If you had to pick one iconic image from the 2011 season, it would probably be Tsuyoshi Nishioka stumbling toward a grounder only to see it squirt right past him. Or maybe it would be Danny Valencia booting a routine 5-4-3 double play chance. Or maybe Trevor Plouffe airmailing a throw over Justin Morneau‘s head at first…
In truth, there were a lot of iconic images from 2011, and nearly all of them involve a Twin committing a fielding blunder.
It is notoriously difficult to track defense with stats, but the Twins’ fielding woes were so egregious that they show up no matter how you measure them. Looking at the traditional stats, the Twins committed 119 errors, a total that was topped only by Oakland (124) in the American League. Their fielding percentage (.980) and their 78 unearned runs allowed also trailed only the A’s.
If you want to break down the problem a little further, it helps to look at some more advanced defensive numbers. I am a big fan of the Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). I won’t spend too much time defining UZR, but it’s basically a measurement of how many runs a player saves or costs his team compared to an average player at his position. You can find a more detailed description from FanGraphs. UZR/150 is a similar stat, but it takes a players UZR and projects it over 150 games in order to equalize the numbers for players who haven’t played equal numbers of games. I used this stat to analyze the 2011 Twins at each position. For the purposes of this article, I simply added the individual players’ totals from each position to give a rough team total (note: I did not include catchers and pitchers, since UZR is not tracked for those players).
For those of you who think UZR is a bunch of sabermetric garbage, don’t worry. I agree that there are legitimate criticisms of this metric. I happen to like it, but I don’t want to force it on anyone. Thus, I noted error totals as well to give us the best of both worlds.
First Base – Team UZR: 12.6, Errors: 7
We’ll start with one of the few bright spots. Six men played first base, and aside from Trevor Plouffe, who only spent a single inning there, all of them were in positive UZR territory. Justin Morneau had an awful year at the plate, but he was solid in the field with an 11.3 UZR/150. Joe Mauer made his debut at the position, and he did even better with a UZR/150 of 27.8. Michael Cuddyer, Luke Hughes, and Chris Parmelee were also all in positive territory in limited action. More good news: nobody made more than two errors at first base.
Second Base – Team UZR: -5.6, Errors: 15
If only the second basemen could have been as talented as the first basemen. Alexi Casilla was slightly above average with a .9 UZR (2.2 UZR/150), but he only spent 470 innings at second, thanks to injuries. He also committed six errors in that time. Cuddyer helped out as a replacement, but his UZR/150 was a pitiful -20.8. Still, he fared better than Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Trevor Plouffe, who clocked in at -39.7 and -41.8 respectively. Huges, Brian Dinkelman, and Matt Tolbert were all near average in limited duty.
Third Base – Team UZR: -7.8, Errors: 20
Danny Valencia pretty much had a monopoly on this position, spending 1,280 innings at the Hot Corner. His UZR/150 was a subpar -6.1, which indicates the Twins made the right move by challenging him to improve this year. The problem with Valencia’s defense stood out even more thanks to his 18 errors. Hughes was also below average in about 100 innings with a UZR/150 of -9.0. Matt Tolbert’s UZR/150 was -42.3 in a very small sample size.
Shortstop – Team UZR: -19.4, Errors: 29
I was surprised to learn that only four men played shortstop for the Twins in 2011, since it seemed like the position was constantly in flux. None of the four did very well at all. Nishioka led the team with 508 innings, and he had the worst UZR/150 as well: -14.2 to go with 10 errors. Plouffe managed to out-error Nishioka, with a staggering 11 in under 400 innings, driving his UZR/150 to -25.0. Tolbert and Casilla were also below average at this position, but not nearly as bad.
Left Field – Team UZR: 3.0, Errors: 10
Here’s another surprise: Ben Revere actually had a negative UZR in left field. True, he only played 112 innings, but his -.2 UZR translated to a UZR/150 of -3.1. But that’s nothing compared to this downright shocker: Delmon Young was in positive territory in UZR last year, with a UZR/150 of 5.4 and just six errors. It marked the first time in his career he was above average, which either means he’s getting better or it was a fluke; it’s a moot point, though, because he’ll be playing left field for Detroit in 2012. Six other players manned LF at various times, though only Rene Tosoni (UZR/150 of -3.1) and Jason Repko (13.3) played more than 10 games.
Center Field – Team UZR: 15.8, Errors: 8
Who was the better center fielder, Revere or Denard Span? The numbers say it was Span. He played 585 innings and notched a UZR/150 of 17.6. Revere was no slouch, but in 776 innings, his UZR/150 was slightly lower, at 15.1. He also made six errors to Span’s one. Repko and Joe Benson combined to play the other 60 innings at the position, and Repko somehow ended up with a -61.6 UZR, which shows how in a small sample size, just a couple mistakes can make one’s defensive stats look incredibly bad.
Right Field – Team UZR: -2.0, Errors: 6
The Twins were slightly below average here, but we can not blame that on Cuddyer, who was about as close to average as possible, with a 0.1 UZR/150 and four errors. Instead, it was Jason Kubel who dragged the numbers down with his -8.3 mark, though he committed just one error. Repko and Revere were both above average in a few games in right.
If you simply added up all of the positional UZR numbers, the Twins team total comes out to -3.4. Giving up three extra runs over 162 games does not seem too terrible, but I have a feeling that number is probably not very useful. Players are rated based on different skill levels at each position, so it probably is not reasonable to simply add numbers from different positions.
Instead, we should look at the positional numbers and see where the Twins need to improve. The obvious answer to that question is the infield. At second, third, and shortstop this team was far worse than average. Simply boosting those positions to the middle of the pack would put a big dent in the number of runs allowed. For that reason, Jamey Carroll might have been the most crucial acquisition the team made this offseason. Carroll’s career UZR/150 is negative (-2.0), but even a number that is close to average would be a big jump from the 20 extra runs Twins shortstops allowed last year. At second base, the team must hope that a healthy Casilla can keep up his slightly above average defense all year. And at third, the hopes rest on Valencia fixing his problems.
If everything goes right, those players could shore up the infield defense. Hopefully, Span and Revere can keep the outfield in positive territory. That would take a lot of the stress off the beleaguered Twins pitching staff.