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  • A Bigger Twins Problem Than Pitching


    Ted Schwerzler

    If you’ve given any thought at all to the Twins deficiencies this offseason, the chief concern has likely been the starting rotation. Two guys returned and two new names were added, but there’re still glaring holes in that group. The reality however may be that even with another strong pitching addition, infield defense will be the downfall of this squad.

    Image courtesy of © David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

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    Last season Minnesota’s starting rotation ranked seventh across baseball, and fourth in the American League, when it came to fWAR total. While not glowing in any one specific category, the sum of all parts was representative of a strong unit. There’s no denying that Randy Dobnak was in a tough spot for an ALDS game, and that Rocco Baldelli doesn’t have the horses other teams do. That needs to be addressed, but what happens when the ball is put in play?

    The Twins ranked 21st defensively in 2019 and their 26th overall infield outs above average valuation was even worse. The posted a -14 number when it came to the newly unveiled Statcast metric, and that number is buoyed by performances by the since departed C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop. With only Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco, and Luis Arraez locked into the infield configuration prior to signing Josh Donaldson, they'd have been one of the worst units in baseball.

    https://twitter.com/tlschwerz/status/1214968989262209025

    From an individual standpoint, Sano and Arraez both fare poorly on their own. It’s shortstop Polanco though that ranks dead last, 138th, with -16 outs above average. He’s joined in that position by none other than Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who is seen as a surefire designated hitter, and maybe by the time he’s 22-years-old.

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    Before there’s consideration regarding the deficiency having to do with shifts, it’s worth understanding that infield OAA takes starting position into account. Polanco posted his worst metrics while beginning in the SS hole, as opposed to being adequate when shifted to the second base side of the diamond. Sano struggled the most when needing to guard the line, likely because of the additional ground placed between him and the shortstop. For Arraez’s efforts, he saw the largest slide when playing in the hole but staggered either to the left or right at second base. What the sum of all parts continues to point to is a glaring hole on the left side.

    Enter Josh Donaldson!

    Donaldson posted the 12th highest DRS in baseball a season ago. His 8 infield OAA ranked 18th in baseball, and the 15 DRS tally trailed only Matt Chapman (18) among all big-league third basemen. The mark posted at third base nearly doubled the efforts of Nolan Arenado and did double up the abilities of Alex Bregman. To put it simply, he’s not only a very good hitter.

    Now to be fair, Donaldson would doesn't solve all of the issues facing the Twins, but he’s certainly the type of player that can assist them. In an ideal world Minnesota would have a better defensive shortstop (more on that here). Moving Polanco off that position gets tricky with Arraez currently manning second base. Neither Jorge nor Luis have the arm to play third, and that leaves more bodies than opportunities.

    Derek Falvey and Thad Levine landed a strong defensive third basemen to assist Polanco in range and positioning. If Jorge can play more up the middle and a bit further in, there’s ability for Arraez to benefit on his side as well. By driving up the baseline of the group the hope would be that everyone starts with a better chance to succeed.

    Jorge Polanco wasn’t the worst shortstop in baseball by any means in 2019; heck he even posted a posted 1 DRS. The problem is that his -9.1 UZR was dead last (of 128 players to record an inning at the position), and his -8.4 ErrR is reflective of a guy who struggled to throw more often than he didn’t. Arm strength and positioning has been an area of development since Polanco assumed the role full time, but mediocrity seems to be the ceiling there.

    We don't yet know what Miguel Sano looks like as a full time third basemen. We have no idea if Polanco and Arraez are capable of taking further steps forward. We do know that Minnesota just addressed their worst unit in a massive way, and Donaldson should be a key cog in any sort of a real turnaround.

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    May want to try to keep up Ted... we are signing Donaldson... our defense improved with a swipe of a pen. Still not going to be like the good old days of great defensive Twins teams of the past but this may be the best offensive lineup in the history of the Twins if we can stay healthy. 

     

    We are good.... really we are good. 

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    It just isn't possible to have the best defensive player who also is the top offensive player at every position. The Twins would like to line up Greg Gagne at shortstop but he is not available.

    Ted is correct in saying that defense is not a particular strength of the Twins. However the way the lineup looks, there should be room for forgiveness. Last season the pitching wasn't too shabby either and a repeat of reasonable pitching with the current offense should make for exciting baseball. 

    The Yankees turned in some stellar plays in the field at Target Field in October and good baseball fans appreciated the excellent glovework. 

    Perhaps the Twins will improve on defense. For now the Twins have a dynamite lineup: Kepler, Donaldson, Polanco, Cruz, Rosario, Sano, Arraez, Garver, and Buxton.

    This should be really fun.

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    May want to try to keep up Ted... we are signing Donaldson... our defense improved with a swipe of a pen. Still not going to be like the good old days of great defensive Twins teams of the past but this may be the best offensive lineup in the history of the Twins if we can stay healthy. 

     

    We are good.... really we are good. 

    I think I might have mentioned that?

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    If Arraez has a solid first half this year he could become a key piece to getting a top of the rotation pitcher at the trade deadline.  That could open up 2nd for Polanco allowing them to trade for a good glove shortstop or sign one next off season.

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    The best teams I ever saw were the A's with their run of three series wins and the Orioles of 1969-1970.

    These teams (and others) had great pitching, defense and solid hitting. Post season games are won with combinations of all three: pitching, defense, and offense. LAD (Koufax) wins 2-0 in Game 7 and MIN (Morris) wins 1-0 in Game 7 in tight pitching duels, but sometimes a team needs to find a way to win without a great defense or superior pitching. The Twins have decent pitching and their defense will be fine. The lineup is deep and their prospects can develop throughout the summer. The team should be able to add a pitcher in July, if one becomes available. I don't see any pitchers on the market at this time. We will need to be patient as Thorpe, Dobnak, and Graterol gain experience and are supported by an explosive lineup.

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    If Arraez has a solid first half this year he could become a key piece to getting a top of the rotation pitcher at the trade deadline. That could open up 2nd for Polanco allowing them to trade for a good glove shortstop or sign one next off season.

    Good MLB players traded for good MLB players approaches unicorn status because it just doesn’t happen.
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    Ted, I also love and believe it makes a difference. And I absolutely believe the Twins could take a step forward with a better defense. However, I will state that I think catcher and OF are pretty damn good. The infield, however, needs to improve.

     

    Donaldson improves 3B, of course. And as I stated in the Donaldson signing thread, Sano will not suddenly be some outstanding 1B. But he has all the experience and ability to develop there anywhere from solid to good.

     

    The crux is the middle of the diamond. I do not expect Polanco to be the next Ozzie, Vizquel or even the next Gagne. But he is a fine athlete and only 26yo. Forgetting the greats, I could list pkayer after player who had high error totals in milb and their first few ML season's who turned out to be solid ML players defensively. Polanco is a fine athlete who is still learning and who just found a new throwing angle that seemed to work. Repeating myself from previous comments in different threads, his biggest issue is those plays where he is "right there" but the ball isn't in the glove. A little more consistency due to experience, and his overall defensive performance rises greatly.

     

    I have no illusions that Arraez will be a great defensive 2B. But he was a 23yo rookie playing various positions. How much better can he be settling at one spot daily? And let's not kid ourselves, the kid has shown natural instincts in everything he has done. Hyperbole or not, sometimes the comment that someone is a "ballplayer" actually means something.

     

    I get the trepidation and angst. Polanco and Arraez will never be outstanding. But there is easily room for improvement and growth as early as this season to be at least solid.

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    The Donaldson signing is a good get. It helps the Twins in several ways. A better glove at third and even more help defensively when shifting is taken into consideration. Plus some more veteran influence. That said, posts which call into view the Twins comparatively weak IF defense, and in my view, substandard catching defense have legitimate points. Bottom line: Offense will win regular season games in bunches.  Pitching and defense win championships. Watching the Yankees and the Twins  play defense should have been a yardstick to all on what defense does, or doesn’t bring to the table in close games. Including RP, SP, defense and offense in the mix, baseball has four segments to emphasize on the field. Donaldson has simply piled on to the teams already MLB sufficient offense. Adding a player of his stature to one of the other segments may have had a far greater impact on 2020!

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    I think the Twins should sign the best free agent defensive shortstop available. Someone who could come in the 7th inning or later. Slide Polanco over to second and Arraez to the bench. With their lineup, opportunities should arise to really nail down wins with a stronger defense and good bullpen.

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    No, our middle infield defense doesn't stink. Nobody who plays middle infield in the major leagues stinks. Polanco was the starting shortstop in last summer's All Star Game. Sit on that for a moment and beg forgiveness before the Twins go back to AAA shortstops. 

    Yes, both Polanco and Arraez can improve their defense, but we are lucky to have them both. Sometimes it seems like people are unhappy that the Twins are actually good now. I get irritated too when a ball sneaks through the infield but I'm not trading Polanco or moving him off shortstop this year.

    I don't want to have my wife ask me why I'm still watching the Twins when they lose 90-100 games any more.

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    No, our middle infield defense doesn't stink. Nobody who plays middle infield in the major leagues stinks. Polanco was the starting shortstop in last summer's All Star Game. Sit on that for a moment and beg forgiveness before the Twins go back to AAA shortstops.

    Yes, both Polanco and Arraez can improve their defense, but we are lucky to have them both. Sometimes it seems like people are unhappy that the Twins are actually good now. I get irritated too when a ball sneaks through the infield but I'm not trading Polanco or moving him off shortstop this year.

    I don't want to have my wife ask me why I'm still watching the Twins when they lose 90-100 games any more.

    Sorry. Whether it’s metrics or the eye test our middle infield defense stinks. Or if you prefer bottom of the league. There is no reason not to change this especially because Polanco would be an above average defensive second baseman

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    So, defense was the difference in the postseason last year?

     

    I remember at least 2 sharp doubles down the 3B line that went for extra bases instead of killing Yankees rallies. I also remember NYY making 1-2 of those plays on their side of the ball.

     

     

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    Did you watch that first game? It kinda was. One easy scoop and the Twins keep the lead. From there, who knows what happens.

     

    Never mind what happens if Buxton is out there for any number of plays.

    I think being able to score only 7 runs in 3 games was a back breaker. Our strength let us down. That and the first two starts we’re absolutely horrendous.

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    I remember at least 2 sharp doubles down the 3B line that went for extra bases instead of killing Yankees rallies. I also remember NYY making 1-2 of those plays on their side of the ball.

    This notion that better defense would have given us an edge is ridiculous. Our game one and game two starters gave us no chance to win and our offense was completely dormant.

     

    That series was not a couple of defensive plays away from us being in it. Almost the entire team wasn’t even there mentally. It was like they wanted to win the game and didn’t even want to play the game.

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    Baseball in this era needs great fielding in the OF more than the infield.  We have reversed the trends with launch angles and shifts.  The DP is disappearing and with the shifts Donaldson is as much SS as Polanco.  Arraez is too young to judge and Sano at least provides a big target at 1B.

     

    Nelson Fox and Aparicio, Trammel and Whitaker - great fielding combos and light hitters no longer fit in this eras keystone evaluation.  That is why Buxton made such a difference when he was in.  

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    Baseball in this era needs great fielding in the OF more than the infield.  We have reversed the trends with launch angles and shifts.  The DP is disappearing and with the shifts Donaldson is as much SS as Polanco.  Arraez is too young to judge and Sano at least provides a big target at 1B.

     

    Nelson Fox and Aparicio, Trammel and Whitaker - great fielding combos and light hitters no longer fit in this eras keystone evaluation.  That is why Buxton made such a difference when he was in.  

     

    This is true. The game changes. Mark Belanger and Ozzie Smith might not even get their chance today. 

    I see Buxton as the most important player on the team. When he is running down everything in centerfield the entire outfield defense is really solid and when he is on offense the entire defense is under pressure. Buxton had more doubles on routine singles just last year than any player I can ever recall. It is a different type of pressure than Ricky Henderson but a healthy Buxton all year gets MVP votes (runner up to Trout).

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    This notion that better defense would have given us an edge is ridiculous. Our game one and game two starters gave us no chance to win and our offense was completely dormant.

    That series was not a couple of defensive plays away from us being in it. Almost the entire team wasn’t even there mentally. It was like they wanted to win the game and didn’t even want to play the game.

     

    The notion that it's not a team game and that every facet doesn't matter is equally ridiculous.

     

    I didn't say "the Twins would have won if Sano caught that ball." I said "two innings would have gone differently."

     

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    I think being able to score only 7 runs in 3 games was a back breaker. Our strength let us down. That and the first two starts we’re absolutely horrendous.

    Oh, for sure, but the Twins has a solid lead when Cron missed that hop and the entire series played differently from that moment forward.

     

    Never mind how differently fly balls play with Buxton in center.

     

    The Twins were outplayed in that series and significant damage was done because they were specifically outplayed on defense.

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    Oh, for sure, but the Twins has a solid lead when Cron missed that hop and the entire series played differently from that moment forward.

    Never mind how differently fly balls play with Buxton in center.

    The Twins were outplayed in that series and significant damage was done because they were specifically outplayed on defense.

    I would say "kind of"

     

    The biggest disappointment by far was this vaunted offense just not showing up.  That to me is the thing that has been a theme in every single postseason matchup we've had since game two 2004.

     

    That is more a mindset that anything, in my opinion.

     

     

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    That is more a mindset that anything, in my opinion.

    I mean, maybe, but pretty much everybody not named Cruz was banged up in a significant way during that series. It was an unfortunate few weeks for the Twins leading up to that postseason.

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    Math:

     

    The infield defense was -14 runs from the average MLB team in 2019.

     

    The Twins rotation gave up 455 runs and the pitching overall 754 runs. Astros were at 640 btw.

     

    14 runs is exactly 1.85% of the total runs the Twins gave up.

     

    Not that big of a deal.

    100% agree.

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