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Twins' Corner Infield Duo Chasing History

Miguel Sanó and Josh Donaldson are getting along rosily so far in Fort Myers. Are they the best corner infield hitting pair in baseball history?
Image courtesy of © David Dermer-USA TODAY Sports
OPS+ is an incredibly useful stat and especially in today’s game. With an emphasis on home runs and an alleged “juiced” ball, offensive numbers are through the roof. OPS+ is a measure of how a player’s OPS (on-base plus slugging) compares to the rest of the league.

An OPS+ of 100 is the league average, and anything above or below represents a percentage better or worse. For example, Mike Trout led MLB with a 185 OPS+ in 2019. His OPS was 85% above league average. OPS+ gives us the opportunity to try to compare players across eras.

The Twins had nine players with an OPS+ above 100 last year. ZiPS projections see 11 such players on the 2020 roster. The impeccable Nelson Cruz is projected to lead the team with an OPS+ of 135, with Sanó just behind him at 131 and Donaldson in third at 125. The 2019 Atlanta Braves were one of 66 teams since 1871 to field a corner infield duo who each posted an OPS+ of 125 or more in the same season. Freddie Freeman and Donaldson were a powerful duo, but Donaldson and Sanó could be better.

Since 2013, Donaldson ranks 10th with 209 home runs. Excluding 2018 where he appeared in only 52 games due to calf injuries, Donaldson has averaged 33.5 homers per year over the last seven seasons. In 2019, Donaldson and Freeman became just the fifth corner infield pair to each hit 37 or more home runs in a season. They combined for 75 total homers, the most ever by a non-Rockies corner infield duo.

ZiPS foresees some regression from Donaldson in 2020 and projects him to hit 27 home runs. I’d project him for closer to 34 to 40 as the switch from the stingy NL East to the hitter friendly AL Central will do wonders for the “Bringer of Rain.” Donaldson finished 2019 sixth in average exit velocity (92.9 mph) and eighth in hard-hit rate (50%). He recently said he feels like “MVP level production is attainable again,” and I wouldn’t bet against him.

Sanó slugged 34 home runs in just 105 games in 2019. ZiPS projects him to hit a hefty 35 homers in 482 plate appearances in 2020. A healthy Sanó is capable of insane offensive output, and now entering his age-27 season in reportedly incredible shape, the sky is truly the limit. Sanó finished last season by hitting .254/.362/.578 with 21 home runs in 65 games after the break. He led MLB in hard hit rate (57.2%) and placed second behind Aaron Judge in average exit velocity (94.4 mph). So what numbers must Donaldson and Sanó surpass to be considered the best hitting corner infield duo in baseball history?

There has been one pair of corner infielders since 1871 to each post an OPS+ of 130 or more AND hit at least 35 home runs in one season: Lee May and Tony Pérez for the 1969 Cincinnati Reds. May had an OPS+ of 133 with 38 homers, and Pérez went deep 37 times with an OPS+ of 140. Health, as usual, will be the key, but Donaldson and Sanó are capable of becoming the most powerful first base-third base tandem in baseball history. This will be one of many records to watch for the 2020 Twins. Is it Opening Day yet?

What do you think? Will Donaldson and Sanó become the most powerful corner infield pair ever? Comment below!

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17 Comments

I’m sorry, can I just point out how bonkers it is that Mike Trout is nearly twice as good as your average baseball player? The dude is u real
    • Oldgoat_MN, DocBauer, JoshDungan1 and 3 others like this
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VivaBomboRivera!
Feb 29 2020 12:02 AM

This from the team that gave us Herbie & The Rat.

    • DocBauer, bighat and Doctor Gast like this
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theBOMisthebomb
Feb 29 2020 01:20 AM
This is some heady stuff when you start talking about best hitting [X] ever. That is definitely something to bookmark and track for 2020. How about 90 Bombas from these two (50 from Sano and 40 from Donaldson)? Could 90 be a reality? It's still February with it being a leap year so I will allow myself to dream.

Statistical manipulation. Change the bar to 34 hr and the gushy story is a little different.

I’m afraid that baseball has changed so much that historical comparisons are no longer valid. The juiced ball last year means you can throw all of those stats out the window. Your point is well taken however that the Twins have quite a tandem at the corners
    • PDX Twin likes this
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Doctor Gast
Feb 29 2020 07:50 AM

 

This from the team that gave us Herbie & The Rat.

Hrbek & Gaetti were a wonderful duo not only offensively but defensively. Offensively Donaldson & Sano are capable of blowing the lid off this thing

    • big dog likes this
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Nash Walker
Feb 29 2020 09:32 AM

Statistical manipulation. Change the bar to 34 hr and the gushy story is a little different.


That’s... the point. If Donaldson and Sanó hit 35 homers each with an OPS+ above 130, they’d be the second duo ever to do it. If one of them hits 34, they’d be the 5th or 6th with at least 34. 34 homers is different than 35.

OK...I just gotta say...this recent spate of articles makes me worry that the Jinx Train is just pulling out of the station.Maybe an article on how this team will never win without a payroll of at least $160 million would be warranted to try and slow that train down.

    • SQUIRREL, Dantes929, PDX Twin and 1 other like this

 

I’m afraid that baseball has changed so much that historical comparisons are no longer valid. The juiced ball last year means you can throw all of those stats out the window. Your point is well taken however that the Twins have quite a tandem at the corners

 

That's why OPS+ is part of the comparison: whether the ball was juiced or not isn't going to have a significant impact on OPS+, because that's a comp to the current season's league average. So if the ball is juiced and everyone has an extra 15% in slugging % or if it's a dead ball and the slugging % is down 20% it doesn't matter: the comp is against league average, allowing you to assess a player from very different eras based on how much better they were than the league average hitter.

 

Donaldson & Sano could be one of the best hitting pairs in history if you measure it based on having two guys who both cross a high threshold. Otherwise, you have to consider things like 1981 Phillies Mike Schmidt/Pete Rose (OPS+ of 198/118) where one guy in the pair really carried it.

 

But we're also really talking about them being possibly the best power hitting pair of corner infielders too. Otherwise guys like 1987 Boston Wade Boggs/Dwight Evans (Evans was their primary 1B that year...barely) who turned in 174/154 OPS+ that season, but are DQ'd by the HR requirement. That's what pushes Hrbek/Gaetti out of the mix too: their best "combo" season was 1988 Hrbek had an OPS+ of 150 while Gaetti clocked in at 148, but neither cleared 30 HRs. (that was easily Gaetti's best offensive season in MN, and his next best wasn't one of Hrbek's best)

 

They have the talent. Let's hope they have the health this year to do it. Should be a lot of fun to watch!

    • DocBauer likes this
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tarheeltwinsfan
Feb 29 2020 10:40 AM

Exciting article. This will be fun to watch.

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Nine of twelve
Feb 29 2020 12:44 PM

This is interesting, and I realize that Sano and Donaldson are the two chosen from the 2020 Twins because their offensive production is expected to be very good, but narrowing it down to only 1B and 3B twosomes is a bit arbitrary. What would be more interesting and significant would be to find the best twosomes at any positions from any team ever and use that as the standard. Mantle/Maris and Ruth/Gehrig immediately come to mind. I'm not going to do the research, but anyone reading this can feel free to do that and post the findings here.

Ron Cey and Steve Garvey had a couple of solid years. I would include Gehrig and anybody because does it really matter who when paired with Lou!

9 of 12 you could also add Hank Aaron and Davy Johnson to the mix of duos. Both had 40 plus Big Flys in the early 70's. There was a 3rd fella on that team that went over 40 that year but I forget his name. Quite the trio of Big Fly production. The Twins could add Nelson Cruz for their 3 musketeers.
    • Nine of twelve likes this
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jorgenswest
Feb 29 2020 05:57 PM
I wonder how to adjust the home run context for era. Is there an ISO+?

The duo of Mathews and Adcock must have been pretty good in an era where it was not as common to hit 35 home runs.

Edit: I took a look. I think they should have made the list in 1956. They finished top 5 in baseball in home runs. Mathews led all 3B and Adcock led all 1B. Looking forward to Sano and Donaldson topping that duo.
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Nine of twelve
Feb 29 2020 06:08 PM

 

9 of 12 you could also add Hank Aaron and Davy Johnson to the mix of duos. Both had 40 plus Big Flys in the early 70's. There was a 3rd fella on that team that went over 40 that year but I forget his name.

That third fella was Darrell Evans. The same fella Tim Laudner picked off third base in game four of the ALCS in 1987.

    • SQUIRREL and VivaBomboRivera! like this

 

OK...I just gotta say...this recent spate of articles makes me worry that the Jinx Train is just pulling out of the station.Maybe an article on how this team will never win without a payroll of at least $160 million would be warranted to try and slow that train down.

I totally understand the hype - on paper, this does look like the best Twins team....ever? And I cringe when I say that, because I do feel like that only adds more coal to the Jinx Train engine room. But hey, you gotta call it like you see it.

    • SQUIRREL and Sconnie like this

Seems like a stretch to say they are "chasing history" by saying they might be the best in a single hitting category that is also being manipulated with a threshold. But there were some great 1b/3b combos that I don't think they compare to.

 

Just a few of my favorites from the last 20-25 years

Pujols/Scott Rolen

Adrian Beltre/Kevin Youklis

Miguel Cabrera/Prince Fielder

A-Rod/Mark Teixeria

A-rod/Jason Giambi

Jason Giambi/Eric Chavez

Chipper Jones/Fred McGriff

Chipper Jones/Andres Galarraga

Donaldson and Fred Freeman were also pretty good last year.

 

Another way to look at it might be the most combined HRs/RBI for a CI duo...