Monday, August 29, 2016

A Broken Defensive Heart

Photo Credit: Mark L. Baer, USA Today Sports
It can be one of the most exciting plays in baseball.

A pitcher finds himself with runners on base before a perfectly placed pitch coaxes a ground ball to a middle infielder. After a flip to second and a laser throw to first, the defense is walking off the field. Fans in the stands get on their feet for the perfectly timed double-play.

But what's been the Twins' double play trouble this season?

Minnesota is actually near the top of the American League when it comes to turning double plays. Only the Texas Rangers have turned more double plays than the Minnesota Twins. On the surface, this seems like it could be a positive place for the Twins to be. But when one digs a little further, there are some hidden problems under the surface.

Twins pitchers have been able to collect more double plays because they are allowing more base runners than other teams. Minnesota has allowed the highest batting average in the AL by 13 points. They also rank last in WHIP, BABIP, and left on-base %. According to FanGraphs WAR, Twins pitchers only rank ahead of the Angles and they trail the Yankees, the highest ranking team, by over 10 WAR.

Another hidden problem has been Minnesota's defensive problems. The Twins's defense has a negative 33.5 defensive runs saved, the second worst mark in the American League. Following this weekend's tough series in Toronto, the Twins have now committed 100 defensive errors (55 fielding errors and 43 throwing errors). The next closest team in the AL is 17 errors behind the Twins.

Earlier this season, I discussed Minnesota's defensive dilemma and things haven't gotten better in the latest update (through August 7, 2016) of SABR's Defensive Index. Joe Mauer dropped from second to fourth among AL first basemen. Brian Dozier continues to rank near the bottom among second baseman with a -3.2 SDI. Like Dozier, Kurt Suzuki ranks as the third worst player at his position.

Other players haven't accumulated enough time to be featured in the rankings but there are still not many positive things on the horizon. Max Kepler has the most errors among all right fielders in the American League. Not to be outdone, Robbie Grossman has the most errors among all left fielders in the American League. Then there was this play from over the weekend.

If Minnesota wants to dig out of their current hole, there are plenty of changes that need to occur. One of the easiest ways to improve the pitching staff is to have better defense behind them. Twins' pitchers are giving up hits and the defense isn't helping the situation.

Even with double plays piling up, there are other glaring holes. Big innings can be avoided with better defense. Starters can make it longer into games with better defense. The bullpen can be relied on less often with better defense.

When fans walk through Gate 34, they pass a giant glove with all the names of former Gold Glove winners. Fielding was part of the heart of the organizational philosophy.

Now that heart seems to be broken.

1 comment:

TT said...

I think this is actually the heart of the Twins struggles. For a long time the Twins mantra was "put the ball in play and let your defense do its job". That only works if the manager makes defense a rock solid requirement of holding a job.

As an example, a lot has been made recently of the Twins giving up on David Ortiz. But the reality of Ortiz was that he didn't play defense for most of his career. He's criticized the Twins for not calling him up in 1999 when he had a great offensive year in thin air of Salt Lake City. What he ignored was the 20 errors he made at 1st base that year, double the number the Twins first basemen did over a full major league season. Not surprisingly, Tom Kelly stuck with Doug Mientkiewicz, who was an outstanding defender.

That emphasis on defense permeated the organization. Young players coming up understood that to play for Tom Kelly, you had to play defense. That didn't mean you had to be a gold glove defender. It just meant you had to make the plays you were expected to make.

If you look at the Twins now, there aren't any players on the field who are there because of their gloves, with the possible exception of Suzuki. This is not really new. The Twins kept the talk about defense and "doing the little things right" while favoring players who could hit. When you heard criticism of a player's defense, it was almost always a player who wasn't hitting well.

The Twins have changed from a baseball organization, to a marketing shop. They are focused on what will put the most fans in the seats, whether those are good baseball decisions or not. Offense puts fans in the seats. So do strike outs and 100 mph fastballs. So does a HOF manager from Saint Paul's eastside. Routine defense? Not so much.

Of course winning baseball does put fans in the seats. But putting together a winning team requires a lot of patience and discipline. It means leaving a player like David Ortiz in the minor leagues until he learns to play defense. It means sticking with a guy like Doug Mientkiewica at first base and putting up with his offensive deficiencies. The Twins aren't likely going to do that much with their current owners' business model.