Hit the Ball in the Air Against the Twins

The 2009 Mariners did not have the best pitching staff in the American League. They tied for eighth lowest FIP at 4.39, and tied for 10th in xFIP with 4.52. Despite ranking in the bottom half of the league in these fielding independent metrics, the Mariners boasted the best ERA in the AL by a fairly wide margin. Their defense apparently made up the difference, as they led the majors in UZR. A big part of their advantage came in the outfield, where Ichiro Suzuki and Franklin Gutierrez snagged everything that came near them. The result was the highest outfield UZR in the league.

The Twins felt the opposite effect. Their team UZR ranked second to last in the AL, while their outfield defense ranked last. Like the Mariners, they posted a team 4.39 FIP and 4.52 xFIP. But the team ERA was much higher, at 4.50, placing them 11th in the AL. Making matters worse, their pitchers gave up the highest percentage of fly balls in the league, 41.1 percent. They also allowed the third most balls in play, meaning their poor outfielders got plenty of chances.

Only two Twins outfielders accumulated positive UZRs in 2009: Carlos Gomez and Denard Span. That does not bode well for the 2010 team. The former is now a Brewer, and the latter posted his positive contributions from the corners, while running negative in center field. He’ll man the position full-time in 2010, flanked by a combination of Jason Kubel, Delmon Young, and Michael Cuddyer, all of whom posted a UZR/150 of -15 or worse. It looks like a sorry outfield situation in Minnesota.

While Carl Pavano, Nick Blackburn and, in his best days, Francisco Liriano, can keep the ball on the ground, two-fifths of the Twins projected rotation have trouble in that regard. Both Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey allow tons of fly balls, so it comes as no surprise that their FIPs were quite lower than their ERAs. Both, thankfully for the Twins, boast decent strikeout rates, but when they do allow contact the ball heads to the outfield more than to the infield. With outfielders like Cuddyer, Young, and Kubel, that can present a bit of trouble.

As with most takes on UZR, a few caveats apply here. First, Span hasn’t played enough innings in center field to get a good read on him. During his two major league seasons he’s accumulated only 704 innings, which totals less than a full-time season. We should get a better idea of his ability this year when he’s playing there every day. By most observer reports he does well enough, and I’m fairly confident that he’s not as bad as his -13.8 UZR/150 indicates.

We do, however, have decent samples on Cuddyer and Young. The results shouldn’t encourage Twins fans. In 3767.2 career outfield innings, Young has posted a -11.8 UZR/150. It gets even worse in his largest sample, left field, where in 2130.2 innings he has a -18.9 UZR/150. Cuddyer as played 4457.1 career innings in right field, posting a -10.1 UZR/150. Kubel has a much smaller sample, just 1802.2 career outfield innings, but the -18.7 UZR/150 isn’t encouraging. Nor are the anecdotal accounts of his defense. Thankfully, he’ll probably stay on the bench while the Twins play defense, filling mostly the DH role.

The Twins should feature very good, maybe even spectacular defense in the infield, especially if Nick Punto wins the third base job. But when the they face slugging teams that take a lot of pitches to the outfield, they could face problems. Maybe Span provides above average range once he settled into center field, and maybe the 30 pounds Young dropped this off-season will help him improve his defense a bit. Even with both of those factors, however, the Twins still won’t cover a ton of outfield ground. It could once again play a big role in how the pitching staff fares.

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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

20 Responses to “Hit the Ball in the Air Against the Twins”

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  1. Bill&TedsExcellentAdventure says:

    As a twins fan our outfield has been my biggest worry. I think Delmon dropping 30 pounds is not very likely to make him that much better of an outfielder, his instincts are just terrible and he runs like he is on a large sheet of ice. However from watching many games It would be very hard for me to believe that Span isnt somewhere close to league average in center field.

    Its too bad all of our good speedy outfielders in the Minors are years away from making it to the pros (Aaron Hicks, Ben Revere, Angel Morales).

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  2. fenwik says:

    Also, keep in mind Baker has a career infield fly rate above 12%, so he is using his infielders a good deal more than his ground ball rate may suggest.

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  3. ahope says:

    What happens if Span gets hurt and or needs a day off? Then Twins fans will be looking at an OF of Delmon in LF, Cuddy in CF (yuck) and Kubel in RF. For a team that relies on doing the “little things” they seem to be oblivious to their problems.

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    • Steven Ellingson says:

      I don’t think that’ll happen. I think Punto will end up being the backup CF. It’s hard to say if that’s a good thing or not, but it’s almost definitely better than Cuddyer in CF.

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      • ahope says:

        Gardy has been quoted as saying that Cuddy will take turns in CF during spring training. But, yeah Punto will get some time there for sure.

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  4. Somehow I don’t think Vegas considered Twins’ OF’s UZR when setting over/under line that Cameron wrote about earlier.

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  5. Realist says:

    How is the new stadium going to affect outfielder defense?

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    • randy johnson's jockstrap says:

      no one knows

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    • thorens says:

      No doubt. IMO, that’s the biggest unknown about the Twins pitching/defense: How will they adjust to playing the wind. I suspect that many of what used to routine infield flies indoors, will now have to be fielded by an OF. Wind also makes initial reads even more critical as last second adjustments are typically less forgiving. Certainly wind can also help pitchers out, but in most parks opposite is true.

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  6. glassSheets says:

    Blackburn has a high GB/FB ratio (high for a Twins starter at least), but his limited walks and strikeouts means he’ll give up more, or at least a similar amont of, fly balls per batter than the league average

    I’m looking forward to the 5 times a year when Span rests and the Twins go Delmon, Cuddyer, Kubel all at the same time; I can hear the dancing bear music already.

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    • Steven Ellingson says:

      As I said before, I really doubt that we see that alignment. I think Punto will see a lot of time in the OF in spring, and will be the primary backup. If not, I can see Jacque Jones or another AAA filler guy coming up.

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  7. Steven Ellingson says:

    Just to be clear, the fact that the Twins give up a lot of fly balls really isn’t that big of a deal.

    Last year, they gave up 170 more outfield fly balls than the average team over the course of the season. an average team would have caught about 85% of those, or about 146. An outfield that is more than 40 runs below average would have caught about 81% of them, or about 139.

    So, the fact that the Twins give up a lot of fly balls will cost them about 7 extra fly balls falling in compared to an average pitching staff. I don’t know the exact number, but i would expect that is about 3-4 runs over the course of the season.

    Just to make sure you know what I’m saying here – I’m not saying that the Twins OF defense isn’t awful, I’m saying that pairing a horrible outfield defense and a flyball pitching staff is negligably worse than pairing it with a staff that gives up a normal amount of fly balls.

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  8. Bryz says:

    Common argument among people in defense of Delmon Young and Michael Cuddyer…

    Young: Lights in the Metrodome shine directly into a LF’s eyes, making it much harder to catch a ball. Young said that the lights were a factor for him, and he also recently admitted that it was hard for him to see the ball against the roof.

    Cuddyer: The Baggie in RF took away some of his range, thus causing him to be penalized for some balls that other outfielders in other ballparks could have caught.

    I’m not saying that I necessarily agree with these arguments, I’m just posting what the common complaints are against believing in Young and Cuddyer’s true defensive capabilities.

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  9. Nate says:

    I’m hoping that Hudson’s great range on pop-ups in the shallow outfield will allow Cuddyer to play a couple steps deeper than usual

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  10. Brent says:

    Is there any way to do home road splits of UZR?

    The reason why I ask is at the Dome Left Field is easily the hardest position to play. There were many factors, but most importantly that is the part of the field where the lights were the most treacherous for the fielder, the color of the dome “seemed” to have a huge impact, and not to mention it was the biggest part of the field to cover.

    Young wasn’t a great defender in Tampa his first couple of season but he was still much better than what he has posted the last couple of years. And if you read through his scouting reports in Baseball America when he was a prospect defense was never mentioned as an area of concern. Only after he joined the Twins and played 81 games a year in the Metrodome did his defense become so dreadful.

    Just curious, he very well could be as awful as his stats show, but it seems as though the last two years of hideous UZR kind of came out of nowhere.

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  11. Bannister19 says:

    It’ll be fun when they try to cover Kauffman Stadium.

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  12. Steve S. says:

    Brett Gardner for Liriano straight up. Deal.

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  13. Luke in MN says:

    I’m interested to see how this plays out. I recognize the likely suckitude of the corner OFers’ defense, but I just have trouble believing that bad corner outfielders can really make that much of a difference. I mean, these guys are suposed to be big and plodding! I also suspect that the degree of badness recorded in the defensive metrics for Kubel, Cuddyer, and Young of late is a bit flukey, and that they’ll regress to merely bad, not spectacularly bad.

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