Let’s talk about the Twins for a moment. No, you probably don’t want to talk about the Twins, I understand, but it’s Christmas Eve, and the eight or so of you who are unfortunate enough to be in an office right now will probably be happy to talk about something, I think. And the Twins, certainly, are something.
Yesterday, Jeff Sullivan took a look at projected 2015 team defenses, and within that piece was a list of teams that you wouldn’t really want to be included on:
Now, the three worst defensive teams, projected:
- White Sox
It’s difficult to dispute that from a Minnesota perspective, because while Jeff noted the obvious caveats of attempting to project defense, the 2014 Twins finished 29th in DRS, 24th in UZR/150, and 27th in Defense. One of the teams regularly behind them, Cleveland, will no longer have a left side of the infield that occasionally lined up as Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana. They’ll still be below-average, but they might not be a train wreck. The Twins? The Twins’ main non-pitching move this winter has been to import baseball’s worst regular defender from a year ago, Torii Hunter, and park him in right field.
Perhaps you can see where this is going, because seeing the Twins on the bottom of Jeff’s listing made me realize that I’ve written about this before. Last May, for ESPN, I wrote that the composition of the Twins had proven to be a very bizarre construct, in that a pitching staff that just did not miss bats was backed up by a defense that did not turns balls in play into outs. That issue was exacerbated by the fact that the pitching staff was full of flyballers (tied for the highest FB% in baseball at the time) and the outfield was a particular trouble spot, defensively. Mostly manned at the time by Chris Colabello, Sam Fuld, Chris Herrmann, and Jason Kubel, a bad outfield was doing a mediocre pitching staff few favors.
Of course, that was only seven or so weeks into the season, and the danger with any sort of analysis that early in the year is that making judgement calls based on small samples can easily and quickly turn around to bite you. (Hey, remember when Charlie Blackmon made the All-Star team?)
Now, with the retrospect of a full year of data, we can see the full impact. The 2014 Twins pitchers ended up with the fifth-highest flyball percentage in baseball and the 30th-best — or, you know, “last” — strikeout percentage, numbers you’re surely aware of. The 2014 Twins outfield ended up being the fifth-worst DRS unit that we have on record dating back to 2003:
Worst DRS outfields, 2003-2014
360) Dodgers, 2010, -76
359) Mariners, 2013, -70
358) Yankees, 2005, -66
357) Rockies, 2004, -51
356) Twins, 2014, -50
Last year’s top defensive DRS outfield, as you may have guessed, was the Royals, at +46. Yes, that’s a 96-run difference. Yes, the numbers are saying that defense alone in just the outfield was worth 10 wins between the two teams. If that sounds high, maybe it is, but then also think about Oswaldo Arcia, Josh Willingham, Kubel, Colabello, and friends; now think about Alex Gordon, Jarrod Dyson, and Lorenzo Cain. Maybe it’s too low. The unsurprising end result is that the team’s ERA-FIP — that is, a measure of how much a team’s runs allowed out-performed or under-performed fielding-independent metrics — was the second-highest of the last seven seasons:
Highest ERA-FIP difference, 2008-2014
1) Rockies, 2012, 0.63
2) Twins, 2014, 0.60
Pitch-to-contact pitching staff allows flyballs in front of an outfield that isn’t very good at catching flyballs ends poorly, the headline would read if anyone would run such a headline, and you probably already know most of that. It’s not necessarily my intention to rehash the last year so much as it is to provide the setup for the year to come. Surely, the Twins didn’t plan to have such a combination. Sometimes, the pieces just land that way. But then, we haven’t seen much this winter that indicates that they’re desperately trying to change that.
So far, the three moves the Twins have made have been to import Hunter, Ervin Santana, and Tim Stauffer. Each of the three moves is defensible in its own way, and Santana and Stauffer quickly become two of the team’s better strikeout pitchers, as depressing as that may sound. It’s just that not only is none of this reversing the trend of last year, it sure looks like it’s making it worse.
It’s difficult to be too hard on Hunter, of course, because he’s 39 years old. The expectation shouldn’t be that he’s going to be anything other than brutal in the outfield, and while you don’t really need a visual aid to compare last year’s worst right fielder to the best, I’ll show you the made/missed charts between Hunter and Jason Heyward anyway:
The point isn’t at all that Hunter should be as good as Heyward. The point is that he’s being asked to do something he’s no longer capable of doing, and on a team with the basically-positionless Kennys Vargas (as well as Joe Mauer), designated hitter time is going to be difficult for Hunter to come by.
That’s a big problem for a pitching staff that already has what StatCorner considers the worst regular 2015 AL catcher in pitch framing, Kurt Suzuki, to deal with, and the two additions, while again reasonable on their own terms, may be limited in what they can add. It’s true that Santana, once a noted flyballer, has regularly decreased his flyballing ways, finding himself just outside the top 50 last year.
However, as we discussed here last month, Santana’s GB% and FB% both decreased, and that’s not an issue only because his LD% shot up — it’s because a very nice-looking increase in strikeout percentage was nearly identical to the gain that pitchers get by moving from the AL to the NL, as he did. Back in the AL, expect that strikeout rate to drop somewhat. Balls that don’t miss bats have to go somewhere, and that’s into the field of play.
This would all seem to be a massive problem, though GM Terry Ryan doesn’t quite agree…
I saw [Hunter], I think, maybe seven games or so (in 2014),” Twins general manager Terry Ryan said Wednesday. “His defense for me was more than adequate. He’s not the type of guy that you’re going to say, ‘Oh, he can go over there and play center for a length of time,’ but I would guarantee you he could go out and play center field for a couple days and you wouldn’t really miss too much.”
“You can use the metrics or you can use the eye, and you should use both. In this instance, I think we’ve seen (Hunter) play probably 30-35 games as an evaluation process this year, and for the most part the lowest grade we had on him was average range. That’s pretty good.”
…and while we know that defensive metrics aren’t infallible and that major league teams likely have somewhat of a better handle on the data than we do, it’s hard to parse that as anything other than favorable PR for a returning team icon who was signed largely for his own PR. After all, if you look at the non-catcher defensive rankings for each Twins position on our depth charts, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture:
First base: Mauer (tied-20th)
Second base: Brian Dozier (15)
Shortstop: Danny Santana/Edwin Escobar (24)
Third base: Trevor Plouffe (27)
Left field: Arcia (26)
Center field: Aaron Hicks/Jordan Schafer (17)
Right field: Hunter (28)
You can quibble on the edges with some of those if you like. In particular, Plouffe feels far too low coming off a well-rated 2014, though he also had several poorly-rated seasons prior to that (and is coming off a broken left forearm). Maybe in your head, you move a few guys up or down a few spots. But other than right field, this is largely the same group that was ranked so poorly last year, and Hunter is hardly an improvement.
This isn’t a condition that can last forever. Byron Buxton is coming. Santana played mostly center last year, and he could always go back, though Paul Molitor has indicated that he regards Santana as his shortstop. Stauffer, at least, gets grounders, though his impact is limited as a reliever. Santana should allow slightly fewer flies than his predecessors, though Tommy Milone might give that right back. But it took just a few weeks into the 2014 season to see that the combination of pitching staff and defense, particularly outfield, was going to be a problem. It doesn’t look better now; it only looks worse, and since defense is generally cheap to buy, this isn’t a financial issue for a small-market team. For the only AL Central team that hasn’t positioned itself to try to make some noise in 2015, standing still is a just a step back.