Plenty of odes and statistical breakdowns have chronicled the Twins’ dramatic improvement on defense from 2016 to 2017, but I don’t think I’ve read one that impressed me as much as a recent effort from ESPN’s Peter Keating.
Keating was able to crystallize not just the “what” — that the Twins are vastly improved on defense — but the “why” and “how” of what makes attempting that sort of turnaround both smart and cost-effective.
The author notes the primary moves the Twins have made, which have been well-described in plenty of other places: they committed to Byron Buxton in center field, surrounding him usually two other speedy defensive outfielders who can throw (Max Kepler and Eddie Rosario). They put Miguel Sano back at third base and committed to Jorge Polanco at shortstop. And they upgraded defensively at catcher with Jason Castro (and Chris Gimenez).
In making those decisions, the Twins’ brain trust — starting at the top with new boss Derek Falvey and extending to the field staff — has perhaps been a little fortunate. Sano and Polanco have exceeded most expectations. Buxton has stayed healthy. But the result can’t be quibbled with: Keating writes that the Twins went from third-worst in MLB last year in defensive runs saved (minus-58) to best so far this year (plus-31).
And then he lays out the reason why this approach is so smart: basically, it’s a lot cheaper to buy defense than it is to buy hitting or pitching.
Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight recently studied all open-market contracts for non-catchers since 2006 and found something even more drastic: Front offices paid more than twice as much for offense as for defense. His results were so stark that Arthur wondered whether the “metrics might just be wrong.” But the publicly available stats seem reasonable, rating players like Kevin Kiermaier and Brandon Crawford as defensive wizards. I think it’s more probable that most teams just don’t yet pay for runs prevented the way they’ll pay Nelson Cruz or Edwin Encarnacion for their runs created.
Indeed, it’s a lot easier to “see” runs created in the forms of home runs or other big hits than to visualize the constant drip-drip-drip of an above-average catch or ground ball that gets through 70 percent of the time being turned into an out by a good fielder. The Twins placed a premium on upgrading catching defense and paid for it with Castro’s three-year, $24 million deal. But they’re also rolling with young, inexpensive players in their outfield and left side of their infield, while other low-cost free agency moves like Gimenez and slick-fielding utility man Ehire Adrianza were useful additions to their overall defensive group. Why spend more for offense when you can achieve the same net-effect with defense?
Keating also notes that the Twins are giving up half a run less per game this year than last year “even though their FIP, which measures pitching independent of fielding, is nearly half a run per game worse.” He notes opposing batters against Twins pitchers had the highest contact rate in the majors last season. This year, it’s even higher! That’s how important the defense has been.
Toward the end of the piece, he makes another great point: “Fielding skills (and speed) seem to be subject to luck but not as much variability as hitting. Put it this way: I love Aaron Judge, but I have a lot more faith that Buxton’s range will hold up than will Judge’s .408 BABIP or his incredible percentage of fly balls leaving the yard (39.1).”
That might be the best reason yet to think the Twins’ success this season is sustainable. Good defense shouldn’t disappear. If Twins pitchers can keep the ball somewhere playable — a big if in some games this season– they have a chance.