The Silent Improvement for Minnesota Has Been Massive
Image courtesy of © Kim Klement-USA TODAY SportsAcross all of baseball the Twins own the fourth best defensive fWAR and trail only the Kansas City Royals in the American League. Rocco Baldelli’s club shifts among the most often across the sport and they’re seventh in shift runs saved. Defensive runs saved puts the Twins fourth and has them behind only the Houston Astros in the American League. In terms of UZR, which stands for Ultimate Zone Rating and assigns a run value to defense, Minnesota checks in second behind only the Royals. At +19.7 UZR the team as a whole is playing what qualifies as Gold Glove Caliber defense.
Last season Minnesota posted the 15th best defensive totals in terms of fWAR across baseball. Given the meteoric rise in positioning it’s not a significant surprise to see the team playing much better baseball. Pairing the defensive improvements with a potent lineup and capable pitching is a trio of ideal changes. What’s worth wondering is where this is all coming from. In my estimation it’s three key areas.
You’ll often hear that baseball’s most important positions are up the middle. Catcher, middle infield, and shortstop are some of the most athletic players on the diamond and their impact can be felt far greater than those on the corners. A season ago Minnesota had a net negative in that line and it’s fairly obvious that the improvement there is where we should start.
A season ago Mitch Garver got his first taste as a regular in the big leagues. He has always been a bat-first catcher and during his big league debut he looked like a bat only backstop. Posting a -16 DRS while being a visible hinderance behind the dish, an offseason improvement was necessary. Working with Tanner Swanson and putting in significant time on his own, the improvement is of massive proportions.
Statcast recently began tracking catcher framing metrics and Garver’s growth has been incredible. He’s generating over 5% more strikes this season and has developed an ability to grab low strikes. A 20% increase in strike rate at the bottom of the zone is reflective of a new receiving technique as well as improved strength. He’s always been strong on the edges, but it’s the bottom of the zone where good pitches went to die. Now through roughly half the sample of 2018, Garver has been worth 2 DRS this season. On top of being one of the best hitters at the position, he’s made a case to be included in the conversation as one of the best backstops in the game.
Moving into the infield we stop at shortstop with Jorge Polanco. Another guy who got to the big leagues through his bat, and profiles better at second base, has made a substantial turnaround. Since 2016 Polanco has been worth -8, -1, and -1 DRS on a yearly basis. Now having played in as many innings as a season ago, he’s been worth +7 DRS at SS in 2019.
Although his range is still somewhat limited he’s improved the total output moving his UZR from -3.9 last year to just -0.8 this season. Working with third base coach Tony Diaz, Polanco has adopted a new arm slot improving his throwing mechanics and increasing the level of comfort. Arm strength has always been a question for him at short, but as he’s worked in a new throwing motion the uptick in ability has been beyond noticeable. Cody recently dove more into Polanco specifically, and I urge you to give it a read here.
I don’t expect Jorge Polanco to win a Gold Glove any time soon, if ever for that matter, but his 7 DRS mark is the best across American Leaguers at the position and his bat certainly plays. If Brian Dozier can do it, I suppose anyone can.
Finally the middle of the outfield. Last season the Twins got less than 30 games from Byron Buxton. When healthy there’s arguably no better outfield defender across the sport. His speed allows him to track down fly balls no one else has a shot at, and the arm strength can nab a runner anywhere on the diamond. Taking him away as often as he was last year put extra strain on everyone else in the position group. Coincidentally, it may have elevated the ability of traditional right fielder Max Kepler
Kepler has always been a positive defender and put up some great numbers in right. Last season was his best defensively, posting 10 DRS split between center and right. Those numbers were accumulated across 1,200+ innings and in 2019 Kepler has already tallied 10 DRS in just 689 innings. Stepping in for Buxton occasionally he’s been great in center while still playing a very strong right.
The Outs Above Average leaderboard has always touted Byron near the top, and this season is no different. Moving down a bit from him though, Kepler finds himself tied for seventh with five outs above average this season. He’s got an actual catch percentage of 90% and while the speed isn’t where Buxton’s is, Kepler uses some of the best route running in baseball to track down balls otherwise out of his grasp. Target Field’s deep alleys provide optimal opportunity for direct routes offering a significant benefit.
Given the relative health of Buxton this season, Minnesota employs two Gold Glove caliber outfielders and has two of the three highest DRS tallies among American League outfielders. With Buxton shelved and rotational players picking up the slack a season ago, it’s no surprise that this change is incredibly beneficial with the sport going fly ball heavy.
It’s a great thing that the Twins are pitching and hitting well this season. Any time those areas are of significant benefit they’ll get plenty of publicity. Defense isn’t sexy, but it’s every bit as important and integral to the strong start Minnesota has run out to. This isn’t an accident, and the Twins have put in a tremendous amount of work to get the most out of their players. Marrying analytical information and advancements with the buy-in and ability of the players on the field has resulted in one of the most complete teams Twins Territory may have ever seen.
Offense and pitching can slump, but defensive ability never should.
- Mike Sixel, brvama, Oldgoat_MN and 6 others like this