Miguel Sano and Minnesota’s Legendary Defensive History at First Base
Image courtesy of © Brad Rempel-USA TODAY SportsHarmon 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.
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.
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 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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