The 1.0 version of the “Bomba Squad” Twins was a force of nature, bludgeoners of a record 307 home runs and owners of baseball’s second-best scoring offense. Bomba Squad 2.0 -- despite returning many of the same sluggers and adding Josh Donaldson -- hasn’t been as imposing, and yet the Twins are right back in the mix for the American League Central crown. Better pitching has certainly helped fill the gaps. But it’s what the Twins’ position players are doing on the other side of the plate that intrigues the most, and what makes Minnesota look more complete as it seeks a much deeper run this October.
Hidden beneath all the tape-measure blasts by Nelson Cruz and Miguel Sanó and the huge offensive breakouts by players like Mitch Garver and Jorge Polanco last year was the Twins’ lackluster defense. The shortcomings were especially pronounced around the infield, where any metric you favor -- UZR, DRS or Statcast’s Outs Above Average (OAA), which assigns a difficulty rating to each play based on distance, time, direction and runner's speed -- placed Minnesota near the sport’s cellar. OAA in particular had the Twins tied for fifth-worst (-18) of the 30 MLB clubs in infield defense.
But one year later, the Twins sit among the Majors’ top eight teams on Statcast’s newly released 2020 team infield OAA leaderboard, with many of the same players wearing the gloves. No team has improved more in this category from 2019. (Obviously, this comes with the caveat of the 2020 season being less than half the length of a normal campaign.)
Biggest 2019-20 INF OAA gainers (from negative to positive/neutral totals)
SD +33 (-26 to 7)
MIN +23 (-18 to 5)
SEA +19 (-18 to 1)
NYM +18 (-15 to 3)
KC +9 (-9 to 0)
The Padres’ stunning turnaround has a ton to do with Fernando Tatís Jr.’s more consistent play and rookie Jake Cronenworth’s emergence, just one of the many gains San Diego has made to vault itself into a playoff contender. But the Twins already entered 2020 as a projected AL juggernaut, with their infield defense seemingly an Achilles heel. That fact certainly wasn’t lost on Minnesota’s coaching staff, including Tony Diaz, the third-base coach and infield coordinator who came over from the Rockies, a club loaded with infield talents like Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story, prior to last season.
“We prepared well last year,” Diaz told reporters this month, “but I felt like there was something that we could probably improve our preparation level and that’s something that we discussed in the offseason. In Spring Training, our slogan was, ‘Half a step better.’”
The Twins look more than just a half-step better with the gloves, thanks to a couple important developments.
15 minutes of focus
Manager Rocco Baldelli and Minnesota’s front office were clearly thinking about defense a lot last year, when the Twins shifted more than all but six other clubs -- including the second-highest shift percentage against right-handed hitters behind the Dodgers. But even if Baldelli’s staff had his fielders positioned in the right places, they still had to improve at getting to the ball. For all that shifting, only three teams posted a lower infield OAA against righties than the Twins.
Diaz and infield instructor Billy Boyer brought out new tricks in Spring Training and Summer Camp to keep their fielders on their toes, switching up players’ glove sizes, using weighted balls and having them field on their knees. But more than anything else, they demanded more mental energy allocated toward the leather.
“The biggest thing is, the guys as a unit, how much they care,” said Diaz. “They’re really committed to this. The mindset of becoming, we talk about anticipation masters, if we can.”
Diaz likes to break it down into a tangible goal.
“There are about 150 pitches average per game,” he says. “Give or take five to seven seconds of you as an infielder locking into the catcher signs and anticipating where the ball is gonna be hit. So we’re looking at anywhere between 12 to 15 minutes of actual focus per game.
“I try to make them aware of it every day – hey man, great job on those 15 minutes last night,” Diaz continued. “Let’s get back at it tonight. And let’s recommit to the process every day. When you have that type of commitment, we like our chances.”
Errors are far from the final word in fielding evaluation, but they’re at least helpful in quantifying mental lapses. The Twins entered Thursday having made just 17 errors all season, second only to an Astros club that led MLB in total OAA last year.
The left side is no longer a roller coaster
Donaldson’s month-long absence in August means he hasn’t made either the offensive or defensive impact many anticipated, but his addition still triggered an important ripple by moving Sanó across the diamond. Sanó’s emergence into a top-tier slugger is undeniable, but he was also hurting his pitchers over at third base, where he came in as MLB’s sixth-worst hot corner defender last year (-4 OAA).
When Donaldson signed as a free agent in January, the Twins set to work getting Sanó comfortable at first base, a more natural position for a man of his 6-foot-4, 272-pound frame. Step one was training Sanó simply how to move to the bag without stepping in the runner’s way, and Diaz says getting him to first on time remains a work in progress. But the big man is doing what’s been asked of him, coming in just slightly above average (+1 OAA) at his new position.
“As far as catching the ball in the air, or the basics, [Sanó] has done a phenomenal job,” said Diaz. “And he, in my opinion, has exceeded expectations at picking the ball. I’m really pleased with where he is.”
The biggest development of all, however, has been the turnaround of Polanco, MLB’s worst qualified shortstop in 2019 with -16 OAA. Shoulder soreness affected Polanco’s play last year, Diaz explained, forcing him to try out different arm slots to relieve stress on the joint and prevent him from going on the injured list. Compensating for that diminished arm strength may have been one reason why Polanco played at the shallowest depth of his career, and positioning and arm woes perhaps explains some of Polanco’s -11 rating on plays where he came in on the ball.
Now pain-free, Polanco (+1 OAA overall, and +3 OAA on plays coming in this year) is back at his typical starting depth and looking much more comfortable loading up on short-hop balls and firing to first.
“Frankly Polo has been, I don’t want to say consistent in any sort of boring way, because we like consistently making plays,” said Baldelli, “but Polo has been awesome out there. Watching what he’s done at shortstop has been as satisfying as anything that’s gone on this year.”
With Sanó over at first, a combination of the Twins’ best infielder in Ehire Adrianza (+4 OAA overall, +2 when stationed at thrd), the ever-versatile Marwin Gonzalez (+1 OAA) and Donaldson (0 OAA) have helped convert third base from an issue to a minor strength defensively. Coupled with Polanco’s improvement, Minnesota has gone from having baseball’s third-worst left side of the infield to being tied for the game’s fourth-best in that regard.
Last year, coach Tanner Swanson helped the Twins make a tremendous leap in catcher framing. This year, the leap has come with the infield gloves. While the “Bomba Squad” bats have regressed to a league-average scoring rate, Minnesota entered Thursday ranked second behind Cleveland in AL run prevention. It’s hard to imagine an extreme ground-ball pitcher like righty Randy Dobnak (tied with Chris Bassitt and Kyle Freeland for the most infield help behind them this year), for instance, getting off to the start he did this year without the leap made by the Twins’ fielders.
“It's a mentality and it requires discipline; that's why it's really hard,” Diaz said of his infielders’ improvement. “It has been a pleasure to see them improve. I have high hopes and high expectations as we continue to move forward."
Do-Hyoung Park contributed reporting for this story.