INDIAN WELLS, CALIF. - For all the attention pitchers and hitters get in baseball, some of the best team turnaround stories in recent years were primarily the result of better defense.
Yes, the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays and 2012 Baltimore Orioles improved their pitching, but they also shored up their defense. In both cases, the pitching wouldn't have improved as much if the defense hadn't, too.
"Run prevention in general has two factors -- it's pitching, and it's defense," Cubs General Manager Jed Hoyer said. "I think it's very easy to think about only one of those things sometimes -- 'Oh, it's the pitching' -- but you have to evaluate the two in concert."
As the Twins begin the work to fix one of baseball's worst starting pitching staffs at this week's general managers meetings, it's worth looking at what they're doing to shore up their defense.
The Twins improved their defense from 2011 to 2012 with better health and with Tsuyoshi Nishioka mostly out of the picture. GM Terry Ryan believes the returning players have room for improvement.
A statistic called defensive efficiency measures the percentage of balls in play that teams convert into outs. In 2011, the only American League team with a worse defensive efficiency than the Orioles (68.2 percent) was the Twins (67.7). Baltimore ranked last in runs allowed per game at 5.31 and finished 69-93.
"We were looking to build our pitching staff, but it was pretty obvious that our pitchers had to [work harder] because we weren't turning some of the balls in play into outs," Orioles GM Dan Duquette said.
The Orioles made two key additions to their starting rotation last offseason, signing Taiwanese lefthander Wei-Yin Chen and trading for Rockies righthander Jason Hammel. Their success helped Baltimore start strong, but the Orioles needed an even stronger finishing kick to reach the postseason. And fielding figured prominently in that stretch drive.
On Aug. 9, they promoted 19-year-old Manny Machado to the majors. He's a pure shortstop, but with Gold Glover J.J. Hardy at that position, they moved Machado to third base. According to the 2013 Bill James Handbook, Machado saved the Orioles seven runs defensively in 51 games when compared to an average third baseman.
Mark Reynolds, who cost Baltimore seven runs as a third baseman, moved to first base, where he was at least average.
"That gave the pitchers a lot of confidence," Duquette said. "And there was a good translation into our won-loss record, too."
The Orioles went 33-18 down the stretch with Machado in the lineup. They finished 93-69 with the AL's sixth-best defensive efficiency (69.9 percent) and ranked eighth in the AL in runs allowed per game at 4.35, nearly a full run lower than last year.
Baltimore defeated Texas in the wild-card game before losing a tense five-game battle to the Yankees in the Division Series. Machado batted .266 with seven homers and a .790 OPS (on-base-plus slugging) in the majors this season. The decision to promote the teenager from Class AA looked ingenious.
"He's a shortstop by trade," Duquette said. "But like Earl Weaver said, 'Sign all the shortstops you can. We'll worry about where to play them when they get to the big leagues.' "
Strength in numbers
The Twins are loaded with players who came through the minors as shortstops. The list includes Jamey Carroll, Trevor Plouffe, Pedro Florimon, Brian Dozier, Eduardo Escobar and newly acquired Thomas Field.
Plouffe was a terrible big league shortstop in 2011. He and Nishioka combined to give the Twins a virtual black hole at that position, and the team wasn't much better at third base with slow-footed Danny Valencia. Second base was and has been a revolving door.
Ryan's first move last fall was signing Carroll to help stabilize the defense, and it worked. That and other changes helped the Twins improve their defensive efficiency to 69.0 percent, ranking 11th in the AL.
Moving forward, the Twins might be best off with Carroll, an above-average fielder wherever he plays in the infield, in a utility role, with Plouffe at third base, Florimon at shortstop and Dozier at second.
Plouffe made 17 errors and cost the Twins eight runs in 95 games at third base, according to the "Bill James Handbook." But he also hit 24 home runs.
"All he has to do is make the routine plays and make the routine throws," Ryan said. "Because, obviously, we've got some interest in making sure his bat's in that lineup."
Florimon is the best defensive shortstop of the bunch. His .272 on-base percentage was a concern, but he saved the Twins seven runs in 43 games, according to the handbook.
"He got better," Ryan said. "I thought he played pretty well there at the end, and he's playing in the Dominican [Winter League] now. I think he sees the opportunity in front of him.''
Dozier fizzled offensively and defensively after getting promoted to the majors, but he remains a big part of the team's plans. Besides posting a .282 on-base percentage, he made 15 errors in 83 games at shortstop. The Twins were encouraged by his decision to play winter ball in Venezuela, where he will play both shortstop and second base.
"He was our [Minor League] Player of the Year two years ago, and there's a reason for that," Ryan said. "Not only did he provide offense, but he's one of those guys that you continued to hear, 'All he does is make all the plays.' We need to get back to that."
That goes for Dozier, and the entire team.