Monday, August 22, 2011

Twins' infield needs work this winter

Yesterday, Star Tribune columnist Pat Reusse put together his agenda for the Minnesota Twins this off-season. The gist of it focused on not re-signing any of the expensive veterans and channeling that money into areas of need – specifically the pitching staff:
“When the Twins discuss the rotation for 2012, this should be the plan:
No. 1 starter: Yet to be signed/acquired hard-thrower (doesn't pitch to contact); [italics mine] No. 2: Yet to be signed/acquired veteran starter with solid stuff; No. 3: Pavano; No. 4: Liriano; No. 5: Baker, with Swarzak, Blackburn or Slowey to fill in when Baker is on the DL.”
Mr. Reusse’s request is echoed throughout every radio call-in show and blog comment section that touches the subject of what the Twins should do next season (heck, it’s been the same thing repeated since the loss of Johan Santana). While I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment, the unfortunate truth is that there is likely little opportunity for the Twins to acquire anyone fitting that description.

In terms of free agents, Texas’s CJ Wilson is the top name on the market. The 30-year-old Wilson has emerged the past two years after being a bullpen arm for the Rangers, compiling a 27-13 record with an impressive 3.28 ERA (better when you consider his home environment) and 329 strikeouts in 378.1 innings of work. When you add the fact that Wilson’s workload was light during his younger years (just 280.2 at the major league level between ages 24 and 28), a team would land a pitcher they can be somewhat confident that his arm should hold up the duration of a contract.

Of course, the Twins are not the only team looking for number one types and Wilson will potentially be a hard commodity to reel in. In addition to the Rangers who would want him to stick around, the Yankees, Cardinals, Tigers, Cubs and other spend-happy teams will be at least slightly interested in him. Outside of Wilson, there is not a name on the free agent list that qualifies as what Mr. Reusse described.

The next route -- trading for a number one starter -- is perhaps just as difficult. For argument’s sake, let’s say the Rays decide to shop James Shields. Now the Rays have proven extreme good at extracting top value for their commodities and are better than most teams, however, any team with a number one-type will be getting plenty of offers. The Rays will likely be able to get a significant package for Shields (or any other top pitching talent) and the Twins appear unlikely to assemble a matching deal – at least be able to form one without hurting the system’s long-term viability. So, while there are teams that may be inclined to moving a few good arms, it would cost the Twins dearly when it comes to the already talent-depleted farm system.

Here’s hoping the Twins are able to find a pitcher that fits the bill of a number one starter but if the Twins want to improve their rotation in the short-term, the next best option is to improve their defense. Nowhere is this more needed than in the infield.

Consider this: the Minnesota Twins – once touted as the defensive darlings of the universe – have become the worst team in the AL at turning groundballs into outs.

American League Grounders
Defensive Efficiency Ratio
Blue Jays
Red Sox
White Sox

The Defensive Efficiency Ratio tells us in broad-based terms how many times a team has successfully converted a ball in play into an out. Breaking this down into the trajectory of how a ball is put into play, we can use this to give us some idea of how teams’ outfield or infield units perform. So far in the American League this year, nearly 77% (76.6%) of all grounders have been turned into outs, but the Seattle Mariners and the Los Angeles Angels boast the league’s top slot for keeping ground balls from becoming hits.

Around the horn, the Seattle Mariners’ infield has been fairly stalwart. Their shortstops have managed track and convert 74 plays on balls out of the standard shortstop zone while holding a very good .837 revised zone rating (converting 252 of 301 plays inside a shortstop’s zone) which is third-best in the AL. Meanwhile, Mariner second basemen have made 40 plays out of the normal zone while posting a .827 revised zone rating (5th-best in AL). This – along with some exceptional pitchers in Felix Hernandez and Micheal Pineda – have given the Mariners one of the league’s best ERA’s at 3.77. While King Felix and Prince Pineda were supplying strikeouts, rotation-mate Doug Fister – a groundball pitcher who is far from a strikeout pitcher - posted a 3.33 ERA thanks to his infield backup. Had the Mariners infielders had the slightest bit of lumber to compliment the glovework, they may have wound up competitive in the AL West.

The Angels, while not nearly as rangy as the Mariners infielders, have compiled an infield that does their jobs. The shortstops and second baseman have the third-best revised zone ratings (.843 and .844 respectively) among their peers while the corners demonstrate an above-average ability to make the additional plays out of the zone. The first basemen lead the league with 35 out-of-zone plays while the third basemen are fourth with 32 out-of-zone plays. Perhaps not surprising, at 3.49, the Angels own the AL’s best ERA.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the Mariners and Angels rest the Minnesota Twins. The Twins are the American League’s worst at turning a groundball into an out. Their 73.3% conversion rate in 2011 represents a significant drop over their 76.1% from a year ago.

The agglomeration of middle infielders has provided little additional support for their pitchers. The shortstops – mainly headlined by Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla – have done a decent job of nabbing an extra 60 plays out-of-zone. However, that is overshadowed by the way the shortstop unit has performed within their designated zone: their .769 revised zone rating is the worst in the AL. One year ago, with JJ Hardy and Nick Punto manning short, the team had the AL’s best revised zone rating at the position (.839). Nishioka, once thought of to be a defensive upgrade at the position, has demonstrated regularly that he is incapable of holding down a starting job at this time.

At second, the Twins have added 27 out-of-zone outs (second-fewest in AL) with a .802 revised zone rating (fourth-lowest). While Casilla has done a decent job when able to be on the field, there is an obvious drop off in the quality of defense provided when Michael Cuddyer and, to a lesser extent, Luke Hughes is playing. In 2010 the Twins put up good marks at second with veteran Orlando Hudson. That year, the Minnesota second basemen posted a .833 revised zone rating and added another 42 outs that were not in their zone.

Perhaps the most substantial decline has been the defensive production at third. Danny Valencia – given the position full-time – has shown as much range as Gilbert Gottfried in 2011. Valencia and the few fill-ins have chased down just 19 plays out-of-zone this year. Comparatively, the Blue Jays have converted an additional 46 out-of-zone plays. More worrisome, like shortstop, the in-zone plays have dropped from a league-lead .780 in 2010 to .691 this season.

The Twins pitchers are pitch-to-contact. This strategy is not sexy but it can be successful if the necessary support is there – after all, for the majority of the century the team has won division titles based on this. All of this fumbling, bumbling and stumbling in the infield has led to more hits, more base-runners, more pitches and, ultimately, more runs for the Twins pitching staff in 2011. It is not hard to see an association between the infield defense and the staff’s ERA which jumped from 3.95 to 4.48.

Even if the Twins do bring in the marquee-number-one-with-a-bullet starter, they still need to address the defense for the remainder of the rotation.