk is about bats, but defense is what makes their pitchers look goodI . 

 

The Royals in their recent great run did not have the starters you expect, nor was their lineup a killer murderers row.  It was defense and speed (calling Byron Buxton).

 

I like this article on the best defensive teams of all time - http://www.espn.com/...ams-of-all-time

it includes the 1984 Twins in the discussion.  

 

I suspect the value of outfield versus infield defense is also affected by your staff - ground ball versus flyball pitchers.

    • Bill Brown69 likes this

I might add that when we think of the Twins and defense we seldom think of the pitchers, but in this list of the best fielders at each position they choose our Jim Kaat as the left handed pitcher in the line up.  http://bleacherrepor...e-fielding-team

 

And finally here is an article listing the best Twins fielders at each position.  And surprise - Dozier is number one at second base.  http://statgeekbaseb...eldingcmin.html

    • wavedog likes this

 

Regardless of what half cooked defensive metrics suggest... Dozier is not below average defensively. 

 

 

Also...The Polanco arm thing is starting to take on a life of its own. His has arm strength... I've seen him make throws from the hole with plenty of zip.

 

Accuracy... may be the arm issue but I see many posters report it as an arm strength issue. 

 

I don't have stats on his arm, but I heard the broadcasters talking about how Polanco is perceived to have arm issues because when he tries to throw it hard, he spikes it into the ground.  This has caused him to choose to throw the ball less hard, which often causes him to throw 1-hop lobs to first base.  Apparently since this spring, Twins management has been preaching to him to give his throws 100% and figure out how to get the throws on-line to first base.

    • hybridbear likes this

Just looking at the SDI rankings for catchers over the last four years, I'm not sure it's a great metric for predicting future performance.  There is a ton of inconsistency and variability from year to year.  The SDI runs from about 7 or 8 to about negative 7 or 8.  But the variation from year to year for the same catcher is frequently 7 or 8.  This makes me question whether the SDI really effectively captures the defensive capability of catchers.  If we try to remove the variability, it looks like Castro is a below average defensive catcher but still a significant upgrade over Zuke.

I want this outfield for years to come, all can run and throw well, and hopefully over time will read balls better and better, the main issue they have had.  

 

Cather I am not worried about either guy we have both are known to be good defenders and the reputation can be just as important as the actual results, until the reputation changes.

 

Infield will be the main issue this season.  Joe may field his position fine, but he has never struck me as a guy that will save bad throws from the rest of the team all that well.  Dozier we all know he makes the flashy plays which looks good, and he makes some heads up smart plays, but overall he has limited range.  Sano, I still cringe when a pop up goes his way and hope anyone calls him off.  He won't have much range but does have a good arm for the bunts and slow rolling balls.  The most interesting one will be Polanco.  He was signed same year as Sano and was supposed to be a good defender.  He has bounced between SS and 2b his whole career and now just being stuck at SS.  I think he will get moved to 2b once an adequate SS comes up later in his career, but unless his defense starts costing games he will stay there because he hits too well.  

 

Overall, I hope a lot of fly balls are hit because the outfield will track them down but I am not too sure of the infield defense this season.  

    • hybridbear likes this
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Parker Hageman
Apr 11 2017 08:47 AM

 

Regardless of what half cooked defensive metrics suggest... Dozier is not below average defensively.  

 

SDI is a terrible metric for actually measuring defensive abilities. It's a mash-up of multiple flawed defensive metrics. 

    • pbrezeasap likes this
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Bill Brown69
Apr 11 2017 08:53 AM

 

Look at Earl Weaver's Baltimore Orioles to see what defense can accomplish.  They were known for HRs and pitching, but the defense made the pitching staff better than expected.  When we look at the cubs the talk is about bats, but defense is what makes their pitchers look goodI . 

 

The Royals in their recent great run did not have the starters you expect, nor was their lineup a killer murderers row.  It was defense and speed (calling Byron Buxton).

 

I like this article on the best defensive teams of all time - http://www.espn.com/...ams-of-all-time

it includes the 1984 Twins in the discussion.  

 

I suspect the value of outfield versus infield defense is also affected by your staff - ground ball versus flyball pitchers.

 

Thanks. I loved looking back at some of the great teams I grew up with but only looking from the defense perspective. Do not sleep on this team from the defense standpoint. If the left side of the infield continues to play somewhere near decent we can be in the conversation of best fielding team for 2017. Give them another year and maybe we can talk about all time great.

 

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ashburyjohn
Apr 11 2017 09:16 AM

SDI is a terrible metric for actually measuring defensive abilities. It's a mash-up of multiple flawed defensive metrics. 

What's your recommendation for a good defensive metric to base year-end awards on?

 

I want this outfield for years to come, all can run and throw well, and hopefully over time will read balls better and better, the main issue they have had.  

 

Cather I am not worried about either guy we have both are known to be good defenders and the reputation can be just as important as the actual results, until the reputation changes.

 

Infield will be the main issue this season.  Joe may field his position fine, but he has never struck me as a guy that will save bad throws from the rest of the team all that well.  Dozier we all know he makes the flashy plays which looks good, and he makes some heads up smart plays, but overall he has limited range.  Sano, I still cringe when a pop up goes his way and hope anyone calls him off.  He won't have much range but does have a good arm for the bunts and slow rolling balls.  The most interesting one will be Polanco.  He was signed same year as Sano and was supposed to be a good defender.  He has bounced between SS and 2b his whole career and now just being stuck at SS.  I think he will get moved to 2b once an adequate SS comes up later in his career, but unless his defense starts costing games he will stay there because he hits too well.  

 

Overall, I hope a lot of fly balls are hit because the outfield will track them down but I am not too sure of the infield defense this season.  

 

Scoops are over rated, from what I read, most 1B are about the same. FWIW, Joe scores pretty well on the various metrics. IMO, if anything, he's under rated defensively.

 

 

 

Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, and Eddie Rosario:Can we go ahead and say "Elite outfield defense"?

 

I think Rosario is the weak link. Here is his statcast catch probability data:

2/27 in 5 star opportunities

4/9 in 4 star

8/11 in 3 star

19/21 in 2 star

23/24 in 1 star

(https://baseballsava...in=25&year=2016)

 

He caught 61% of the fly balls last year.  Really good is 70%, and elite is 80%.

The data from 2015 is also very similar, where he caught 57% of the balls in play.

 

This data only captures Rosario's ability to catch balls and statcast suggests that Rosario needs to improve.  He has a very good arm, which is not measured in this data.

    • ScrapTheNickname and hybridbear like this
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Brock Beauchamp
Apr 11 2017 08:00 PM

Scoops are over rated, from what I read, most 1B are about the same. FWIW, Joe scores pretty well on the various metrics. IMO, if anything, he's under rated defensively.

Yeah... the last time I was worried about Mauer's defense was around 2015 and it turned out he was hurt at the time.

The guy is solid at first.
    • Danchat likes this

 

I think Rosario is the weak link. Here is his statcast catch probability data:

2/27 in 5 star opportunities

4/9 in 4 star

8/11 in 3 star

19/21 in 2 star

23/24 in 1 star

(https://baseballsava...in=25&year=2016)

 

He caught 61% of the fly balls last year.  Really good is 70%, and elite is 80%.

The data from 2015 is also very similar, where he caught 57% of the balls in play.

 

This data only captures Rosario's ability to catch balls and statcast suggests that Rosario needs to improve.  He has a very good arm, which is not measured in this data.

This shows he needs to improve on his reading of the ball, which early on this year he seems to be better at it, without looking at the stats.  His arm is elite though.

    • Eris likes this

Not me, as I use my last name....but possibly of interest.

 

Mike
12:13 How do the advanced defensive stats work for first basemen? Are they mainly evaluating range, etc, as they would at other positions...or does skill at handling throws in the dirt and preventing errors by other infielders play a substantial role? How substantial?

 

Dave Cameron
12:13 Scoops are measured, yes. http://www.fangraphs...basemen-scoops/
12:14 But the difference in scooping skill between big league first baseman is pretty small, so the impact it has on UZR/DRS is not that large. It's mostly range.

The only thing serious about SDI is that it is seriously flawed, but that's a discussion we probably should not get into again. Dozier is below average in some defensive categories but he's not as bad as SDI claims (because SDI counts each trait multiple times with the result being an inverted bell curve).

 

To answer the question "How much can the defense improve" -- quite a bit. It's a young team that was at or near the worst in the league. There are two options -- stay the same (not likely given their age) or get better.

 

There will be some clown defense at 3B which we will just have to accept, otherwise I think this team will start showing itself to be very good defensively.

    • Brock Beauchamp likes this
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stringer bell
Apr 12 2017 10:59 AM

Scoops are over rated, from what I read, most 1B are about the same. FWIW, Joe scores pretty well on the various metrics. IMO, if anything, he's under rated defensively.

I've seen Mauer make a few back-to-the-infield catches that most immobile first sackers would never get to. Another play he made was retrieving an overthrow on the warning track and throwing a pea to third to get the runner. Despite his advancing years and declining hitting, Joe Mauer is a good first baseman (defensively).
    • Mike Sixel likes this
The outfield defense is great but their hitting is terrible. Yes there is the potential for them to be a good-hitting group as well, and one advantage of not being in the playoff hunt is you can give them time to develop. But if you're going to say they have the potential to be the best-fielding outfield in baseball, you have to acknowledge they also have the potential to be the worst hitting outfield in baseball. At least this year.

They could become a good hitting group; the tools are there. But the is a real question whether they can even remain a group. How long a leash do you give them? My hope is a long, long leash, as they are young and talented and still on the up swing, and they really help the pitchers. I'm bullish, too.

With one caveat. How many people really develop plate discipline late in their career? If Rosario were ever going to stop swinging at bad balls, wouldn't it have happened by now?

Can anyone name one player who had such a consistently terrible K/BB ratio, and then changed?

I can't think of any. He's like the mythical QB with a cannon fot an arm, who if he only could learn to throw more accurately... Never happens.

I think all three of these guys were promoted too​ soon. If they do figure it out, it will be just in time to get really expensive. And Rosario should have had to earn his way up by working on his plate discipline. He's not going to tinker up here, he's going to stick with what he does best.

Sorry to be so negative, and I know the thread was specifically about defense. But it's kind of the elephant in the room.
    • Mike Sixel likes this
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Brock Beauchamp
Apr 14 2017 07:52 AM

 

With one caveat. How many people really develop plate discipline late in their career? If Rosario were ever going to stop swinging at bad balls, wouldn't it have happened by now?

Rosario doesn't need good discipline, he simply needs not terrible discipline.

 

He's always going to be a bad ball hitter than that's okay. What he needs to do is stop swinging at the 3-4% of completely unhittable pitches thrown his way.

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ashburyjohn
Apr 14 2017 11:08 AM

What he needs to do is stop swinging at the 3-4% of completely unhittable pitches thrown his way.

[Doing a quick bit of math... maybe 20 pitches seen in a game, times 3-4 percent...] You're saying it's one pitch every game or two that he needs to lay off? :)

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Brock Beauchamp
Apr 14 2017 11:12 AM

 

[Doing a quick bit of math... 20 pitches seen in a game, times 3-4 percent...] You're saying it's one pitch every game or two that he needs to lay off? :)

Actually, not that far off. Laying off 1-2 (unhittable) pitches per game can drastically change outcomes over the course of a season. It's the difference between a 2-1 and 1-2 count. It's the difference between seeing a hittable fifth pitch and sitting down.

 

Over 150 games, just one pitch per game could theoretically change 150 outcomes. More likely is that it'd change 25-50 outcomes but that's the difference between a bad hitter and an acceptable hitter or an acceptable hitter and a good hitter.

 

Removing the worst 150 strikes thrown to you over a season is a pretty big deal.

 

Each hit over a full season is worth approximately .002 batting average. Changing just 25 outcomes and putting wood on the ball instead of missing the ball is worth around eight hits using a standard BABIP. Even if every one of those hits is a single, that adds .015 batting average to Rosario's line. That's .030 in OPS just from singles.

 

Also remember that I'm not asking Rosario to be a disciplined hitter. I don't think that's in the realm of possibility. But given his talent, merely avoiding being a stupid hitter could pay big dividends.


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