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How Can The Twins Add To Their Defensive Strength?

Minnesota's 26-game improvement from 2016 to 2017 was driven largely by massive improvements in run prevention. The Twins allowed 101 fewer runs this year, and better pitching wasn't really the differentiator.

In fact, the team's FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) actually went UP, from 4.57 to 4.72. The strikeout rates, walk rates, home run rates – they were all mostly static from one season to the next.

What changed? The rate at which balls in play were converted into outs.
Image courtesy of Brad Penner, USA Today
In 2016, the Twins ranked 29th out of 30 MLB teams in Defensive Efficiency Rating. In 2017 they rocketed up to 12th. That's a remarkable jump.

Sure, the pitching staff played a role in shaving off 11% of the runs allowed from 2016, but not a very big role. As mentioned above, the K, BB, and HR rates didn't really change. Per FanGraphs, the batted ball profiles – grounder and fly ball rates, ratio of soft/medium/hard contact – also remained virtually identical.

The Twins hired a new pitching coach last week, and hopefully they'll target some impact arms this offseason. But what's truly essential is supporting those new and returning hurlers with the best defense possible.

Fortunately, this roster already has a top-tier starting alignment locked in. The Twins can bring back all the starters from what was a terrific unit this year – arguably above-average at all but one or two spots.

Byron Buxton is, of course, the central figure here. He was probably the most valuable defensive player in the game this year, and as long as he stays healthy at age 24 that should remain true. Those who preordered the Offseason Handbook received a special perk this weekend, when we sent out Parker Hageman's feature on Buxton's impact. You can get that, and another early preview coming later this week, by getting your preorder in now.

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Flanked by Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler, Buxton can lead the game's best defensive outfield. Jason Castro is a quality backstop. The right side of the infield shapes up nicely with Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer. Really the only question marks are at shortstop and third base, but Paul Molitor can help himself by rotating Jorge Polanco and Miguel Sano through the DH spot frequently while plugging in Ehire Adrianza and Eduardo Escobar.

Unless the Twins shake things up with a big trade, we already know how the starting nine will align in the field, more or less. But Derek Falvey and Thad Levine will have opportunities this offseason to make upgrades on the periphery of the roster, and that's where I will be curious to see their approach.

In particular, the answers to these three questions will be telling:

1) Will they bring back Robbie Grossman?

The most patient hitter in baseball took a step backward after his exceptional first season with the Twins, but was still a relatively useful piece, splitting time between DH and the outfield corners while providing a steady – albeit unexplosive – offensive presence.

Grossman's on-base skills fit nicely in a power-packed lineup, but it wouldn't be hard to find another fourth outfielder who can match his .741 OPS, and upgrading his glove would be be easy. When he's in the outfield, Grossman is a rare defensive liability for the Twins, lacking the range to track down anything outside his immediate vicinity.

Rosario and Kepler are lined up to man the outfield corners, and both have proven vulnerable to left-handed pitching (especially Kepler), so it'd make sense to replace Grossman with a right-handed hitter who plays good defense. In the Offseason Handbook, you'll find a few names fitting that description.

Then again, the arbitration-eligible Grossman will only cost around $2 million to bring back, and his .361 OBP ranked second on the team behind Mauer.

2) Do they trust Mitch Garver behind the plate?

It would seem that Garver is ready to take over as Minnesota's backup catcher. He had a great year at Triple-A, earning Twins Minor League Player of the Year honors, and got his feet wet in the majors during the final weeks of the campaign.

But do they trust his defense enough go with him as Jason Castro's standalone backup? This much is not clear. Molitor didn't seem to have a ton of faith in Garver behind the plate, giving him only four starts there and none after September 4th.

Will the Twins bring back Chris Gimenez, or seek another glove-first option as Castro's caddy? If they do, what does that mean for Garver's future here? He turns 27 in January.

3) Did Ehire Adrianza show enough to get another shot?

The Twins claimed Adrianza off waivers ahead of spring camp mainly because of his defensive rep. He played shortstop and he played it well; it wasn't clear Minnesota had a player with that capability on the roster. He ended up playing all over the field and getting a career-high 186 PAs this season.

Like Grossman, Adrianza is eligible for his first turn at arbitration this offseason, and won't be expensive to retain (maybe around a million). The Twins need a strong defender they can use frequently on the left side of the infield. Did Adrianza do enough to convince them he's that guy?

His defensive metrics were good, though not as strong as they have been in the past. To my eye, he was a bit sloppy at times and not quite the specialist that his reputation suggested. But the tools are clearly there and to me, bringing him back is an easy call, especially since he's the only speed threat on the bench as things currently stand.

What are your concerns and questions around the Twins defense as we head into the offseason?

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40 Comments

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ashburyjohn
Oct 29 2017 08:17 PM

I realize that, despite the title, this article focuses on the backups. But for me, deciding on the big pieces comes before deciding on who fits in as the bench players.

 

At starting shortstop Polanco was a pleasant surprise for me with his defense, but he's still somewhere between only acceptable and average. Unlike some, I believe in his bat despite a subpar 2017. But it wouldn't be a shocking development if the front office took some sort of aggressive step to improve the defense there. It's a cliche to be strong up the middle, but cliches come from somewhere. In a matchup to either World Series team this year, the Twins would be weak by comparison at that spot.

 

With a stronger starting SS, maybe both Escobar and Adrianza aren't needed on the 25-man, opening a spot for a more defensively-limited big bat.

    • glunn, mikelink45, Sconnie and 3 others like this

Since this is just about defense, there are concerns at 3B and 2B more than SS.

 

Our team was 24th in DRS at 3B.No significant difference between the defense provided by Escobar and Sano.Both bad.

 

Our team was 22nd in DRS at 2B. Dozier has no business as a GG finalist.

 

Our SS position was at 17th in DRS. Polanco was better at SS than Dozier was at 2B.

 

Thank goodness for 4th ranked 1B and 4th ranked OF in DRS.

    • Thrylos, Platoon, ToddlerHarmon and 1 other like this
Personally, I'm not sold on Polanco, on either side of the ball. That seems like an obvious place ripe for improvement, but I doubt the Twins will look for a SS this winter.

Dozier is steady, but range and arm seem to get a little weaker every year. He's not going anywhere in 2018 though. Sano obviously will play third the majority of the time so I don't see much room for improvement there, either. Mauer' good, but he's not going to get better. The OF can't get much better, I don't think.

So I think at this point you have to work on the pitching, not the backups, if you want to significantly reduce runs allowed again. I just don't see how you realistically improve the defense much.
    • ChiTownTwinsFan, Twins33, h2oface and 2 others like this

Move Dozier to DH and keep him as the leadoff hitter then move Adrianza to second.

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Old Twins Cap
Oct 29 2017 10:43 PM

Twins need to think BIG, if they want to win a World Series.

 

A RH 3B who can really pick it, and hit, that would be an improvement.

 

At his best, Sano is a 1B.

 

A slick fielding SS would also be an improvement on defense. 

 

But, if Polanco can hit and with power from both sides of the plate, I don't know how we can get better there without trading from a position of strength.

What I would like to see next year is not Polanco at short. As I don’t see the front office spending any of its free agent money on a shortstop who is anything other than a utility type that leaves Adrianza or another player like him until Gordon is ready. The best defense with the available players would be to move Sano into a platoon With Mauer at first given that he would DH a lot of days, move Dozier to third, Polanco to second, and have Adrianza keep the seat warm at short unless they can find a right now option to package in a trade when they are getting some pitching.
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Major Leauge Ready
Oct 30 2017 05:48 AM

 

Twins need to think BIG, if they want to win a World Series.

 

A RH 3B who can really pick it, and hit, that would be an improvement.

 

At his best, Sano is a 1B.

 

A slick fielding SS would also be an improvement on defense. 

 

But, if Polanco can hit and with power from both sides of the plate, I don't know how we can get better there without trading from a position of strength.

 

So you move Sano to 1st and weaken our D at 1st and have a $23M DH with no power. Plus, you would either need to spend FA dollars that should be used on SP or RP or trade away the inexpensive future players who will improve the team over the next couple years. 

 

I agree on Polanco in that now is not the time to move him.Let's see if he can be closer to the version that tore it up for 6 weeks last year for an entire season.Then, move him to second when Dozier departs and insert Gordon. Would love to see Dozier extended but it makes more sense to spend the money elsewhere.

    • Platoon likes this
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tarheeltwinsfan
Oct 30 2017 06:35 AM

What I would like to see next year is not Polanco at short. As I don’t see the front office spending any of its free agent money on a shortstop who is anything other than a utility type that leaves Adrianza or another player like him until Gordon is ready. The best defense with the available players would be to move Sano into a platoon With Mauer at first given that he would DH a lot of days, move Dozier to third, Polanco to second, and have Adrianza keep the seat warm at short unless they can find a right now option to package in a trade when they are getting some pitching.

Dozier is my favorite Twin, but I don't think he has the arm for 3B.
    • USAFChief, Danchat and Platoon like this
There is no real reason to tinker with the OF. The only decision is Grossman. And I would only make that based on his ability to DH. You just cannot let him play OF. It's almost a dereliction of duty as a manager. I have no doubt that Polanco will turn into a very productive hitter. But unless it's a 2B it is a wash due to his limited defense. Mauer should get the GG simply for keeping him in the league. Neither Sano or EE will ever win a GG, but at least Sano's bat should carry his glove at a bat first position. Leave him there, IF he stays in shape for now. Dozier is in the same boat as Polanco. In a defensive position because of his bat. If it was me, I would move Dozier, insert Polanco there, and find a glove first SS. But it's not me. Since I assume the Twins won't re-up Dozier with a long term deal, and I hope they won't, he will be gone after next year. I would take the trade I could, and improve the whole middle of the infield. And use that money for pitching, pitching, and more pitching.
    • Blackjack likes this
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NapoleonComplex
Oct 30 2017 07:09 AM

Twins ranked 10th in defensive efficiency, 10th in DRS, 4th in fielding percentage.... seems to me our overall defense was well above average. Aside from Dozier, who isn't going anywhere through 2018, the other soft spot did okay in a relatively small sample size. 

 

Personally I believe we can make incremental defensive improvement by focusing on our rotation and bullpen. Much easier to field a weak ground ball than it is to sacrifice your body to keep a 110 MPH screamer in the infield. All teams have deficiency in certain areas, but play the best available at each position. Difference is we don't have as strong a pitching staff as teams that went deep into the playoffs to protect defensive liability.

The easiest improvement - have Rosario work as hard on his fielding this year as he worked on his hitting last year. He has the ability to be an above-average LF. His defense in LF was fine his first two years in the league. He just needs to make better decisions.

    • Danchat and Deduno Abides like this

Sano to DH puts a potentially good fielder at 3B and, perhaps, reduces his potential for injury and keeps his bat in the lineup all year.Is one of our young minor leaguers ready to take over at SS with a better bat?Can Polanco play 3B?Last year Escobar was a great story - can he continue at this level?  

 

I heard a variety of opinions on Granite - is he a really good OF - defennsively?Is he ready to take over for Grossman?Do we have another good hit, good defensive OF in the mnors who is ready to step up?I think the Vargas, Palka slugger type player should be a thing of the past - Sano fills that role and we learned this year that defensive is really significant. 

 

What is significant to me in looking at the fielding stats is the total caught, plus assists - http://www.espn.com/...ng/seasontype/2Not a perfect stat, but it implies range and this drops us from #4 to 24 - if you do the sortable reorder on this site.So where is our range limited?When we put Adrianza and Grossman in the outfield, when we have Vargas or others in place of Mauer at 1B.It is a reflection of our 2B/SS tandem and probably the assorted 3B options. Is it our catchers who are supposed to be good at framing, but how is their fielding?

​This is far from a perfect way to review range, but it is fascinating to me that we would drop that far from the original fielding pct ranking. 

 

How do our fielders rank in zone coverage?I know Buxton is number one.

The only significant change we might see before opening day is if the Twins decide to move Sano off of third base. Not sure what other options they have - obviously Escobar could get first crack but I'm not sold on him being a starter for a season and his defense might not be an upgrade.There isn't much on mlbtraderumor's free agent tracker for third base but Logan Forsythe got good marks at third base, although he didn't play it much. The Dodgers have an option year on him for only 8.5m but he wasn't great this year but he got better as the year went on. They probably still pick up the option though. After that, there isn't much. Baltimore probably doesn't pick up JJ Hardy's option but do the Twins want to bet on a 35 year old shortstop (decent marks still) moving to third? So I would guess we stick with the Sano/Escobar/other UI for this year.

 

Or we trade for Machado. I'm sure that's in the cards.

    • markos likes this

 

 

 

 

How do our fielders rank in zone coverage?I know Buxton is number one.

To my eye test, for just range, I think it goes Buxton, Rosario, Granite, Kepler, Adrianza, Grossman. But I think the advanced stats like Kepler and dislike Rosario a lot more than I do.

    • mikelink45 likes this

 

To my eye test, for just range, I think it goes Buxton, Rosario, Granite, Kepler, Adrianza, Grossman. But I think the advanced stats like Kepler and dislike Rosario a lot more than I do.

There is some evidence that Rosario has taken a legitimate step backwards speed-wise this past year. Based on the StatCast data, his top end speed was almost a foot-per-second slower than past seasons; it places him behind Kepler, and way behind Granite and Buxton. Speed isn't the be all, end all for outfield defense, as route efficiency makes a big difference as well. But I've never thought that route efficiency is a huge strength of Rosario's - obviously not a glaring weakness, but I just don't think he is elite at it.

 

As recently as last off-season, I was firmly in the camp that Rosario was a legitimate centerfielder, and the obvious choice as a backup at the position. But now I'm not so sure. If you look across the entire gamut of StatCast fielding data, Rosario is a lot closer (both tools-wise and in efficiency) to guys like Michael Conforto and Justin Upton rather than true center-fielders.

    • gunnarthor and jimmer like this

I think that the Twins were fine defensively last season and the younger players like Polanco, Sano, Kepler, Buxton, Rosario etc will improve as they develop further.

 

One sure way of improving the defense is to not put the ball in play and have pitching miss bats.That's the glaring weakness of the Twins.The rotation and pen.Not the defense.

Would a DH/occasional OF with better glove be better than Grossman?Sure.Still should not be the priority here.

    • NapoleonComplex, Sconnie, DocBauer and 3 others like this

My thought is that any effort to improve the defense starts and ends with the infield. Last year they were top-5 in converting flyballs and line-drives into outs, but bottom-5 in converting ground balls and popups into outs). But there isn't a super obvious path to do so his offseason (next offseason, with both Dozier and Mauer potentially moving on, is a completely different story). I guess I could see an argument to trying to acquire an elite defensive SS in place of Adrianza and starting that player (with a Mauer-1B, Dozier-2B, Polanco-3B, Sano-DH alignment) on days when Gibson is pitching and in the late innings. That moves the needle a little bit, but it isn't a huge change.

    • ToddlerHarmon likes this
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Parker Hageman
Oct 30 2017 09:31 AM

When we talk about the Twins' defensive improvements this year over last year, in addition to the overall upgrade of talent, I think we have to give some credit to the impact that several members of the coaching staff made.

 

At this time last year, I wrote an essay for the 2016 Handbook titled "Above & Beyond: Creatively Improving Run Prevention" and at the core of it, was that the Twins needed to operate similarly to the Red Sox and Cubs who had hired a pitching specialist and a "defensive coordinator". The Twins somewhat followed this blueprint by hiring Jeff Pickler as a bench coach to focus on defense and Jeremy Hefner to focus on the pitching side. 

 

Here's what Paul Molitor had to say about Pickler in spring training:

 

 

“Picks got a lot of layers,” Molitor said. “He’s embraced the outfield thing, guys really love him out there. His involvement is with him trying to dissect data and what we can use as a team or for certain people that would maybe find a way to advance rather than staying stagnant.”

 

Molitor said that Pickler has been very active in the spring training games already. One example Molitor provided for Pickler’s value added is his ability to think ahead. During Wednesday’s game against the Orioles, with Chris Johnson at the plate, two outs and no one on base, Pickler approached Molitor in the dugout with a suggestion to shift to a no-doubles defense. His reasoning was that light-hitting Johnny Giavotella was on deck. If Johnson were to reach second, he would almost surely score on a single. Taking away the extra base hit opportunity would possibly prevent that run. Molitor respected that kind of foresight.

 

 

There are little things that may have changed behind the scenes that had ripple effects that led to more outs over the course of the season. 

 

No doubt last year's defensive improvements were driven by the players on the field but you have to tip your hat to the little things the front office did to buttress the support staff. More importantly, what I'm really driving at is: CONSIDER DOWNLOADING THE OFFSEASON HANDBOOK.  

 

Thank you.

    • Nick Nelson, Deduno Abides, Taildragger8791 and 1 other like this

 

I think that the Twins were fine defensively last season and the younger players like Polanco, Sano, Kepler, Buxton, Rosario etc will improve as they develop further.

 

One sure way of improving the defense is to not put the ball in play and have pitching miss bats.That's the glaring weakness of the Twins.The rotation and pen.Not the defense.

Would a DH/occasional OF with better glove be better than Grossman?Sure.Still should not be the priority here.

Woah. I agree with everything Thrylos said.

    • DocBauer and howieramone2 like this

There are a couple of key pitchers who had stellar ERAs in the second half ... except when Garver was behind the plate.  Could be a flukey small sample size thing, could be a red flag, who knows at this point.  This barely matters because the Twins have the catcher they want, and should they want Gimenez back as the backup he will be available.

 

As far as defense, I think the presence of Buxton is going to elevate everyone else, both because of his circus plays (which no doubt confuse many defensive systems which makes other defenders look better in those systems) AND I think his hard work on the field will rub off on others, a la Kirby Puckett.

 

The Twins need to forget about Sano in the field. His value is his bat, period. Getting another player who can cause serious damage with his bat and be an average defender at 3rd while moving Sano to DH would be a gigantic upgrade for this team. A healthy Sano at DH + another bat that other teams have to respect in the lineup? Ouch.

 

Otherwise I think the Twins are set with defense and offense.  We're back to fixing the pitching. I'm a little surprised we keep having articles and threads on other stuff, when this team literally has just one fatal flaw and it's obvious what it is. Unless the Twins create holes by trading off position players in order to fix the pitching -- creating more problems to fix (Hi Terry!) -- this team doesn't have much left to do.

    • KGB likes this
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Nick Nelson
Oct 30 2017 11:08 AM

 

One sure way of improving the defense is to not put the ball in play and have pitching miss bats.That's the glaring weakness of the Twins.The rotation and pen.Not the defense.

Of course. And this clearly is an ongoing objective for the front office based on everything we've heard. But the Twins have a long way to go before their staff is even average at missing bats and it's not going to happen in one year, so for the time being, maintaining and building upon an elite defensive unit is critical.  

 

Of course. And this clearly is an ongoing objective for the front office based on everything we've heard. But the Twins have a long way to go before their staff is even average at missing bats and it's not going to happen in one year, so for the time being, maintaining and building upon an elite defensive unit is critical.  

 

Considering the Twins turned around their offense and defense in one year, why can't they turn around the pitching? The Twins had many pitchers who had good second halves, so they are already half a year in the improvement cycle. The position players are young and cheap, leaving a lot of cash to go after pitching.

 

The Cubs turned their pitching around in 1-2 years, it simply took a few more years for the hitting to catch up.  It should be noted that the Cubs had payrolls similar to the Twins in the years in question.

Plus, Terry Ryan is gone, the pitching coach is gone, the Twins just made the playoffs, the Twins have some star players now, etc. etc. ... other pitchers won't be quick to dismiss the idea of playing for Minnesota anymore. Most pitchers would LOVE to have Buxton standing behind them!
 

    • Thrylos likes this
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diehardtwinsfan
Oct 30 2017 11:28 AM

I don't see there really being much options since "designated defender" doesn't exist in baseball. The best way to improve defense is to hope the younger guys can do that. Otherwise, you're going to sacrifice offense somewhere. I don't like that sacrifice either.

    • Twins33, Major Leauge Ready, DocBauer and 2 others like this
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Nick Nelson
Oct 30 2017 12:17 PM

 

Considering the Twins turned around their offense and defense in one year, why can't they turn around the pitching?

MN's ranks in swinging strike %:

 

2013: 30th

2014: 29th

2015: 29th

2016: 29th

2017: 28th

 

Regardless of what moves they make in the offseason, a majority of this year's staff will surely be returning and I don't think it's realistic to expect them to suddenly vault into the top half of the league. 

    • Danchat likes this
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ToddlerHarmon
Oct 30 2017 12:53 PM

Knowing that Sano could be a healthy, fit, improving 3B would solve so many issues.Of course, deciding that he won't be those things and should DH instead could allow the Twins to solve those issues too.

 

After next year, we might need to find a good defensive 3B other than Sano. The Twins better make sure that Nick Gordon gets some 3B time in AAA this year.

 


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