The Save

Traditional baseball statistics are being devalued, as their relationship to actual player value is rightly questioned. A pitcher’s won-lost record is now regularly described as unimportant. One current example is the pitcher who pitches four shutout innings in a 7-inning doubleheader game but doesn’t qualify for a win, even though, percentage-wise, he has contributed more innings to his team’s victory that the pitcher who goes five innings in a 9-inning game.
I have previously criticized the rules for a “save” as being capricious and arbitrary, and Wednesday’s Twins win over the Cubs (9/22/21) provided a glaring example. Alex Colome, the Twins’ dubious closer, was brought on in the 9th to protect a 5-2 lead, the minimum margin eligible for a save. Before recording the third out (on a swinging strikeout in the dirt), he had given up a double, two singles, a walk and three stolen bases, but only two runs. For this less-than-stellar performance he was awarded a save. The three relievers before him gave up a total of one hit and no runs, but Colome got a save, not them.

Twins “Progress” Report

August 21. The Twins’ brief spurt of encouraging wins against Houston, Chicago, Tampa Bay and Cleveland is giving way to the all-too-familiar collapse when facing the Yankees, which leads to a sober reassessment of not only where they are, but where they could be next year. In rereading my preseason predictions on this site, I see I shouldn’t be surprised at the Twins’ lack of success, although I was overoptimistic in hoping for a .500 record. I mentioned that Sano and Buxton’s seasons would be decisive, and my warnings about the former’s strikeouts and the latter’s injuries appear prescient. The other place I was slightly offbase was in my hope that some unexpected rookie would show up and make a difference.
It is this last disappointment that is so discouraging when thoughts turn to 2022. Since Memorial Day the Twins have been holding open auditions, first for their minor leaguers and more recently for players obtained when they traded Jose Berrios, Nelson Cruz and Hansel Robles. Garlick, Kiriloff, Rooker, Larnach, Refsnyder and Gordon have all been offered extended playing time in the outfield. Granted, tryouts for the first two were cut short by injury, but only Kiriloff gave any hint that he could become a force, and “hint” may be putting it strongly. For now, I see a lot of Bobby Kielty/Dustan Mohr, let alone Kepler/Rosario. That leaves the outfield in the hands of Buxton, who apparently will want a long-term contract that only a profligate franchise – i.e., the Yankees or Dodgers – will give him.
Any infield starts with a shortstop, and the Twins’ move to upgrade the position with Andrelton Simmons has failed. Not only is he hitting like a #9 batter, his errors have led to losses and the Twins’ record as the worst defensive team in the league. He will be gone next year but, alas, not Josh Donaldson, who has the most expensive free-agent contract in Minnesota history. He has been playing hurt all year, and his history and muscle-bound body suggests this will not be unusual. The Twins are slow enough as a team without a 3B/DH who has to jog to first and needs a pinch-runner in a close game. The Twins aren’t without options at 3rd–Arraez and minor leaguer Jose Miranda come to mind–but they seem stuck with Donaldson. Arraez is their best and only .300 hitter, but Jorge Polanco, the team’s best clutch hitter, is set at 2B for now. Miguel Sano is a liability at 1B and on the basepaths, but he is a game-changer when his bat is hot. Unfortunately he is a black hole in the middle of the lineup 3/4ths of the time, and his future is behind him.
At catcher, Mitch Garver and Ryan Jeffers can both put up decent power numbers, but they are overmatched by quality pitching. Neither has shown any growth potential, which brings me to Max Kepler. He looked like a cornerstone of the franchise: a good outfielder, the best base stealer after Buxton, with an uncanny ability to open games with a leadoff home run. On the other hand, he strikes out too much, hits too many balls into the shift and this year is barely hitting above .200. Instead of getting better each year of his multi-year contract, he is shrinking. Regardless of pitching, if the Twins mounted a consistent offense they could be fun to watch. Instead, too many games this year have featured double-digit strikeouts.
As for the pitchers, they can’t overcome a lack of offense, but they do offer a scintilla of hope. Before the All-Star Game I had never heard of Bailey Ober or Griffin Jax, yet both seem to be capable Major League pitchers with room to grow. Charlie Barnes has had a couple good outings, if there’s room in baseball anymore for a crafty lefty. Kenta Maeda, before he got hurt today, looked like a dependable anchor. Silver medalist Joe Ryan, from the Rays, could be the real thing. And there must be a reason Randy Dobnak got a long-term deal. Relief pitchers can come from anywhere and have a good year, and the Twins’ reliance on Alex Colome and Hansel Robles shows, once again, that past performance by a reliever is no guarantee of future success.  The Twins are auditioning a half-dozen new relievers now that winning games doesn’t quite matter. If three stick, Taylor Rogers comes back and they can add one or two more, this area shouldn’t be an issue–and irrelevant if they can’t get a lead.
You like to see new prospects show up each year to give you hope for development and possible future stardom. By this measure, it must be fun to be a White Sox fan these days. For a Twins fan, not so much.

The Sano-Buxton Quandary

Ever since they appeared on Sports Illustrated’s cover in 2013, Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton have been linked as the future of the Minnesota Twins. Buxton had been rated the top high-school prospect in the country, the ultimate five-tool player, and the powerful Sano had been featured in a documentary, Pelotero, about the grooming and scouting of prospects in the Dominican Republic. Their potential seemed unlimited. Eight years later, we are still talking of their potential.
Sano broke on the scene with more early success, finishing third in Rookie-of-the-Year voting despite playing only the second half of the 2015 season and making the All-Star team in 2017. Since that game his arc has gone down, not up. He has shown up for camp overweight, appeared uninterested and uncoachable, been injured and led the Majors in strikeouts in 2020. Although he came up as a shortstop, the Twins have tried him at third, rightfield and first base, while showing evidence that his best position would be DH. Buxton, by contrast, has been glorious in centerfield, even winning the Platinum Glove as the league’s top defensive player in 2017, the only year he has played more than 100 games. And that last fact is the rub. From broken tooth to broken pinkie to injured shoulder to injured hip to concussion to whatever, Buxton has been out as much as he’s been in. Until this year he was also a strikeout machine: his 30% K-rate was well below Sano’s 37% over their careers, but both were frequent black holes in the lineup. (For comparison, Max Kepler, no more a contact hitter, has an 18% strikeout rate; Jorge Polanco is 16%, and Luis Arraez is 9%.) Sano will drive you crazy by missing the same pitch, an outside slider, by a foot, while Buxton had the unappetizing habit of staring back at the pitcher as he returned to the dugout after his whiff. More frustrations: if Buxton would only learn to bunt he could raise his batting average by 20 points. Sano could do the same by hitting to all fields, instead of trying to pull every pitch into the upper deck in left.
For all the reasons above, Twins fans on the Strib blog have been screaming for years to trade either Buxton or Sano, or preferably both. That won’t happen, if only because of the risk, shown in letting go David Ortiz a while back, of either blossoming into a superstar elsewhere. But by keeping Buxton and Sano, the Twins are stuck with 2/9ths of a lineup that stubbornly refuses to reach its potential. By relying on Buxton, the Twins find themselves playing Major League games with Gilbert Celestino, at best a AA player, starting in center. By using Sano at first base, they are slowing the development of Nick Kiriloff, their most promising rookie. At DH he would be sidelining Nelson Cruz, their best hitter, and at third base he would take the place of Josh Donaldson, their highest-paid player. On the other hand, Sano has won more games for the Twins this year with his home runs than anyone else on the team. Of course, even with that contribution, the Twins haven’t won that many games. Unlike Sano, Buxton appears to have turned a corner at the plate this year: his strikeouts are down, his home runs are up, and his confidence level is obviously higher. In years past, Sano and Buxton were both mistake-hitters and bad-ball swingers. This year, Buxton is no longer always in an 0-2 count and has shown variety in his hits, albeit still without bunts.
So, the Twins are faced with a dilemma. If they keep Buxton and Sano, there’s a good chance neither will ever get better, and between Sano’s strikeouts and Buxton’s injuries the Twins will be weighed down with their big contracts and an increasingly tepid fan base. When you play rookies, fans can at least project and dream; when you watch Sano flail at pitches with the bases loaded you get dejected. But if you let them go, and either has the season that was projected for them in 2013, what will that reaction be? I’d say the Twins front office has about a 25% chance of getting this right, and I’m glad it’s not my decision.

Season Preview

It’s hard to be too hopeful about the Twins’ 2021 season, because it’s hard to see where they have improved over the last two years. In fairness, though, it should be noted that the Twins have won more games in those two years than anyone else in the American League, so the bar is relatively high. That said, there are two big changes in the opening day lineup. Gone is leftfielder Eddie Rosario, their RBI and outfield-assist leader. Replacing him for now is Jake Cave, who could never crack the starting lineup on his own or even stay on the major league roster, despite receiving numerous chances. Infield defense has improved with the addition of shortstop Andrelton Simmons, moving Jorge Polanco to second base. On the flip side, this removes the Twins’ best hitter for average, Luis Arraez, from the everyday lineup.
Once again, the Twins’ hopes are resting largely on the two potential superstars, Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton. But how long have we been waiting on their potential – five years, maybe? Is there a reason to think that this will be the year that Buxton doesn’t get hurt and learns to hit to all fields and maybe even bunt and that Sano won’t again lead the league in strikeouts? There’s no evidence of this from spring training. Unless there’s a dramatic development, Buxton and Sano will continue to demonstrate bursts of brilliance but long stretches of being black holes in the lineup.
There are other causes of worry. Max Kepler is another case of potential unfulfilled. Every year he has a hot streak or two but has yet to achieve the kind of consistency the Twins expected when giving him a multiyear contract. That he got only three measly hits in all spring training does not augur well. Mitch Garver hit with surprising power in 2019 but was a bust in 2020. Which is the real him? And the Twins MVP, Nelson Cruz,will be 41 years old. At what point does age catch up to him? One always hopes there are young players on the rise who will provide an unexpected boost, but the Twins tried out their top prospects this spring–Alex Kiriloff and Brent Rooker, in particular–and none made the team.
The one area where the Twins are improved is their bench. Arraez and Willians Astudillo excel at putting the ball in play, Ryan Jeffers will give Garver competition at catcher and Kyle Garlick led the team in spring training homers. If he doesn’t deliver, they have Kiriloff, Rooker and Keon Broxton waiting in the wings.

One hopes that spring training statistics for the offense are meaningless; I mean, how could a team average fewer than 4 hits a game for a regular season? On the other hand, one would like to think that the pitchers in spring training gave a credible preview of what to expect beginning tomorrow. Kenta Maeda, coming off an almost-Cy Young season, was dominant, allowing one run all spring. Jose Berrios, as usual, was occasionally dominant. Randy Dobnak was just as good as he was the first half of last year and is ready to be slotted into the rotation should either newcomer, J.A. Happ or Matt Shoemaker, falter. The relievers have yet to sort out. Taylor Rogers was a lock-down closer a year ago but hasn’t had the same success recently. Alex Colome was a successful closer with the White Sox and will try for the same, but at age 32 a reliever is an uncertainty. I loved Tyler Duffey last year, but he had a tough spring. In addition to the uncertainties on the roster, there are several relievers who pitched well in spring training who are starting out in St. Paul and will undoubtedly be given shots as the season goes on.
If I had to make a prediction, I’d give the Twins a .500 record, or slightly above, if only because they will play most of their games against Kansas City, Detroit and Cleveland, who are no great shakes. The White Sox, under Tony LaRussa, should win the division.  The question already in my mind is, what will the Twins management do at the end of the year, if not before, if any or all of Kepler, Buxton, Sano, and Polanco underperform their contracts. Do they cut their losses and start a rebuild or wait yet another year for potential?

Twins Mid-Season Report

It’s hard to be discouraged about the Twins at mid-season, given their 20-10 record, second-best in the Majors, a winning percentage that would result in 107 victories in a normal full season. But cracks are appearing, and not just in the two losses to weak-hitting Cleveland following the mid-year mark. The first I’ve alluded to in recent posts–the lack of comeback spirit. When the Twins fall behind early, the game is invariably lost. You get the feeling they are waiting for someone to hit a home run; the idea of building a rally is foreign. Maybe that’s the result of having hit so many home runs last year; such elements of the game as hit-and-run, sacrifice bunt, stolen base are missing. They may seem trivial in today’s game, but they can build momentum, and confidence, which can’t be underrated. Every day I read in the paper of some team overcoming a 3-run deficit in the 9th inning, but never the Twins. For one thing, it makes watching their games less interesting.

Another crack may soon be filled: their starting rotation. It has been more a whirlwind than “rotation,” with the Twins throwing out a reliever to start every fourth game, relying upon up to six pitchers from the bullpen to last nine innings. This has been reasonably successful but has two drawbacks: it wears out relievers who will be needed the next day, and it limits the number of bench players available for offense. So far, the Twins have only two reliable starters: Randy Dobnak and Kenta Maeda. Jose Berrios, the supposed ace, has disappointed and doesn’t exhibit the mental toughness to go with his natural talent. Rich Hill and Jake Odorizzi could, and should, both come back from injuries to help. My biggest hope, though, is for Michael Pineda, a real bulldog, to pick up where he left off last year when his suspension expires next week. With potentially six capable starters–necessary due to the compressed schedule, including doubleheaders–the Twins could be well positioned for a stretch run. And it would allow manager Rocco Baldelli to use his large relief corps more effectively.

Tyler Duffey has been impeccable in 7th-inning service, and Taylor Rogers is more than adequate as a closer, although his effectiveness in back-to-back outings is suspect. Tyler Clippard, Sergio Romo and Trevor May have all had hiccups but are reasonably reliable. Then there’s a slew of newbies who have occasionally shined; Baldelli can figure out whom to rely on once his starters start giving him six-plus innings. Jorge Alcala, Matt Wisler, Caleb Thielbar, Sean Poppen, Cody Stashak, Danny Coulombe, Devin Smeltzer – normally the roster would only carry half of this list. All have potential; you hope at least three can be dominant.

One crack that has only grown is behind the plate. Where we thought Mitch Garver was a long-term solution, he has regressed defensively and at the plate, with little evidence, now that he is injured, that he will contribute much this year. Backups Alex Avila and Ryan Jeffers are just that: backups. Josh Donaldson is the even bigger disappointment. The biggest free-agent signing in club history, touted for home runs and defense, he did nothing before coming down with a leg injury that threatens to derail his season entirely. Byron Buxton is also hurt, as usual. Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler continue to show tremendous promise, but neither has made any progress toward day-to-day reliability.

The one positive development that has surprised me is Miguel Sano’s hitting. He has gone from being an automatic strikeout to someone who punishes mistakes and lays off more close pitches than he has before. He is a liability in the field, but he generally accounts for more runs scored than allowed. He will be a useful DH once Nelson Cruz retires. Speaking of which, Cruz is the player most responsible for the Twins’ success to date–far and away their best hitter and a leader who hustles on the bases despite his age. I hope his inability to hit a curve ball thrown by Cleveland pitchers is an aberration: you trust that by age 40 he’s faced all the adjustments pitchers can make.

In sum, and this may be the result of the unusual season we’ve had, the Twins have yet to establish a personality, and they seem to be winning despite themselves. If they win two out of three, which is what happens most often, they will win one with excellent pitching and another with an offensive barrage. In the third game, no one shows up after the third inning. Their strikeout rate is also discouraging; if they put the ball in play more often, more good things could happen and the game would be more fun to watch. Still, it is fun to have the games to watch…but who knows how long even this will last.

Twins Diary

September 30: The Twins put on such a lifeless performance against Houston that I am surprisingly unemotional about their premature (based on their seeding) exit from the playoffs. In fact, I saw more life in Cleveland’s first three batters tonight against the Yankees, before rain halted play, than I did in 18 innings of at-bats for the Twins, a stretch I could probably extend to the final game of their regular season. It’s not just that the Twins, whose offense lives on home runs, didn’t hit any (in fact, they hadn’t hit any since September 23!), they only hit two balls reasonably hard all game: a double to the wall by Cruz, and a line drive single by Alex Kiriloff. Their third and only other hit was a ground ball by Gonzalez that Altuve fielded in short right. The Astros’ pitching staff, not considered one of the best, exposed gaping holes in the Twins lineup. In two games the Twins used four catchers, and the best they could produce was Astudillo’s game-ending double-play grounder. In Game 1, Buxton hit a looping single, then struck out three times. Cruz’s double–he produced the Twins’ only run each day–was their only other hit in the first game until two meaningless singles by Polanco and Sano in the bottom of the 9th, behind 4-1. To repeat: two doubles and five singles in two games was the extent of their offense.

The pitching faltered, but it didn’t fail, unlike the offense. Both Maeda and Berrios pitched well enough to win, if they had been given run support. Trevor May was the only reliever who escaped unscathed, although the defense contributed to most of the problems the others experienced. When you go into the 9th inning tied 1-1, then trailing 2-1, it’s hard to say the pitchers haven’t done their jobs. The defense and special teams, however, flopped. In Game 1 Houston scored its first run after Gonzalez failed to handle a ground ball to his left and then broke the game open with three runs in the 9th after Polanco’s casual flip to second pulled Arraez off the base. Defensive positioning, my pet peeve, also hurt. Houston got its lone run off Berrios on a routine ground ball to shortstop, when the shortstop wasn’t there. Similarly, a ground ball off Rogers that would have been an out without the shift was followed by a ground ball that would have been caught if the infield hadn’t been drawn in. In fairness, a drawn-in infield probably prevented another run in the 9th; but by my calculation the Twins were 1-for-4 on their defensive shifts. And in a tragicomic baserunning note, Buxton was inserted in Game 2 to pinch-run after Cruz walked and was picked off first.

A final word on the broadcast by ABC/ESPN. I understand that with eight series running simultaneously, the pool of announcers is stretched thin. That said, Karl Ravech, Tim Kurkjian and Eduardo Perez have to be one of the top teams. They never exhibited more than a passing knowledge of the Twins, mispronouncing names (Stashak), seemingly unaware of Jake Cave’s role on the team and constantly inflating the value of  the absent Josh Donaldson. At least I didn’t have to hear what surely would have been the deep disappointment in Dick Bremer’s voice as the Minnesotans fell flat.

September 27: It’s perhaps unfair to be down on the Twins, who played poorly today but still finished with the second-best record in the American League and will open the playoffs at home against Houston on Tuesday. Nevertheless, it’s hard to think of a position player who hasn’t regressed from his performance in 2019. Polanco, Kepler and Gonzalez all saw their batting averages plummet. Sano was a strikeout machine who looked helpless, unless the pitcher made a mistake. What can you say about Donaldson, the worst free-agent signing in Twins history? Rosario was his streaky self, occasionally rising to the occasion, more often sinking. Buxton did improve offensively, if not on defense, but if his goal was to stay healthy, he failed. Cruz was the exception for two-thirds of the season, but something went wrong and he was impotent the last twenty games, making we wonder if the Twins should re-sign him at 41. Mitch Garver, who hit 30 home runs last year, hit 2 and batted .167. Cave and Adrianza, the regular subs, combined to hit .208. The Strib today compared the offensive stats from last year: in 2019 the Twins were 1st to 3rd in almost every category; this year they were, at best, 18th. This lack of offense didn’t keep them from winning their division (mainly because the White Sox collapsed), but it made watching them much less fun. They scored a higher percentage of their runs on home runs, which was fun so far as that went; but when they weren’t hitting them there wasn’t much to get excited about. Oh, I forgot to mention Luis Arraez: for much of the year his average was way below his standard, and then he, too, was hurt. With six hits in the final weekend, he pulled up impressively to .321, so props to him.

What won the division for the Twins this year was their pitching, and in Kenta Maeda, whom they stole from the Dodgers (not that the Dodgers needed him) they have their first true ace since Johan Santana. I feel good about their first-game chances against the Astros with him on the mound. Beyond Maeda there is competence: on any given day, you could see a gem from Berrios, Hill, Pineda, Odorizzi or, earlier in the season, Dobnak. The relievers were also good, although not much better than the relief corps of many other teams. This last week we’ve sorted out whom can be relied upon in the playoffs: Duffey, May and perhaps Stashak. Rogers, Romo and Clippard have all shown chinks, although Baldelli will still use them. Thielbar and Wisler have been surprisingly useful; will their inexperience come into play in the postseason? Unfortunately, there is no lock-down closer, a real liability in a three-game showdown.

The Twins backed into their division win, losing two of three at home to the Reds, so there is no momentum in their favor – or for the Astros, either. I won’t be disappointed if they lose in the playoffs, although I do hope they will win Tuesday, to break their 16-game playoff losing streak. I will enjoy watching the White Sox and Cleveland, as they progress, and I have every hope of the Yankees’ being eliminated at the outset. Bring on the postseason!

September 25 : The Bad Twins were back tonight, with a vengeance. They lost the game in the 1st inning when they loaded the bases with one out (the out, thanks to Donaldson, per usual) and we watched Buxton and Sano both strike out, Buxton flailing at a pitch outside the strike zone and Sano whiffing on everything. Berrios, the purported ace, was again mediocre, with his ERA mounting to 4.00. Cruz continued his month-long slump and Garver continued his season-long one. Fourteen strikeouts against the bottom of the Reds’ rotation. Things can continue spiraling downward, or the Twins can somehow regroup. We’ll see.

September 24: I watched the Blue Jays clinch a playoff spot – by beating the Yankees! – and heard the Toronto announcers talk of how the team had “come together,” and they were winning, and enjoying their success, “as a team.” The Twins, too, seem to be approaching that state, just in time for the playoffs. Josh Donaldson bought capes for his teammates, and they have adopted the ‘homer cape’ as a dugout ritual. Young guys having fun! When your offense is built around solo home runs, there is less camaraderie than when guys are driving each other in. We are now set for a fascinating, perhaps excruciating, final weekend: the Twins play three against the Cincinnati Reds, an unknown quantity, with the White Sox one behind, Cleveland two back and the Yankees lurking. Because of the playoff seeding oddities, the Twins could wind up almost anywhere. What fun!

September 22: This was perhaps my favorite Twins win of the season: they took an early lead, fell behind twice and each time tied the game with a solo homer. In the first extra inning Taylor Rogers, as usual, gave up a run, but the Twins scored two with an actual rally: a single, stolen base!, and another single. Plus, there seems to be some life in the dugout.

September 19: A second home run by Donaldson makes me wonder: is he just now “rounding into shape”? And will he be a weapon in the Playoffs, to which the Twins punched their ticket with an 8-1 win over the Cubs. And there was actually a rally – five runs in the seventh with only one, leadoff, home run. On the flip side, Rosario had two big hits but was casually picked  off first base again, and Polanco – no longer the hitting machine he once was – was dropped toward the bottom of the lineup.

September 17: With Buxton hitting two homers, the rarely helpful Donaldson adding one and our ace Maeda on the mound, the Twins should have, and could have, won tonight in the crucial series finale with Chicago–their last, best chance to win the division and secure home field advantage for the first round of the playoffs–but I don’t begrudge the White Sox their 4-3 win. They are the spunkier team, the only one capable of a late-inning comeback, with the league’s most fearsome hitter, Jose Abreu, and probable batting champion, Tim Anderson. The game turned on a routine ground ball to shortstop that the hustling Abreu beat out, probably because Donaldson didn’t cut it off, having been ejected an inning earlier for showing up the home plate umpire after his home run. Ah, well…

September 15: The White Sox lineup features six (6) players hitting over .300. The Twins have one (1) player hitting above .280, and he (Nelson Cruz) is slumping. The mismatch is apparent, even when the Sox have a very average pitcher on the mound, as they did tonight. My two managerial pet peeves showed up again: the Sox hit several routine ground balls that were hits because the Twins were in their pull shift, even when one of the hitters hit three straight balls to right against the shift the night before. Second, the Twins gave up a hit and a run by pulling their infield in with a man on third, which they do regardless of the inning or score. I must have seen them hurt this way seven times this year, as against once when it worked. Is Baldelli too much a slave to “the book,” or will he allow some instinct or experience to play a role here?

September 14: Based on tonight’s game, the White Sox are the better team, or at least the hotter team. What is more concerning for the rest of the season, though, is the failings of Nelson Cruz and Taylor Rogers, who for the first month were the Twins’ best hitter and pitcher, respectively. Cruz came to the plate with eleven men on base over the course of the game and drove in no one, striking out twice, to boot. For the last week he has looked fairly hopeless, swinging and missing at outside breaking balls as well as fast balls down the middle. Have opposing teams suddenly figured out how to pitch him, after more than 15 years in the big leagues, or are we watching him grow old, in baseball years, before our eyes?  Rogers was brought in in the 8th inning in a non-save situation–always risky–and proceeded to walk his first two batters and give up the two winning runs while recording only one out. His ERA is over 4.00, which is not good for a closer. No longer is he the Mr. Automatic he appeared to be last year and early this year. That’s a problem.

September 12: The Twins are starting to look like last year’s bunch, considering that Donaldson wasn’t here last year and is doing nothing this year. Kepler and Arraez on the IL means there’s no consistency for awhile.

Rosario continues to infuriate. Yes, he homered and leads the team, somehow, in rbis. On the debit side, after he singled to lead off an inning he was picked off first when he was two steps away, not paying attention and casually jumped back to the bag. After working another count to 3-2, I said he will swing at a bad pitch now. The ball was six inches outside, he swung and missed. More than any other batter, he decides before the pitch if he will swing. Sometimes it works, as when he hit his home run off the first pitch of his final at bat.

I’m delighted that Buxton has become more of a force at the plate – I still wish he would occasionally bunt – but he’s not living up to his reputation in the field. I’ve seen him drop two balls already he could have caught.

September 8: The Twins seem to have righted themselves, failing to sweep a doubleheader in St. Louis only due to an uncharacteristic loss of control by Randy Dobnak, a control pitcher. Berrios was better than before, and the home runs are coming. But what does it matter? It turns out the Twins have a 98% chance of making the playoffs at this point, and it doesn’t really matter whether they are seeded second or seventh. This partly explains why Baldelli is regularly resting regulars, trying different combinations and experimenting with his relief corps. It’s more like the preseason we didn’t have, giving tryouts to see who will make the postseason roster.

September 7: I didn’t watch today but was heartened to see that Jake Cave beat the shift with a bunt single, then came around to score. I hope Kepler, Polanco and some others were watching. Pineda justified my expectations for his return; now if the Twins can get Odorizzi back in form they will have a more than respectable rotation. On the Rosario front, he had the game’s biggest hit – a three-run double – but was caught 30′ short of third base on the play. Apparently his method of running the bases is to keep running until someone tags him.

September 6: Today’s two story lines were the improbable collapse of the Twins’ “A” lineup of relievers in a 10-8 fall-from-ahead loss to the Tigers. Rich Hill left after 5 innings with a normally safe 6-2 lead, only to see Trevor May, Tyler Duffy and Sergio Romo blow the lead and Devin Smeltzer put the game out of reach. Eight runs off four relievers in four innings is, one hopes, an aberration.  The other story was Eddie Rosario’s undisciplined play that had the Strib trollers calling for him to be traded before next year, if not sooner. He is famously undisciplined at the plate: he has, I think, the league’s highest average when hitting balls out of the strike zone, but he’s probably up there, as well, on strikeouts on such pitches. On the bases, he killed a rally by running through the third base coach’s stop sign, and he gave the Tigers an extra base in the outfield by not knowing that a ball off the wall was in play. Unfortunately, he also let a ball drop out of his glove over the fence for a home run. Even last year when he led the team in rbi’s  he had a remarkably low OPS. Truly a confusing quantity.

September 5: The Twins seem to have acquired a new identity, coincidentally or perhaps not with the return of Byron Buxton. They’ve won three tight games with Detroit, including two late-inning come-from-behind jobs, something they seemed incapable of before. Buxton isn’t a transcendent talent – yet – but he plays with a passion that ignites his teammates, and when he hit a game-winning ground ball to the shortstop, beating the throw with his speed, which is transcendent, the Twins most closely resembled the confident, united bunch that won 102 games last year.

August 31: I witnessed what I hope will be the nadir of the Twins season tonight: ahead 4-0 early, the Twins were outscored 8-1 by the White Sox the rest of the way and were outhit 10-5. Once the game entered the late innings, Twins announcer Dick Bremer sounded just as hopeless as I was, and he barely went through the motions in the bottom of the 9th. Max Kepler dropped a routine fly leading to three unearned runs in the top of the 9th, and struggling closer Tayler Rogers gave up a run-scoring single and double. When it was his turn to bat, Kepler lamely swung and missed at three pitches. The spark and effort was all with the visiting Chicagoans. Looking for a bright spot, the Twins are heralding the return of three injured regulars, Buxton, Donaldson and Garver–neglecting to mention that they were hitting .217, .182 and .154 before they went on the IL.

August 30: Like just about everybody on the Strib’s comment board, I’ve now written off the Twins. Of course, I did this multiple times last year and they came back despite me, so everything’s possible. Their five-game losing streak, which has dropped them from first place to third, behind both the White Sox and Indians, features a stunning consistency: a few runs early in the game, then they fall behind and make no effort to come back. Their offense is powered by solo home runs and not many hits. They strike out a lot and hit a lot of balls into the shift. The pitching is good enough to win games if the offense scored more than three runs, which it hasn’t been doing; but there is generally a mistake or two that lets the other team hit a game-turning home run.

Individually, all I see are disappointments: no one, with the large exception of Nelson Cruz, is playing as well as projected. Buxton, Garver and Donaldson, three anticipated cornerstones, are out of the picture. Rosario and Kepler are looking more and more like Bobby Kielty and Dustan Mohr: they just don’t seem able to rise to the level of reliable contributors that would justify their contracts. In fact, both have regressed. Luis Arraez was supposed to threaten .400 but can’t seem to get above .260. He makes solid contact more than anyone else, but just has enough power to reach the well-positioned outfielder. Sano has once again become a threat at the plate, as well as a danger in the field, but there are too many games in which he strikes out three times. Speaking of which, Cruz, despite carrying the load to this point, has suddenly become susceptible to the low, outside breaking ball, a tendency I’m sure other teams are noticing.

I wouldn’t mind losing quite so much if the Twins offense showed some life or wasn’t so predictable. They have to be last in the league in runs scored in the 6th-to-9th innings, and pretty far down in runs scored without a home run. It may be too much to ask to change their style of play at this point, but I would be more willing to suffer with them if they occasionally tried to hit to the opposite field or even bunted when faced with a shift. If things don’t improve, I’d love to see them sit some of the regulars and see what new, young blood – Kiriloff, Larcher, et al. – can do. Maybe it would at least light a fire. I like Jake Cave, but he’s had plenty of opportunity and is still hitting below .200. And it’s not like the Twins have been facing Gerrit Cole or Max Scherzer.

August 30: One minor point: when faced with a man on third in the early innings, Rocco Baldelli has invariably drawn in the infield, drawing questioning comments from Dick Bremer and the day’s analyst. Just as invariably, the batter has hit a ground ball or Texas Leaguer that would’ve been an out had the infield been playing at normal depth, but resulted in a run-scoring base hit because of this shift. If it happened once or twice, you could say, bad luck. But I’ve personally witnessed it five times so far this year–without seeing it pay off even once. Will this change?

August 25: Two sort of questions from last night’s interesting loss to the Indians. Max Kepler  on both 1-2 and 2-2 pitches, took a curve that just broke inside, to bring the count full. On 3-2  Bieber threw the same pitch, only this one bounced in the dirt and Kepler swung and missed. I suppose that when you’re behind in the count you more likely to expect the pitcher to nibble or waste a pitch; whereas when there are 3 balls you expect the pitcher to throw a strike and are accordingly geared up to swing. The other puzzle was Nelson Cruz, the Twins’ best hitter, striking out swinging three times on the same pitch, a breaking ball just off the plate. I don’t believe that in three plate appearances he even made contact once. This year players are not able to study video of their previous at bats – thanks to previous cheating scandals – which perhaps contributed to Cruz’s inability to learn from his past mistakes.

August 23. The Twins confirmed my previous entry by falling behind early, killing any interest I might have in the game. On the other hand, both this year and last they have displayed the remarkable ability, after slumping for two games, to come out hitting the next night, as if nothing happened.

August 19. The Twins, I’m afraid, don’t have a comeback bone in their body; so when they fell behind 4-1 in the 3rd inning I knew the cause was lost. I was right, and the final score of 9-3 only confirmed my analysis.

August 18. Got my first taste of the new extra-inning rule last night, and I approve. Under the old (still-existing?) rules, extra innings can be an eventless slog, exposing the dregs of a bullpen, thinning out the stands. Now, when each at-bat begins with a runner on second base, each pitch can be decisive. Furthermore, it brings strategy to the fore: bunt the runner to third and even squeeze him home, or give three batters the chance to hit a single? The two innings I watched last night contained a game’s worth of drama. Top of the 11th ended with a great defensive play by Jorge Polanco: two runners on, slow roller to short, barehand pickup and perfect throw to first. A split-second slower and it would have been bases loaded with rookie pitcher Jorge Alcala, with questionable control, on the mound. Bottom of 11: a grounder to first should have moved the runner to third, but the Brewers’ first baseman threw across the diamond to catch the runner going to third. A bad throw, but the third baseman corralled it and made the tag. Next up was Byron Buxton, who hit into a double play. Two batters, three outs. But by making the third out, Buxton would be the runner on 2nd in the 12th. But first, we had to get through the Brewers’ half-inning, with Alcala still pitching. The first Brewer singled to left, but the runner on 2d was Jedd Gyorko, a slugger, not a speedster. That’s why he didn’t beat out his grounder to short the inning before and why he was held at third. A popup later, Ryan Braun, who had singled, stole second uncontested. Why no contest? His steal eliminated the double-play possibility. And if there were another hit, his run would matter. The next Brewer hit a ball to right field, surely enough to score Gyorko from 3rd. But Kepler made an improbable diving catch and Gyorko, thinking the ball would fall, had failed to tag up. (Kepler’s throw home was so strong and accurate, he might have caught a running Gyorko anyway, we’ll never know.) The next batter struck out on a 3-2 pitch outside. The bottom of 12 started with speedster Buxton on 2nd. Bunt him over? Backup catcher Avila swings and misses at strike two. Then he breaks his bat and hits a slow roller to first, moving Buxton to third. Kepler battled to 3-2, then gets hit by a pitch a foot off the plate. Polanco comes to the plate and faces, as did Kepler, five Brewers carpeting the infield. On the second pitch he hit another broken-bat roller to second. Throw home, Buxton sweeps the plate with his gloved hand. Safe! Game over. Yes, the Twins didn’t hit a ball that even reached the infield dirt, but they won.

August 17. Sometimes things just work out. Baldelli brought in Clippard after Wisler and Smeltzer had gone 4-2/3 shutout innings, to make Merrifield face a third different pitcher in his third at bat. So much for that strategy: Merrifield lashed a ball off the left field fence, missing a home run by two feet. But then, Rosario plays the carom perfectly and fires a strike to second to cut down Merrifield and end the inning. With a 4-0 lead in the 9th, Baldelli figures he’ll give Littell some work. First batter, home run. Next, fly out. Third batter, single. One batter away from bringing up Merrifield as the tying run, and Littell has not gotten a pitch past anyone. Alex Gordon smokes a line drive, but the Twins’ second baseman is playing short rightfield, he cathces it – the shift working for once – and doubles the runner off first to end the game. Garver strikes out, hits into a doubleplay and sees his average drop below .150, while the day before Avila, in effect, scores three of the Twins’ four runs. How will this play out?

August 11. It’s early, I know, but a sinking feeling about the Twins is already sinking in. They hit a few home runs early then fall asleep at the plate, while the other team shows more life and comes back to beat them. This happened too often last year and is starting again. They were supposed to feed off bottom-place Kansas City and Milwaukee, but are so far 1-4 against them. Will a shake-up be in the offing?

August 9. Among the Twins’ early-season troubles, the performance of Mitch Garver is the most surprising. (I.e., no surprise that Sano is striking out at a 50% rate or that Berrios looks nothing like the ace the Twins pretend he is or that Rosario is hitting only occasionally, in streaks.) He has gone from hitting .273 last year to an abysmal .094 this year; his slugging percentage has dropped from a healthy .630 to an anemic .188. He looks lost at the plate and rarely even makes contact. As for his defense, Jack Morris spent the first two games he announced commenting that Garver’s stance behind the plate made it hard for him to block balls, while he simultaneously raved about Salvador Perez’s catching technique. Garver’s never been much at throwing out runners, and the Royals stole at will all series. The only solution I see is to get Willians Astudillo back from his Covid-induced absence. The Twins could use some of his spark, as well.

August 6. The karmic gods of baseball bit the Twins back: instead of intentionally walking a clutch-hitting pinch hitter with first base open, one out and a one-run lead in the 9th, Rocco Baldelli watched the Pirates’ Kevin Newman hit a chopper through the middle to win the game, the kind of hit that would likely have been a game-ending double play had there been a runner on first. I didn’t watch the game, so I’m second-guessing here. I am less concerned about Taylor Rogers losing the game than I am encouraged by home runs from Sano, Buxton and Rosario.

August 4. Twins beat the Pirates, 7-3, ho-hum. As good as the Twins are, I worry that what we are seeing is partly a lack of competition. And limiting their schedule to Central Division teams, several in rebuilding mode, means we may not know how good they really are until the playoffs, assuming MLB gets there.

August 3. Bonehead move of the year by a rookie manager: pitching to Nelson Cruz with first base open in a 4-4 tie in the ninth inning, with Miguel Sano on deck. The Twins were totally outplayed but came back from 4-0 with five walks and a wild pitch in one inning.

August 2. Miguel Sano is back to being a strikeout machine, seemingly in a contest with Byron Buxton for who can be the most frustrating “phenom” the longest. I was even about to chastise him for not wearing a mask in the dugout, until I remembered that he had actually had the coronovirus, so presumably is neither susceptible nor a carrier. We hope.

August 1. Just when I was ready to write Miguel Sano off for the year, he crushed two home runs to beat the “Indians,” 3-0. His play at first base remains an adventure – not a good one – but the home runs take care of that. Kenta Maeda looked as dominant as Rich Hill; what a lift they give to the Twins’ rotation.

July 30. While 14 Twins were striking out, including Donaldson, Rosario, Kepler and Garver on balls in the dirt and Sano appeared helpless as usual, Arraez made solid contact off former Gaucho Shane Bieber at least the three at bats I saw. Jim Souhan’s column echoed my constant thought that Berrios is only a purported ace, not a real one. His flat slider can be eminently hittable, and if hitters lay off it, he’s behind in the count.

July 29. Watching Rich Hill pitch is a pleasure. He’s comfortable, commanding and in control. The Twins bullpen looks potentially dominant, and Taylor Rogers is wow!

Twins Preview

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The Minnesota Twins are coming off one of their best-ever regular seasons and a pretty darn good offseason, too. They added Josh Donaldson, their highest-paid free agent ever, with his 3rd-base defense and 36 homers, to their offense, which set a Major League record for home runs; and three veteran starting pitchers to their somewhat suspect rotation. What’s not to like?

Applying some typical Minnesota sports negativity, let me count the ways: Luis Arraez could have a sophomore slump instead of hitting .400. Mitch Garver could wear down from having to catch more than last year with Jason Castro gone. Eddie Rosario could repeat the second half of last year instead of the first, when he momentarily led the league in homers. Miguel Sano, after his late start and faced with a short season, might never find his timing. Byron Buxton could get hurt (this is a near certainty). Nelson Cruz could start to show his age (40). Josh Donaldson could have a year like 2018 instead of 2019 (there’s a reason he qualified, after all, as Comeback Player of the Year). Jorge Polanco could fail another drug test. The three new starters – Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda and Homer Bailey (an unfortunate name for a pitcher) – are all on the wrong side of 30, and there’s probably a reason their former teams let them go. The bullpen is the Twins’ unacknowledged strength, but everyone knows that relief mastery can disappear without warning (see, e.g., Trevor Hildenberger last year) or arise from nowhere (see, e.g., Ryan Pressley from last year); so my confidence in Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey, Trevor May and Sergio Romo may be misplaced.

A full baseball season is one of sport’s great unpredictables. Whether a 60-game season will admit of as many twists, turns and rookie sensations is anyone’s guess. But one certainty in every sport is the impact of injuries, which should be many times magnified in 2020. Not only have the players had a shorter time to get their bodies ready for the season – a threat to pitchers’ arms and baserunners’ legs – but the compressed schedule (the Twins have only two days off all summer) could accentuate that problem. And oh, have you heard about Covid-19? Talk about unpredictability: not only could the pandemic sideline a star on game day, it could jeopardize an entire team, not to mention the whole enterprise.

With all that being said, I am looking forward to once again following the soap opera of a baseball season. It would be nice if the Twins built on their success of last year. It would be even nicer if they found a way to beat the Yankees, in the regular season or the postseason. But come what may, I’ll be watching.

Twins Post-Mortem

The sad thing about the Twins’ losing three games in a row to the Yankees was their non-competitive nature. Playoff baseball can be exciting and instructive, something to think about and hash over, and a five-game series – as we’re seeing in all three other division match-ups – can be an emotional rollercoaster. I fully expected the Twins to fall to the Bronx Bombers, but I hoped the games would be fun to watch. Not so much.
Nothing about their playoff pusillanimity – 16 straight losses over the last decade – can diminish the pleasure the Twins gave me during the season. Never before have I so enjoyed home runs (usually I’m a triples, hit-and-run, bunt and steal kind of guy) or been so continually surprised by a team’s resilience. Every time I thought the collapse had arrived, the Twins got up off the mattress, seemingly unconcerned by their fans’ lack of faith, and rattled off a couple of solid wins to right the ship. Their winning style was fairly consistent: bang some home runs in the early or middle innings, then mix-and-match relief pitchers for the final four innings to hold on for the win. Usually the opposition was sufficiently demoralized and the Twins’ lead held up. There were almost no walk-off wins – none at all until the last third of the season, I believe – and not a lot of scrappy rallies. The variety came from who would hit the home runs that day.
The starting pitching was surprisingly good in the season’s first half (Martin Perez!) and perhaps unsurprisingly bad in the second half (Martin Perez!), while the relievers were just the opposite. After a wholesale roster purge – gone were Magill, Hildenberger, Parker, M—— the Twins settled on a relatively reliable procession of Duffey, May, Romo and Rogers to navigate the latter innings of close games, while giving a fleet of rookies a chance to handle the innings in blow-outs. As a result, the Twins look fairly set for relievers as they enter the 2020 season. The starting rotation is a different matter.
I have never been sold on Jose Berrios as the staff ace he’s been anointed. I wonder if he might have fared better against the Yankees starting Game Two. Jake Odorizzi was clearly the more mature, consistently competent starter this year, and I hope the Twins will sign him for next year. Beyond that the field is open. No one is talking about Michael Pineda, who looked formidable before his drug suspension. Will the Twins want him back? Kyle Gibson has been frustrating for too many seasons to be counted on again, and Perez inspires no confidence. Will one of the rookies step up: Graterol? Smeltzer? Someone I haven’t heard of?
Which brings me to Luis Arraez, whom I had never heard of when this year started but who firmly established himself as the Twins’ best hitter – in the playoffs as well as the regular season. Writing him in ink as the full-time second baseman and leadoff hitter is a great way to start looking forward to next year. The other two who performed well against New York should also be fixtures, with caveats. Jorge Polanco, the Twins’ All-Star shortstop, is a professional hitter. His lack of arm strength makes one wish he could play second base, but Arraez is there. Eddie Rosario is the most fun Twin to watch, by far. Some confuse his flamboyance with lacadaise, but when he gets hot he can carry the team. Jim Souhan in the Strib recently suggested trading Rosario for a starting pitcher, but if the Twins are to trade a hitter, I’d rather it be Miguel Sano.
Sano continues to infuriate me, almost as much for his attitude and immaturity as for his strikeouts. I heard that he had the highest “exit-velocity” of any hitter, which may just indicate that he swings for the fences every at bat. His nonchalance when striking out seems to suggest a belief that striking out is okay, so long as he hits a mammoth home run every three games. I will concede that he won a few games for the Twins; but I will never enjoy watching someone appear so helpless at the plate, missing pitches by six inches, even fanning on fastballs down the middle. If there weren’t hanging curves, he wouldn’t be in the Majors.
As for the rest, I hope Max Kessler will continue to improve when he won’t have to hit lead-off, and C.J. Cron will anchor first base, injury-free. The biggest question mark, as it has been for five years, will be Byron Buxton. Can he avoid injury? Can he learn, and be willing, to bunt? By themselves, those two things would improve the Twins’ chances immeasurably.
But all these questions can wait…until pitchers and catchers report next February.

Twins’ Homers

Now that Jorge Polanco and Jonathan Schoop have each reached the 20 home run mark, giving the Twins eight players with that figure – a new Major League record – my Minnesota negativism has me worried about something just as important: although the Twins have broken the Major League record for home runs in one season, set by the Yankees last year, I fear that this year’s Yankees will overtake the Twins and own the record by year-end. The Yankees set a record in August for home runs in a month, and they are continuing at about that pace. I don’t know if the Twins are much more than a dozen ahead at this point; and when the Yankees hit five in a game, as they did yesterday, that lead can disappear pretty quickly. The Twins’ only edge may be the inferior pitching they will be facing the rest of the year.
I am so caught up in the home run game that I almost don’t care if they lose, so long as they hit at least two homers. If Cleveland makes a run for the division lead I may feel differently, but the Indians are so crippled by injuries – losing Ramirez and Naquin just last week – that it will take a monumental collapse for the Twins not to stay ahead. Of course, a monumental collapse is still possible.
A general thought on the Twins’ postseason chances. Their starting pitching is so unreliable it is inconceivable they could win more than one game in any playoff series. Their winning formula is to hit home runs early to give their pitcher a comfortable lead, letting him pitch with some confidence. Then their bullpen, a relative strength, holds off the opposing team. In the playoffs, however, you can’t count on the other team’s ace pitcher giving up a lot of early home runs. I, like everyone else in Minnesota, will be satisfied just to see them win their division.

The Twins’ Triple-A’s

On an off-day in the Twins’ pennant race, it is useful to look at the longer-term future of the club – specifically, who will be on the roster next year. Most of the starters will be back (except to the extent Jonathan Schoop is considered a starter), which means the competition will again be for the three or four backup spots. This is where it gets interesting, for the Twins have three almost identical players who will be fighting for one or more of those spots, and their names all start with ‘A’! Willians Astudillo established himself early in the year as a fan favorite – La Tortuga – for his hustle and the fact that he swings at every strike and rarely misses. Like his competitors, he was used in both the infield and outfield, but unlike them he also catches, which makes him an especially valuable property. Luis Arraez wasn’t even on the radar screen when the season started, but injuries to Astudillo and the Twins’ middle infielders gave him a chance, which he took advantage of by hitting .500 for a month. He now plays almost regularly and has the lowest strikeout rate on the team, if not the league. Before Astudillo and Arraez flashed, Ehire Adrianza was considered the essential utility piece on the roster. After a so-so first half, he has become a dangerous hitter when given the chance to play; and to my eyes he is a better defensive player than the other A’s. In fact, he is probably a better shortstop than the incumbent, Jorge Polanco, who should be a second baseman – except that is Arraez’s natural position for now, further complicating the picture.
Partly because they are so similar, there really isn’t room for all three, although any or all of the three fully deserve to be on a big-league roster. The other pieces currently in the puzzle are Jason Castro – maybe expendable if Astudillo is an adequate backup catcher; Jake Cave – the only legitimate outfield substitute, with both speed and power potential the others lack; and Marwin Gonzalez, who is perfectly adequate everywhere and has the most experience. Assuming Schoop is released (a safe assumption), second base will open up for Arraez. Assuming Castro is not re-signed, Astudillo becomes the second catcher. That leaves at least one roster spot for either Gonzalez, at a much higher salary, or Cave, who still has room to improve. Or someone else – a minor leaguer or free agent – who’s not in the picture this year. Interestingly, the Twins could have avoided this whole situation had they not recklessly traded away (for nothing) Eduardo Escobar in the middle of last year’s lost season. Escobar was sent to Arizona and so far this year has 102 rbi’s, 15 more than anybody on the Twins. We could see the same thing happen with Adrianza.