By Mark Simon
Marwin Gonzalez may have finished ninth in the 2019 Fielding Bible Multi-Position Award voting, but it would be hard to find a player more versatile than he is. Gonzalez started at least 10 games at each corner infield spot and each corner outfield spot. He did much more good than harm at those positions, saving five runs at left field and third base, and one run in right field. He did cost the team two runs at first base, so he wasn’t perfect, but his success at the other three spots made up for any deficiencies.
The Twins needed the help, particularly at third and left, where Miguel Sano’s defense cost the team seven runs and Eddie Rosario’s cost them six runs. Though the Twins won the AL Central, their defense was not their strong suit – except in a few cases, like Gonzalez delivering as advertised.
The Twins won’t need Gonzalez to play third in 2020 with the addition of Josh Donaldson. Donaldson matched a career-high with 15 Runs Saved there with the Braves last season. That total ranked third in the majors behind Matt Chapman (34) and Nolan Arenado (18).
Buxton Among Best When Healthy
The strongest suit of the Twins defense is center fielder Byron Buxton, who saved 10 runs in an injury-shortened season. Buxton probably wouldn’t have challenged Lorenzo Cain for the Fielding Bible Award had he stayed healthy, but he definitely would have given Kevin Kiermaier a run for his money for the AL Gold Glove.
Buxton was as good as it gets on balls hit to the deepest part of center field, catching 96-of-111 in which he had a greater than zero chance to make a play. That was nine plays above his expected total. On a per 100 plays basis, he was better than Cain, for whom catches on deep balls was the most valuable part of his game.
Mitch Garver A Much-Improved Catcher
Mitch Garver wasn’t expected to be the better defensive catcher between him and Jason Castro, but it turned out that way in 2019. Garver made a 18-run improvement from 2018, saving one run, though that doesn’t tell the full story. Where Garver’s improvement came was in pitch framing, where he went from costing the Twins eight runs to saving them a run. He and Tucker Barnhart of the Reds were two catchers who greatly benefited from individual instruction (Barnhart’s improvements are noted in the Reds essay).
Garver’s improvements were documented in the Minnesota media and were attributed to Garver’s working with catching coach Tanner Swanson.
To illustrate the difference Swanson made, consider pitches that BIS plotted that were low, but were over the plate and within one inch of the knees. In 2018, Garver and his pitchers got the call 10% of the time (14-of-141). In 2019, that improved to 31% (39-of-125).
The numbers indicate that Garver still has some work to do, particularly when it comes to blocking pitches and stopping stolen bases. He cost the Twins seven runs in those areas in 2018 and five in 2019.
Max Kepler Gets The Job Done
Max Kepler may not win any Fielding Bible Awards in right field but if you’re looking for consistency from an outfielder, he should be in every discussion. Kepler has saved eight, five, 13, and eight runs in the outfield the last four seasons. He plays right field well and has filled in as the center fielder when Buxton got hurt, saving three runs in 2018 and four in 2019.
What’s interesting to watch about Kepler in right field is that he gets it done without a lot of splash. He had only one sliding or diving catch in 2019. Kepler’s means of making a play there comes down to his route running. By Statcast’s numbers, he matched Mike Trout and Andrew Benintendi in having the most efficiently run routes within three seconds of bat-ball contact.