There are myriad reasons the Twins suck eggs this season. Some of them are surprising — Miguel Sano's missing power, Eddie Rosario's plummeting batting average, Brian Dozier's inability to find his first-half-of-2015 form — and some decidedly less so — Kurt Suzuki and Danny Santana locked in a two-man out-making contest, Tommy Milone's daily battle to register his fastball on the radar gun, Byron Buxton's early struggles adjusting to major-league pitching.
When your favorite team has lost three times as many games as it's won, it becomes much easier to countenance the former than the latter: unusual failure feels fluky, or at least potentially fluky, and gives us desperate fans (largely irrational) hope that perhaps the Twins are just in need of some good luck.
But when a team fails in a predictable, obvious way that every fan seemed to see coming before the season started, that's a little more irksome.
I'm speaking of our shambolic outfield defense.
When the Twins elected to move Miguel Sano — a Man Mountain who many believed could only handle first base defensively — to right field, effectively replacing the sure-handed Aaron Hicks with a near-rookie who'd never played on the grass, it was easy to feel uneasy.
Sano's move to right made the 9-spot on the lineup card look like a defensive liability. But on Opening Day we had Buxton in center and Rosario in left — two defensive stalwarts that could paper over Sano's inexperience in the corner. Buxton looked like a potential Gold Glove-winner in his limited time (and the projection systems seemed to agree) and Rosario excelled with the mitt in left last year; perhaps this would not be a disaster.
Except that, even before they both struggled mightily at the plate in 2016, there were legitimate causes for concern for both Rosario and Buxton — causes for concern that would force Molitor to bench/demote them and install different hitters (and worse fielders) in their stead.
For Buxton, those concerns were evident right away. The (former) game's top prospect whiffed continuously last season and looked consistently overmatched. Personally, I am still bullish on him; he's 22, he hasn't had many minor league at-bats and he's raked at every level but the bigs. But it is not surprising that he didn't mash to start the year.
Rosario had a flashy yet actually-average season at the plate last year — an OPS+ of 101 and a slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG) of .267/.287/.459 — with obvious flaws in his game. If that slash line didn't already give up the jig, Rosario really struggled to get on base. The rookie walked 15 times and struck out 118 times. That's not a good ratio.
2015 Rosario's BABIP was .332, a number that augured poorly for 2016. Sure enough, in his second year Rosario's batting average on balls in play is .229 and he still can't draw a walk (three bases-on-balls and 29 K's through 31games).
As always, his true talent probably lies somewhere between his 2015 and 2016 production. But Rosario is not worth putting in left if he hits like this — which is unfortunate, because he can actually field. According to Baseball Prospectus, Rosario was worth 12.6 Fielding Runs Above Average last season in 122 games and has already been worth 3.2 to the positive thus far this year. Our outfield is an imperfect bunch, to say the least: we boast a collection of outfielders who can all do one thing quite well but then one other thing not quite so well. With an outfield like this, depth is key.
But hey, remember how we traded Aaron Hicks for John Ryan Murphy because of our surfeit of outfielders? Crap.
The dearth of production from Buxton and Rosario has been frustrating at the plate, obviously. But it's also forced defensive adjustments that I'd argue are far more offensive to the eye.
So, here we are, consistently trotting out a lineup that features Arcia, Santana and Sano — a trio that has been "worth" 1.1 fielding runs below average so far this season.
Last week's 5-3 loss to Baltimore provided a telling snapshot of what it looks like when a known weakness is laid bare and the result is just as predictable and frustrating as you figured it'd be. Santana, Sano and Arcia: take it away!
Act I: What would you say you do here?
The only conceivable reason to play an outfielder as miserable as Danny Santana at your most vital outfield position is if he hits the snot out of the ball. Unfortunately, when Danny Santana hits the ball, that ball is all dried out from some killer anti-histamines.
Let me abandon this tortured metaphor and show you his slash numbers this season. (TRIGGER WARNING: This section contains small numbers and sad baseballing that may be triggering to Twins fans.)
Danny Santana is slashing .250/.267/.333. That makes for an OPS of .601 and an OPS+ of 64. I suppose if you deleted his batting average and slid his OBP, SLG & OPS to the left — a slash line of .267/.333/.601 — that'd look pretty good. But I'm pretty sure that's not how stats work. Sananta has also been penciled in as the leadoff or second hitter 12 times, which is so sad I can't even really joke about it.
Perhaps the saddest part is that this is a marked improvement over last season.
Point is, if Santana is going to abuse bats this bad, he better bring the glove. Danny does not bring the glove.
Now, I should point out that he is better than Sano or Arcia, relative to position. But Byron Buxton he is not. Center field is the most important outfield position and is doubly important when you've got two scarecrows playing in the other two spots.
Here is Santana's entry into the Bad Outfielding Video Diary of May 10, 2016.
Here's the thing: on its face, that didn't look so bad. One could argue that Flaherty just smoked a line drive over Santana's head. But watch it again, focusing on Santana's reactions, movement and route.
To paraphrase a former coach, "Hey, Danny, take off the roller skates!" Right from the crack of the bat the dude is going every possible direction before he rights the ship and starts hoofing it. Not great.
I looked up the StatCast data on that play and the route efficiency just said: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Back in college, when we'd play flip between games or after practice, one of the governing principles of the game was the concept of "fake effort." Culpability in flip was determined through a voting system that required players to decide who was responsible for the last miscue and thus punished; if you were the last to touch the ball, you wore it. Fake effort offered a dastardly and effective strategy to cover one's ass: simply get as close to possible to touching the ball — remembering to elicit a strained grunt for verisimilitude — before ultimately coming up just short. Fake effort.
Santana's effort here looks fake as hell to me, as if he's trying to get as close to possible to that ball without having to see an error on his Baseball Reference page after the game. Fake effort.
Perhaps the most difficult part of watching Santana flail about is knowing who he's replacing: the subtext of every Santana flub is "Buxton would have caught that," and in this instance it's painfully obvious. Buxton would have made this play look easy.
StatCast needs a feature like the top-speed ghost on Mario Kart just so we could watch Byron's apparition calmly lope toward the spot of that ball while poor Danny tries to figure out where he parked.
Act II: He is who we thought he was
Now this is more like it: if we're going to make a mockery of the outfield, let's add some levity.
I feel legitimately bad laughing at Miguel Sano's attempts at playing right field because the guy deserves so much better. He is our best young player, our superstar in the making. If literally all he ever did was hit — if we threw all his gloves in one of those acid-filled, industrial-strength chemical-proof tubs that Walter White so loved — he would still be incredibly valuable and beloved. It feels so long ago, but I remember going to a game last season and just cackling with my friends at the improbability that the Twins, that WE, had somehow secured a bona fide young masher. Incredible.
Since his move to right, it's grown more complicated; I love him, sure, but his hitting has dropped off and now that we're fully 25 percent through the season, it's as if I've forgotten how he ended up in right to begin with — like it was his lousy idea. I've acclimated to seeing Sano bumble about in his patch of grass, and that's a shame. He deserves much, much better. #FreeSano
But back to this play. In real time, it appears Sano dives and simply misses what's a pretty tricky catch. Which, relatively speaking, is true: for Sano, who had never played outfield before this year, this is a tricky catch.
Let's take a closer look.
Well, hmm. Again, not a can-of-corn.
But the slo-mo replay betrays Sano's utter lack of outfield instinct. He got a poor jump, a common problem on sinking line drives, then goes for a not-necessarily-necessary dive before — and this is the coup de grace — he closes his eyes at the exact moment the ball reaches his glove.
This replay represents the aforementioned Sano Positional Complication in a nutshell. As I watch him try his hardest and fail, frame by painful frame, I want to scream, "KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE BALL! IT'S NOT THAT HARD!" I forget the forest for the trees; I should be yelling, "TERRY RYAN, YOU'RE A MONSTER! LET MIGUEL PLAY IN THE DIRT!"
Once the games begin, everyone starts blaming the players — even the absentee owner.
But we all saw this coming, and that's what galls us. We knew. You knew, Terry, though you'd never admit it. Hell, Miguel probably knew, somewhere deep down.
Shucks. It's getting bleak again. (Twins PR Department: you have my permission to use that slogan for your marketing materials.)
Let's try to find some more of that levity!
Act III: Eff it, let's play soccer
Thanks, Oswaldo! When life you gives you lemons, bicycle-kick 'em!
As an outfielder, when your first step is so woefully off track — when you've already bungled the play from Jump Street — you may as well have some fun with it.
And, all kidding aside, once Arcia decided to dive this was literally the best possible result; the ball skipped perfectly to a waiting Santana to relay in to the infield. If he had dived like a normal human, he couldn't have come close to getting the ball in this quickly. So, that's ... positive?
This play cost us the game. I'm not saying we would have won, or that we had played spectacularly leading up to that moment. But before that play we had a win expectancy of 49.1%; after that play, 8.1%.
And these are not errors. They will not show up as errors in the paper the next day, or next game when FSN affixes one of those misleading chyrons with errors and fielding percentage below Oswaldo Arcia so Dick and Bert can wax imbecilic about how he's not too bad out there, that kid.
Look: we all think we can be general managers. We all think that because we won $300 playing fantasy baseball three years ago and own the Prospect Handbook that we have what it takes.
Being a GM is unfathomably hard and requires knowledge and know-how of myriad unseen, unthought-of factors that we will never understand. Terry Ryan is a very intelligent, qualified, capable man. I most certainly cannot do his job.
But even when a Twins fan reminds themselves of that unalloyed truth and takes a hard, sober look at this roster and its particularly abhorrent outfield defense, it's hard to shake a pesky notion: I could do better than this.