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  • Is Infield Defense Really That Important for the 2020 Minnesota Twins?


    Patrick Wozniak

    There’s no denying the Infield Outs Above Average (OAA) stat by Baseball Savant painted an ugly picture for the Minnesota Twins. Sliding Miguel Sano to first base and inserting Josh Donaldson into third will certainly help. Regardless of the Donaldson effect, how concerned do we need to be about the defense?

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    All things being equal, it would be great to have an infield full of slick fielders who can also hit. But in reality, that is a very difficult thing to do and the Twins as they are currently constructed are definitely a bat-first infield. Donaldson, Sano, Jorge Polanco, and Luis Arraez all bring incredibly potent bats (132, 137, 119, and 125 wRC+ respectively – is there a better hitting infield in the MLB?) but Polanco and Arraez still leave a lot to be desired on the defensive side (-16 and -6 OAA respectively) and we don’t know how Sano will fare at first.

    One thing to consider is the degree of importance infield defense plays in today’s game. In the past when hitters were routinely advised to hit the ball on the ground, having someone like Ozzie Smith in place to gobble it up was invaluable. And while it would still be nice to have someone with Smith’s wizardly defensive skills, although he’s probably lost a step or two, one could argue that it is of lower magnitude with hitters putting the ball on the ground less and less due to increasing strikeout rates and the launch-angle revolution.

    Another consideration is the amount of shifting teams now do. With the dramatic increase in the shift in recent years, players are put in a better position to field the ball where it is hit, thus somewhat diminishing the value of range. And although the Twins did a lot of shifting in 2019, infield positioning may be an area where the defense could further improve.

    Eno Sarris of The Athletic recently wrote about his thoughts on OAA and one of the interesting tidbits compares OAA with Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). Sarris speculates that teams with a higher UZR (which is not position-dependent) than OAA (which is position based), theoretically should be better at positioning their players. Minnesota’s infield had a -15.0 OAA compared to a -20.1 UZR for a difference of -5.1. According to this logic, the infield has some room for improvement based on positioning.

    Minnesota’s current pitching rotation also helps to mitigate some of the potential damage caused by the infield defense. Of the top-five projected starters, newcomer Homer Bailey leads the staff with just a 44.3% ground ball rate for his career and Jake Odorizzi sits at an extremely low 33.1%. Contrast that with Kyle Gibson and Martin Perez from 2019’s rotation, who have career rates of 51.5% and 50.6%. The only starter likely to see much MLB action who could be defined as a “ground ball” pitcher is Randy Dobnak, and it is not yet known what kind of role he will play.

    An infield full of Francisco Lindors or Javier Baezes who can hit and field would be great, but given the batting proficiency of the current infield , the offensive benefits certainly seem to outweigh the defensive cost. Combined with a Byron Buxton-led outfield defense, a flyball-oriented pitching staff, increased infield shifting, and a higher strikeout/launch angle environment, Minnesota’s below-average defense may be less of a problem than Outs Above Average is making it seem.

    Let us know what you think. How big of an issue is the infield defense and does the addition of Josh Donaldson erase any concerns you may have had? Please leave your comments below.

    For more on Minnesota's infield defense check out these recent Twins Daily Articles:

    A Bigger Twins Problem Than Pitching - Ted Schwerzler

    Statcast Reveals Ugly Truth About Minnesota Twins' Infield Defense - Nate Palmer

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    At the end of the day it boils down to run differential. Isn’t that the ultimate objective?

     

    Opponents will score fewer runs with Donaldson at third than Sano. The Twins will score more runs with Donaldson in the lineup than Cron. It makes the team better, and not just a little bit (20-30 runs, net?).

     

    I was one pounding the table for pitching. But, if you were to ask me in a vacuum if I’d rather have Donaldson or Ryu, it’s not even a question (Donaldson). It’s also a heck of a lot better than nothing, which is where they were left on pitching when the music stopped.

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    At the end of the day it boils down to run differential. Isn’t that the ultimate objective?

    Opponents will score fewer runs with Donaldson at third than Sano. The Twins will score more runs with Donaldson in the lineup than Cron. It makes the team better, and not just a little bit (20-30 runs, net?).

    I was one pounding the table for pitching. But, if you were to ask me in a vacuum if I’d rather have Donaldson or Ryu, it’s not even a question (Donaldson). It’s also a heck of a lot better than nothing, which is where they were left on pitching when the music stopped.

    I think 20 runs might be realistic given health, 30 runs a bit much. Cron was pretty damned good for most of the season.

     

    Still, 20 runs is A LOT. That's a couple of wins in itself.

     

    But I've always felt that the Twins didn't need to worry about the 2020 season as much as they needed to worry about the 2020 postseason. They were good enough to get there as-is but they weren't good enough to advance.

     

    I'm not sure Donaldson gets them there, though if he's enough to push them to a one or two seed, that might do it.

     

    It's all a numbers game. You could have the greatest pitcher in the world (Johan Santana) but if the rest of the team craps the bed, that's basically it. Maybe the Twins can finally see the opposite happen.

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    While IF range may be a problem, so is kicking the two hopper, which is a Polanco specialty. To a degree I sort of felt the same way about Sano. It wasn’t the balls he didn’t get to, it was the ones he did and didn’t hang on to. No doubt Donaldson will help and was a good add. But I will repeat: If one doesn’t think defense isn’t important, one wasn’t watching the Yankees whitewash of our beloved nine. There was a stark contrast on display. 

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    Whether it works or not is obviously an open question, but after spending the majority of my life watching the Twins field a bunch of slick-fielding infielders who couldn't hit to save their life, I'm more than willing to give the opposite a shot. Here's to winning a bunch of games 12-11.

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    Isn't that the Twins letting us all know (through action) how important they feel it is? 

    I don't make that particular inference.

     

    The Twins are acutely aware of the defensive deficiency, surely. The players themselves probably are too. But it could be a big management blunder (clubhouse chemistry, player's confidence, etc) to publicly rub your starting shortstop's nose in it. That cost could be bigger than the cost of an occasional extra baserunner.

     

    If and when the Twins decide to move Polanco off of SS, they will likely do it decisively. Not one benchwarmer appearance at a time.

     

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    Poor defense has side effects that are not seen in the individual runs saved calculations. More balls in play leads to longer more stressful innings, shorter starts and a greater burden on the pen. Poorer pitching results.

     

    As a team the Twins turned 69% of balls in play into outs ranking 25th. The Astros and Dodgers were at 73% followed by the A’s, Marlins and Cardinals. The Twins were in the depths with the Royals, Red Sox and Rangers and slightly better than the a Pirates and Tigers. They need to do better this year.

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    When Polanco and Adrianza are in the lineup together. Polanco plays SS every time.

     

    Isn't that the Twins letting us all know (through action) how important they feel it is? 

    I think that just assuming Polanco could switch over to the right side of 2nd base once in a while and automatically be proficient there at an MLB level (especially with the shifts now being used) requires a leap of faith.

     

    He played a lot of 2B in the minors but if you're going to move him over there for anything short of an emergency, he needs to get practice over there. For now, I'd prefer that any practice time he gets comes at SS. Let the utility IF, who gets regular reps at multiple positions, play all over the IF. 

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    I think 20 runs might be realistic given health, 30 runs a bit much. Cron was pretty damned good for most of the season.

     

    Still, 20 runs is A LOT. That's a couple of wins in itself.

     

    But I've always felt that the Twins didn't need to worry about the 2020 season as much as they needed to worry about the 2020 postseason. They were good enough to get there as-is but they weren't good enough to advance.

     

    I'm not sure Donaldson gets them there, though if he's enough to push them to a one or two seed, that might do it.

     

    It's all a numbers game. You could have the greatest pitcher in the world (Johan Santana) but if the rest of the team craps the bed, that's basically it. Maybe the Twins can finally see the opposite happen.

    Is it worse to refer to players as coming from a dumpster or as bed crappers? Either way, I'm not sure I'd refer to the human beings who used to play for our team as bed crappers. ;)

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    I think Polanco is a very professional young baseball player who will work hard to improve on his defense, as are Arraez and Sano. While all three of them have inherent limitations, I think we'll be pleasantly surprised by their improvement on defense this year. And Adrianza and Gonzalez won't hurt us when they come into the lineup as well.

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    Is it worse to refer to players as coming from a dumpster or as bed crappers? Either way, I'm not sure I'd refer to the human beings who used to play for our team as bed crappers. ;)

    My phrasing was unnecessarily lewd but I don't hold any ill will against a single individual Twin from the 2000s.

     

    But there's no denying that those experiences were painful to watch from a fan perspective. Some very good teams simply did not compete when it really mattered.

     

    I'm not mad about it or anything, just pointing out that the teams did not come anywhere close to our (or their) expectations. Ask any player from one of those teams and I doubt they'd disagree with me on that.

     

    It required a team effort to be beaten that soundly and consistently, year in, year out.

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    My phrasing was unnecessarily lewd but I don't hold any ill will against a single individual Twin from the 2000s.

     

    But there's no denying that those experiences were painful to watch from a fan perspective. Some very good teams simply did not compete when it really mattered.

     

    I'm not mad about it or anything, just pointing out that the teams did not come anywhere close to our (or their) expectations. Ask any player from one of those teams and I doubt they'd disagree with me on that.

     

    It required a team effort to be beaten that soundly and consistently, year in, year out.

    I was joking. I wouldn't think you meant anything bad about our players.

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    I don't make that particular inference.

     

    The Twins are acutely aware of the defensive deficiency, surely. The players themselves probably are too. But it could be a big management blunder (clubhouse chemistry, player's confidence, etc) to publicly rub your starting shortstop's nose in it. That cost could be bigger than the cost of an occasional extra baserunner.

     

    If and when the Twins decide to move Polanco off of SS, they will likely do it decisively. Not one benchwarmer appearance at a time.
     

     

    I'll make that blunder. My best SS is playing SS if he is in the lineup.

     

    If my best SS is not in the lineup, then the next best SS who is in the lineup will play SS. 

     

    http://m.quickmeme.com/img/05/05509c85f187981cd90ac0e1e17da9dd622ec5e2284213756dc940ace8c1225a.jpg

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    I think that just assuming Polanco could switch over to the right side of 2nd base once in a while and automatically be proficient there at an MLB level (especially with the shifts now being used) requires a leap of faith.

     

    He played a lot of 2B in the minors but if you're going to move him over there for anything short of an emergency, he needs to get practice over there. For now, I'd prefer that any practice time he gets comes at SS. Let the utility IF, who gets regular reps at multiple positions, play all over the IF. 

     

    I've already taken that leap of faith.  :)

     

    I believe that "Utility Players" in the traditional sense are complete wastes of roster space and I believe the traditional "utility" role should be stricken completely from baseball if a team is serious about consistent winning. 

     

    Traditional "Utility Players" don't play regular innings because they are not good enough and they are only "utility" because roster limitations forces them to backup multiple positions regardless if they are proficient at it. This will force a team to roster a player who either can't hit but can field multiple positions or a player who can hit but can't field multiple positions but has to anyway because you can't provide backup's for every position and the team will only play them on getaway days or in the case of injury and they are not good enough to play when the injury occurs because that's why they are utility in the first place.  

     

    The end result of utility players is 3 or 4 players out of 12 or 13 position players on your 25 (26) man roster that will not increase in value because they are not given regular playing time so they can increase in value. Only less talented players will agree or deserve a diminished playing time role. If they were talented enough to play every day... they would. So a team must roster 4 guys of less talent and do so on purpose.  

     

    This means the traditional "utility player" model is actually a club purposely deciding to only incubate 9 eggs when the incubator can hold 13 eggs, therefore limiting their production of chickens and allowing each failed chicken to kill you. 

     

    I only believe in "Super Utility Players". Players who are good enough to play every day and can play multiple positions so they can be fit into any lineup. Super utility players allow a team to roster 13 players and give them all significant playing time. Therefore maximizing each egg slot in the incubator. Much like the Twins did last year... I hope to see them continue forever. 

     

    I also don't believe in making elite defensive performers super utility. Byron Buxton is elite... he should only play CF... Josh Donaldson is close enough to elite to only play him at 3B. Polanco is not elite at SS and capable of other positions.

     

    I also believe that Elite players should play every day, while less than elite players can share time with other less than elite players and no one has to sit on the bench for an extended time unless they EARN it by playing poorly. 

     

    I'm ready for the leap of faith trust fall. 

     

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    Good article, and I agree with the premise that infield defense is less important than it used to be.

     

    However, I also believe that defense is deeply undervalued by the statistics we have available. Like elite talent, defense has a way of showing up in the postseason. Perhaps that is just confirmation bias (winning team also got lucky enough to have opportunities to make good plays, but weren't any more likely to do so), or perhaps talent and defensive skill are by definition anti-stochastic, i.e. difference makers.

     

    One minor bit: if the Twins infield UZR was -20, and their OAA was -15, doesn't that imply that they employed the shift to a 5-out advantage? You implied the opposite. Or did you quote the numbers backwards?

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    Like elite talent, defense has a way of showing up in the postseason. Perhaps that is just confirmation bias (winning team also got lucky enough to have opportunities to make good plays, but weren't any more likely to do so), or perhaps talent and defensive skill are by definition anti-stochastic, i.e. difference makers.

    Some of both, I think.

     

    See Aaron Judge in the ALDS last postseason.

     

    Judge is a good defender (despite that size), which gave him the opportunity to snag that snowcone catch running toward the wall.

     

    But also, it was or was close to a snowcone catch. There's a fair amount of luck when the catch comes down to inches but if Judge wasn't a good defender, it wouldn't have been catchable at all.

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    Good article, and I agree with the premise that infield defense is less important than it used to be.

    However, I also believe that defense is deeply undervalued by the statistics we have available. Like elite talent, defense has a way of showing up in the postseason. Perhaps that is just confirmation bias (winning team also got lucky enough to have opportunities to make good plays, but weren't any more likely to do so), or perhaps talent and defensive skill are by definition anti-stochastic, i.e. difference makers.

    One minor bit: if the Twins infield UZR was -20, and their OAA was -15, doesn't that imply that they employed the shift to a 5-out advantage? You implied the opposite. Or did you quote the numbers backwards?

    Thanks! As to the numbers, here's how Eno explained it: "If an infielder’s starting position is a big portion of the difference between UZR and OAA, then wouldn’t major differences in team-level stats for both give us a good sense of which teams are positioning their players best? If the position-based number (OAA) is worse than the position-less number (UZR), then that team was good at positioning!"

     

    So basically UZR should be better if the fielders are well positioned but OAA is more showing how well they got to the ball from where they started (based on their speed/reflexes).

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    Thanks! As to the numbers, here's how Eno explained it: "If an infielder’s starting position is a big portion of the difference between UZR and OAA, then wouldn’t major differences in team-level stats for both give us a good sense of which teams are positioning their players best? If the position-based number (OAA) is worse than the position-less number (UZR), then that team was good at positioning!"

     

    So basically UZR should be better if the fielders are well positioned but OAA is more showing how well they got to the ball from where they started (based on their speed/reflexes).

    Got it, UZR is overall results, and OAA is situational results. If overall is worse than the sum of its parts, then infielders were being put in bad situations. Thanks!

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    I think this is good article.  The real question was how important is infield defense not just for Twins, but generally?  Players are trying to not hit the ball on the ground anymore, at all.  Gone are the days of slap hitting and bunting players that will steal bases.  If the pitchers also do not pitch for ground balls that combo will lead to very few hit.  However, if those few that are hit are never turned into outs then this is a bad thing.

     

    It does come down to who scores more, so sure, if we could get a great fielder, but cannot ever get on base, are they better than someone who may allow a few more hits or runners on via error, but if he can increase total runs more than he allow he is plus player.  

     

    I am actually worried about Sano at first.  Hopefully, he spends the offseason and spring training taking a ton of bad throws.  In my opinion, the most underrated position where a good defender is needed is first base.  Many people think it is just stand and catch the ball, which if there a good through that is mostly it.  However, a good fielding first baseman can save so many errors, and make those great diving plays by other infielders into good plays.  How often do you see a great dive and a off target throw, but a good first baseman saves it.  

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    Defense is critical. 

     

    Everyone gets 3 outs.

     

    If you blow a play that should have been made, you have given the opponent 4 outs.

     

    If you make a play that shouldn't be made, you have reduced the opponent to 2 outs. 

     

    It's that simple and the +/- of the outs the opponent has to work with is a huge, massive percentage, swing. It is the difference between hanging a zero and a crooked number in most cases. 

     

    The problem with zone related defensive metrics is that the stats drown in the routine play, limiting the sample that produces the differences, leading to an over-weighting of good and bad data, leading to Robbie Grossman in 2019.  

     

    I'm waiting for a defensive stat that better expresses the +/- swing of 2 outs to 4 outs. 

     

    This stat will have to be reliant on starting position for determining range and this stat will need to stay away from any zone related measurements. 

     

    This stat will also have to incorporate honest to god errors, not the official scoring representations of what happened over the decades. 

     

    Major League Baseball will have to overhaul what is considered an error because many plays that should have been made were actually ruled hits. Errors need to be more accurate. 

     

    Until then 

     

    A minus whatever doesn't scare me that much. Robbie Grossman scared me more.  :)

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    All the new metrics aside... quality infield defense is very helpful to a pitching staff as well as to improved chances of winning. The less outs you give up.. the less runs you likely will be giving up...... the less runs you give up the better chance you have to win. 

    Old school metrics... 

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    Thanks! As to the numbers, here's how Eno explained it: "If an infielder’s starting position is a big portion of the difference between UZR and OAA, then wouldn’t major differences in team-level stats for both give us a good sense of which teams are positioning their players best? If the position-based number (OAA) is worse than the position-less number (UZR), then that team was good at positioning!"

     

    So basically UZR should be better if the fielders are well positioned but OAA is more showing how well they got to the ball from where they started (based on their speed/reflexes).

     

    In my opinion, UZR is most likely to inadvertently show which teams shift more. I'm not sure about the success they have shifting.

     

    Perhaps 9 out of 10 balls are either impossible or routine leaving 10% of all plays to be determined as difference makers. 

     

    Of course... it isn't 10% of all plays because the data entry staff are told to ignore any play that has a pronounced shift so you can lower that to 5% or whatever.

     

    Consider that the camera doesn't always show that there is a shift, when the $7.25 an hour people are entering in the data. 

     

    5% is probably 1 play a week and that 1 play a week will determine weather you have a UZR of 15 or -15. 

     

    Now consider, every time a ball rolls through where the SS usually stands but is not standing because of a shift, which may or may not be ignored by the minimum wage staff, that ball is rolling through a very high percentage vector.

     

    When that ball is rolling through a high percentage vector, it is the equivalent of a relief pitcher giving up 7 runs and getting nobody out. It's going to take a lot of relief appearances, to stabilize the data from that tragic event which may have been caused by a shift.  

     

    With UZR you get maybe 1 play a week out of the ordinary to repair that (shift induced high percentage vector ground ball single) bad result.

     

    Therefore, I'll guess that the more you shift, the more tragic the Team UZR results.  

     

    And of course... UZR is then folded into WAR. 

     

    I remain hopeful that OAA turns out to be much much much more stable. 

     

     

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    In regards to OAA. It states that Polanco is the worst SS in baseball.

     

    If it was important. A replacement for Polanco at SS would be high priority.

     

    To my knowledge. They are not seeking one this off season and they choose to play Polanco at SS even when Adrianaza is also in the lineup.

     

    In a nutshell... The Twins are not reacting to this information.

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