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Updated: August 31st, 2010 12:42am
Numbers Game: Butera's defense rates well; the outfield's doesn't

Numbers Game: Butera's defense rates well; the outfield's doesn't

by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com
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Numbers Game is an extension of the State of the Twins section, where we dive a little deeper into stats, trends, sabermetrics, and basically make peoples' heads explode.

Butera holding his own defensively

Despite the Minnesota Twins losing 2-1 in disappointing fashion on Sunday afternoon, Drew Butera sat behind the plate for yet another solid start by Carl Pavano -- seven innings, two earned runs, five hits, a walk and two strikeouts.

Butera went 0-for-2 with a strikeout, lowering his season hitting line to .194/.226/.306, but he threw a bullet to gun down Chone Figgins, who attempted to steal second base in the first inning.

Butera continues to catch every time Pavano takes the mound, and so far things have worked out well. Pavano has a 3.24 ERA and only five home runs allowed in 86 innings with Butera behind the plate, as opposed to a 3.79 ERA with 11 home runs allowed in 95 innings with Joe Mauer.

And because Butera has been so trustworthy defensively, Mauer has been able to rest often while still providing value offensively -- 17% of his plate appearances have come as a designated hitter (.315/.388/.397). The same was true in 2009 when Jose Morales and Mike Redmond allowed Mauer to make 21% of his plate appearances as a DH (.330/.406/.482).

Offensively, among the 60 catchers with at least 100 plate appearances this season, Butera owns the second-worst on-base percentage (.226), the seventh-worst OPS (.532), and has drawn the fewest walks (2). By those same parameters, Mauer has the best OBP (.405), third-best OPS (.882), and second-most walks (59).

Defensively, however, Butera has gunned down 39% of base stealers (12 of 31), which ranks as the eighth-best percentage among the 63 catchers with at least 20 tries (league average is 28%), and Twins pitchers have a 3.82 ERA when he is behind the plate.

Mauer has thrown out 30% of base stealers (17 of 57), and Twins pitchers have a 3.97 ERA when he is behind the plate.

None of this is to suggest Butera is the best defensive catcher on the team -- although it's possible that may wind up being the case -- because the sample size is likely too small, and Mauer has caught a few more clunkers from Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker. Not to mention, Twins pitchers have a much better strikeout-to-walk ratio with Mauer behind the plate (3.2-to-1 vs. 2.4-to-1).

But Butera has certainly made enough of an impact behind the plate to warrant hiding his bat at the bottom of the order once a week or so.

When the playoffs begin, however, Pavano and Mauer might want to start getting reacquainted...

Outfield defense a weak spot

When analyzing defense, errors and fielding percentage don't tell the entire story.

Yes, the Twins have committed the fewest errors and own the best fielding percentage in the American League, but that doesn't account for range. A defender can't make an error on a ball he doesn't get to.

Take the seventh inning on Sunday for example, when Delmon Young came up short on his attempt to make a shoelace catch in left field. This led to the Mariners eventually taking a 2-1 lead they would not relinquish. It wasn't an error, but it led to runs.

When we consider range along with fielding percentage, the Twins defense -- aided mostly by a solid infield -- ranks fourth in the American League, according to Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). UZR rates the Rays, Athletics and Rangers as superior to the Twins. After watching the Rays cover ground more than a few times this season, it's hard to disagree.

The Twins' outfield defense rates much worse -- second-worst in the American League and fifth-worst overall, per UZR. Twins outfielders have made 166 "out of zone" (OOZ) plays this season, which is the fourth-fewest, compared to the league-leading 237 OOZ plays made by the Tigers. Again, not surprising after seeing Detroit centerfielder Austin Jackson cover ground.

For individual players, UZR is best-suited for larger sample sizes -- i.e. multiple seasons. Young, Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer -- who has played first base since July 7 -- all rate well below average in the outfield this season according to the metric, and expanding that sample to a three-year trend doesn't help.

Among the 102 outfielders with at least 1,400 defensive innings over the past three seasons, Cuddyer, Kubel and Young all rate near the bottom:

102. Adam Dunn (-32.4 runs per 150 games)
101. Brad Hawpe (-29.7)
100. Jermaine Dye (-23.5)
99. Jonny Gomes (-20)
98. Jason Kubel (-19.9)
97. Gary Matthews, Jr. (-18.4)
96. Carlos Quentin (-18.1)
95. Jose Guillen (-18)
94. Delmon Young (-17.8)
...
85. Michael Cuddyer (-12.8)
...
4. Franklin Gutierrez (+22)
3. Tony Gwynn, Jr. (+24)
2. Carl Crawford (+24.6)
1. Brett Gardner (+26.8)

Note that Crawford ranks higher because he plays an easier position, left field, than say Denard Span, who rates just above league average over the past three seasons (+2.4), with most of his innings coming in center field.

In fairness to Young, Kubel and Cuddyer, they've all been extremely solid offensively over the past two seasons. Young, specifically, is having a breakout season that shouldn't be discredited.

Plus, we've seen all of the aforementioned Twins outfielders make spectacular catches this season, namely Kubel, who seems to make a highlight reel catch every two or three weeks these days.

But factoring in range, a guy like Crawford might camp under the same fly ball that earns Kubel a web gem.

It's entirely possible the Twins' solid pitching staff, infield defense, bullpen and lineup might be strong enough, collectively, to win the American League Central and make a deep playoff run. But the outfield defense will certainly be worth keeping an eye on as the season progresses.

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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