There’s no denying the Infield Outs Above Average (OAA) stat by Baseball Savant painted an ugly picture for the Minnesota Twins. Sliding Miguel Sano to first base and inserting Josh Donaldson into third will certainly help. Regardless of the Donaldson effect, how concerned do we need to be about the defense?
All things being equal, it would be great to have an infield full of slick fielders who can also hit. But in reality, that is a very difficult thing to do and the Twins as they are currently constructed are definitely a bat-first infield.
Donaldson, Sano, Jorge Polanco, and Luis Arraez all bring incredibly potent bats (132, 137, 119, and 125 wRC+ respectively – is there a better hitting infield in the MLB?) but Polanco and Arraez still leave a lot to be desired on the defensive side (-16 and -6 OAA respectively) and we don’t know how Sano will fare at first.
One thing to consider is the degree of importance infield defense plays in today’s game. In the past when hitters were routinely advised to hit the ball on the ground, having someone like Ozzie Smith in place to gobble it up was invaluable.
And while it would still be nice to have someone with Smith’s wizardly defensive skills, although he’s probably lost a step or two, one could argue that it is of lower magnitude with hitters putting the ball on the ground less and less due to increasing strikeout rates and the launch-angle revolution.
Another consideration is the amount of shifting teams now do. With the dramatic increase in the shift in recent years, players are put in a better position to field the ball where it is hit, thus somewhat diminishing the value of range. And although the Twins did a lot of shifting in 2019, infield positioning may be an area where the defense could further improve.
Eno Sarris of The Athletic recently wrote about his thoughts on OAA and one of the interesting tidbits compares OAA with Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). Sarris speculates that teams with a higher UZR (which is not position-dependent) than OAA (which is position based), theoretically should be better at positioning their players.
Minnesota’s infield had a -15.0 OAA compared to a -20.1 UZR for a difference of -5.1. According to this logic, the infield has some room for improvement based on positioning.
Minnesota’s current pitching rotation also helps to mitigate some of the potential damage caused by the infield defense. Of the top-five projected starters, newcomer Homer Bailey leads the staff with just a 44.3% ground ball rate for his career and Jake Odorizzi sits at an extremely low 33.1%.
Contrast that with Kyle Gibson and Martin Perez from 2019’s rotation, who have career rates of 51.5% and 50.6%. The only starter likely to see much MLB action who could be defined as a “ground ball” pitcher is Randy Dobnak, and it is not yet known what kind of role he will play.
An infield full of players the caliber of a Francisco Lindor or Javier Baez, can hit and field, would be great, but given the batting proficiency of the current infield, the offensive benefits certainly seem to outweigh the defensive cost.
Combined with a Byron Buxton-led outfield defense, a flyball-oriented pitching staff, increased infield shifting, and a higher strikeout/launch angle environment, Minnesota’s below-average defense may be less of a problem than Outs Above Average is making it seem.
For more on Minnesota's infield defense check out these recent Twins Daily Articles:
A Bigger Twins Problem Than Pitching - Ted Schwerzler
Statcast Reveals Ugly Truth About Minnesota Twins' Infield Defense - Nate Palmer
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