Defensive Dive Highlights Twins Fall
Image courtesy of © Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY SportsBack in July I penned an article here at Twins Daily about the improvement no one was talking about. Bad defensive teams had become synonymous with the Minnesota Twins in recent history and seeing them take such a significant step forward was beyond noteworthy. Through July 11 Minnesota had the fourth best defensive fWAR in baseball and trailed only the Kansas City Royals in the American League. They were also fourth in DRS and second in UZR. At that point I defined it simply by saying the Twins were, as a whole, playing “Gold Glove Caliber defense.”
The biggest boost for the Twins could be felt up the middle. Mitch Garver had taken significant strides forward, while Jorge Polanco was now an above average shortstop, and the tandem of Byron Buxton and Max Kepler rounded out the best outfield the sport had to offer. Evaluating defensive metrics in a small sample is an extremely difficult ask, and it’s the full season that gives us the clearer picture. The shifting numbers tells us something has fallen out of whack however, and it starts with these up-the-middle pieces.
Garver is still performing admirably behind the plate. He’s made such considerable strides on defense that he’s now arguably the best all-around catcher in baseball, and the Twins have definitely felt that boost. On defense though, that’s where the good news ends for Minnesota.
Since July, Polanco has lost 3 DRS and dropped 1.2 UZR on the season. In just a month’s sample, that’s a considerable movement. He’s also part of an infield responsible for the most errors in baseball, and the arm accuracy has become a massive problem. At shortstop there was always concern whether the strength would be there to get the ball across the diamond. Having changed arm slots and working with different tweaks, things have gotten substantially worse as the season has worn on. Polanco has become more adept with his glove, but it’s the post-fielding process that creates a very negative effect on balls in play.
It isn’t just Polanco in the dirt either. Miguel Sano has the ninth most throwing errors in baseball with 8, and despite a career best -1 DRS, his -2.9 UZR is a career worst and further highlights the stretch he feels from a range perspective playing the hot corner. On the other side of the diamond C.J. Cron leads baseball with five drops, and although he’s fielding suboptimal offerings from his fielders, he hasn’t been otherworldly on his own merits. The -2.7 UZR is trending toward a career worst and the very good early season performance has long been missed.
Byron Buxton doesn’t create a significant cascade effect in the infield, but his defense is solely missed in the grass. Max Kepler once had a 10 DRS roughly a month ago and has slumped all the way back to just 5 DRS on the season. A good to great right fielder, Kepler is stretched in center. He gets better jumps than Buxton does, but there’s no number of strong routes that can make up for the speed deficiency. Add in that moving Kepler means more of Marwin Gonzalez (who is OK) or Jake Cave (who is not) in right field, and you’ve effectively taken the best outfield and turned it into a mediocre-at-best group.
Since that initial writing Buxton has played in just nine games for the Twins. He’s out with a shoulder dislocation and it doesn’t seem like his return is imminent. Defense is commonly referred to as something that shouldn’t slump, and it’s largely effort based. That’s not to suggest the Twins are tanking in their responsibilities, but there’s also not been evidence of guys picking up the slack. Both the infield and outfield need to find avenues to make the weaknesses more muted. While putting up runs will wipe away some miscues, you can’t give opponents too many additional opportunities.
In a matter of a month the Twins have dropped nine spots in the overall defensive rankings, five spots in terms of DRS, and 12 in UZR. If that isn’t cause for concern, I don’t know what is. There’s been plenty of things that have ailed this club since their amazing start, but if they aren’t going to add runs throughout games, they can’t be finding ways to give them back either. Baldelli and his field staff must find a way to position and work through these deficiencies, and changes must be implemented sooner rather than later.
A throwing error compounded with a seeing eye single was what led to their latest defeat, and more of that will be on the way if the issues aren’t rectified soon.
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