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Miguel Sano and Minnesota’s Legendary Defensive History at First Base

If and when the baseball season resumes, Minnesota will be sending out Miguel Sano as their everyday first baseman. There have been plenty of legendary players to man first base during their Twins tenure. In fact, four of the team’s players whose numbers have been retired spent multiple seasons manning first base. So how have these legends fared on the defensive side of the ball?
Image courtesy of © Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Harmon Killebrew
Killebrew moved all over the field during his big-league career as the Twins shuffled him between the left field and both corner infield spots. He spent more time at first base than any other position. His fielding percentage at first was the best of any position (.992). His total zone rating in runs above average was -6, but at third he was a -51 and he was a -19 in left field.

Like Killebrew, Sano is in the Twins line-up because he can put baseballs into orbit with his powerful swing. Unlike Killebrew, the designated hitter role could impact Sano as his career progresses. Killebrew was forced to play a defensive position because the DH didn’t exist until the tail-end of his career. If Sano struggles with the transition to first, he could move to DH after Nelson Cruz vacates that position for the Twins.

Rod Carew
While Killebrew and Sano share similarities, Rod Carew and Sano might be the furthest thing apart when it comes to body type and approach at the plate. Carew did not move full time to first base until his age-30 season and his lone MVP award came in his second full season at first base. He played three full seasons there before leaving for the Angels and he amassed an 18 total zone rating. His best season at first base actually came in 1982 when he posted an 18 total zone rating, a career high. With a .991 fielding percentage, he and Killebrew posted nearly identical marks for their careers.

Like Carew, Sano started his professional career at another defensive position where he wasn’t exactly strong defensively. Carew provided a -3 total zone rating in nearly 9,500 innings at second base. This included a bad season (1971: -11 TZ) and a couple of good seasons (1969, 1975: 6 TZ). Sano had multiple seasons with a -10 TZ rating at third including last season. His best season (4 TZ) was in 2016 when he was limited to 42 games at third.

Kent Hrbek
Both players above made the Hall of Fame, but Kent Hrbek was Minnesota born and he was part of some of the most famous plays at first base in team history (See: Final out 1987, Ron Gant). Hrbek posted a .994 fielding percentage at first with a 16 TZ rating. He had multiple seasons with a TZ rating higher than five, but he also had two of his final five seasons with a -7 TZ. Arguably, his best defensive season was 1984 when he finished second for the AL MVP.

Like Hrbek, the Twins hope Sano can provide a big target for infielders especially Minnesota’s current middle infield duo. Jorge Polanco and Luis Arraez are both below average on the defensive side of the ball. Last season, Polanco was saved multiple times by CJ Cron after throwing the ball in the dirt. With a big target at first, the team’s advice for this season is to throw it high because those types of throws will be easier for a less experienced first baseman.

Joe Mauer
Joe Mauer won multiple Gold Gloves in his career, but all of them came as a catcher which is considerably harder defensive position than first base. Most people thought his transition from catcher to first base would be smooth because of his athleticism, but it was a skill he had to improve. In his first three seasons at first, he combined for a -6 TZ ranking, but over his final two seasons he posted positive totals to end his career with an overall 0 TZ at first. He also combined to have a .996 fielding percentage, a higher total than any player mentioned above.

Like Mauer, Sano has played his entire career in an advanced analytical age and this means more defensive data to gauge player effectiveness. SABR’s Defensive Index has been used to help pick the Gold and Platinum Glove winners in each league since 2013. Back in 2014, Mauer finished tied with Albert Pujols (3.8 SDI) for the top SDI ranking at first. He tied that SDI total in 2017, but it was only good enough to finish third overall at first base. Last season, only two players ranked worse than Sano (-6.8 SDI) at third base according to SDI.

What do you remember about these different defenders? How good can Sano be at first? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.

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I saw the title saying "legendary defensive first baseman." Expected to see Vic Power and his two Gold Gloves in two years... Doug Mientkiewecz was really good. Mauer and Hrbek were both good defensively, and so was Morneau... 


But then I see that the Legendary part was that they have their numbers retired... And yes, hopefully Sano puts himself in that position... 


Also, I think he'll be fine defensively too. 

    • Steve Lein, mikelink45, DocBauer and 3 others like this

Never saw Vic Power. Mienkiewecz and Morneau were very good. Mauer was probably deserving of a Gold Glove. Hrbek was definitely deserving of at least one. My memory of Carew was that he was just ok.I know killebrew was listed at 6'0 but he seemed shorter and just didn't seem like a good target. I felt like he was less of a defensive liability at 3rd base.First base isn't just about making the plays you are expected to make. Its about saving errors for your teammates whether through good scoops or good reach. I just remember thinking Killebrew and Carew didn't have it.

    • rdehring likes this

Will second Seth's comments and those above about Mauer, Morneau and Mientkiewecz. 


Don't know how good Sano will be at first.Maybe he will be ok, maybe not.Doubt he will be a gold glove candidate, but who knows. Also don't know how good Kirilloff is defensively.Expect his bat will force him into the Twins lineup by this time next year at the latest.Will he be a better option at first if Sano isn't at least adequate?Certainly could see Kirilloff settling in at first with Sano getting about a third of the games there and the rest at DH...assuming Cruz is gone next year, which isn't a given.

    • DocBauer likes this

I initially misread the headline to be "Miguel Sano’s Legendary Defensive History at First Base" and thought I would be seeing a Randball's Stu piece. :)

    • Seth Stohs and Sconnie like this

Among all the positions, statistics seem the least useful at first base. Most of the variation in errors that results from a good vs. bad firstbaseman are other infielders' errors. Plus, the firstbaseman gets so many routine chances that fielding percentage drifts irrelevantly close to one.


Are there any defensive metrics specific to first base that measure the difficulty of each throw he must catch and how well a player does on difficult throws? That would seem like a better metric than fielding percentage or coverage of zone on ground balls.

I'll echo the above comments that Mienkiewecz and Morneau are obvious omissions, but I had no idea until reading this article that Carew spent so much time at first, had always thought that he played the vast majority of his career at second and only moved over to first in the twilight of his career.

    • DocBauer likes this


I'll echo the above comments that Mienkiewecz and Morneau are obvious omissions, but I had no idea until reading this article that Carew spent so much time at first, had always thought that he played the vast majority of his career at second and only moved over to first in the twilight of his career.

Sometimes it gets lost that Carew's seven batting titles would have been eight if he hadn't lost an ACL in a (now illegal) collision at second base in 1970...was .366/.407/.524 after 200 PA when it happened. The move was made to removed that possibility as he continued to increase his offensive value in the subsequent years.

    • Ben Noble likes this

Oh my - Vic Power was the best.I loved to watch him play.  https://alchetron.co...ower-(baseball)No one owned the base like he did.He was criticized for his flashy moves and unorthodox style (and it was style) but he was named the 81st greatest first baseman in Major League history by historian Bill James and that is underrated. 


He was flash, he was fun, and he was very good.He had seven gold gloves in 12 seasons.Three seasons he was in the top ten in fewest errors.Six seasons he had the most assists for a first baseman and 8 seasons he was in the top ten. Two seasons he was judges to have the top range for a 1B and 8 seasons he was in the top ten.He is ninth overall in total zone runs at 1st Base.


He is my number one!

    • USNMCPO likes this

I never saw the first two, and only remember Herbek in the end of his career.Joe was fine, if he would have played whole career there he most likely would have got some gold gloves.Doug was the best I ever seen play in Twins uniform on defense, got to love the bare hand batting and sitting in lucky spot on floor of dugout too for Dougie baseball. 


I have always said, good defending first baseman never get enough credit.Sure you can put the heavy hitter there than can only catch good throws and just blame all the bad throws on the one throwing, but a good defender saves so many bad throws and turns them into outs. Half of amazing stops require amazing grabs from first basemen because it is not easy to get a good throw on amazing stops.Without those grabs by first basemen the amazing stop means nothing.  


As long as Sano does not look like he did in RF, I think he will hit enough.Twins have heavy fly ball pitching, and teams trying to hit more fly balls too so hopefully the weak infield defense does not mean anything. 

    • DocBauer likes this

IMO, easy to make an argument that Hrbek was the Twins all-timer at first base (if defense is a part of the evaluation). Obviously, a case can be made for others.


FWIW, I think a huge portion of current observers don't remember that Killebrew really wasn't a "first-baseman" in his prime. A high percentage of his games at first occurred after age and injuries had taken their toll, and he was playing out his career. Killebrew played more than 80 games at first for exactly 3 of his 'prime' Twins seasons...'61, '67, and '71. And through 1971 (his last good season), he had played more 3B than 1B for the Twins. Many memories (and the numbers) don't do justice to the fact that, in his prime, Killebrew was a decently athletic guy that could play third and first and that was at least average when playing first base.


Games started at 1B for Twins through age 34 season...

Killebrew - 557

Hrbek - 1566


Games started at 1B for Twins after age 34 season...

Killebrew - 298 (more than a third of the games he ever started at 1B for the Twins)

Hrbek - 0


Meanwhile, Hrbek was better than good defensively. Historically underrated there, IMO. Really good feet, really good hands. One of the best I've ever seen at going back on pop fouls. All while providing that value at a 140 games per season clip for a long time.

    • stringer bell and DocBauer like this
Going to further trumpet that Morneau and Mienkiewicz should have been mentioned as well.

Going to agree with jkcarew was, overall, the best 1B in Twins history. Had Justin escaped the dreaded concussion curse that some Yankee loving voodoo queen placed on the Twins, it might be a different story.

Still feel Herbie was robbed of an MVP, at least a couple Gold Gloves and should have been selected to additional All Star appearances.

To this day, 37yrs later I am still bummed and burning he lost the ROY award to the great Cal Ripken. Ripken beat Hrbek in doubles, homers, and had 1 more RBI. But he also did so with an addition 131 AB. Hrbek had him by over 37 points in BA, 46 points in OB, 10 points in SLG, and 56 points in OPS! And Kent did this for a 60W team while Ripken played for an Orioles team that won 94G.

Now, at the time, both guys were rookies. But I've always felt there was a media and east coast bias involved. And being a life long Twins fan, I think I'm allowed to have my own bias. LOL

Sano may never be anything more than average defensively at 1B. But with his offensive potential, I'd take that easily. At not yet 27yo, experienced, surprisingly athletic for such a big man, I see no reason why he can't be at least better than average at 1B as long as his new work ethic stays in place along with health. He's played SS and 3B dealing with line drives and choppers since he was a teen. Given time to adjust and work on his feet at the position, why on earth can't he become a solid 1B defensively?
    • rdehring likes this
Matthew Lenz
Mar 24 2020 07:41 PM
Where is the Mienkiewicz love?!
    • rdehring likes this

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