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Minnesota's Mounting Defensive Woes

It's no secret that Minnesota's pitching was poor last season. Twins' starters ranked last in ERA and K/9, with a -13.95 win probability added. However, there may be an even deeper problem at the heart of the Twins issues

Even with pitchers performing poorly, the Twins also had trouble on the defensive side of the ball. Miguel Sano struggled during his time in the outfield while other players played below average at their natural positions.

So what's at the heart of Minnesota's defensive woes?
Image courtesy of Brad Rempel, USA Today Sports
Defensive metrics have come a long way over the last decade. With organizations and other private companies tracking every batted ball, the amount of information available to fans is at an all-time high.

The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) has developed the SABR Defensive Index (SDI). According to SABR's website, the SDI "draws on and aggregates two types of existing defensive metrics: those derived from batted ball location-based data and those collected from play-by-play accounts."

Here's a look at how Twins' players stacked up in the final 2016 SDI rankings.

Pitcher: Ervin Santana
Final SDI Ranking: -0.7 (32nd in the AL)
Santana was the lone pitcher to accumulate enough innings to appear on the SDI rankings. Defensively, pitchers have very little reaction time and sometimes it is best for them to just stay out of the way. Santana only scored better than 12 pitchers that qualified for the SDI and he's the first of many Twins on this list to score in the negative range.

Catcher: Kurt Suzuki
Final SDI Ranking: -7.2 (12th in the AL)
Suzuki isn't exactly known for his defensive prowess. He struggled to throw out runners along with other defensive aspects (pitch framing, etc.). The only AL catcher he scored better than was Dioner Navarro of the White Sox. Newly signed catcher Jason Castro had an SDI score of -0.7 which ranked him seventh in the American League.

First Base: Joe Mauer
Final SDI Ranking: 1.6 (4th in the AL)
Around the All-Star Game, Mauer only trailed Mitch Moreland in the AL SDI rankings for first base. By August, he would drop to fourth place and that's where he finished the season. This was a vast improvement over the 2015 season when he posted a -0.1 SDI. Only three first baseman scored lower than him during that campaign. If he can continue to make strides, he might be able to sneak into next year's top three.

Second Base: Brian Dozier
Final SDI Ranking: -1.3 (6th in the AL)
I've been critical of Dozier's defense since last off-season but he began to make some improvements during the second half of 2016. At the mid-season mark, only Johnny Giavotella of the Angels ranked lower than Dozier with a -4.5 SDI. That came on the heels of finishing with a -6.1 SDI in 2015. Dozier improved his SDI by 3.2 points in the second half to finish sixth in the AL but he was 8.1 points behind a power four (Cano, Kipnis, Kinsler, Pedroia) at the top of the rankings.

Shortstop: Eduardo Nunez
Final SDI Ranking: -1.2 (9th in the AL)
Nunez did not finish the year in a Twins uniform but he still compiled enough innings at shortstop to appear in the rankings. It's no secret that he was below average at shortstop but the Twins were able to deal him at the deadline. Now the Giants can use Nunez at other positions since Brandon Crawford is scheduled to be their everyday shortstop.

Left field: Eddie Rosario
Final SDI Ranking: -0.6 (5th in the AL)
During his minor league years, Rosario played all over the field including all three outfield positions and one season playing second base. With Rosario's skill set, I expected him to score better on the SDI. His quickness helps him to track down balls and his arm is fairly good. This is a far cry from the Delmon Young and Josh Willingham days. I wouldn't be surprised to see his ranking improve in 2017 if he is given the opportunity to be a full-time player.

Right field: Max Kepler
Final SDI Ranking: 1.4 (7th in the AL)
Kepler compiled the Twins' second highest SDI score as he trailed only Mauer by 0.2 points. The AL right field rankings had quite the duo at the top with Adam Eaton (21.4 SDI) and Mookie Betts (19.3 SDI). Kepler was one of nine AL right fielders to score positive in the SDI. He did all of this while starting only 100 games in right field including 97 complete games. Much like Rosario, I expect his SDI total to increase in 2017 with more playing time.

Luckily, multiple players on this list won't be on Minnesota's roster for this coming season. Suzuki and Nunez are already gone and Dozier could be on his way out the door. This would leave the Twins with an entirely new middle infield for 2017. With the switch, there will hopefully be some defensive improvements.
Who's ranking surprised you? Who will have improved defensive seasons in 2017? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.

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12 Comments

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Rhino and Compass
Jan 09 2017 10:03 PM

One of the biggest problems with the team in the last few years is their inability to match their pitchers with their outfield. They haven't seemed to par their flyballers with the best defensve fielders, so mediocre pitching looks downright awful. Ricky Nolasco and Vance Worley weren't great, but they were also BABIPed to death 

    • Dantes929 likes this

OF isn't something I worry about in the future - Kepler, Rosario and Buxton should be a very dynamic OF. In the IF, Mauer seems fine at first and Polanco/Dozier should be fine at SS. The left side of the infield is the issue - can Sano be even just below average and can they find a stopgap at short until Vielma/Gordon are ready? I don't mind Escobar being that stopgap if the Twins think Vielma will hit - he'd go a long way to making up for Sano's deficiencies.

 

I think in a few years, defense is going to be a strength for the Twins.

SDI is bunk, unfortunately.

 

SDI adds the results from other defensive systems together -- heck just about every defensive system you can think of is taken and all added together to form SDI. 

 

Some systems count some things that others do not count, but there is considerable overlap. Any stat that has overlap (or is counted in multiple systems) will thus be counted multiple times by the SDI index. 

 

For example, with SDI, one error is suddenly counted several times inside of various algorithms that are trying to put forth a theory as to what an error is actually worth. So rather than SDI figuring out what an error is ACTUALLY worth (picking the best theory), SDI simply takes every definition of an error's worth and adds them all together. Suddenly an error's value is inflated into the stratosphere.

 

So if a player happens to be outside the norm on some trait that is counted in multiple systems, SDI explodes that value out. But what if a great, important trait is only counted in one or two systems, and the player excels at it? It's buried in the mess.

 

SDI might be the most comical baseball statistic ever and I'm a bit amazed that the SABR guys aren't embarrassed by its existence. 

    • specialiststeve likes this

I think that one can look at this list and make a better argument regarding the Twins' defense in 2016.

    • Sconnie likes this
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ashburyjohn
Jan 10 2017 11:01 AM

SDI is bunk, unfortunately.

This is a misanalysis.

 

In particular, it misstates how a blend of numbers usually works. If a vintner blends several very different wines together, ones that have little in common except that each of them has an alcohol content of about 8-16%, the fact that they share this common feature does not mean that the resulting blend has its alcoholic content "inflated into the stratosphere".

 

Are you claiming that any of the components of SDI is like blending Everclear into a wine batch, with regard to Errors?

 

We are long past the days where Fielding Percentage, basically an inverse measure of Error frequency, is how anyone seriously judges fielders. Range, and the deficiencies of the Error stat itself, are among the reasons to move beyond. No serious analyst places Errors higher than, probably, the 12% level of the wine example above. But that is not the same as saying Errors, as noted by Official Scorers, are without meaning. It is not remarkable if people who have independently studied the question of fielding come to an independent conclusion that Errors need to figure into a defensive rating.

 

With that rebuttal to this tangential swipe, I'd like to suggest taking discussion of the merits of any stats (WAR is another one that disrupts threads) to a separate thread, if you feel so moved.

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Tom Froemming
Jan 10 2017 11:08 AM

One of the things about that Def rating (which is Fangraphs' Defensive Runs Above Average) that really sticks out to me is how much it hated Max Kepler's D last year. Nice to see SDI views him in a more positive light.

 

I agree that we should be able to expect a better performance from him in '17. He played more innings in RF last season with the Twins than he had his entire minor league career. 

 

One of the things about that Def rating (which is Fangraphs' Defensive Runs Above Average) that really sticks out to me is how much it hated Max Kepler's D last year. Nice to see SDI views him in a more positive light.

 

I agree that we should be able to expect a better performance from him in '17. He played more innings in RF last season with the Twins than he had his entire minor league career. 

The DEF rating at Fangraphs takes into account position.  It has a positional adjustment. It's why only 3 qualifying RF have a positive DEF. It's also why every 1B has a negative DEF score (because even the best 1B defense doesn't give more value than average defense at shortstop) 

 

Max had a positive DRS in RF (+5) and right around average UZR (only slightly below zero, not enough to say below average).  DRS and UZR are the stats to look at when comparing Max to other RF (or any player to other players at the same position).

 

So no, Fangraphs DEF stat wasn't really hating Kepler's defense, it was adjusting for position.

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ashburyjohn
Jan 10 2017 09:25 PM

With that rebuttal to this tangential swipe, I'd like to suggest taking discussion of the merits of any stats (WAR is another one that disrupts threads) to a separate thread, if you feel so moved.

Despite my request not to threadjack the intent of the original post, a couple of additional posts debating SDI have occurred. I have moved them to a brand new thread, in the Other Baseball forum:

 

http://twinsdaily.co...efensive-index/

 

Please take any additional disputation of the Index itself there.

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diehardtwinsfan
Jan 11 2017 07:02 AM

My issue with defensive metrics continues to be the problem that they take years to be accurate (or so the creators say)... I'm just very skeptical when you suddenly need a 3 year sample size for a metric to be accurate.These guys will field the ball hundreds (if not more than a thousand) times in a season. If that many data points cannot produce an accurate sample, then I think it's time we rethink how we are calculating them.

All stats, even traditional ones (even offensive ones, even pitching ones), needs about three years of data to tell us what the players true talent level is.  To create a good 'mean'.  

 

Doesn't mean we toss out a players performance for one year and say it didn't happen, just means that the way he performed that one year, either offensively, defensively or hurling the ball, may not be what his true talent is.  One year defensive metrics can be used to gauge how a player did that year and defensive performance, just like offense and pitching, can fluctuate.

 

The worst thing Fangraphs did when explaining defensive metrics was explain the obvious (that obvious thing being that more data gives us a player's true talent level). They should have just reminded people that it's the same situation with all stats, not just defensive metrics. They do say one years worth of defensive data can tell us what the player did that year (particularly DRS, which is why I prefer to use that).  They talk about 1 year and 3 year samples as being stable, meaning one year to tell us what the player did for that year (yearly performance) and 3 years to get a mean (measure true talent level).

 

'The other thing to remember is that DRS isn’t going to work well in small sample sizes, especially a couple of months or less. Once you get to one and three-year samples, it’s a relatively solid metric but defensive itself is quite variable so you need a good amount of data for the metrics to become particularly useful.'

 

Right there it says one year.

 

Having said all that, defensive metrics will get better (but still better than eye test or errors/fielding %), just like better offensive metrics have been created (like wRC+) that are better than what we used to have.

As I see it, and please correct me if I'm wrong, the Twins biggest defensive problems last year were (in some order) Sano in RF, Grossman, Danny Santana and Suzuki.  This year it looks like the Twins have one player who can be really good defensively and a bunch of players in the average to below average but no obvious disasters like last year.

 

This year, our OF should be Rosario/Buxton/Kepler.  Buxton probably grades out as a very good fielder and the other two might be average.  Combined, that's probably a good outfield?  

 

In the IF, Sano is a liability at third but not nearly as bad as he was in RF while Polanco, Dozier and Mauer are all around average but none are really good or really bad?  

 

Castro is supposed to be an upgrade over Suzuki.

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specialiststeve
Jan 15 2017 05:57 PM

 

SDI is bunk, unfortunately.

 

SDI adds the results from other defensive systems together -- heck just about every defensive system you can think of is taken and all added together to form SDI. 

 

Some systems count some things that others do not count, but there is considerable overlap. Any stat that has overlap (or is counted in multiple systems) will thus be counted multiple times by the SDI index. 

 

For example, with SDI, one error is suddenly counted several times inside of various algorithms that are trying to put forth a theory as to what an error is actually worth. So rather than SDI figuring out what an error is ACTUALLY worth (picking the best theory), SDI simply takes every definition of an error's worth and adds them all together. Suddenly an error's value is inflated into the stratosphere.

 

So if a player happens to be outside the norm on some trait that is counted in multiple systems, SDI explodes that value out. But what if a great, important trait is only counted in one or two systems, and the player excels at it? It's buried in the mess.

 

SDI might be the most comical baseball statistic ever and I'm a bit amazed that the SABR guys aren't embarrassed by its existence. 

Thanks - I have had major issue with this for some time. We were not good but this is a butch of junk.


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