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  • Minnesota’s Up-the-Middle Defense Among Baseball’s Best

    Cody Christie

    Carlos Correa will impact the Twins in many ways, but one of his most significant impacts may come on the defensive side of the ball. Does Correa’s addition mean Minnesota has baseball’s best up-the-middle defense?

    Image courtesy of Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

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    Up-the-middle defense is one of the most critical aspects of the game. Having one weak link up the middle can result in poor defensive plays and more strain on a pitching staff. Luckily, the Twins have some of baseball’s best defenders at the most important positions on the field.  

    Carlos Correa, SS
    2021 SDI Ranking: 1

    Correa is coming off a season where he took a massive step forward as a defender and won the AL’s Platinum Glove Award. According to SABR’s Defensive Index, he was baseball’s best overall defender last season. His 20 Defensive Runs Saved were nearly double his previous high. In 2016, he was worth -18 Outs Above Average, and he improved to 12 Outs Above Average in 2021. As long as his back doesn’t flare up, Correa is among baseball’s best defenders at a critical defensive position. 

    Jorge Polanco, 2B
    2021 SDI Ranking: 4

    Polanco’s defensive transition was relatively seamless as he shifted from being a below-average defensive shortstop to an above-average second baseman. He set career highs in Defensive Runs Saved (3) after being worth negative DRS at shortstop. During 2019, Polanco’s last entire season at shortstop, he was worth -22 OAA, which put him near the bottom of the league. Last year, he posted a -1 OAA at second base after being limited to 43 big-league innings at the position in previous years. Polanco gets another season to get comfortable at the position while continuing to improve. 

    Byron Buxton, CF
    2021 SDI Ranking: NR

    Buxton’s 2021 injuries kept him from being featured on the final SDI leaderboard, but he still ranked highly in other defensive metrics. He was worth 7 OAA and 10 DRS, which is tremendous considering he was limited to just over 500 defensive innings. His sprint speed continues to be in the top 1% of the league, so it will be interesting to see how he ages during the life of his contract extension. He is arguably baseball’s best defender when healthy, and the Twins hope he can be back to his Gold Glove-winning ways in 2022.

    Ryan Jeffers, C
    2021 SDI Ranking: 8 

    Jeffers finished in the top-10 for SDI last season despite being in the minor leagues for over 20 games. Minnesota traded Mitch Garver and is seemingly handing the starting catcher duties to Jeffers. His framing skills ranked in the 74th percentile, a 16 point drop from his 2020 campaign. He was worth 4 DRS in 2021, but his below-average arm allows more steals than a team may prefer. Many viewed Jeffers as a bat-first catcher when the Twins drafted him, but he has completely revamped his defensive reputation as a professional. Minnesota needs Jeffers to take the next step this season, including improving on both sides of the ball. 

    Where do you think Minnesota’s defense now ranks among baseball’s best? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion. 

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    I agree it should be a strong defense.  Actually, on those days when Kirilloff is at first and Urshela at third, with Buxton, Kepler and whomever in left, the whole defense should be solid.  Actually, the defense and offense look very good.  The pitching is another matter, but hopefully more is to come.

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    16 minutes ago, mikelink45 said:

    Jeffers might be the biggest concern.  If Sanchez is behind the plate this article has to be rewritten.

    Correct. Also, defensive metrics continue to be inconsistent. DRS and OAA seem to grade players far differently. Throwing arms are also tough to grade, I think. 

    Throwing remains Polanco's biggest defensive problem. He isn't consistently accurate and while second doesn't expose lower arm strength as much, that also has been a problem for Jorge. 

    Jeffers uses the knee-down catching style and it seems to open the door for stolen bases and also makes some lateral movements more difficult. I do think he's a pretty good receiver and do hope that he get the lion's share of work behind the plate. 

    Buxton and Correa are premium defenders at the two most crucial defensive positions in fair territory.

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    I would like to see a follow up article on which team has the best overall "up the middle" pieces. Dodgers with Bellinger, Turner, Muncy? Braves with Swanson, Albies and Acuna? Twins with Polanco, Correa and Buxton? 

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    1 hour ago, Minny505 said:

    A signing of Brent Gardner would ensure solid defense in CF should Buxton go down. Tim Beckham should be reliable at SS if Correa is out. 

    If we signed Gardner, what would happen to Jake (don't call me Punto) Cave? ?

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    Great article Cody. I liked the importance you put on "up the middle defense" for pitchers. Especially now with inexperienced pitchers, a flub or a bleeding infield could really pay the toll. 

    Until you included catching I'd say we have a slightly better middle defensively than last season but with the changes at catching I'd rate us slightly less. Because Jeffers is too obvious w/ his stealing strikes and his poor arm. Of course his stance doesn't help either.

    Especially comparing with other clubs we need to look at depth in correspondence to susceptility to injury where we lack very much for years. Catching is a very demanding position which depth is very important. #1 back up Sanchez (very bad). SS #1 back - slight improvement with Lewis's inclusion, yet is iffy,  still not solid. CF #1 back - Celestino should've been ready but has taken a step back, maybe Martin will become the one? yet not solid. 2B our lesser position and Polanco good health, is less important yet we here we have over abundant depth. With questions of Correa and Buxton playing not much over 100 games and the demand at catching, I'd like more viable, truer MLB ready replacements. 


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    As long as everyone stays healthy they can have one of the best defenses in the league.  Not only having 2 platinum glove winners, Kepler is above average, Arraez I believe had good numbers at 3rd and expect he will get most of the innings there when healthy.  LF and 1b will be biggest holes overall.  

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