Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Trio Spurs Minnesota's Defensive Turnaround

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel- USA Today Sports
As the season began, I asked an important question, "How Much Can Minnesota's Defense Improve?" The Twins have answered that question loud and clear. While their offense and pitching staff are putting together similar numbers, the club's defense has been elite so far this year.
One of the biggest reasons the team is near the top of the Central Division is because of this defensive shift.

Three players have been key figures in the Twins's defensive turnaround. While each player has a different skill set, all three have made improvements and they each rank as one of the best defenders at their position.

Byron Buxton, CF
Buxton was known for his defensive wizardry while moving through the prospect rankings. While his bat still hasn't lived up to the hype, he might be the best defensive center fielder in baseball. Fans might feel like this is a stretch but baseball's new defensive metrics help to make the case in regards to Buxton.

This spring MLB Advanced Media introduced a new Statcast metric called Catch Probability, which measures how likely a fielder is to catch a given ball in play based on its distance and hang time. Buxton leads MLB in "four-star outs" as he has gone 10-for-11 in those opportunities. Four-star opportunities have a 26-50% chance of being caught. No other player has more than eight four-star plays.

There have been some scary moments with Buxton crashing into walls to make some tremendous plays. He was also injured multiple times in the minor leagues while making diving plays. One has to wonder if Buxton's all-out attitude will catch-up with him after seeing the career of Ken Griffey Jr shortened because of injury.

Joe Mauer, 1B
Some fans might scoff at the idea of Mauer as an elite defensive player. I mean... How much can a first baseman really improve your defense? Isn't that where team's hide their overweight, power hitting bats. In previous eras this might be the case but fans to consider the entire picture when it comes to Mauer.

Minnesota has inexperienced players on the left-side of the infield. Miguel Sano and Jorge Polanco have some defensive flaws and Mauer's athleticism at first has helped to alleviate some of their growing pains. According to FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating, Mauer is 2.4 runs better than the average first baseman. That mark is highest in the AL while Brandon Belt and Joey Votto are the lone NL starters with a higher total.

Twins Manager Paul Molitor, a former infielder has taken notice. "You're supposed to be able to pick the ball out of the dirt, but I don't think he's missed one," he told the Star Tribune. "Even some ones that have been really tough --- they throw with side spin, they hit the cut of grass, they skim low, they skim high, and he just seems to be able to corral those throws.

Max Kepler, RF
While Buxton gets much of the praise for the outfield, Kepler has been quietly among baseball's best outfield defenders. Buxton ranks sixth among AL outfielders in defensive runs saved and Kepler is eighth. Only two AL teams (Seattle and Boston) have teammates who combine to rank higher than the Twins duo of Kepler and Buxton.

Like Buxton, Kepler has made some strong defensive plays. When it comes to catch probability, Kepler has made five "3-star outs" which have a 51-75% chance of being caught. This ties Buxton for the team lead and only 12 MLB players have made more "3-star outs."

Kepler and Buxton have helped the Twins pitching staff compared to last year's outfielders. During the 2016 campaign, Minnesota ranked 28th in defensive efficiency on fly balls and 29th in defensive efficiency on line drives. With their defensive upgrades, the Twins now rank in the top five in each of these categories.

Minnesota's bats might go cold and their pitching staff is still a mystery. Even if those things happen, the Twins can rely on their newly revamped defensive prowess. How much can Minnesota's defense improve? Right now, the sky is the limit.

What other players would you add in with this trio? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.

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