Monday, June 12, 2017

Defense Remains Answer For Twins

Way back in November, I wrote that the Twins number one priority before the 2017 season should be to sign a legitimate catcher. With Kurt Suzuki on his way out, they needed someone that could command the game behind the plate. Jason Castro brought that, and has helped in being an answer to the Twins pitching woes. The other part of the equation is the defensive mastery Minnesota has shown, and it continues to be the narrative in 2017.

Right now, we are through just 59 games in the 2017 season, and the Twins have already used eight different starting pitchers and 23 total arms. Of those starters, only Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios have an ERA south of 4.00. Three pitchers, all of which were in the Opening Day rotation (Hughes, Gibson, and Santiago), have started at least nine games with ERA's north of 5.00. Among Twins starters, only Jose Berrios and Adalberto Mejia are truly striking anyone out.

In short, the summary of the Twins starting staff remains relatively status quo. It's a group of guys that don't get the ball by many big leaguers, and the final spots are interchangeable as the club looks for someone to stick. Because of the strong performances by both Santana and Berrios however, Minnesota is 13th in the MLB when it comes to starter ERA. Given where the club has been in recent seasons, that's a significant leap forward.

The story hasn't been great in the bullpen either. With eight different starters being used, the Twins have turned to 15 different pen arms already. The group has compiled a 5.48 ERA, dead last in all of baseball. Right now, there's still room to cycle guys in, and with the likes of Matt Belisle and Criag Breslow struggling, 40 man roster moves could be coming as well.

Really what Minnesota is showing us, is that the results are indicative of minor tweaks, rather than a completely redone process. A year ago, the Twins used 11 different starters and a club record, 29 different pitchers. I'd bet we get by the latter number, but this club is currently in first place. 2016 was a perfect storm of failed expectations across the board. In deciding to look at catching and defense, Minnesota has masked what otherwise could've been another disastrous pitching season.

It's relatively difficult to quantify Jason Castro's presence behind the plate, but it's not hard to see. He commands the zone as good as anyone in the big league's, and he's been a welcomed presence for pitcher's that have really needed him at times. His framing skills are heralded, but the effect he has on a game goes deeper. With a 39% caught stealing percentage, the running game has been mitigated to a certain extent, and pitchers are more easily able to focus on the task at hand.

When you get to the fielders, the Twins are much more than just Byron Buxton in center field. With 27 DRS on the season, Minnesota is second in baseball (Red have 34 DRS) when it comes to saving runs, Looking at UZR, Minnesota checks in right behind the Reds (19.1) with an 18.1 mark. Given the ranger of players not only in the outfield, but Joe Mauer at first base, the club is getting to more balls than the vast majority of big league clubs. Although their pitchers are still struggling to get the ball by hitters, it being put in play is no longer a detriment.

Each time you look at the Twins having to cycle out a pitcher and bring someone else in, there's a bit of gloom that sets over someone not living up to expectations. In 2017 though, the pitching staff is just a small cog in an otherwise well-oiled machine. This organization couldn't say that a year ago, as the total of its parts were a mess. Right now, the Twins can plug in multiple options on the mound, and be confident in the guy behind the dish, and the seven fielders on the diamond.

At some point, Minnesota can significantly raise the water level by adding some impact pitching. Whether that's through the draft, trades, or free agency, a big time starter or two will only advance this club further. For now though, the pitching is just a part of the puzzle, and while the job is lackluster at times, the sum of all parts equals a really positive result.