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On Buxton, Defense, and the Competition

Posted by Ted Schwerzler , 14 March 2018 · 697 views

minnesota twins byron buxton kevin kiermaier
In 2017, Byron Buxton won what should be the first of many Gold Gloves. He also won a Platinum Glove (fan voted), and the Wilson Defensive Player of the Year award. In short, his efforts for the Twins in centerfield have quickly become noticed by a national audience. The speed, ball tacking, and spectacular plays are all just a bit more routing for the Georgia native. What's worth wondering is whether or not he's already the greatest defensive centerfielder of all time.

Rather than dive into a debate across eras, I think it's safe to work under the assumption that the greatest current players would probably hold up working backwards. In short, Mike Trout would compare with Barry Bonds or Babe Ruth. In that sense, Buxton and his competition would hold up well in comparison with great defenders of yesteryear. For the purpose of this piece, there's only one other player that currently holds a candle to the Twins star. Needing no introduction, it's Tampa Bay Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier.

The bar to surpass for Buxton is the blueprint that the Rays defensive stalwart has already put forth. With an extra couple of years under his belt at the big league level, Kiermaier has two Gold Gloves and got edged by Byron for the first time in 2017. Moving outside of the awards though, it's the metrics that truly show how great Kevin really is.

Over the course of his five year big-league career, Kiemaier has played over 1,000 innings just once. Having dealt with injuries, he's only surpassed the 110 games played plateau one time, and has been under 100 games played once as well. During the 2015 season he put up a nutty 42 DRS and 30.0 UZR along with a 24.2 RngR. Dating back to the inception of Fangraphs metrics in 2002, the next closest number is 33 DRS by the Mariners Franklin Gutierrez in 2009. Those two players are also the only ones to ever post a UZR in CF at 30.0 or above (Gutierrez was at 31.0 in 2009). To put it simply, Kiermaier's 2015 was a defensive campaign for the ages.

What's important to note however, is that Kiermaier wasn't simply a flash in the pan or one-year-wonder. In 2016, he posted 25 DRS and a 12.3 UZR, and a season ago he totaled 22 DRS and 2.8 UZR. Given the sample size of those previous two campaigns coming in no less than 46 games shy of his 2015 output, the production only had room to rise. At nearly 28 years-old, Kiermaier should be well of from and decline, and he'll be pushing for the title of best defensive centerfielder for years to come.

Turning our attention to the Twins star, there's a very obvious asset that really can't be taught: speed. In the newly developed spring speed leaderboard from MLB's Statcast, Buxton is the fastest runner in baseball clocking 30.2 ft/sec. He's trailed most closely by Cincinnati's Billy Hamilton (30.1 ft/s) and Kiermaier's 28.9 ft/s check in at 13th among centerfielders. That elite top end speed allows Buxton to cover both gaps, and very realistically, make up for any route deficiencies he may have.

Being the Statcast darling that he is, you don't need to go far to find Buxton's name atop another leaderboard. Minnesota's man tops both the Catch Probability and Outs Above Average charts. In 2017, he was worth 25 outs above average, or better than every team in baseball aside from his own. No player, at any position, made more "4 Star" outs than Buxton's 26. His 89.7% conversion rate on plays deemed to have a 26-50% likelihood of an out is truly astounding. In summarizing his efforts, Statcast deemed that Buxton's expected catch percentage in 2017 was 87%. Instead, he posted a 93% mark and added unexpected outs 6% of the time.

Unfortunately, Statcast's data only dates back to 2016, so comparing Kiermaier's exceptional 2015 in the same realms is not possible. From a Fangraphs perspective, Buxton has room to grow. Last season, his DRS total checked in at 24 with a 9.9 UZR and 12.6 RngR. If there's an area most easily picked apart in Buxton's defensive game, it's his arm.

Buxton doesn't have a weak arm by any means, in fact he pitched at over 90 mph in high school. What he does lack at times from the outfield, is accuracy. Far too often in 2017, throws to bases were off line, and while the ball may have provided an opportunity for an out, the positioning was no longer there. The metrics seem to agree with those sentiments as well. Last season, Buxton's efforts were worth -2.4 (outfield arm runs above average). For comparison, Kiermaier's 2015 saw a 6.8 ARM rating. DRS is a metric that encapsulate's each piece of a defender's ability and displays a total defensive value. Posting a negative or lacking ARM tally will do no favors when calculating the overall production.

What I think is easy to suggest is that baseball fans are currently watching two of the greatest defensive centerfielders to ever play the game. While Kiermaier would benefit by staying on the field more, Buxton has a workable avenue to increasing his own production, and the battle will be a fun one to watch for years to come. Byron has yet to match Kevin's 2015 by some advanced metrics, but others are quite clearly in awe of how much he brings to the game with his glove.

It is on defensive merit alone that Buxton will be a yearly candidate for the All Star game in years to come. Should his bat display what it flashed down the stretch for the Twins, Minnesota has an MVP candidate waiting to happen, and a superstar in the making. At the end of the day, Twins fans should have plenty of fun watching their man go and get it.

For more from Off The Baggy, click here. Follow @tlschwerz

  • MN_ExPat likes this



The bar to surpass for Buxton is the blueprint that the Rays defensive stalwart has already put forth.

...

Over the course of his five year big-league career, Kiemaier has played over 1,000 innings just once. Having dealt with injuries, he's only surpassed the 110 games played plateau one time, and has been under 100 games played once as well.

I'm worried that Buxton may indeed follow that blueprint.He constantly looks like he is on the verge of catastrophic injury out there and appears to have very little awareness of the location of the walls.