MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota manager Paul Molitor said he can see some guys occasionally look back at all the space behind them, when they wave their outfielders to come in.The Twins' defensive resurgence has been key in the team's turnaround from the cellar of the American League Central, to division contender.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota manager Paul Molitor said he can see some guys occasionally look back at all the space behind them, when they wave their outfielders to come in.
The Twins' defensive resurgence has been key in the team's turnaround from the cellar of the American League Central, to division contender. Even though they were surpassed in the standings -- for the first time since May 10 -- this past weekend, improvements have been evident through the first 67 games of the year.
And it has as much to do with the positioning of the outfielders than anything else.
"I think it makes a big difference," Molitor said. "It was explained in a way by Jeff (Pickler) that I think they understood this is what we need to do to be a top level outfield defense."
The Twins hired Pickler as a Major League coach and coordinator of Major League development last December, signaling a big shift toward analytics under the new regime. It has been most notable in the way Pickler positions his three athletic outfielders, a concept that was brought to the table this past Spring Training.
All across the board, Minnesota outfielders play more shallow compared to the league average. Eddie Rosario's average start position this year is 290 feet, while the league average in left field is 295 feet. Centerfielder Byron Buxton (312 feet) and right fielder Max Kepler (290 feet) are both a bit more shallow than the league average at their position of 318 feet and 293 feet, respectively.
Though the difference may seem minute, it has helped make a monumental impact on the defensive end. Last year, the Twins were ranked 28th in both Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating, according to Fangraphs. This year, the club's 25 defensive runs saved is third and boasting the 7th best UZR with a mark of 10.3.
However, Pickler doesn't view it as a broad concept of playing more shallow, but rather positioning based on difference scenarios.
"I think what we are trying to do is take each situation individually," Pickler said. "I'm hoping we are attacking this on a case - by - case basis than having some sort of broad philosophy."
The Twins have accomplished just that by giving all outfielders cards to stash in their back pocket. During each at-bat, the players can look at the card to see where they need to stand rather than look towards the dugout.
This guideline was another new adaption for 2017, as it helps the outfielders move around based on the situation and the batter, in addition to whether or not a pitcher on the mound has flyball tendencies.
As a result, Minnesota have given up less runs per game this season -- fewer compared to last year despite posting a worse FIP of 5.11, which measures pitching independent of fielding, a mark that is the second worst in all of baseball.
"Once the Statcast™ era arose, everybody is trying to get an edge on each player and analyzing where they hit the most," Kepler said.
But the team's athleticism makes it much easier to play more shallow and have the ability to take a chance by moving them around in the outfield. Miguel Sano moving to third base and Buxton playing on a daily basis has helped track down some of those harder hit balls in the gaps.
In fact, Buxton is the MLB leader in 4-star catches via Statcast™ with an 11-for-12 clip on such plays. He's the only player to post a perfect catch rate with double-digit attempts on 3-star plays and Buxton also has five more 2-star grabs than the next closest outfielder.
Kepler and Buxton are the only two teammates in the top-five on three-star and two-star plays. Kepler has 21 total snags, while posting a 91 percent success rate on such catch attempts.
"(On) the balls that we don't normally catch, we want to challenge ourselves to just make an attempt," Buxton said. "We know we have each other's back. We shouldn't be afraid to dive for a ball, but go after the ball and try to get this guy out."
Sometimes that can lead to crashing into the wall or extra bases on a missed attempt, but more often than not this year one of the three outfielders have come up with the grab. At the same time, because of their shallow start position they are taking away hits to help pitchers get out of innings more quickly.
A perfect example of that took place in the first inning of Saturday's nightcap against Cleveland. Left-hander Adalberto Mejia allowed three consecutive batters to reach after retiring the first two Tribe players to start the game. He then induced a barreled ball to left-center by Austin Jackson, which went 389 feet at 99.8mph, per Statcast™.
Buxton, who was playing shallow right center, covered 118 feet of ground in 6.2 seconds. The ball had a 55 percent hit probability, but was instead tracked down by Buxton in the warning track to get out of the inning unscathed.
"When you have people that can do those types of things, it gives you the confidence to try and cheat up," Molitor said. "Especially when you are trying to steal base hits."
And thus far, it has worked to near perfection.
Shane Jackson is a reporter for MLB.com based in Minneapolis and covers the Twins.