There's no skirting around just how bad the Minnesota Twins were on the mound last season. Their starting pitching was the worst in the big leagues, and their relief options broke down far too often as well. Although and overhaul hasn't taken place, the more important understanding is that a heightened focus on defense may be all that was ever needed.
Target Field has been pegged all over the place as to which side of the game it favors. Although at times it plays big, I think the understood reality is that it leans more between hitter friendly and neutral. With the Twins running out fly ball pitchers such as Phil Hughes and Hector Santiago, having capable outfielders ready to track balls down is a must. For the first time in 2017, they should have a group worthy of league wide notoriety.
Plenty has been made about the boost Jason Castro should provide the pitching staff behind the plate. His pitch framing and game calling approach is a significant upgrade over what Kurt Suzuki brought to the fold. What's overlooked however, is just how important a 162 game sample of Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, and Max Kepler can be.
Defensive metrics remain a mystery, and certainly in a small sample size. Numbers derived from DRS (defensive runs saved) and UZR (ultimate zone rating) still fail to completely tell us what they're trying to indicate. While the picture of an outcome as it relates to a positive result is painted, the context surrounding each play is often left up for interpretation. Be that as it may, Buxton (3), Kepler (5), and Rosario (2) combined to be worth 10 DRS in 2016. That's hardly a number to be proud of, but again, it's a sign of things to come.
In 2016, Buxton and Rosario sporadically played in just 92 games for Minnesota, while Kepler gave the club 113. Without the ability to get in rhythm, contribute continuously, or really cement their place in the outfield, it's far from surprising that the best output wasn't achieved.
Given a full year, Buxton is expected to be in the conversation with the likes of the Rays Kevin Kiermaier as the best defensive center fielder in the game. His combination of instincts and elite speed should rarely see balls land around him. Max Kepler will be entering his first full major league season, and comes from a background that has seen him capable of playing all three outfield spots. Having settled into Target Field's dimensions a bit further, a heightened level of comfortability should follow suit. Arguably the biggest question mark of the group is Rosario, and it's in regards to what kind of player he shows up as.
Back in 2015, Rosario put up 10 DRS for the Twins in just under 750 innings in left field. He was an assist machine, and rarely had a play go unmade. A season ago, he regressed significantly and was no better than replacement level. The step backwards could be explained by both runners taking less chances on him, as well as a more casual approach to the defensive side of his game. Should he return to form, the trio will have plenty going for it.
While on paper the numbers trend towards the Twins having a strong outfield group, there's also a couple of in game factors that show promise. Buxton, Rosario, and Kepler have some of the strongest arms from the grass in the big leagues, and that should help to limit opposing baserunners stretching base hits. On top of their cannons, both Buxton and Kepler have proven their ability to make the difficult play.
Over at Baseball Savant, Statcast recently rolled out a new Catch Probability metric. Unlike UZR and DRS, this metric takes into consideration the amount of time a player has to make the play correlates it with the distance needing to be covered. The formula calculates measurable factors to produce and outcome that can be compared across several instances. The results are broken down into plays designated with "Star Rankings," 1 being the easiest opportunities (91-95% probability) and 5 being the most difficult (25% or less probability).
Among players with at least 50 opportunities, only seven players had more 5 star outs than Buxton (6) and Kepler (6) recorded. Of those with at least 25 opportunities for a 5 star out, only Adam Eaton's 27% success rate (10-37) was higher than Buxton's 24% (6-24). When looking for Max Kepler on the list, you don't have to go far to see his 18.8% (6-32) comes in 8th among those same stipulations.
Being that this is such a new metric, and we only have two years of data, it's hard to glean much from it at this point. Looking at it from its core though, suggesting that both Buxton and Kepler have strong instincts and ball tracking abilities, with solid play making athleticism is a more than fair statement.
At the end of the day, Paul Molitor's club is absolutely going to have to pitch. They're integrating Miguel Sano back into third, and have questions about Jorge Polanco at shortstop. When the ball is put in the air to the outfield however, the group that should patrol the grass more often than not, is going to have a very high probability to get the job done for the guy on the bump. The more pieces of the puzzle Minnesota can shore up, the closer they get to becoming a complete team, and this outfield group looks as sure of a bet as any