They do their best to hide it, but the Minnesota Twins are not a particularly good defensive team.
That’s particularly obvious when Bryon Buxton, their one legitimate Gold Glove candidate, isn’t patrolling center field — and he won’t until at least September.
The metrics agree with the eye test. The Twins’ “defensive efficiency” — the percentage of balls in play that they turn into outs — through their first 117 games is .682. The major league average is .687, and 17 of the 30 teams are more efficient at getting outs than the Twins.
If, like John Gordon, you prefer the old-school stat of fielding percentage, the story is pretty much the same. The Twins’ .981 fielding percentage ranks 17th in MLB.
The problems are rooted in the middle infield. Jorge Polanco started the All-Star Game at shortstop, but he’s stretched to fill the position.
He’s also not leaving shortstop anytime soon. If the Twins wanted to move him to second base, which is a better fit for his arm, what would they do with Luis Arraez, for whom second base is also his best position?
The Twins have made the calculated decision to live with the defensive limitations in the name of scoring runs. And part of that calculation is the shift.
In the traditional arrangement, the shortstop and second baseman are each tasked with covering about a third of the infield, with the first and third basemen each assigned a sixth.
That’s about right for C.J. Cron and Miguel Sano on the corners, but it’s too much ground for Polanco and Arraez.
But let’s say the Twins overshift on a left-handed hitter, with Sano joining Cron and Arraez on the right side. Now each of those three are covering a sixth of the infield.
Polanco, alone on the left side, has half the infield to cover — but it’s a half this particular batter almost never uses.
The shift has thus stripped much of the value from outstanding infield range. Which is fine by the Twins, as outstanding range isn’t really part of their infield tool kit.
Four Twins have started at at least four different positions: Marwin Gonzalez (six), Willians Astudillo (six), Ehrie Adrianza (five) and Arraez (four).
Rocco Baldelli came to Minnesota from the Tampa Bay organization, where such defensive versatility is highly prized, and he has brought that mindset to the Twins dugout.
The eagerness to move Arraez around the field — he’s started games at second, third, left and short — is particularly noteworthy. With the other three, extreme versatility is a given. Arraez, not so much; he’s probably played more outfield innings in his few months in the major leagues than in his entire minor league tenure.
Sometimes Baldelli’s defensive assignments are a bit baffling. In one recent game, Adrianza started at first base and Gonzalez at third. I would have flipped the two. I’m also not sure there’s any significant difference.