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Twins 2021 Position Analysis: Third Base

Around this time last year, we were dreaming on what Josh Donaldson might be able to bring at third base. Now, we're fretting over hot corner contingency plans following a first season with the Twins that cast serious doubt on his durability.

But Donaldson's towering upside remains.
Image courtesy of David Berding-USA TODAY Sports
Projected Starter: Josh Donaldson
Likely Backup: Luis Arráez

Depth: Willians Astudillo, Travis Blankenhorn
Prospects: Keoni Cavaco, Jose Miranda

THE GOOD

A year ago when previewing this position, it was all about the Josh Donaldson hype. The Twins had signed JD to an historic $92 million contract, and fans were still buzzing from this emphatic and unprecedented "all-in" type move coming off a 103-win season. Minnesota's front office went big on the Bringer of Rain, envisioning him as the final piece to put their already upper-tier squad over the top.

He still can be that. Donaldson may have a missed large chunk of 2020, and gotten another year older, but he's still very capable of being a game-changing weapon.



That much was evident when he was on the field last year. Though he was probably never really 100%, Donaldson's numbers and underlying indicators lived up to expectations when he played.

In 107 plate appearances, he slashed .222/.373/.469 with six home runs, which is roughly a 30-HR pace in 500 PA. According to Statcast, he posted new career highs in Exit Velocity, Hard Hit %, and BB % – all categories where he's routinely been elite.


Attached Image: donaldsonstatcast.png


If he stays healthy, Donaldson takes this team to another level. If, if, if.

Fortunately, the team is now better prepared for his absence. In 2020, every start that Donaldson didn't make at third base went to Marwin Gonzalez (.606 OPS) or Ehire Adrianza (.557 OPS). Thus, the position they invested so heavily in proved to be a liability.

Now, Donaldson's primary backup is Luis Arráez, who is a career .331/.390/.429 hitter in the majors and an indispensable lineup fixture. Is Arráez a prototypical defensive specimen at third base? Not by any means. Can he play the position capably? It seems that way, based on limited data, and the Twins are confidently betting on it.

THE BAD

Coming into the 2020 season, if you could pick any scenario that would most severely diminish the luster of Donaldson's gaudy new four-year contract with the Twins, it would be a re-emergence of his calf problems.

Those calves derailed a Hall of Fame course for Donaldson, who was tapping new levels of dominance as he entered his 30s. Before 2017, when the soon-to-be-chronic issue first emerged, the slugger had made three straight All-Star teams and been a top-10 MVP finisher in four straight years.

Since then, Donaldson has seen three of his four seasons shortened by calf-related injuries to varying degrees. The other season was an iron-man flex in 2019, when he played 155 games and made 659 plate appearances for Atlanta.

You'd like to think he still has something like that in him. But given the recurring calf maladies, combined with his age, the 35-year-old can't be viewed as anything other than an extreme injury risk. It's going to be a while before fans stop wincing every time he takes an odd step, or follows through awkwardly on a swing.

The Twins themselves are clearly attempting to take it easy on Donaldson, who didn't make his spring debut until Sunday. Until we see him continually out on the field, making explosive movements and running without hindrance, day after day, it'll be hard to feel confident in his durability.

Arráez is a very appealing fallback in some senses, but he'd be stretched defensively as a full-timer at third base. And that's assuming he's not already being used elsewhere. If Donaldson goes down with another long-term injury, I wonder how the Twins might shift things around in response. Move Miguel Sanó back to third with Alex Kirilloff going to first? Slide Jorge Polanco to third with Arráez taking over at second?

There are some different possibilities, but needless to say, it's impossible to offset the loss of what Donaldson can bring to the table.

THE BOTTOM LINE

A year ago, we were all pondering how good the Twins could be with Donaldson. Now, we're pondering how good they can be without him. It's just the reality of a player in his mid-30s who has missed more than one-third of his team's games over the past four years, plagued by a specific and chronic physical impediment with no definitive signs of being in the rearview.

As much as the "injury-prone" label might be overprescribed and oft-inaccurate, it's undeniably affixed to Donaldson. He's going to be a huge question mark for the foreseeable future, meaning the Twins must constantly be cognizant of contingency plans behind him.

If JD can set the calf issues aside and rebound as he did from 2018 to 2019 – if the 2020 relapse was indeed just a "fluke ordeal" affected by pandemic disruption, as he suggests – then third base can be a tremendous source of strength.

If he stays healthy, Donaldson takes this team to another level. If, if, if.



READ OTHER 2021 POSITION ANALYSIS ARTICLES

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20 Comments

I am afraid injury prone is not affixed - it is earned and it is unfortunate.A lot of players have had careers fall short because their bodies did not hold up.It is not a put down, but the team does need to think about how to protect its investment. 

 

I loved Arraez at second - not so much at third.But we have a weak back up to this position at all levels. 

    • Dman likes this

Has underlying indicators ever scored any runs?

    • Dave The Dastardly likes this

As ugly as his .222 BA looked last year, one must learn that Batting Average is a highly inaccurate way of rating a hitter. He had a .362 wOBA and a 129 wRC+ (above average).

    • arby58 likes this

Donaldson's offensive prowess is the focus, but he is also a very good defensive third basemen. In he and Simmons, the Twins probably have the best defensive left side of the infield in baseball.

    • tarheeltwinsfan likes this
We are such a better team when Donaldson and is in the lineup. The Twins are a better team than 2019 when everyone is healthy. Is a baseball leaving a bat at 110mph considered "knocking on wood"? 😍🤣
    • arby58 likes this

The issue with Donaldson is his calf can act up at any time.When on the field he is huge help, but he can miss weeks out of no where just for being him.  

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Nick Nelson
Mar 08 2021 11:12 AM

 

Has underlying indicators ever scored any runs?

The players with the best underlying indicators tend to produce the most runs. So... yes? 

    • big dog, mikelink45 and Nash Walker like this
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ScrapTheNickname
Mar 08 2021 12:01 PM

Given that the Twins knew of Donaldson's calf injuries prior to signing him, I wonder if an insurance policy was built into his contract that pays for whatever percentage of a given season he misses? I doubt it, but it would have seemed prudent, given his age and injury history.

 

 

Insurance for highly predictable outcomes tends to be either very expensive or impossible to purchase. Highly predictable outcomes are a hard way for insurers to make money otherwise.

 

Yes, I recognize that "death" is highly predictable and lots of insurers make lots of money with life insurance. However, "date of death" is not highly predictable, except as an average for large groups of people.

 

    • ScrapTheNickname and arby58 like this
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ScrapTheNickname
Mar 08 2021 12:48 PM

 

Insurance for highly predictable outcomes tends to be either very expensive or impossible to purchase. Highly predictable outcomes are a hard way for insurers to make money otherwise.

 

Yes, I recognize that "death" is highly predictable and lots of insurers make lots of money with life insurance. However, "date of death" is not highly predictable, except as an average for large groups of people.

Insurance, in general, is "privatized socialism." (A term that I have unofficially coined), in that we all protected from catastrophic loss, while built-in profits go to the insurance companies. A strange arrangement, to say the least.

    • big dog and Dman like this

Insurance for highly predictable outcomes tends to be either very expensive or impossible to purchase. Highly predictable outcomes are a hard way for insurers to make money otherwise.

 

Yes, I recognize that "death" is highly predictable and lots of insurers make lots of money with life insurance. However, "date of death" is not highly predictable, except as an average for large groups of people.

You're surely on the right track there, but the terminology might be tangled.

 

Insurers LOVE highly predictable outcomes - as you go on to point out. If it's predictable, then they'll offer insurance on just about anything, allowing you to smooth out your own risk because you're just one individual, while they let the law of large numbers work to their favor to provide steady profits.
 

It's not the predictability, it's the frequency. In the case of term life insurance, young people die infrequently, and even when you're getting on in years the majority in your age cohort live to see another January. That makes it possible to offer affordable rates, that increase only gradually until you hit your 60s or so.

 

The Twins could ask to smooth out their risk on Donaldson, but Lloyds of London (or whoever offers that kind of policy anymore) would charge so much to reflect the 50% probability of a claim, to just pull a number out of the air, that the policy itself would be a huge burden. Lloyds would charge 50% of Donaldson's $21.7M salary, plus a markup for profit. Paying say $13M for a policy that pays out $21.7M if the injury hits is like betting on Red at the roulette table except with worse odds.

 

Actually the policy would be pro-rated as the season goes along, so the policy premium would likely be smaller than I said, as it might pay a smaller fraction of the salary if the injury hits in August than in April, but I don't want to get further lost in the weeds than I already probably am. :)

    • big dog likes this
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Dave The Dastardly
Mar 08 2021 03:55 PM

Many moons ago I had a brief career as an insurance salesman. The legal eagles briefed me on how many lies I could tell potential customers without going to jail, my boss briefed me continuously on how many sales I wasn't making and my first marriage turned out to be a brief affair.

 

 

I guess you could say I was a brief case.

    • ashbury, Nick Nelson, big dog and 1 other like this

Yes, Ashbury is correct- I should have said highly predictable outcomes for individual cases in the short term are expensive to insure. The problem of adverse selection is huge here (insurance companies wouldn't play on a level field with respect to information about risks specific to that individual), and you couldn't really build a representative pool of "players with calf injuries" or "twenty-three-year-old MLB pitchers with a good slider and Tommy John surgery" or whatever.

 

Insurance companies can also offload some of the risk through re-insurance, effectively sharing the policy with other firms (laying off some bets, as it were).That also works better (or only really works) when the risks are predictable for the insurance companies, and diversified across multiple policies.

 

It might be better for the Twins to make some side bets on lines like the over/under that Donaldson spends X days on the injured list (or whatever it's called now).

 

 

 

As ugly as his .222 BA looked last year, one must learn that Batting Average is a highly inaccurate way of rating a hitter. He had a .362 wOBA and a 129 wRC+ (above average).

 

Yup - getting hits, the goal of every plate appearance, is soooooo overrated.

 

The players with the best underlying indicators tend to produce the most runs. So... yes? 

 

They are like the stats that show someone should have performed better than they actually did (or do).... so.... no?

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tarheeltwinsfan
Mar 08 2021 05:53 PM

 

Insurance, in general, is "privatized socialism." (A term that I have unofficially coined), in that we all protected from catastrophic loss, while built-in profits go to the insurance companies. A strange arrangement, to say the least.

But it works. Also, nobody is forced to buy it, except for health insurance in the US... and Worker's compensation insurance by employers, and liability insurance in North Carolina for our vehicles...and injury insurance for my child to play sports...and fire insurance for my mortgage lender...oh never mind.

    • big dog likes this
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Nick Nelson
Mar 08 2021 09:20 PM

 

They are like the stats that show someone should have performed better than they actually did (or do).... so.... no?

Almost every year, Donaldson ranks near the top of all hitters in terms of drawing walks and hitting the ball hard when he makes contact. As a result, he's been one of the most productive hitters in baseball. So it's a good sign he was continuing to do those things when on the field. 

 

These are not vague sabermetric calculations, they are measures of what he "actually did."

 

Not sure what's controversial or even debatable about this.

    • ashbury, h2oface and DocBauer like this
I'm a little late to the party but need to comment. A key quote from the OP is: "Before 2017, when the soon-to-be-chronic issue first emerged, (his calf issues obviously), the slugger had made three straight All-Star teams and been a top 10 MVP finisher in four straight years."

Go ahead and re-read that quote.

His 2017 and 2018 seasons get largely washed out due to repeated injury dealing with his calf muscles. (To be honest, I'm not certain if it's both or one leg). It stinks, but injuries of various sorts happen. He then adopts a new training routine with the help of a specialist, from Minnesota, and has a tremendous rebound 2019 in Atlanta. Then he signs with the Twins.

Now, we all know 2020 was a bizarre season in the world of MLB. I was grateful to have baseball, even an abbreviated version, and enjoyed every moment. But we saw an odd display of career seasons, split season's of success and failure, and some downright ugly years. And I don't mean just the Twins, but all across MLB. So coming in to 2021 there is element of "I don't know" about a lot of things.

This includes Donaldson. If 2020 had somehow been normal, with a said normal ST ramping up to the regular season, does Donaldson have a healthy and great season like he had in 2019? We don't know. I'm sure he continued to work out and do what he could to be ready, but did the short ramp up affect him? If there was more time available, could he have re-habbed and been just fine after? The answer remains the same, we don't know.

Even though EVERY team was affected by 2020 in different ways, including injuries, speaking solely of the Twins, they were on a 100 win pace until a small slump had them finishing at around a 96 win finish. This despite injuries to Polanco, Arraez, Garver and others along with un-even season's. Not 100% sure I can call Donaldson's issue "chronic" at this point after 2019 and the weird season that was 2020. Does he warrant some caution and continued maintenance in regard to routine and preparation? Absolutely! But so do a large number of athletes, if not most.

IMO, 2020 is a mulligan for just about everyone who had a bad year. Look no further than FA BP addition Robles who has been a fine RP for his career until 2020. Some look away from 2020 and some focus on it.

The Twins are being smart to bring Donaldson along slowly. But they are doing the same thing most teams do with established veteran players. Get them there time, but they know at this point how to get ready.

Yes, I'm an optomist, but I also think I'm a realist. I will be surprised if "doomsayers" don't look up recipes for crow before the year is done in regard to Donaldson.

As for the depth issue, I'm focused more on the future. My gut feeling is Blankenhorn has a chance to be a decent 5 position role player with a decent bat that provides power. IF he can settle down defensively, he has a shot to be the next 3B. Were I a betting man, my money would be on Miranda 2yrs from now. I get Cavaco as a very young and athletic option who continues to grow physically and might become a great 3B option in a few years.

The dark horse, and it pains me to describe him as that, is Wander Javier. STILL only 22yr old, he is no where near the 165lb teenager listed on his milb profile. In fact, I've long thought that part of his injury situation may have been him growing in to his body. IF he can stay healthy now...and he is one of the Twins prospects hurt most by the missing 2020 season...I could absolutely see him begin to mature as a hitter and be in the 3B mix in a few years.

 

Almost every year, Donaldson ranks near the top of all hitters in terms of drawing walks and hitting the ball hard when he makes contact. As a result, he's been one of the most productive hitters in baseball. So it's a good sign he was continuing to do those things when on the field. 

 

These are not vague sabermetric calculations, they are measures of what he "actually did."

 

Not sure what's controversial or even debatable about this.

 

Are walks and hitting the ball hard "underlying stats"? Pretty in your face, and not underlying, from my perspective. I agree. Not controversial.

 

And not underlying.

 

A .222 average is not underlying, either. It is performance. 

I really look forward, and hope, for a season like 2019 from him. And not underlying, but obvious and flagrant.

 

Yup - getting hits, the goal of every plate appearance, is soooooo overrated.

The point of looking at OPS rather than batting average alone is that not all hits are created equal. If, say, in 500 plate appearances, you have 111 singles, you have a .222 batting average. If you have 20 HR and 20 doubles with 71 singles, you also have a .222 batting average.

 

Plus, what if the player with 111 singles has no walks, and the player with the HRs and doubles also walks 30 times? His batting average is the same but not his OBP or OPS.
 


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