When it comes to sports in general, I would consider myself fairly “old-fashioned” for my age. I’m not a fan of the 2-back rotation in the NFL; I wish there were more teams in NCAA football running the veer option; I prefer college basketball over the NBA because it’s more team-oriented as opposed to superstars; I don’t mind retaliatory chin-music; and I don’t think fighting should ever be outlawed in the NHL. One reason I love baseball over any other sport (other than it was my favorite sport to play growing up) is the history. You can go back 100 years and compare what Ty Cobb did in his career to what Ken Griffey did during his. Home runs will always be home runs, batting average will always be batting average, and a Triple Crown will always be a Triple Crown (in baseball and horse racing, I guess). This is why, when it comes to the new wave – I say new, but they’ve been around for years now – of baseball statistics, I still meet it with a little hesitance and resistance.
One area that I do find really interesting, however, is in the defensive department. Stats like Range Rating, Arm Rating, and Ultimate Zone Rating can give you a sense as to whether or not your eyes are telling you the truth when judging defensive ability. By using cameras, calculators, fax machines, and probably some other really cool gadgets; they can now track how far a player ran to make a catch and how fast he got there, or how great of a throw an outfielder made compared to the average player. It’s pretty crazy stuff, and I’ll probably never really understand it; but in the end it spits out statistics that my brain can comprehend in terms of how many runs a player saved or gave up because he was better or worse than the average baseball player.
There. Now that I’ve explained my very amateur statistical vantage point, I can tell you why that was even necessary.
For the last five years, the Minnesota Twins had a young man name Denard Span patrolling the space in center field at the Metrodome and Target Field. According to this sabermetric data put out by Baseball Info Solutions, Span was 27.5 runs better than the average center fielder in terms of range in his last 3 seasons in Minnesota. Considering how rough the last two years were, that L column may have crept into the triple digits both seasons if it hadn’t been for Span’s defensive range.
Span is the most recent of a long run of really good defensive center fielders in the Twins organization. After he and Ben Revere were traded this off-season, and Josh Willingham and Chris Parmelee locked up the corner spots, range in center field was an absolute necessity when seeking Span’s replacement. Enter Aaron Hicks.
Despite his well-documented struggles at the plate, Hicks always earned high praise for his defensive prowess. While making some great leaping and diving catches in his first two months, statistics are contradicting what the eye has seen. His range rating currently is 5.4 runs below average already. He has made part of that up with his arm (+2.5) and his glove (+0.6), for a total Ultimate Zone Rating of -2.4. That’s not even close to what I was expecting or what I had hoped for in closing the gaps between Willingham and Parmelee.
Since his call-up, Clete Thomas has played what has felt like a pretty good defensive center field in 30 innings. He made one of the better catches of the year in the right-center field gap, but statistically – even in limited action – he’s already 1.1 runs below average when it comes to his range in center field.
Darin Mastrioanni played just 15 innings in center before going on the DL, and managed to compile a -1.6 Range Rating in that short span.
Surprisingly, the one option that has shown better than average range in center field for the Twins in 2013 is Wilkin Ramirez. In just 41 innings, Ramirez has compiled a positive 1.0 Range Rating making him the only player that has even come close to replacing Span’s speed and reaction in center to help cover for the slower corner guys.
Perhaps partially as a result of the loss of range in center, more batted balls are landing for hits this year. Currently, Twins pitchers are giving up a .318 Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP). In 2012, that number was .300, .314 in 2011, and .304 in 2010. Along with that, on balls hit to the outfield, this year opponents are hitting .574. In 2012, they hit .559, .553 in 2011, and .560 in 2010. Those don’t seem like major differences, but the signs point to the idea that it is a little easier to find some green against the Twins this year as opposed to the previous few years with #2 lurking out in spacious Target Field.
(Note that this year could be the low point in CF as Hicks improves and Byron Buxton makes his way to Minneapolis).
Follow Twins Rubes on Twitter @twinsrubes.