Updated: March 23rd, 2012 8:36am
Mackey: Knowing his defense needed work, Valencia took extra steps

Mackey: Knowing his defense needed work, Valencia took extra steps

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Minnesota Twins pitchers rarely, if ever, publicly criticized their infielders last season.

Behind the scenes, however, frustration brewed over the excessive number of groundballs that weren't converted to outs -- a significant problem for a staff that pitched to more contact than any collection of pitchers in baseball.

Of course, this isn't to say Twins pitchers didn't serve up their fair share of moon shots or screaming liners in 2011. That was evident as well.

But the mentality shifted from believing any groundball hit in 2010 -- to, say, Nick Punto -- would be scooped cleanly to believing any groundball hit in 2011 would result in the batter standing on first or second base.

Some Twins pitchers even went so far as to change their approaches against hitters in some situations, going for a strikeout rather than executing the proper game plan.

According to video scouts at Baseball Info Solutions, the Twins' infield defense ranked as the worst in baseball, 45 runs allowed below average. By contrast, the Tampa Bay Rays' infield saved 54 runs above average.

The struggles of shortstops Trevor Plouffe (-25 runs) and Tsuyoshi Nishioka (-11) were well-documented, which is why the Twins signed veteran Jamey Carroll. But Danny Valencia also rated 30th among third baseman (-13).

Valencia is well aware.

He's determined to turn that tide, and he took action this offseason.

"I've always taken groundballs in the offseason," Valencia said, "but this year I really tried to emphasize defense, and just my body, in terms of moving, more-so than I did hitting."

Valencia spent three days a week this offseason at Impact Sports Performance in Boca Raton, Florida -- just down the street from where he resides -- working on speed, agility and first-step quickness.

"Very similar stuff to what NFL guys do at the combine," as he described it.

"We would just work on being explosive. There'd be days where we'd go out to the field and I'd be tied up with resistance bands, and the guys would hit me groundballs and I'd move around. ...

"So I really emphasized being more explosive and being quick."

For Valencia, the goal was to eliminate what he calls "false steps" and learn how to stay low to the ground at all times when fielding groundballs -- a concept Twins coaches have attempted to hammer home over the past two seasons.

"I think eliminating false steps is just as important as working on your first step," Valencia said. "If you can take out the quick steps that are unnecessary, that itself essentially makes you faster. We were able to break down the way I move. ...

"When you have bad habits, those bad habits restrict you from being as efficient as you possibly can out there. Eliminating false steps and staying down, and not having to come back up, it takes more time for you to make moves (when you're doing that). ... I think the coaches were pretty right on about staying down the whole time. At first it was uncomfortable, but the more and more I did it in the offseason I became a little bit more comfortable."

The overriding feeling in the organization regarding Valencia's defense last year was that he'd get to the vicinity of a large number of batted balls but wouldn't convert them to outs -- plays that aren't considered errors, but plays that top-fielding third baseman frequently make.

There's a sense that Valencia, 27, has the physical tools to do what Corey Koskie and Justin Morneau once did, which is to turn himself into a much better fielder. But he needs to consistently work at it.

"Defense has never come easy to me," Valencia said. "I've always had to work at it. Same thing with my offense, I've never been naturally good at either one of them. I've always had to work. To be successful at the level I feel like I can be, I have to work on it, and I've got to constantly have a jump rope with me -- do stuff that keeps me moving, keeps my legs constantly moving and not feeling sluggish. Eating healthy. I think a lot of things factor into it."

Has Valencia's offseason defensive work made a noticeable difference?

"Way better," manager Ron Gardenhire said earlier this spring. "Way better. He's bent over, he's going to the ball low. As he told me, that was an adjustment. That was a big adjustment for him, because he's so used to standing up and going after a ball and having to go all the way back down to the ground.

"But he worked hard on it, and you can see it right out there he's actually gotten down towards the ball and staying down, which he'll be in better control of the ball that way. He'll see the ball better. He'll get to some of the balls he was going over the top of, and that's a good thing. But you have to continue too."

Gardenhire added, "(Last year) the ball would be hit, he would stand up, and then the ball is on the ground and he'd have to try to dive. We saw too many balls with him diving over the top of, not getting to them because he was up in the air. This is definitely going to be a major improvement if he can stay down there and stay with it."

Gardenhire took a tough-love approach with Valencia in 2011, or so it seemed, often pointing out his mistakes to the media after games.

But Gardenhire's criticism had deeper meaning. The manager believes Valencia has enough talent to become one of the better overall third basemen in the league, and he's trying to push the right buttons.

This spring, Gardenhire has had very little -- if any -- negative feedback for Valencia.

With Valencia hitting .308/.308/.615 with three home runs and three doubles this spring, there's not much to complain about so far. It'll be up to Valencia to translate that offense to a full season.

Defense too.

And Valencia seems to understand its importance.

"Our pitchers' philosophy is get ahead, keep the ball down and get groundballs, and as myself and the rest of the infield, we've got to make those plays. If we can do that, that's when we're going to be successful. That's when we're going to get back to 2010 and winning a lot of games."

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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