Twins need a third baseman who can play defense, too

Posted on December 23rd, 2008 – 7:43 PM
By Joe Christensen

The Twins have a reputation as one of the best defensive teams in the majors, but last season, they sure didn’t live up to it.

They committed 108 errors, their highest total since 2001, and ranked third to last in the American League with a .982 fielding percentage.

Carlos Gomez showed tremendous range in center field, but he made eight errors, and Delmon Young made another eight errors in left field. Other trouble spots included second base, where Alexi Casilla made 12 errors in 833 innings, and third base, where Brian Buscher made 10 errors in 519 innings.

The Twins scored 829 runs, third most in team history, despite hitting just 111 home runs, fewest in the American League. An argument can be made that they need more power at third base or shortstop, and they probably need setup relief help the most.

But here’s another quiet truth: The defense needs to get better, not worse. This is one reason they drew a line and refused to offer three guaranteed years to Casey Blake, and this is a big reason they’re not making more of a push for Ty Wigginton.

In my time covering the Twins (since 2005), here’s what I’ve learned:

(*) Michael Cuddyer’s third base defense in 2005 was considered a disaster — by Manager Ron Gardenhire and by Cuddyer himself. Cuddyer said he felt a huge weight lifted off his shoulders when Gardenhire moved him to right field, and his offensive numbers supported the theory. But others in the organization wish they hadn’t given up on that experiment so quickly.

(*) After the Tony Batista experiment in 2006 — now that was a disaster — the Twins were thrilled with Nick Punto at third base, but he pressed when handed the everyday third base job out of spring training in 2007.

A look back at the numbers, with help from The Hardball Times:

Michael Cuddyer

2005 — Innings at third base (816), errors (8 throwing, 7 fielding), fielding percentage (.942), revised zone rating (.717), balls fielded outside of zone (49).

(Putting numbers to a player’s defense is an inexact science, but one of the best metrics is The Hardball Times’ revised zone rating. In Cuddyer’s case, this means he successfully fielded 71.7 percent of the balls hit into the third base zone — zones, defined as the areas on the field where 50 percent of balls hit are converted into outs –and fielded an additional 49 balls outside the zone. Studying those two numbers help tell you how fielders are on balls they should get to, and how many they’re getting to that they shouldn’t.)

As a 3B, Cuddyer batted .255 with 11 HR, 34 RBI and a 92 OPS+. (OPS+ adjusts for league and park averages, with 100 being an average performance.)

Tony Batista

2006 — Innings at third base (434), errors (3 throwing, 3 fielding), fielding percentage (.954), revised zone rating (.652), balls fielded outside of zone (15).

As a 3B, Batista batted .236 with 5 HR, 21 RBI and a 72 OPS+.

Nick Punto

2006 — Innings at third base (766), errors (5 throwing, 4 fielding), fielding percentage (.962), revised zone rating (.773), balls fielded outside of zone (24).

As a 3B, Punto batted .289 with 1 HR, 39 RBI and an 82 OPS+.

2007 — Innings at third base (828), errors (4 throwing, 2 fielding), fielding percentage (.973), revised zone rating (.708), balls fielded outside of zone (29).

As a 3B, Punto batted .226 with 1 HR, 22 RBI and a 56 OPS+.

MAKING SENSE OF THE NUMBERS

The Twins are aware of these defensive numbers but rely on their own eyes. Gardenhire and the coaching staff know what they like and don’t like on defense. Their scouts know what’s acceptable for this team and what isn’t. The above examples give us some benchmarks:

Fielding percentage: Unacceptable (Cuddyer’s .942 and Batista’s .954). Acceptable (Punto’s .962).

Errors: Unacceptable (Cuddyer’s one error for every 54 innings). Acceptable (Punto’s one error for every 85 innings).

Revised zone rating: Unacceptable (Batista’s .652). Acceptable (Punto’s .773).

Defensive sins can be forgiven when a player makes up for them at the plate. But with Twins third basemen, poor defense and poor offense seem to work hand in hand. 

The Twins tried Mike Lamb at third base last season. That didn’t work, either.

Mike Lamb

2008 (with Twins) — Innings at third base (458), errors (2 throwing, 2 fielding), fielding percentage (.970), revised zone rating (.602), balls fielded outside of zone (14).

As a 3B in 2008, Lamb batted .231 with 1 HR, 25 RBI and a 51 OPS+.

MOVING FORWARD WITH HARRIS AND BUSCHER?

During the pennant race, Harris and Buscher proved to be an effective combination. Buscher’s defense was shaky but improved over 2007, and Harris proved surprisingly effective at third base.

Harris had played just 15 games at third base heading into this season. I asked him about playing third base in June, and he said, “It’s in my golf bag, but I don’t know that it’s my favorite club.”

I remember moments when a ball would scoot past Harris, and I’d think: “Punto puts that in his pocket.” But what Harris got to, he handled pretty well, and he has a strong, accurate arm. Buscher’s arm is more erratic, but he’s worked tirelessly on his footwork and shown some improvement:

Brian Buscher

2007 — Innings at third base (201), errors (1 fielding, 3 throwing), fielding percentage (.923), revised zone rating (.512), balls fielded outside of zone (10).

As a 3B in 2007, Buscher batted .250 with 2 HR, 9 RBI and a 72 OPS+.

2008 — Innings at third base (519), errors (10 — 5 fielding, 5 throwing), fielding percentage (.938), revised zone rating (.688), balls fielded outside of zone (16).

As a 3B in 2008, Buscher batted .302 with 4 HR, 45 RBI and a 94 OPS+.

Brendan Harris

2008 — Innings at third base (256), errors (2 — both throwing), fielding percentage (.971), revised zone rating (.707), balls fielded outside of zone (3).

As a 3B, Harris batted .296, 1 HR, 14 RBI and a 133 OPS+.

A LOOK AT THE ALTERNATIVES

Casey Blake

2008 (with Cleveland) — Innings at third base (635), errors (5 throwing, 7 fielding), fielding percentage (.938), revised zone rating (.688), balls fielded outside of zone (11).
2008 (with Dodgers) — Innings at third base (469), errors (0 throwing, 2 fielding), fielding percentage (.985), revised zone rating (.720), balls fielded outside of zone (16).

As a 3B, Blake batted .275 with 16 HR, 68 RBI and a 105 OPS+.

The Twins offered Blake a two-year, deal with an option for 2011 before he signed his three-year, $17.5 million deal with the Dodgers. He turned 35 in August. His defensive performance improved after getting traded from Cleveland to the Dodgers last season, but logic says his range will decrease with age.

Ty Wigginton

2006 (with Tampa Bay) — Innings at third base (274), errors (1 throwing, 4 fielding), fielding percentage (.940), revised zone rating (.590), balls fielded outside of zone (11).
2007 (with Tampa Bay) — Innings at third base (254), errors (0 throwing, 4 fielding), fielding percentage (.938), revised zone rating (.643), balls fielded outside of zone (11).
2007 (with Houston) — Innings at third base (392), errors (2 throwing, 1 fielding), fielding percentage (.976), revised zone rating (.710), balls fielded outside of zone (15).
2008 (with Houston) — Innings at third base (652), errors (3 throwing, 3 fielding), fielding percentage (.969), revised zone rating (.732), balls fielded outside of zone (25).

As a 3B in 2008, Wigginton batted .265 with 11 HR, 31 RBI and a 108 OPS+.

Wigginton, 31, had a good year all-around with Houston last season, but it’s notable how much his defensive numbers improved after he moved from the artificial surface in Tampa Bay to the natural grass in Houston.

Though Wigginton does a nice job minimizing errors, scouts are not high on his range or his arm. A point worth noting: Cleveland needs a third baseman, and they’re not pursuing him any harder than the Twins.

Garret Atkins

2007 — Innings at third base (1,319), errors (9 throwing, 4 fielding), fielding percentage (.963), revised zone rating (.613), balls fielded outside of zone (40).
2008 — Innings at third base (797), errors (5 throwing, 4 fielding), fielding percentage (.964), revised zone rating (.699), balls fielded outside of zone (27).

As a 3B in 2008, Atkins batted .307 with 14 HR, 55 RBI and a 112 OPS+.

The Twins have talked to the Rockies about Atkins, but Colorado has asked for Kevin Slowey, Denard Span and a prospect. Don’t worry, won’t happen. Atkins’ offensive numbers are suspect outside of Coors Field, and he’s no stalwart defensively.

Adrian Beltre

2007 — Innings at third base (1,279), errors (12 throwing, 6 fielding), fielding percentage (.958), revised zone rating (.668), balls fielded outside of zone (64).2008 — Innings at third base (1,208), errors (4 throwing, 10 fielding), fielding percentage (.964), revised zone rating (.700), balls fielded outside of zone (78).

As a 3B in 2008, Beltre batted .269 with 23 HR, 71 RBI and a 102 OPS+. 

Your eyes might be glazing over right now, with all these numbers, but check out how many balls Beltre gets to outside the zone.

The Twins would love to trade for this guy. As Gardenhire would say, “He’s the whole package.” Beltre has won Gold Gloves each of the past two seasons. But he also has the Twins on his no-trade list, so I just don’t see it happening.

Mark DeRosa

2008 — Innings at third base (114), errors (1 throwing, 1 fielding), fielding percentage (.944), revised zone rating (.759), balls fielded outside of zone (6).
2007 — Innings at third base (287), errors (2 throwing, 2 fielding), fielding percentage (.958), revised zone rating (.761), balls fielded outside of zone (10).

As a 3B in 2008, DeRosa batted .239/.345 OBP/.630 SLG with 5 HR, 13 RBI and a 147 OPS+.

The Twins have had conversations with the Cubs about DeRosa, though La Velle is hearing it’s less and less likely the teams will have a match. DeRosa’s primary position has been second base, though he’s very versatile. He could help the Twins, but it’s tough to say how he’d be as an everyday third baseman, when the sample size is so small.

MY CONCLUSION

I think the best thing the Twins could do is trade for Beltre or Brewers shortstop J.J. Hardy, but it doesn’t look like either move will happen. When teams are asking for Slowey, Span and a prospect (or packages like that), I’d bow out of the trade market, too.

I thought Blake would have been worth the investment, but people from other teams have told me the Twins were wise not to guarantee a third year.

The more I look at this, the more I think the Harris and Buscher combination can work, especially since it’s possible a prospect such as Danny Valencia, Luke Hughes or Trevor Plouffe (if he’s converted from shortstop to third base) could be knocking on the door by mid-season.

I keep coming back to this, but Harris batted .300/.362 OBP/.465 SLG after June 17 (that’s against righties and lefties). Buscher struggled against lefties but batted .316/.362/.437 against righties.

In both cases, the defense is a work in progress, but perhaps it’ll be healthy that neither of them has to say, “OK, I’m the guy here. I’ve got to get it done.” This seemed to work against Cuddyer in 2005, Punto in 2007 and Lamb in 2008.

If the Harris/Buscher combination doesn’t work, Gardenhire can “ad lib,” as he likes to say, bringing Matt Tolbert off the bench to play shortstop and moving Punto to third. After all, the Twins have had moving parts there, with varying success, ever since Corey Koskie left as a free agent after the 2004 season.

Note: Thanks for bearing with me through another long post. Happy Holidays. Also, if you’re on Facebook, click here to see a new way to follow the Star Tribune’s sports coverage.

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