Friday, May 15, 2009

The Defense Rests

Since yesterday's game wasn't televised and took place during the workday, my guess is that most fans didn't get a chance to see the action and ended up piecing together information about the 6-5 victory through the box score. A cursory look at the stat sheet indicates that Scott Baker once again hit a wall after pitching several strong innings; this time, Baker held the Tigers scoreless while facing the minimum over the first five innings before getting tagged for five runs in the sixth. Yet, a deeper glance at what actually took place gives us another lesson in the importance of defense.

With two outs in the sixth inning, Baker was facing Ramon Santiago with two runners on. Santiago hit a seemingly catchable line drive toward left field; Jason Kubel gave chase but watched the ball bounce over the wall for an RBI ground-rule double. The Tigers proceeded to rally for four more runs in the inning, and Baker's once-promising outing ended after six innings. The Twins' ostensible No. 1 starter failed to put a dent in his inflated ERA.

Had Carlos Gomez been starting in center, Denard Span would have been in left and would have almost certainly caught Santiago's line drive. The inning would have been over, the game still would have been tied 0-0, and Baker would have still been pitching in the seventh, keeping pressure off a beleaguered bullpen.

While Baker certainly deserves his fair share of blame for surrendering a deep ball to the gap off the bat of Santiago, the fact of the matter is that he -- like many other members of this pitching staff -- is a fly ball pitcher. Pitchers like Baker, Kevin Slowey and Glen Perkins are routinely going to give up a number of fly balls and line drives into the outfield gaps, even when they're going good. Having a pair of fantastic defensive outfielders like Gomez and Span to play behind pitchers like these is a blessing, but one that the Twins continually waste by benching Gomez and playing Span in center field, where he is not nearly as valuable.

That the Twins were able to come back and win yesterday thanks to a second straight impressive effort from what is proving to be an extremely resurgent offense does not change the fact that substandard fielding cost the Twins five runs and nearly a ballgame. When Aaron Gleeman suggested earlier this week that the outfield alignment of Span and Gomez would save as many as 80 runs over the Young/Span duo according to Ultimate Zone Rating, many scoffed at the sheer ridiculousness of the figure. And maybe it is an exaggeration. Yet, seeing an extra five runs score in one game because of an avoidable misplay in the outfield makes the number seem a little less absurd. Take into account the extra strain that the non-catch put on Baker, the bullpen and the team at large, and you'll have some idea as to why I feel so adamant about the importance of fielding a strong defensive alignment in the outfield.

I realize I'm probably beating a dead horse here, but to me, Gardenhire's handling of the outfield situation is the preeminent issue with this club right now. Between that (assuming it Gardy's decision, and not Bill Smith's), his unwillingness to play Brendan Harris on a regular basis and his stringent adherence to using Joe Nathan only in the ninth inning, Gardenhire is doing an awful lot to hurt this team right now. The Twins finally lifted themselves above the .500 mark with yesterday's win, but they can't count on miracle comebacks forever. Unless Gardenhire starts making some smarter choices, this team will have an extremely tough time maintaining their spot atop the AL Central.

12 comments:

SethSpeaks said...

Nick, I saw the replay of that Santiago double, and Kubel missed it by a foot. Span certainly would have caught it, but I think to be fair, Delmon Young probably catches it too.

Beau said...

You may be right, Seth. While Delmon is terrible at reading depth, he's not so terrible going left to right.

Kubel read the ball well, but he's just slow and has a half-inch vertical.

TwinsFix said...

I'm looking forward to probably seeing Gomez three out of the four games in this series because Young is in California. Maybe Gomez can make a few Web Gems to cement his place in the outfield for a while.

Beth said...

Thanks for the report. I only heard the first 4 1/2 innings. I do know that when I heard the outfield positioning, I asked the radio, "Does Gardy want Baker to lose today?"

Erica said...

Yes, a catch would have ended the inning- but Baker needs to settle down, keep his concentration, and not allow a string of two-out hits. Loss of focus is a recurring theme with him.

Nick N. said...

"Nick, I saw the replay of that Santiago double, and Kubel missed it by a foot. Span certainly would have caught it, but I think to be fair, Delmon Young probably catches it too."

That may be true (although I'm not at all convinced that Young is a better outfielder than Kubel at this point), but the main point of this post was not to regurgitate the Young vs. Gomez argument, but rather to make a larger point about the value of having strong outfield defense behind the team's more fly ball prone pitchers. It's a concept Gardenhire still does not seem to grasp.

"Yes, a catch would have ended the inning- but Baker needs to settle down, keep his concentration, and not allow a string of two-out hits. Loss of focus is a recurring theme with him."

You are right about that. It certainly does seem that nearly every outing Baker will be going strong and then will completely lose focus and implode after giving up a couple hits. This trend must be stopped.

Anonymous said...

"...and his stringent adherence to using Joe Nathan only in the ninth inning..."Shockingly, after pitching the previous 2 games, it appeared the Twins were considering bringing Nathan into the game in the 8th inning yesterday. He was warming up awfully hard when Guerrier entered the game.

socaltwinsfan said...

The reason for having Kubel in left was to get another LH bat in the lineup against Verlander, who has dominated RH batters this year. The only two RH batters in the lineup for the game were 0-for-6 with four strikeouts against Verlander. Kubel had two hits against Verlander and was a big reason why he left the game as early as he did. If Verlander gets through eight innings, I doubt the Twins score at all and I doubt Gomez's defense would have been enough to shut out the Tigers too. The Twins traded offense for defense and it worked out splendidly. Now, putting in Delmon over Gomez is an entirely different proposition because Delmon's offense doesn't nearly make up for the diffence in defense, and I do not agree that Delmon would have caught that ball. BTW, most of the other hits in that inning weren't hit well at all, especially early in the inning.

As for Harris, he had started three of the last four games, so I had no problem with him sitting against Verlander. Plus, it was the walks to Punto and Tolbert that were keys to the big rally.

Nick N. said...

I viewed it more as Buscher playing in favor of Gomez. Kubel could have DH'd and Morneau could have played first. I don't really buy the notion that saves a lot of wear on Morneau to DH rather than playing first; if Gardenhire wants to give him a day off from time to time he should just give him a full day off. Buscher went 1-for-3 with a walk, which is fine I guess, but I'd just as soon get Gomez's glove out there with Baker on the hill

Schruender said...

Tough tough weekend. Positive takeaways - Slowey was outstanding against a great lineup, Morneau is hitting for power, and Mauer continues to look better than he was at any time last year.

That being said, really hard tough frustrating weekend.

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