I rise today in defense of Twins pitchers. Or would, except Twins pitchers probably don’t appreciate being lumped together with “defense.”
There are plenty of problems that must be addressed before the Twins can contend, but if you polled members of the pitching staff and forced them to be honest, upgrades to the defense — particularly the outfield defense — might top the list. A team that might not have won its second world championship without Kirby Puckett’s spectacular catch, a team that presented seven consecutive Gold Gloves to Torii Hunter, a team that watched Denard Span and Ben Revere become fixtures on ESPN’s “web gems,” seldom makes a memorably difficult play in the outfield anymore.
And it extracts an untold toll on the pitching staff.
“You make good plays, the pitchers are your friends,” said another Twin who owns a Gold Glove: Tony Oliva. His famous motto is “See ball, hit ball,” but he could see-ball-get-ball, too. “Sometimes, you help the team with a hit, sometimes with a good catch,” he said. “The important thing is to help win.”
The Twins aren’t doing much catching, or much winning, these days. During Sunday’s 14-4 rout by the Angels, Aaron Hicks pulled back from a fly ball on the warning track, then bobbled the carom for an error. Eduardo Nunez couldn’t catch up to a ball that hit at the base of the wall, then later dropped a foul pop fly. On Friday, Oswaldo Arcia took a bad route then made an awkward jump for a catchable ball that triggered another Angels rally.
To be fair, Nunez is a converted infielder pressed into playing an unfamiliar position and Hicks, an above-average fielder last season, appeared to be fighting the sun, manager Ron Gardenhire said. But the Twins’ outfield defense has been dreadful far too often this season, and few shortcomings make a team appear inadequate than plays not made and balls not caught.
It’s not an eye-of-the-beholder problem, either. According to FanGraphs.com’s defensive metrics, the Twins’ outfield defense this season has surrendered 45 more runs than an average unit would be expected to, and that’s with three weeks still to go. That’s the worst mark for any major league team’s outfield in the past five years, save one: Last season’s Mariners outfield, which included subpar defender Michael Morse and 41-year-old Raul Ibanez.
The Twins’ outfield has been similarly constructed for much of this season, with 35-year-old Josh Willingham, never a fast runner even in his younger days, opening the season in left field, and the muscle-bound Arcia in right. That’s a trade-off that many teams take willingly, gambling that the runs provided by their outfielders at the plate more than make up for the ones they give away in the field.
Center field has been manned by six different players this year, with the Twins finally settling on, yes, another infielder to get them through the summer. Danny Santana, who had virtually no experience in the outfield when assigned there, has learned quickly and improved by the week. He’s fast and covers ground, but his routes to the ball aren’t always the best, he often doesn’t appear confident on plays at the wall and he hasn’t mastered a diving catch.
All of which can make pitchers uncomfortable after games, when questions turn to the defense behind them. Ricky Nolasco, who has suffered through the worst season of his career, somehow seems the victim more than most, and he’s become adept at tiptoeing around the topic.
“You give a team extra outs, they’re going to make you pay every time,” Nolasco said after a couple of outfield misplays cost him runs in San Francisco in May. “There’s not much I can do, just move forward and try to make the best pitches I can. It’s just the way the ball goes sometimes.”
Sometimes, sure. But this season, too often.