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  1. When Statcast came out with infield defensive ratings at the end of 2019, Jorge Polanco appeared at the bottom of the SS list. Using actual game data, Statcast found Polanco was -16 OAA (outs above average). Compare that to Javier Baez of the Cubs at +19 OAA, and you have a 2+ win spread over a season of play. What makes their outcomes so different? Russell Easom at batflipsandnerds.com takes a deeper dive into the reasons why top defensive SS are superior to those at the bottom. Turns out the key is making all the easy plays. Later in the article, Easom includes video and a discussion of Polanco's problems. He's a near-average defender on tough plays but can't throw a lick. A good read. I think a lot of us agree that this just confirms the eye test. Polanco has the athleticism to play SS. But can he ever find a comfortable throwing slot?
  2. 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. 2019 SS - Jorge Polanco (-3.9 Def, 1 DRS, - 15.7 UZR/150, -16 OAA) 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?
  3. Judging the fielders in the age of shifts is a difficult challenge. As I read about Sano – should he move to 1B I am constantly trying to evaluate what the qualities are for those two bases. 3B – quick reflexes (believe me the ball gets to 3B quick) and a strong arm. 1B – reflexes of a different type, not grabbing missiles, but rather erratic throws, short hops, flexibility to stretch and grab, and still a range for fielding the position. 1B have that strange responsibility for “covering the base” when a runner is on, anticipating throws from C and P. It is a very challenging and underestimated fielding position. For generations we have put the big lunking Ted Klusewski or Dick Stuart at the base and just said throw at the body and he will be okay. Keith Hernandez and Joe Mauer were fielding examples at 1B, but Brooks Robinson, Nolen Arenando would not be mistaken for those 1B rolemodels because they are the gold standard for 3B. Sano is not quick but seems to have the reflexes for third and the arm to respond when balls bounce off his body. What now we shift and suddenly he is a SS – does anyone see him as a SS? He moves towards the “hole” and he has more area to cover. Now we need foot speed as well as reflex. The SS and 2B positions have now overlapped and the challenge for the players today is to make the turn at second base coming from so many new angles. Of course, in the launch angle age there is a major decrease in DPs. We used to judge these positions by range and athleticism – thing Ozzie and the 2B/SS was a tandem – Groat and Mazeroski, Fox and Aparicio, Grich and Belanger, Whitaker and Trammell (why is Trammel in the HOF and not Whitaker?), Robinson and Reese, and Morgan and Concepcion are examples. We had Versalles and Bernie Allen… In 2015 Dave Schoenfield wrote – “In 2015, the MLB average was 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings and 2.9 walks; in 1955, it was 4.4 and 3.7. That means more balls in play and more baserunners in 1955, although even with fewer home runs per team in 1955, the overall number of double plays has remained steady: 121 per team in 1955, 125 per team in 2015.” Fascinating stats show that the GDP leader stats do not really change from year to year. Ernie Lombardi (Mr Slow feet) 26 in 1933, Manny Machado 24 - 2019. https://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/GIDP_leagues.shtml What has changed is the fact that 2B now a hybrid SS. Is Polanco a good SS in the old system? How does he and Arraez fit the new paradigm. Do we need to consider changing the names of the positions? Are players really interchangeable at these positions?
  4. At the half way mark the one area of Twins baseball that is really bothering me is fielding. It used to be that the fundamentals of fielding were the Twins specialty, but now that we have the bats, we seem to be slipping in the field. I went to the various web sources to see if my eye test was right on a night that Adrianza makes two errors behind Berrios in a loss to the White Sox. Looking at fielding stats in Baseball Almanac http://www.baseball-almanac.com/teamstats/fielding.php?y=2019&t=MIN I went the simple way to test the fielding - I clicked on errors. Here is our starting infield by errors: Polanco - 9 Cron - 6 Schoop - 6 Sano - 5 Utility Men - infield errors only Adrianza - 6 Gonzalez 3 Astudillo - 2 That is 37 errors in exactly one half season - by the infield (not counting catching and pitching). https://www.espn.co.uk/mlb/team/stats/_/type/fielding/name/min/table/fielding/sort/defWARBR/dir/asc According to ESPN we have only three with negative defensive WAR - Castro, Cron, and Cave (what is it with the letter C?). It might come to a surprise for many but both Sano and Astudillo are a plus 0.1! This is despite the fact that Sano has a fielding pct (old school, I know) of 937. And as expected Kepler, Rosario, and Buxton are all +s in fielding with Buxton leading with 1.2. https://www.foxsports.com/mlb/minnesota-twins-team-stats?season=2019&category=FIELDING&group=1&time=0&pos=0&splitType=0&page=1 I have a hard time evaluating catchers - framing, calling a game, SB no longer seems to matter...When I went to http://mlb.mlb.com/stats/sortable.jsp#elem=%5Bobject+Object%5D&tab_level=child&click_text=Sortable+Player+fielding&game_type='R'&season=2019&season_type=ANY&league_code='AL'&sectionType=sp&statType=fielding&page=1&ts=1561813674629&position='2' I did not even see one of our catchers in among the 14 that they rank in fielding stats. And in ESPN fielding stats - including the non-qualified (batting title) Castro ranks 37. http://www.espn.com/mlb/stats/fielding/_/position/c/qualified/false/order/true In fielding pct the Twins rank #10 and according to Baseball Reference the Twins are -2 in their state Rtot - Runs above average which matches our catchers total. https://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/MLB/2019-specialpos_c-fielding.shtml I repeat - Baseball defense is the hardest to measure, but using the tools that are available we are not elite, closer to average in fielding.
  5. In the comments there were some discussions that I replied to with the statement that baseball is an individual game played as a team sport. I thought it might be worth exploring. Start with the Pitcher and Batter. It is true that the catcher is a third wheel in this conversation. While the batter is concentrating and the Pitcher is dealing the other players must wait, watch and react. They are not part of the play until the ball is hit. If it is a homerun, they are no factor, if the result is a walk there is no team involvement, if it is a strikeout, only the catcher participates. This Washington Post story indicates that batters strike out 22.6 percent of the time this year https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fancy-stats/wp/2018/05/04/mlb-batters-are-recording-more-strikeouts-than-hits-thats-a-big-problem-thats-unlikely-to-soon-change/?utm_term=.217f7a6331e3 That means that the team gets involved 78% of the time. In one 2013 study they said that 68% of pitches are hit (I think that has changed a lot) but even is it is true, that means 32% of the time no one has anything to do except for the catcher to toss the ball back to the pitcher. http://www.highheatstats.com/2013/05/fraction-of-balls-put-in-play-is-at-an-all-time-low/ If it is a fly out - one non pitcher is involved, if it is a Home Run we cannot credit team work to those who watch it go over the fence. With increased launch angle and increased use of infield shifts the flyball has been increasing. Typically it is just one outfielder, unless there is a lack of communications. A ground ball out is high on teamwork - usually two or more players are involved and with runners on base the intensity increases. Ground ball pitchers definitely require a higher teamwork percent. And double and triple plays ratchet up the teamwork. Fangraphs says that balls hit are on average 21% line drive (one fielder) 44% ground balls, multiple players, 35% Fly balls (one fielder) and 11% infield flies (one player). https://www.fangraphs.com/library/pitching/batted-ball/ If I assume that 22% are strikeouts and 78% are put in play and 44% of them are ground balls (34% of the total) the remainder are individual flyball experiences. My team work formula would put the majority of the plays into 2 player situations (taking strikeouts as a catcher/pitcher combo). So flip the player to offense. Batting is about as individual as you can get unless the previous player set you up for an intentional walk. Sure we can have those smart at bats that take a lot of pitches and wear down the opposition and bring in the heat throwing relievers, we can have a sacrifice to put the runner in scoring position or a stolen base, but most of the time it is just throw and hit. I give offensive baseball an even lower team work quotient. This reflects on the overall importance of the manager too. Put the right players in at the right position and quess who will be the most effective batters and relief pitchers and the job is done. This quote captures some of the essence of the individual experience of the game - Baseball is a team game but, at the same time, it's a very lonely game: unlike in soccer or basketball, where players roam around, in baseball everyone has their little plot of the field to tend. When the action comes to you, the spotlight is on you but no one can help you. Chad Harbach Read more at: The Author of Group Genius - Dr R. Keith Sawyer says - "A baseball team doesn’t look like an improvising group, and frankly, doesn’t look much like a business team either. The reason is that in baseball, each team member’s contributions are relatively independent. As Pete Rose once said, “Baseball is a team game, but nine men who reach their individual goals make a nice team.” It’s rare that more than one player is involved in a play. More than just about any other team sport, the overall performance of the team is additive." https://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-r-keith-sawyer/is-baseball-really-a-team_b_50071.html Peter Gammons in an excellent essay says "Unfortunately, the sad reality is that once a player starts his Minor League career, the game really changes. Minor league rosters change daily, with players being called up, sent down, as well as released. It is highly unlikely to play with a teammate for 3-4 years like in college, which only adds to the lack of the team game. "Players become far more interested in their personal performance, than the performance of the team. While it is always more fun when the team wins, winning takes a back door to personal statistics as players are working towards individual promotions and making their way up the Minor League ranks, with the hopes of one day cracking a Major League roster. "Front Office and Player Development personnel also take valuing personal performance over team performance in Minor League Baseball. They are far more concerned with the development of a young prospect who could one day make a big impact with the Major League Club, than whether their Single-A or Double-A affiliate is going to compete for the playoffs." http://www.gammonsdaily.com/baseball-is-it-a-team-game/ In 2017 Mookie Betts had the most put outs by a right fielder - 366. For a 162 game season if all games go 9 innings each team records 4374 outs. He recorded .08% of the teams outs. For most of the other 92 he was backing up or watching. And CFs on average handle 15 - 30 more outs per year. https://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/MLB/2017-fielding-leaders.shtml A final thought - how many players negotiate on the basis of their teamwork?
  6. As excited and optimistic as I was while the Twins were sweeping the Orioles and winning the first two games against the Rays, I feel about equally pessimistic now. The Twins lost a game where they didn't face an All-Star pitcher, they had numerous bad at-bats, going 1-14 with runners in scoring position and failing to get one RBI out of those 14 at-bats.By my count, the Twins had five guys reach second with no one out. They plated one of them, and that was on a double play grounder off the bat off Plouffe. Mike Pelfrey seemed sharp for two innings and then labored greatly, failing to get out of the fourth inning. Despite a generous strike zone, Pelfrey managed to get behind hitters and then offer up fastballs over the middle of the plate. He wasn't helped by his defense, either. Two errors were committed in the game along with a pop fly falling for a double. This was a day when the Twins had opportunities but didn't deliver and looked bad in so doing.
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