MLB Statcast recently unveiled its Outs Above Average (OAA) rankings for MLB infielders (it was previously only available for outfielders) and the numbers make a compelling case for Marwin Gonzalez. With Gonzalez rated as Minnesota’s best defensive infielder and a current need to fill in C.J. Cron’s place at first base, moving Miguel Sano to first and slotting Gonzalez into the everyday third base role may be the Twins best move going forward.
According to MLB’s Baseball Savant site (where Statcast is featured), “Outs Above Average (OAA) is the cumulative effect of all individual plays a fielder has been credited or debited with, making it a range-based metric of fielding skill that accounts for the number of plays made and the difficulty of them.” OAA measures the distance and time it takes a fielder to reach the ball, how far the fielder is from the base the ball will be thrown to, and how fast the baserunner is.
Based on OAA, Gonzalez is far and away the Twin’s best returning infield option. In 2019 he was good for a 7 OAA, meaning he was seven outs above the average infielder. That may not seem like a lot, but it places Gonzalez as the 19th best infielder in all of baseball (Javier Baez led all of baseball with a 19 OAA). Of the returning Twins infielders, Gonzalez is the only one who posted an above-average ranking (Jonathan Scope was second with a 5 OAA, but will be replaced by Luis Arraez’s -6 OAA). He successfully completed 93% of the plays he was involved in with just an 88% estimated success rate, meaning that he made 5% more plays than he was expected to.
Placing Gonzalez at third would push Sano to first, which may not be such a bad thing. Sano finished 2019 with a -5 OAA, which, while not terrible is significantly below average. Sano is likely to move off third sooner or later, and with Gonzalez as the superior defensive option, now may be a good time. Sano has some experience playing first base and seems athletic enough to be at least an average defender once he settles in. His 137 wRC+ in 2019 ensures that his bat is certain to fit in at first.
Moving Gonzalez into the everyday third base role does raise a few concerns. The first being Gonzalez’s bat. Gonzalez got off to a notoriously slow start in 2019 after signing late and missing most of spring training, and finished the year as a below average hitter with a 93 wRC+. However, his numbers were much better after April (he had just a 33 wRC+ in Mar./Apr.) and he has been a slightly above average hitter over the course of his career. With above-average defense and an average bat he would be a net positive at third. Minnesota also has a stacked lineup, so having one position filled with an average hitter isn’t really an issue.
The other concern would be the utility role with Gonzalez moving to third full time. Gonzalez’s ability to fill in anywhere was huge in Minnesota’s injury-plagued 2019 and not having him available for that role in 2020 would seem a detriment. However, Minnesota has another great option for the utility role in Ehire Adrianza. Adrianza rates as the Twins second best returning infielder with a -1 OAA and has the ability to play all around the infield, including shortstop. He also had a really good offensive year in 2019 (relative to being a utility infielder), with a 102 wRC+. Plus, the need for Gonzalez to fill in in the outfield is mitigated by the depth of Jake Cave, Lamonte Wade, and near-ready prospects like Alex Kirilloff, Brent Rooker, Luke Raley, and Trevor Larnach.
There are legitimate concerns with Minnesota’s infield defense coming into the 2020 season, and moving Sano to first and letting Gonzalez take over third should help some. Additionally, with Adrianza in the main utility role, his ability to play average defense would give the Twins an occasional defensive upgrade over Arraez at second or Jorge Polanco at short, who had a team-worst -16 OAA in 2019 (read Twerk Twonk Twin’s recent blog post for a great breakdown of Polanco’s defense).
With Minnesota unlikely to sign Josh Donaldson, and really only Mitch Moreland left on the first base free-agent market, moving Gonzalez to third seems to be the best option for 2020. If someone like Alex Kirilloff emerges and Minnesota decides to put him at first, Gonzalez can always slide back into the utility role, but Gonzalez’s presence at third with an increased utility role for Adrianza at least gives the infield defense some hope.
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