While the 2014 Twins infield numbers have flourished, the outfield has languished.
The Twins’ outfield was a defensive liability last year. In 2013, they posted an unsightly -35.3 UZR as an outfield unit. Of course, if you solely relied on the broadcasts of the games, you would have likely heard that the Twins outfield had a .991 fielding percentage, 4th best in the game. In short, last year’s outfield was very good...if the ball was hit directly at them. But overall they converted a lowly 84.4% of all outfield flies into outs -- a rate that was 29 out of 30 MLB teams.
With the knowledge that the team had issues in this department, the Twins front office did little to address that particular need in the offseason. Naturally, starting pitching took precedence. Yet little preparation was made to provide any safety net, or improvement. In fact, the only outfield addition this past year, Jason Kubel, provided questionable defense in corner outfield spots at his best.
There was a method to this madness. The Twins had Josh Willingham locked in. They had to find out if Aaron Hicks could manage center field and if Oswaldo Arcia could claim right field. Beyond that, heading into camp, there was some depth (some depth in the same way there is some water in the desert). Kubel could take over for either Willingham or Arcia if necessary. Alex Presley had played a decent center field and Darin Mastroianni was certainly capable as well. But what is clear now -- as much as it seemed obvious even then -- is that there was a razor thin margin for error. Would Willingham, a much maligned player coming off knee surgery, survive an entire year? Hicks had little track record to suggest he was going to capture the position, which could be the same thing said about Arcia.
At the very least, in the case with Hicks and Arcia, the Twins deserve credit for wanting to see the kids play. The problem is that they purchased a very ****ty insurance policy. When it came time to make the final roster decisions, the leadership, including the manager, decided that Jason Bartlett would be a super utility-type -- a move that was necessitated just as much by the lack of confidence in Pedro Florimon as anything -- which came at the expense of Presley, an actual outfielder, who would be claimed by the Houston Astros.
In terms of that final roster spot, Twins assistant GM Rob Antony had stated that the decision was influenced by the manager.
“When you get down to the tail-end of your roster, I think the manager sort of has to determine how he’s using different guys and it doesn’t make much sense to fill out a roster any other way than how he’s going to use them,” said Antony shortly after the final roster was announced in spring training.
As camp wound down, Bartlett saw more time in different outfield positions. After one afternoon in right field, manager Ron Gardenhire weighed in with his thoughts on Bartlett’s performance.
“He hasn’t played much out there, he’s just an athlete,” Gardenhire said in March when asked what his thoughts were on Bartlett in the outfield. “He actually ran the ball down great today -- the one ball in the corner, he just got too close to the wall. He’s had no practice in right field and balls in the corner. None whatsoever. He’s just taken balls off the bat. He got some great jumps on a few balls out there. Right field is the toughest out here. You can’t hardly see the ball out there -- everybody will tell you the same thing. I thought he did pretty damn good out there. To tell you the truth I was pleasantly surprised.”
Gardenhire went on to say that Bartlett would be receiving plenty of outfield practice, alongside Chris Colabello and Eduardo Escobar, once the season began. The notion, however, that Bartlett would be needed almost immediately in the outfield did not seem to cross his mind. Additionally, the front office said that Bartlett would be available in emergency situations to fill in for Hicks but that Mastroianni would be a phone call away in Rochester.
The emergency situations arose in Cleveland just six games into the season when left fielder Josh Willingham was destroyed by a Justin Masterson fastball. With Jason Kubel in right field and Oswaldo Arcia out because of an injury, Bartlett was pressed into left field duty.
In the sixth inning, the Indians began to pick on Barlett. First it was Lonnie Chisenhall getting a bonus base because of Bartlett’s play, then Jason Kipnis landing a single in short left field and finally, David Murphy’s first gift double:
In both instances, the likelihood of actually making the play was remote. According to Inside Edge’s fielding data available at Fangraphs, the IE video scouts suggested that the initial double allowed to Chisenhall had a 40-60% chance of being converted into an out. Murphy’s bloop, on the other hand, received a near 0% chance of being caught. The issue came in Bartlett’s approach -- the attempted dive rather than play it safe and get behind the play and limit Murphy to a one-base hit rather than move into scoring position. His hustle was admirable but his inexperience was on display.
This outing resulted in Bartlett’s eventual retirement after he sprained his ankle and opted not to continue through the rehab process.
When the Twins returned to Cleveland, they were once again left with a short bench thanks to a pair of concussions to Aaron Hicks and Sam Fuld. With depth being a significant issue, Gardenhire decided to use Escobar in left field. Despite the vote of confidence from his manager after the game, it became apparent during the game that his inexperience -- like not knowing exactly how to read a warning track -- came into play. In that case, Inside Edge’s video scouts said Asdrubal Cabrera’s double was a play that should have been made 90-100% of the time. It essentially cost the Twins that game.
The next afternoon, still short of outfielders, Gardenhire promoted Escobar to center field action. This is where David Murphy received his second double from the Twins:
Through Monday night, the Twins have had infielders in the outfield for 45.2 innings (or 4.6% of the total innings). Of those innings, the players involved have a combined 64 innings of professional outfield experience between them (Danny Santana did have 15 games in center in 2011 with Beloit). While a small sampling, that still is too large. Clearly health-related issues have forced several of these decisions but those were born from the inability to properly build -- or in the case of losing Presley and Mastroianni, manage -- outfield depth in the system. It was the offseason gamble, not the final decision to keep Bartlett on the 25-man roster, that caused so many issues that are resonating today.
You are welcome, David Murphy.