This column presents 5 Twins predictions for 2020, based around the impact of adding slugger/third baseman Josh Donaldson.
This month when Baseball Savant unveiled some new toys to help us in the public evaluate infield defense, it painted an unsettling picture for shortstop Jorge Polanco. He rated worst among shortstops in the brand-new public metric, Infield Outs Above Average (-16 OAA).
And yet, I feel pretty confident in saying that Polanco will have a better year this time around.
A few notes on the metrics:
*A bad-glove shortstop who can’t hit would not get the kind of innings that Polanco earned in 2019, so the ability to log enough innings to qualify is an accomplishment. (Polanco had a strong hold on a lineup spot because of his team-MVP-level bat, and because of the general health of the whole group of position players.)
*Polanco played most of the season with a right ankle so bad that it required surgery at the end of the year. So these numbers, in my view, represent something below Polanco’s true ability.
*The numbers show he was particularly bad moving toward home plate to make plays.
*Polanco played next to third baseman Miguel Sanó and Willians Astudillo for nearly 100 games last year.
So, there are three factors in my conviction that he’ll improve.
a) I’m assuming he’ll have a healthier year.
b) I’m assuming that playing next to a near-Gold-Glove-caliber third baseman most of the time will help Polanco, especially with plays in the hole but maybe also with a few of those charge plays.
c) I’m curious to see the impact of throwing to a big (but unproven) first baseman like Miguel Sanó; C.J. Cron saved some bacon for his teammates last year by scooping 31 throws in the dirt, and Marwin Gonzalez added another 4 at first base.
The first part here is straightforward math. Sanó hit a career-high 34 homers last year, but his season didn’t get started until mid-May (105 games, 439 plate appearances). So, yeah. More.
The second is more nebulous but it’s also important.
At some point this spring, you’ll hear the Twins express optimism that with Sanó’s athleticism relative to his size, he’ll adapt well to the unique challenges of playing first base in the Majors. It’s an easy declaration to make for a newly-extended slugger, and I’m not necessarily pre-accusing them of lying to our faces.
What I am saying is that a more objective view would have us say, “we’ll see.” I was impressed last year by Sanó’s strength, flexibility and commitment to his fitness after he returned from the long-healing ankle gash that cost him 6 weeks at the front of the season. The guy that I saw last week during an informal press conference again looked strong, he was confident, and any external concerns over offseason weight (fat) gain seemed in that moment to be unfounded.
Still, in the times that I’ve defended Sanó as a fielder, my primary leg to stand on was that his huge arm — really, top of the charts — helped him make plays that others couldn’t. And from time to time at third base he’d make that barehanded charge play that would catch your attention.
Let’s assume the Twins will mostly make a full switch, to include Donaldson as their everyday third baseman and Sanó as the regular at first base. Gone now, or mostly gone anyway, is Sanó’s greatest defensive attribute: his arm. He now must rely on a range of attributes to become the best first baseman that he can, including but not limited to flexibility, agility, reach, awareness and quick decisions. He’ll learn the nuances of the position in time, but I don’t expect it to be smooth right away.
In his favor, Sanó is big. Cron was big, too, and he earned some attention early last season for his ability to save infield errors (and runs) by scooping throws out of the dirt. At year’s end he’d picked 31 throws from the dirt, and that includes missing time with injury and dealing with a bad thumb for months. Fill-in first baseman Marwin Gonzalez added another 4 scoops, and I’ll be curious to see how Sanó compares in that category, among others.
I looked at team-seasons for each of the past 10 years in the American League. Guess how many clubs scored more runs in a season than the 939 that the 2019 Twins scored.
The 2019 Yankees, who scored 4 more times that the Twins.
That’s the only one. No other A.L. team in 2010-19 scored more runs than last year’s Twins, and the crude math now says you’re swapping Jason Castro, C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop for Alex Avila, Luis Arraez and Josh Donaldson. On bats alone, the offensive projections should smile on the 2020 Twins.
If you haven’t played the batting order game with the Twins’ lineup for the upcoming season, I suggest you partake. The simple fact is that they’re stacked, whether the other team throws a righty or a lefty.
The temptation would be to say that a great home run-hitting lineup just added more homers, so hello, new record. I’ll duck that temptation and say that the Twins again will be great but they won’t set a new homer record. I do wonder how any changes to the baseball — intentional or not, Mr. Manfred — will impact the run-scoring environment, and more specifically, the league-wide home run rate.
All of @RamieIsTweeting’s Twins predictions came true…
…how did he know? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/f5oSZYZ271
— SKOR North (@SKORNorth) January 17, 2020
You’d have to tell me, but I think this could be my hottest take in the column. The Twins’ bullpen was killed online, in comments sections and in letters to the editor for a good chunk of last season. And the starters were maligned for most of the year. Those yells crescendoed in October, when the Twins scored 7 runs in 3 games and got dismissed from the postseason by the Yankees.
So here: I think that the starting rotation is better on paper right now than it was at this time a year ago. And the bullpen looks like a veritable strength.
I know Michael Pineda will miss time. I know Rich Hill will miss more. I know Homer Bailey doesn’t excite you and that he’s not as good as Gerrit Cole. I also know that after the first three names, the rotation is likely to be filled with unproven options, at least to start the season. And yet, I think the team improves on its 4.18 ERA from a year ago.
Part of that is Donaldson’s fielding. He will save runs this year if he even comes close to expectations. Part of that is Byron Buxton’s fielding. The Twins have not yet succeeded in their attempts to “reign in” Buxton. (One of the team’s goals this year should be to get their all-world centerfielder to stop making the exchange of a few extra outs in a year for six weeks on the shelf.)
And part of that is my belief that the bullpen looks a lot stronger right now, including a few under-the-radar stars. I believe that the Twins should lean on that strength to help cover a perceived weakness. Use 3 conventional starters at the beginning of the year and then get a little crazy.
A smaller ERA over the 6-month season would be cool. But that’s not what wins trophies. All of the fancy tricks and 3-run bombas will not mean much to most Twins fans if the team can’t win with this pitching staff in October.
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That’s the prediction.