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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.