The Twins’ improvement on defense in 2017 was important to the win-loss record, important to the pitching staff, and important to the marketing department.
“Sliding catch,” Eddie Rosario said of the bobblehead with his likeness that the Twins will give away to fans in July. “Very nice.”
Promotions aside, one of the most underrated aspects of the Twins’ sudden turnaround in 2017 was the defense. Their persistent lack of strikeout pitchers has put considerable stress on its defense for years. In 2017, Twins players had to field 4,262 balls in play, third most in the majors — and the first time since 2010 that they didn’t have the most.
That’s hundreds of extra plays over seven seasons that Twins fielders had to make. Or not.
“We wanted to put a premium on improving our defense, because that’s such an important part of run prevention,” Derek Falvey, Twins chief baseball officer, said last spring. “It starts with pitching, but if you’re not making the plays behind him, no pitcher is going to be successful for long.”
True enough, and Falvey, along with manager Paul Molitor and his coaching staff, took steps to revamp what FanGraphs’ metrics judged as the second-worst defense in the majors — allowing a whopping 60 more runs than an average team — in 2016. Jason Castro replaced Kurt Suzuki behind the plate. Rosario took over for Robbie Grossman in left field. Jorge Polanco moved in at shortstop.
And most of all? Byron Buxton began covering Target Field’s outfield like nobody before him.
“The runs he’s saved, the rallies he has ended, you can’t underestimate how much the defense he brings means to the pitching staff and to our chances of winning,” Molitor said. “The impact he has had is immeasurable.”
Maybe so, though FanGraphs puts that impact at 24 runs better than an average center fielder, a remarkable number that won him the Gold Glove. Overall, the Twins defense was rated 20 runs better than average, ranking them in the top five in the American League.
The critical byproduct: The Twins, even while using a team-record 36 pitchers, still allowed 101 fewer runs in 2017 than the year before. Only the Indians made a bigger improvement in the AL.
“The guy changed the game for our pitching staff,” second baseman Brian Dozier said. “He goes back to the fence to rob one, he comes in on a little liner to catch one. And sometimes that’s the same inning.”
It’s just a matter of having no fear, Buxton said — not of running into the wall, though he does that plenty, but of making mistakes. “We’ve got each other’s backs out there, so it gives us the chance to be aggressive and not worry about letting one get past us.”
The Twins defense figures to keep improving in 2018 as Buxton, Rosario and right fielder Max Kepler gain more experience. Look at what experience did for Dozier, who won his first Gold Glove, and Mauer, who Molitor says should have.
“Those guys put in the work and it paid off. Dozier’s always been good going to his left, but he made a lot more plays to his right,” Molitor said. “And Joe, I don’t think he missed a scoop for about four months. His range is excellent, but he gives the other infielders confidence that he’ll catch whatever they throw over there.”