As I mentioned in Part 1 of this Defense Evaluation series, the Minnesota Twins were in the bottom third of teams when it came to aggregate fielding ability. The first post in the series focused on the team's weakest position of LF, manned by Eddie Rosario. I determined that while Rosario had a terrible year defensively, it can be alleviated with a healthy year of Buxton and Kepler, along with mixing him in at RF on occasion.
Now that Statcast has released it's Outs Above Average (OAA) metric for infielders, we can evaluate a new subject with a stronger level of panic. The Minnesota Twins have one of the weakest infields in the game when it comes to defense, led by Jorge Polanco.
Unlike Rosario, Polanco does not have defensive darlings around him that mask his weaknesses The unfortunate truth is that his shortcoming actually match up with Sano and Arraez, painting a troubling picture of what the Twins infield defense could look like in 2020. Let's jump into how Polanco is graded, how this impacts the infield defense picture, and potential steps to improve it in 2020 and beyond.
Jorge Polanco is a great player, valued at 4.0 fWAR. However at age 26, his defensive ability at shortstop has graded out as poor nearly every year of his career. You can often find Polanco when sorting by the bottom of defensive leaderboards.
Polanco had the lowest UZR/150 among qualified shortstops in 2019, according to FanGraphs. His UZR/150 has remained negative in every year since he's been a starter, but the trend is concerning over the past three years:
2017: -5.7 UZR/150 2018: -11.3 UZR/150 2019: -15.7 UZR/150 This morning, Polanco had the dubious honor of reaching the bottom of another defensive leaderboard. When you sort Statcast's new Infield Outs Above Average metric, Jorge Polanco is the first face you see after filtering for the lowest value, at -16. He's tied with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. for the lowest in the MLB, and followed by Fernando Tatis Jr. and Didi Gregorious (both at -13).
Statcast shows that Polanco struggles with balls hit laterally, but his weakest area is balls that are hit in front of him, where he has a -9 OAA. That was his largest area of drop-off in 2019, compared to his 2017 and shortened 2018.
I'm not sure how Polanco can rapidly improve handling balls hit in front of him, apart from playing in on the dirt. Maybe he struggles with charging weakly hit balls. Perhaps the Twins positioned him further back so he could reach more balls in play to his left and right.
And yet, those balls hit to his left and right were also a concern. The concern grows when you consider his teammates at 3B and 2B. Sano has an OAA of -5, with -1 attributed to balls hit in Polanco's direction. Arraez has a worse OAA (-6) with less time spent in the infield, and his OAA is weighted heavily by balls hit to his left (towards Polanco). When you factor in the limitations of Polanco's lateral movement to both sides of the infield, the below average defense of Sano and Arraez rapidly compound into a mess.
The Twins 2020 IF defense is not loved by Statcast, with a cumulative OAA of -20, even when factoring in Marwin's +7 OAA at 3B last season. That's generous, because Gonzalez is the starting 1B as of early January.
It's clear to see why the Twins were/are interested in Josh Donaldson. Donaldson posted an OAA of 8 with the Braves at 3B in 2019, with +3 OAA on balls hit in Polanco's direction. On Statcast paper, that would help neutralize Polanco's -4 OAA on balls hit toward third base. Sano would be shifted to 1B, where he's no clear bet to play Gold Glove-caliber defense, but does have a cumulative 1 OAA at the position dating back to 2016 in 223 innings.
Looking beyond Donaldson, and even 2020, the case for Polanco to be shifted away from SS is compelling. Polanco has been defined as one of the league's worst defensive shortstops for multiple seasons in multiple metrics. The fact he's currently recovering from offseason ankle surgery doesn't exactly help matters.
I would argue that the decision to move Polanco from SS to 2B - and sooner rather than later - could help matters. His new position would allow him more time to reach balls hit in, and would help with his limited range. The shift would require an offseason addition(s), as there's no clear internal SS replacement for 2020.
If the Twins aren't able to sign Donaldson, I would target defensively skilled shortstops. Miguel Rojas, Nick Ahmed, and more come to mind - but that's another blog post for another day. That could result in the new defensive alignment of:
3B - mix of Gonzalez/Arraez (with the other taking a place in multi-positional musical chairs) SS - new defensively skilled acquisition to be named later 2B - Polanco 1B - Sano
That new alignment may look like nonsense to some of you, but running out the current infield depth chart is recipe for disaster. Moving Polanco away from his natural position of SS is a matter of when, not if. He's under team control through 2025, and I can almost guarantee he won't be manning SS in the latter years. Why not minimize his defensive liability in 2020, when all recent defensive statistics suggest the time may be now?