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The Twins have answered that question loud and clear. While their offense and pitching staff are putting together similar numbers, the club's defense has been elite so far this year. One of the biggest reasons the team is near the top of the Central Division is because of this defensive shift.

Three players have been key figures in the Twins's defensive turnaround. While each player has a different skill set, all three have made improvements and each ranks as one of the best defenders at his position.">

Trio Spurs Minnesota's Defensive Turnaround

As the season began, I asked an important question, "How Much Can Minnesota's Defense Improve?" The Twins have answered that question loud and clear. While their offense and pitching staff are putting together similar numbers, the club's defense has been elite so far this year. One of the biggest reasons the team is near the top of the Central Division is because of this defensive shift.

Three players have been key figures in the Twins's defensive turnaround. While each player has a different skill set, all three have made improvements and each ranks as one of the best defenders at his position.
Image courtesy of Brad Rempel- USA Today Sports
Byron Buxton, CF
Buxton was known for his defensive wizardry while moving through the prospect rankings. While his bat still hasn't lived up to the hype, he might be the best defensive center fielder in baseball. Fans might feel like this is a stretch but baseball's new defensive metrics help to make the case in regards to Buxton.

This spring MLB Advanced Media introduced a new Statcast metric called Catch Probability, which measures how likely a fielder is to catch a given ball in play based on its distance and hang time. Buxton leads MLB in "four-star outs" as he has gone 10-for-11 in those opportunities.Four-star opportunities have a 26-50% chance of being caught. No other player has more than eight four-star plays.

There have been some scary moments with Buxton crashing into walls to make some tremendous plays. He was also injured multiple times in the minor leagues while making diving plays. One has to wonder if Buxton's all-out attitude will catch up with him after seeing the career of Ken Griffey Jr shortened because of injury.

Joe Mauer, 1B
Some fans might scoff at the idea of Mauer as an elite defensive player. I mean... How much can a first baseman really improve your defense? Isn't that where team's hide their overweight, power-hitting bats. In previous eras this might be the case but fans ought consider the entire picture when it comes to Mauer.

Minnesota has inexperienced players on the left-side of the infield. Miguel Sano and Jorge Polanco have some defensive flaws and Mauer's athleticism at first has helped to alleviate some of their growing pains. According to FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating, Mauer is 2.4 runs better than the average first baseman. That mark is highest in the AL while Brandon Belt and Joey Votto are the lone NL starters with a higher total.

Twins Manager Paul Molitor, a former infielder has taken notice. "You're supposed to be able to pick the ball out of the dirt, but I don't think he's missed one," he told the Star Tribune. "Even some ones that have been really tough --- they throw with side spin, they hit the cut of grass, they skim low, they skim high, and he just seems to be able to corral those throws.

Max Kepler, RF
While Buxton gets much of the praise for the outfield, Kepler has been quietly among baseball's best outfield defenders. Buxton ranks sixth among AL outfielders in defensive runs saved and Kepler is eighth. Only two AL teams (Seattle and Boston) have teammates who combine to rank higher than the Twins duo of Kepler and Buxton.

Like Buxton, Kepler has made some strong defensive plays. When it comes to catch probability, Kepler has made five "3-star outs" which have a 51-75% chance of being caught. This ties Buxton for the team lead and only 12 MLB players have made more "3-star outs."

Kepler and Buxton have helped the Twins pitching staff compared to last year's outfielders. During the 2016 campaign, Minnesota ranked 28th in defensive efficiency on fly balls and 29th in defensive efficiency on line drives. With their defensive upgrades, the Twins now rank in the top five in each of these categories.

Minnesota's bats might go cold and their pitching staff is still a mystery. Even when these things obtain, the Twins can rely on their newly revamped defensive prowess. How much can Minnesota's defense improve? Right now, the sky is the limit.

What other players would you add in with this trio? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.

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17 Comments

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puckstopper1
May 31 2017 07:16 AM

Sano at 3rd and Polanco at SS have exceeded expectations defensively this year. Castro has also been an upgrade behind the plate.  Add those 3 players to the 3 Cody wrote about and it is not surprising that the defense has improved significantly. 

    • hybridbear and MN_ExPat like this

Who's the worst starting defender for the Twins this year? I would suggest that Dozier is near the bottom on this team in terms of defense...

Don't you think that's a little harsh hybrid? Dozier may not be "Elite", but he still makes good plays and hustles all out every day. A player such as Baez for example may be more athletic, but lacks the solid fundamentals and intangibles of a player like Dozier.

Interestingly, UZR hates Kepler this year! I had no idea.

 

It's clear, imo, that the defense is helping with run prevention. It's not clear the pitchers are actually pitching better (other than Berrios).

Interestingly, UZR hates Kepler this year! I had no idea.

It's clear, imo, that the defense is helping with run prevention. It's not clear the pitchers are actually pitching better (other than Berrios).

UZR hates Kepler this year? He is in the plus side of UZR in RF and CF. DRS has him with 6 defensive runs saved too.

And the pitching hasnt been much better at all. The pitching staff ranks dead last in AL in regards to FIP, though I keep getting told ERA is the actual results of the pitchers efforts. In ERA, they are 12th.

 

UZR hates Kepler this year? He is in the plus side of UZR in RF and CF. DRS has him with 6 defensive runs saved too.

And the pitching hasnt been much better at all.

 

he's plus 1.3 in UZR/150. That's not good compared to other RFs.....I just looked at fangraphs, and was shocked to see his defensive "score" as a RF.

he's plus 1.3 in UZR/150. That's not good compared to other RFs.....I just looked at fangraphs, and was shocked to see his defensive "score" as a RF.

its about average, zero being average.

But for DRS, only 8 OF in baseball have more DRS. Thats looking at 68 qualifying OFs. Kepler is a very good defender. Been saying that for quite some time and my opinion hasnt changed.

It is interesting that Rosario does not get a mention because in his initial full year he looked terrific, but I find less superlatives being used to describe him in the field now. Is there a reason for that?  The importance of defense is really obvious and another reason I questioned our short bench not having an adequate fourth outfielder when Buxton had to come out.  Adrianza is good in the infield, he does not belong in the OF.  If Grossman is going to be the DH lets put Granite or some other good fielder on the bench.  Our bench management might seem a minor issue, but to me it has become an important issue over the last week. 

 

Since we had Jim Kaat acting like a fifth infielder for years and watching Greg Maddux dominate from the mound I am wondering who would be our best mound gloves? You will find them one and two in this fun Youtube fielding list (no data to support list, but interesting names) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l24mknymfys

 

I like this discussion about the best defensive teams of all time - the 1984 Twins team is in the discussion which means it must be our best or closes to our best defensive time - how will this group rate with them?  http://www.espn.com/blog/sweetspot/post/_/id/67824/the-best-defensive-teams-of-all-time

 

Keep up this discussion and the defensive prowess of the team.  ESPN has us second by standard defensive rating for 2017 http://www.espn.com/mlb/stats/team/_/stat/fielding

    • Mike Sixel and Hosken Bombo Disco like this
Rosarios defense was exagerrated due to assists (like his offense was exaggerated due to unsustainable triples). He is a good defender, but he still needs to work on his baseball smarts.

 

its about average, zero being average.

But for DRS, only 8 OF in baseball have more DRS. Thats looking at 68 qualifying OFs. Kepler is a very good defender. Been saying that for quite some time and my opinion hasnt changed.

 

I agree, I was merely pointing out my utter shock about how UZR is scoring him. About median in UZR/150 shocked me. 

I agree, I was merely pointing out my utter shock about how UZR is scoring him. About median in UZR/150 shocked me.

it will change. Its better to use DRS anyway, IMO, especially before the year finishes.
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Hosken Bombo Disco
May 31 2017 09:25 AM
Mauer finally missed a hop, late in the game last night. :)

Except for the dropped pop up, Mauer has been spectacular. However, the Twins just optioned his only back up so I'm hoping Mauer is in the lineup every day until Vargas returns. I'm not sold on the notion any player can step in and play first base (i.e., Gimenez or Sano) without unnecessary risk of making a costly mistake.
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Hosken Bombo Disco
May 31 2017 09:35 AM

It is interesting that Rosario does not get a mention because in his initial full year he looked terrific, but I find less superlatives being used to describe him in the field now. Is there a reason for that?  The importance of defense is really obvious and another reason I questioned our short bench not having an adequate fourth outfielder when Buxton had to come out.  Adrianza is good in the infield, he does not belong in the OF.  If Grossman is going to be the DH lets put Granite or some other good fielder on the bench.  Our bench management might seem a minor issue, but to me it has become an important issue over the last week. 
 

The time has come to consider calling up Granite for stretches.
    • goulik and mikelink45 like this
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Bill Brown69
May 31 2017 10:53 AM

I am not sure where to rank them in all time context but this team is pretty close defensively to the greats. 

 

I agree that the Orioles of the late 60's/early 70's will probably never be touched but 

 

if Mauer would have started his career at 1st I think that we would be talking now about him rivaling Hernandez as the best 1st baseman of all time defensively.

 

If Buxton doesn't kill himself and can play 10-12 years we could easily be saying he is the best defensive centerfielder of all time.

 

Put 2 awesome together with the other 6 all playing above average to great and you have a team that is pretty special. Enjoy the ride and the best part is that it could get better!!!!!!!

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puckstopper1
May 31 2017 10:58 AM

 

Interestingly, UZR hates Kepler this year! I had no idea.

 

It's clear, imo, that the defense is helping with run prevention. It's not clear the pitchers are actually pitching better (other than Berrios).

Agreed, Mike, and the numbers at the highest level bear this out.

2017 (so far) - Team ERA = 4.41 (21st);  Team Fielding % = .989% (2nd)

2016 - Team ERA = 5.08 (29th);  Team Fielding = .979 (29th)

 

Thus one could hypothesize that the pitching has actually regressed a bit, especially with the bloated ERAs of those who are being trotted out to the mound regularly.  Thing might be REALLY scary if the defense had stayed the same as last year.

 

The time has come to consider calling up Granite for stretches.

 

Nah. Grossman has been starting many games with Rosario being a late innings defensive replacement. Rosario is essentially the 4th OF right now. There is no need, or room, to call up anyone.

 

And to address who you are responding to, people aren't talking much about Rosario because of the above....

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Hosken Bombo Disco
May 31 2017 11:27 AM

Nah. Grossman has been starting many games with Rosario being a late innings defensive replacement. Rosario is essentially the 4th OF right now. There is no need, or room, to call up anyone.

Grossman has basically only started on doubleheader days or as a platoon split substitute. And he's not any good, anyway.

And as the poster noted, Grossman figures to be the primary full time DH with Vargas out of the picture.

We are talking about needing an additional player who is a good outfielder so we don't have to send Adrianza, Escobar or even Sano out there in a pinch.

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