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Looking through the Stat-Colored Glasses: Minnesota Twins

Defensive efficiency is the rate at which balls in play are converted into outs, so it is a simple and effective way to measure defense. There's more to defensive efficiency than just defense (luck, the opponents, pitching, etc), but it is a good way to measure defense.

The Twins' defensive efficiency is .646. If, somehow, the Twins continued at that rate, they would shatter the record for the worst defensive season since at least 1960, which is currently held by the 1999 Rockies (who posted a .666 DEF_EFF). For the Twins to stay at that level is unlikely. The Twins were good defensively last year (ranked 6th in the bigs in DEF_EFF), and regression to the mean works in both directions. Still, we need to ask: what the heck is going on here?

First off, who is getting defensive innings for the Twins?

C - Joe Mauer/Mike Redmond
1B - Justin Morneau
2B - Luis Castillo
SS - Juan Castro/Nick Punto
3B - Tony Batista
LF - Shannon Stewart/Lew Ford
CF - Torii Hunter
RF - Michael Cuddyer/Lew Ford

Let's go around the horn and look at some defensive statistics...

At this point, I should make a few clarifications. The defensive stats that I'll use are the ones I have easy access to. I will be focusing on Zone Rating, David Pinto's 2005 Probabilistic Model of Range scores, and Prospectus' DT metrics. I will also use scouting reports and the Tango Fan Scouting Project for information. If anyone has any other information that they would like to contribute, feel free. This is a blog, after all.

CATCHERS - Although DEF_EFF does not count the contributions of catchers, Mauer's throwing has erased 11 of 21 attempted thieves. Considering how many runners the Twins have been letting on base, these are important. Mike Redmond, in limited time, has struggled against stolen bases, but I would say that the sample (6/7 SB/SBA) is far too small to make any judgments. The two players have combined for a FRAA of +2.

FIRST BASE - Justin Morneau

Morneau's performance at first base has been very good or very bad, depending on who you ask. Prospectus' metrics (FRAA, RATE) peg Morneau as far below average, with a RATE of 92 and a FRAA of -3. He is third in the league in zone rating, though. The fact that defensive statistics often disagree makes it difficult to draw conclusions quite frequently. According to David Pinto's Probabilistic Model of Range, Morneau was in the middle of the pack in 2005. I have never heard Morneau referred to as a defensive star, and coupled with Tango's fans scouting report, I am compelled to believe that the high zone rating is somewhat inaccurate. Still, it's unfair to classify Morneau as a terrible fielder; he's probably closer to average.

THIRD BASE - Tony Batista

Contrary to Morneau, there is a level of unanimity about Tony Batista at third base. Batista's zone rating of .670 is the lowest in the league among third basemen. He is second to last in range factor. He has only been involved in 4 double plays. And Prospectus' stats are the most damning: he has a FRAA of -6 and a RATE of 84. There's really no excuse for Batista to be in the lineup at this point. He's not hitting particularly well (.252/.313/.422) and he has been a disaster in the field. The Batista acquisition was simply unsound.

SECOND BASE - Luis Castillo

The stats don't like Mr. Castillo at second base, either. He is also last in the league at his position in zone rating (.728), which is far behind the rest of the field, save the struggling Rickie Weeks. He has also been worth -6 FRAA and has compiled a RATE of 83. I never remembered Castillo as an atrocious fielder, though, so I looked at some of his past fielding statistics. Surprisingly, he was very good according to Prospectus' metrics in 2005, and he was in the Top 15, right behind Mark Ellis, in David Pinto's PMR. Furthermore, the Tango Scouting Project's Marlins' reviewers rated Castillo as the Marlins' best defender, with an overall score of 88 and strong consensus.

I don't know how to explain this, but I'll take several stabs:

  1. Sample size - Not enough of a sample to know for sure, and the data are incomplete.
  2. Rapid decline - Castillo is simply no longer a viable fielder.
  3. A bunch of hard hit balls - Maybe the pitchers are getting hit so hard that no reasonable fielder could make the plays?
  4. Luck.
I'll call it a combination of all of the following. The fact that his numbers are so bad in the early going makes me think that he has not performed well, but great defenders don't just fall apart. And, while Castillo is a second baseman and they do tend to decline rapidly, it doesn't seem to happen as early as 30.

Bottom line is that, for some reason, Luis Castillo has done a bad job at second base. I don't think that it will persist to this extent, but it still should raise eyebrows.

SHORTSTOP - Juan Castro

In a recent Rob Neyer chat, Nick from Minnesota asked the following:

Nick (MN): Is Juan Castro the worst player in MLB? .256 OBP and .535 OPS. Writers and broadcasters praise his "D", but it seems spotty at best. (BRING UP BARTLETT!)

It was a sensible question, and, indeed, Castro has been utterly abysmal with the bat. It's hard to imagine, but he's 33 years old (you'd think a guy like Castro would actually have some growth potential, but he's been around a long, long time). Defensively, last year at short, he posted a zone rating of .813, and he has been close to that this year (.808). Unfortunately, those figures are towards the bottom of the league, just a little above where Edgar Renteria lies. Yet, somehow, Prospectus' metrics have Castro as an excellent fielder last year (127 RATE at SS!), and PMR is favorable, as well.

Again, we run into a crisis of measurement. Statistically, Castro's defense this year can be considered "spotty at best," but in the past, it's been much better. I think that the safest conclusion is that Castro is an OK fielder, but it's difficult to imagine him as anything more than that at shortstop because he has never been praised for an excellent arm (and his skill-set is often said to be better suited for second base). The low zone ratings and a lack of DPs also makes me think that he's not particularly great in the field.

Either way, you'd have an argument for him as the worst everyday player in the majors.

OUTFIELD - Shannon Stewart/Torii Hunter/Michael Cuddyer/Lew Ford

Aaron Gleeman has discussed the problems that Shannon Stewart has defensively, and, from the little I've seen, I figured that he would stick out like a sore thumb defensively. Prospectus' metrics reaffirm this and peg him with a FRAA of -2 and a RATE of 94. The Tango scouting pegs him as one of the Twins' lesser defenders. While his zone rating this year is in the middle of the pack, last year, it only was ahead of Hideki Matsui, Miguel Cabrera, and Manny Ramirez in left field.

Stewart is not a good outfielder, and, while it is not a good habit to be positive about injuries, Stewart's absence from the outfield will certainly help defensively. He is probably better suited to be a DH at this point, if they have to play him everyday.

It's tough to criticize Torii Hunter's play in centerfield, mainly because he LOOKS good there. The fans agree with that, too; Hunter scored an 88 in the fan scouting report, also with strong consensus (much like Luis Castillo). No metrics rate Torii Hunter as outstanding, though, even with his frequent appearances on Baseball Tonight's Web Gems segment of the show. According to RATE and FRAA, Hunter hasn't been a great defender since 2001 (when he was unbelievable). Since then, he has hovered right around average. I would be skeptical of this on its own, but PMR and zone rating also tend to support that conclusion.

The fact that the Twins' defense has been so atrocious thus far leads me to believe that there aren't any outstanding performances out there, although that could also be an unfair conclusion.

In rightfield, Michael Cuddyer and Lew Ford have split time. Cuddyer, who has hit exceptionally well (finally fulfilling my prediction from 4 years ago), has been terrible in right. His zone rating of .750 would rank last in the league among RFs if he qualified. Lew Ford has been the opposite. He has been superb in right with a RATE of 112.

So, what are the Twins looking at?

  • The Twins' outfield defense has been below average, as a whole, it seems. This is not the major problem on the team, especially when Lew Ford plays.
  • The Twins' infield defense has been an abomination.
How can the Twins fix this?
  1. Keep Stewart out of the outfield when he gets back.
  2. Remove Tony Batista and Juan Castro from the starting lineup. If Castro must play, play him at second base and DH Castillo. The Twins should be looking for ANYONE to replace Batista (although Cuddyer was not good at third last year).
I hate to beat the drum of the obvious, here, but Jason Kubel has a good arm and could be useful in the outfield as an everyday player. Jason Bartlett is an excellent defender and should be playing everyday, as well, especially over Juan Castro, of all people. Even if Bartlett doesn't hit at all, he would be a major upgrade.

Even in this age of DIPS, I think it's too easy to forget that defense can make pitching look better. While Carlos Silva seems to be going through some more serious problems, I can't help but think better defense would make Brad Radke look a lot better out there. Liriano, Nathan, and Santana might not need the help from a great defense, but the rest of the staff could certainly use it.

The Twins' slow start has not eliminated them from contention yet, but it's going to take some dramatic moves to get better. One of the most necessary moves is to proactively fix this defense. The playoffs might be impossible, but sticking with things the way they are is only going to solidify that.