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Defense at shortstop


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Do the Twins over value defense at shortstop? In an era of more strikeouts, shifting and more fly balls is it as important as 10 years ago? Using team UZR at SS as a reference the difference between the best team and worst team in 2011 was 29. There were 8 teams in double digits. Fast forward 10 years and the range is 12.2. There are no double digit teams. The best team in 2021 would have ranked 11th in 2011. The worst 23rd. Is signing a defense first SS a mistake?

I am not certain team UZR is the best way to measure impact of defense at SS. I can add that in 2011 there were 10087 plays made at SS. In 2021 that number was 7142. There are less opportunities for a defense first shortstop like Simmons to help the team with his glove. There were more plays made by third basemen in 2011 (7336) than there were made by shortstops in 2021. Was anyone seeking a defense first 3B in 2021?

My thinking is changing here. I would invest in Buxton and pitching. Play Polanco at shortstop and Arraez at 2B. Keep giving SS innings to Martin and Lewis as they develop. As long as batters continue to look to lift the ball and strikeouts prevail I think bat first is the way to go. The Twins have that bat first option in house.

Edited by jorgenswest
Edited to add number of plays made
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I just don't see any reason to mess with Polanco.  He's a well above average 2nd baseman, so why weaken 2 positions by switching him to SS and putting a limited Arraez at the 4 spot?  I do however like your plan of trying to develop Martin and/or Lewis for the SS role in the future - as early as mid 2022 perhaps?  

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Yeah as much as I dislike it, you really don't need Ozzie Smith at SS anymore, I mean they typically play 3 guys on one side of the field now anyways?  These stats will become way more interesting if MLB bans the shift.  If you can Get Arraez 500 at bats because he is an everyday 2B then your lineup probably gets better and with the shifts the fielding getting worse is probably negligible.  Where does the biggest bang for your buck come in, probably with the better lineup.  Then instead of focusing on spending money at SS you dump all of it in to pitching??  They need to have one of Martin/Lewis focus on SS and the other one focus on CF probably because the Twins will have to replace that spot pretty soon also.

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I don't think messing with Polanco at SS makes a lot of sense at this point.  He just got comfortable at 2B and his offensive numbers took off in the process.  I don't think that's a coincidence.  I think you leave him there and focus on Martin and/or Lewis to take the reigns at SS, or acquire another option somewhere.  

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I am not certain team UZR is the best way to measure impact of defense at SS. I can add that in 2011 there were 10087 plays made at SS. In 2021 that number was 7142. There are less opportunities for a defense first shortstop like Simmons to help the team with his glove. There were more plays made by third basemen in 2011 (7336) than there were made by shortstops in 2021. Was anyone seeking a defense first 3B in 2021?

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Infield defense is less important than ever but it still matters, particularly depending on your pitching staff. If you have a rotation with Dobnak in it, a good SS helps. If you have a rotation with Dobnak and Stroman in it, it'd be downright foolish not to field a good defensive SS.

And remember that defense tends to bite one in the ass particularly hard in the postseason. Polanco alone basically guaranteed a loss in the postseason with his defense at least once.

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20 minutes ago, Brock Beauchamp said:

Infield defense is less important than ever but it still matters, particularly depending on your pitching staff. If you have a rotation with Dobnak in it, a good SS helps. If you have a rotation with Dobnak and Stroman in it, it'd be downright foolish not to field a good defensive SS.

And remember that defense tends to bite one in the ass particularly hard in the postseason. Polanco alone basically guaranteed a loss in the postseason with his defense at least once.

Right, but that's why I don't want anything to do with low strikeout, high GB pitchers. Get the guys who miss bats and take chance out of the equation.

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4 minutes ago, nicksaviking said:

Right, but that's why I don't want anything to do with low strikeout, high GB pitchers. Get the guys who miss bats and take chance out of the equation.

I mean, yeah, that's a great approach and I agree... but what if MLB skews so heavily in that direction that effective groundball pitchers become undervalued? And that may not even be theoretical, that may be the case right now. If every team is zigging to the point of it becoming financially ineffective to zig with everyone else, that probably means it's time to zag and being the first one to do it usually pays off in a big way.

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Simmons was a really good player to acquire about 5-7 years ago and was fun to watch when he played for Atlanta. Simmons can still play a decent shortstop but his glove no longer covers his weaknesses. He makes a fair signing for a team wanting a fill-in shortstop or can stick him in the last spot in the lineup with no concern about the results. The fly balls changed the game, which explains why it makes more sense to have a Starling Marte, Byron Buxton, and Max Kepler outfield. Leave Polanco at 2B and try to trade for Taylor Walls, another, or sign a stopgap until a decision is made on Lewis and/or Martin. 

 

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Last year there were three teams that had over 5 team UZR at shortstop. They were the Royals, Cardinals and Pirates. There were two teams with below 5. The Padres and Dodgers. I don’t know if team UZR is a good measure here though. If you go by rate of plays made on balls in play in the SS zone only one AL playoff team was better than average. In the NL it was the reverse with the Dodgers below average. 

The reality is that 41% more plays were made at SS in 2011 than 2021. I would think that has to be a factor when building a roster.

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1 hour ago, Brock Beauchamp said:

Infield defense is less important than ever but it still matters, particularly depending on your pitching staff. If you have a rotation with Dobnak in it, a good SS helps. If you have a rotation with Dobnak and Stroman in it, it'd be downright foolish not to field a good defensive SS.

And remember that defense tends to bite one in the ass particularly hard in the postseason. Polanco alone basically guaranteed a loss in the postseason with his defense at least once.

Admittedly defense at SS is a hard position for me to shift towards offense.

Your post had me wonder about the two starters they expect in the rotation next year. Ryan and Ober are both well below league average in ground ball rate.

Perhaps they need a back up good glove at SS that starts on the occasion of an extreme groundball pitcher and comes in for Arraez (Polanco moves over) for late inning defense.

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11 minutes ago, jorgenswest said:

The reality is that 41% more plays were made at SS in 2011 than 2021. I would think that has to be a factor when building a roster.

Just curious about your source for these numbers? After correcting for fewer innings in 2021, B-Ref shows a 12.7% drop in chances for shortstops between 2011 and 2021, and an 8.9% reduction in balls fielded.

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Don't move Polanco. He was the Twins' best player last year and probably will be again this year unless Buxton plays 125 games or more. There are quite a few SS out there to pick up as a 1-2 year stopgap while we see if Lewis or Martin (or maybe even Polacios) can handle the position. Galvis, Iglesias, Simmons, all available. Hey, Adrianza is a free agent. What do you think about him as an everyday SS or as part time guy in combination with Nick Gordon? Not sure if he's a fit, but my point is that we can get competent SS play without messing with Polanco at 2B.  Arraez can get 450-550 ABs playing 3B for the 80 games Donaldson is the DH, DHing himself, playing LF, or playing RF after we trade Kepler. Let's not worry so much about giving him a permanent position. His glove is at best average everywhere (except maybe at 3B where it seems pretty good), and his leg issues don't project him as a 135 plus games in the field type guy.   

I do agree that the value of the glove first SS has lessened quite a bit over the last few years. That's why I would keep  Lewis and Martin there in the minors going forward. They're alleged defensive averageness, if that's a word, may be less and less important as time goes on. 

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11 minutes ago, Otto von Ballpark said:

Just curious about your source for these numbers? After correcting for fewer innings in 2021, B-Ref shows a 12.7% drop in chances for shortstops between 2011 and 2021, and an 8.9% reduction in balls fielded.

I was using league stats by SS from Fangraphs to get the 10087 plays made. I did not correct for innings but there must have been fewer extra innings in 2021. I don’t know if shifts also impact the zone numbers and how they are counted. 

The increase in strikeouts, shift and fly balls is real. I do wonder how much.

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51 minutes ago, jorgenswest said:

I was using league stats by SS from Fangraphs to get the 10087 plays made. I did not correct for innings but there must have been fewer extra innings in 2021. I don’t know if shifts also impact the zone numbers and how they are counted.

Since that "Plays" column follows the "BIZ" (Balls In Zone) column, I suspect it is just plays in zone. But Fangraphs definitely needs to update their glossary (or better yet, add mouseover definitions to each column). There's a later column "OOZ" which I know is plays out of zone and it has been gradually increasing (which makes sense, with the increase in shifting).

If you add "Plays" plus "OOZ" to get total balls fielded, you get an innings-adjusted drop of 8.6% which corresponds pretty well to the B-Ref numbers I shared above. Also corresponds to the (innings-adjusted) drop in total balls in play of 7.5% over the same time span.

Season Inn BIZ Plays OOZ Plays + OOZ BIP
2011 43527.1 12285 10087 2212 12299 124820
2012 43355.1 12274 9850 2344 12194 122248
2013 43653.1 12256 9843 2275 12118 123203
2014 43613.2 12206 9544 2491 12035 122520
2015 43407.2 12351 9685 2643 12328 121670
2016 43306.1 11489 8859 2950 11809 119565
2017 43257 11293 8702 2973 11675 117955
2018 43489 10448 8041 3307 11348 117499
2019 43423.1 10334 7748 3608 11356 115910
2020 15468.2 3399 2469 1408 3877 41542
2021 42615 9534 7142 3868 11010 112983

Edit to add: Statcast also shows an 8.0% drop in (innings-adjusted) batted balls to shortstop since 2011.

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21 minutes ago, nicksaviking said:

However, there's no way Stroman is going to be undervalued. Getting an undervalued groundball pitcher on the cheap for the back of the rotation, maybe, but if the Twins went and sign someone like Stroman, his salary means he is automatically going to be the Game 1 playoff starter while the Twins are facing Gerrit Cole or Justin Verlander. They'll be the underdog once again just like they are every single year. I'm freakin' done playing the scrappy little team that can, but never does. I could care less if Stroman pitches a "good game" but the Twins lose because they duffed a ground ball. It's still Stroman's fault, go strike the batter out and leave chance 100% out of the equation.

You just listed two guys who will be paid $36m and $25m, respectively.

Yeah, that's always going to be a problem until the Twins develop literally the best pitcher in baseball to counter them, at which point Minnesota will have *maybe* 2-3 years to compete before that pitcher leaves to one of the teams able to offer him $36m a season for eight seasons.

Whether the Twins are "playing" the scrappy little team that can or not, baseball's economics virtually ensure they "are" the scrappy little team, at least compared to the top eight-ish baseball markets that can simply throw money at the best players and afford to miss pretty regularly.

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1 minute ago, Brock Beauchamp said:

You just listed two guys who will be paid $36m and $25m, respectively.

Yeah, that's always going to be a problem until the Twins develop literally the best pitcher in baseball to counter them, at which point Minnesota will have *maybe* 2-3 years to compete before that pitcher leaves to one of the teams able to offer him $36m a season for eight seasons.

Whether the Twins are "playing" the scrappy little team that can or not, baseball's economics virtually ensure they "are" the scrappy little team, at least compared to the top eight-ish baseball markets that can simply throw money at the best players and afford to miss pretty regularly.

Yes, but the strikeout pitchers can catch lightening in a bottle and get to the Cole/Verlander level. The only time groundball pitchers do is when you get them to drop their sinker. Like Gerrit Cole. I can't imagine you're going to get a guy to drop his sinker if your paying him 20M a year.

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2 hours ago, Brock Beauchamp said:

If you have a rotation with Dobnak and Stroman in it, it'd be downright foolish not to field a good defensive SS.

A rotation with Dobnak and Strotman in it will lose a lot of baseball games regardless of who is playing SS.

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8 minutes ago, nicksaviking said:

Yes, but the strikeout pitchers can catch lightening in a bottle and get to the Cole/Verlander level. The only time groundball pitchers do is when you get them to drop their sinker. Like Gerrit Cole. I can't imagine you're going to get a guy to drop his sinker if your paying him 20M a year.

I actually agree with most of what you're saying, I'm only pointing out that if baseball continues to homogenize pitchers and it leads to sinkerballers being undervalued more and more, smart mid- and small-market teams will pivot and the first will likely show great success doing it.

And I'm not so sure Stroman can't unlock something any more than I'm sure any other pitcher can't unlock something, maybe even moreso because he spent the past couple of seasons on the #lolmets.

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2 minutes ago, DJL44 said:

A rotation with Dobnak and Strotman in it will lose a lot of baseball games regardless of who is playing SS.

First, I said "Stroman", as in "Marcus".

And any mention of Dobnak in the rotation assumes it's the good version of Dobnak or he wouldn't be there at all. The jury is still quite out on Dobnak, as his 2021 was just a mess of injuries. He was actually pretty good for most of 2020 but had two bad starts to close the season and yet again played in front of an infield defense that was really bad.

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Very good article, Jorgens!

It made me think about another position where defense (or at least a part of the defense) is less important - that being catcher.  In particular the ability to "call a game" and throw out potential base stealers.  

While the ability to catch (and block) the ball is still important, I believe the other aspects have gone the path similar to the "d-first" shortstop...

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15 minutes ago, Brock Beauchamp said:

I actually agree with most of what you're saying, I'm only pointing out that if baseball continues to homogenize pitchers and it leads to sinkerballers being undervalued more and more, smart mid- and small-market teams will pivot and the first will likely show great success doing it.

And I'm not so sure Stroman can't unlock something any more than I'm sure any other pitcher can't unlock something, maybe even moreso because he spent the past couple of seasons on the #lolmets.

With how many pitches he CAN throw, Stroman does see like a guy who could change things up to get the strikeouts.

But I think the catch is that a guy getting paid 20M+ per year probably won't feel the need to change, and the club paying him probably wouldn't ask.

I don't think getting the next Robbie Ray or Kevin Gausman is that much of a longshot either. These were guys with loads of potential, great stuff but lacking results. There are a bunch of free agent arms along that vein in this year's free agent class, most of which I won't suggest out loud because people would roll their eyes at me but Rodon, Gray or Kikuchi would certainly be among them.

I would rather roll the dice to hit a homerun, than play it safe. I do understand that's not everyone's preferred path (not at all speculating on your path Brock) and I'm a bit frustrated because the front office seems to prefer the safe path.

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13 minutes ago, Brock Beauchamp said:

First, I said "Stroman", as in "Marcus".

Sorry, I assumed that you were referring to the player actually on the roster, not the one we wish was on the roster instead.

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54 minutes ago, Otto von Ballpark said:

Since that "Plays" column follows the "BIZ" (Balls In Zone) column, I suspect it is just plays in zone. But Fangraphs definitely needs to update their glossary (or better yet, add mouseover definitions to each column). There's a later column "OOZ" which I know is plays out of zone and it has been gradually increasing (which makes sense, with the increase in shifting).

If you add "Plays" plus "OOZ" to get total balls fielded, you get an innings-adjusted drop of 8.6% which corresponds pretty well to the B-Ref numbers I shared above. Also corresponds to the (innings-adjusted) drop in total balls in play of 7.5% over the same time span.

Season Inn BIZ Plays OOZ Plays + OOZ BIP
2011 43527.1 12285 10087 2212 12299 124820
2012 43355.1 12274 9850 2344 12194 122248
2013 43653.1 12256 9843 2275 12118 123203
2014 43613.2 12206 9544 2491 12035 122520
2015 43407.2 12351 9685 2643 12328 121670
2016 43306.1 11489 8859 2950 11809 119565
2017 43257 11293 8702 2973 11675 117955
2018 43489 10448 8041 3307 11348 117499
2019 43423.1 10334 7748 3608 11356 115910
2020 15468.2 3399 2469 1408 3877 41542
2021 42615 9534 7142 3868 11010 112983

Edit to add: Statcast also shows an 8.0% drop in (innings-adjusted) batted balls to shortstop since 2011.

Thanks! I really appreciate the work.

 

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I like the idea of grabbing Gio Urshela from the Yankees to play SS. I think the Yankees will sign one of the big names. Urshela is good enough to play SS in 2022-23 for the reasons stated above.

I disagree with the comment about catcher defense. With strikeouts and walks at all-time highs catcher framing has never been more important. Catchers are being selected for their ability to control the running game just like they have been for decades but now they are also selected for how well they frame.

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Sorry, back on track.

No one has mentioned Villar. I don't have a ton of interest in free agent SS outside of Correa, Seager, Semian and Story, but even though Villar played mostly 3B last year, it looks like he's still quite competent. More often than not his bat isn't a black hole, but obviously the potential is there for it to be terrible. 

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42 minutes ago, DJL44 said:

I disagree with the comment about catcher defense. With strikeouts and walks at all-time highs catcher framing has never been more important. Catchers are being selected for their ability to control the running game just like they have been for decades but now they are also selected for how well they frame.

Also, preventing passed balls and wild pitches. Gotta keep those pesky baserunners from advancing.

 

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