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?

Defenseless

I can’t remember an NFL team being so overmatched on both the offensive and defensive lines as were the Vikings in their Christmas Day loss to the New Orleans Saints. The Minnesota secondary wasn’t much better, either. The Vikings gave us 53 points, the most since 1963, and that number would have been higher had Drew Brees not thrown two interceptions, one bouncing off his receiver’s hands. The Saints not only never had to punt, they almost never faced a third down. Alvin Kamara scored six rushing touchdowns, a record, and could have had seven but for the coach’s decision to keep him off the field when Tayson Hill ran in a two-yard score. A typical running play gained 7 yards, and when Brees passed there was rarely a defender near his receiver. Harrison Smith, usually reliable, missed multiple tackles and looked a step short all day. On the offense, the Vikings had a few quality performers, mainly the receiving corps of Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and Irv Smith, but qb Kirk Cousins never had the time to throw downfield. The Saints were tricking or finessing the Vikings blockers, they were simply pushing them back into Cousins’s pocket. On one play highlighted on TV, center Garrett Bradbury was backpedaling almost as fast as Cousins, making it impossible for the quarterback to step up to throw.

I’m not one to blame the coach, but in this case we’re faced with this situation. Mike Zimmer is known as a “defensive genius.” He admitted that this was the worst defense he has ever had. If the Vikings are not getting even barely adequate defense from their defense-minded coach, why keep him? He has also been coach long past the NFL-standard sell-buy date. A new coach and a new approach are needed, especially if the Vikings are to be saddled with the immobile, unimaginative Cousins as quarterback for the next few years.

Runs Batted In

The Twins have said goodbye, for the moment at least, to leftfielder Eddie Rosario, who led the team in rbi’s the last two or three years. It used to be thought that the rbi was the statistic that best indicated a team’s most productive hitter, but not only did the Twins show little uncertainty in releasing Eddie, but no other Major League team offered to pick him up at his projected salary of $10 million. I can’t help but think this means that the rbi has been severely downgraded in this new age of analytics, and I can guess why.

Let’s look at the variable factors that may contribute to rbi totals. How many games did he play? Where in the lineup did he hit? The more at-bats, the more potential rbi opportunities.  We can account for this by dividing rbi’s by number of plate appearances. Not “at-bats,” because a sacrifice fly, squeeze bunt (rare), or bases-loaded walk or hit-by-pitch can produce an rbi without an official at-bat. But not all ABs are created equal. Obviously, someone hitting cleanup after three .300 hitters will have more chance at rbi’s than the number 8 hitter on a weak-hitting team. Maybe a rough corrective would involve factoring in a team’s total runs, so that an rbi for a weak offense will count more than one for a powerhouse, such as the Twins were in 2019 when they set the all-time home run record. I’d like to burrow down more deeply, though, and I wonder whether modern analytic data-collection can go this far.

Every rbi could be categorized for the situation it occurred in: the number of outs and the number and locations of base runners. If a hitter bats in the number of runs in a given situation that the average of all hitters did in that situation in, say, the previous year, his rbi average for that situation, in my proposal, is 1.00. Twice as many, 2.00. Half as many, .500. Computing the average of all the situations he faced would produce his overall rbi average. This would give us apples v. apples comparisons, not apples and oranges. To spell out one example: runners on second and first, no outs would be one “situation.” Bases loaded, one out, another. I would break the situations down by outs for the simple reason that the third base coach is more likely to send a runner home if there are two outs than no outs, so it’s more likely to result in an rbi. And of course if there are two runners on, rather than one, there is the chance for more rbi’s. I don’t know how many permutations there are, but it’s closer to 9th-grade math than infinity.

Is there any need to weigh the scores from the different situations differently, given that the rbi probability is much greater if the bases are loaded than if they are empty? Not at this point in my analysis. For our purposes, a run is a run, and we’re comparing one player against the league average. We’re looking for someone’s value as a run producer, whether in the 1st or 9th inning. But once we’ve given a player his rating for each possible situation, we can massage these data for other purposes, and the one that comes first to mind is “clutch hitting.” MLB tried to quantify this with something called the “game-winning rbi” in the 1980s. It died of its own uselessness because it couldn’t distinguish, for instance, between a bloop single in the 1st inning of a 9-0 blowout and a 9th-inning grand slam in a 4-3 squeaker. So, rather obviously, there are two new factors to consider if we are to put a value on the rbi: inning and game score.

Here the permutations and combinations are pretty close to infinite, so I’ll propose a different test: just as we now have a “quality start” for starting pitchers (a stat with its own problems), we should have “quality rbi’s.” A quality rbi is any rbi from the 7th inning on, or in the last inning of a rain-shortened game, in which the hitter’s team is tied or one run ahead, or results in his team’s being one run behind, tied or ahead. For this statistic, it doesn’t matter where in the order a batter hits. It does somewhat matter how good his team is, for the better team will have more runners on base and, thus, more chances for an rbi. Given the arbitrary nature of this statistic, however–unlike the more pure rbi average, above–I’ll let this unaccounted variable slide. Compared to the nothing that is here now, it is a meaningful marker. And this variable is less of a factor here than in such other recognized statistics as wins for a pitcher.

One last word on rbi’s. At some point in the not-too-distant past, the accepted abbreviation of “runs batted in” became “rbi,” instead of “rbi’s,” presumably on the theory that the plural “s” comes after the “r” for “runs,” not the “i.” I have always considered “rbi” an entity of its own, capable of taking an “‘s” after the entire abbreviation. I still do.

World Series 2020

The better team, the Dodgers, won the World Series last night, but they got more than a little help from the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays and his adherence to a pet peeve of mine, “analytics.” This is the trend that has swept the Major Leagues the last half-dozen years, although it was introduced 20 years ago by the Oakland Athletics, as glorified in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball. The old-time scout who relied on his eyes and his gut was replaced by the office nerd who crunched numbers; the skipper who had a feel for the game from decades in the trenches was replaced by the manager who was good with a computer. The prototypical general manager was now a young Ivy League grad who had only been in ballparks as a paying customer. Slightly late to the game, the Twins eschewed Ron Gardenhire, a baseball lifer, and Paul Molitor, a baseball legend, with Rocco Baldelli, not because of his fleeting and undistinguished playing career, but for his background working with the analytics-driven Rays. Similarly, baseball operations were given over to wunderkinds Derek Falvey and Chad Levine. Before going any further, I should point out that this administration has so far produced remarkable results in Minnesota.

Now, back to last night’s game. Blake Snell, Tampa Bay’s best pitcher, had totally mastered the Dodgers through five innings, allowing but one hit and striking out nine, while nursing a 1-0 lead thanks to Randy Arozarena’s first-inning home run. LA’s number nine hitter led off the 6th with a soft single to center, bringing up the top of the Dodger lineup for their third times at bat. What had these next three hitters done previously? Nothing! Nevertheless, Tampa manager Kevin Cash removed Snell, over his disbelief, and brought in Nick Anderson, who had given up runs in each of his last six postseason appearances. I was not the only one who echoed Snell’s disbelief and sensed imminent calamity, which was immediate. Mookie Betts, who had been quiet offensively in the Series, smoked a double. Anderson unleashed a wild pitch, allowing the runner on third to tie the score. Betts then streaked home on a grounder to first by Cory Seager, giving the Dodgers a lead and all the momentum they would need to cruise to the wire. With seven of their nine regulars hitting under .200 during the Series–all but one under .130, in fact–the Rays just didn’t have the firepower to come back against the LA bullpen.

Why did Cash remove Snell? Had he thrown too many pitches? (73) Did he seem to be tiring? (No) The only reason was that he would be facing the Dodger lineup for a third time, and analytics showed that a team’s batting average rose considerably the third time they faced the same pitcher–and I assume this analysis applied specifically to Snell. There was no consideration of how Snell had been pitching (two hits and no walks over five innings), how the upcoming batters had fared against him (six-up, six strikeouts), nor any allowance for the fact that this was a tremendously important World Series game and the last time Snell would pitch all year. “Analytics” dictated, take the pitcher out after 18 batters, so he was gone.

I’m sorry to come down so hard on Anderson, a Minnesota native, but he was such an obviously poor choice–obvious to everyone but Cash, apparently. Given that he was first out of the Rays’ bullpen, I’m guessing that he would not have to have been used if Snell had gone another inning. The strategy generally is to save your best relievers for later in the game, and Cash could have navigated the last three innings with pitchers who had been more successful, and would be more confident, including Aaron Loup and Pete Fairbanks, who finished up, and Diego Castillo and John Curtis, who both had more success. Looking at the Internet account of Twitter comments by other Major Leaguers, I find my view to be shared by just about everybody.

John Smoltz, the best TV color man around, let drop hints about his view of analytics baseball throughout the game–the first I’ve heard on a broadcast. His comments before the Snell maneuver were addressed to the defensive shifts that both teams employed. Yes, he said, over the course of a 162-game season the statistical averages will work out, but a World Series game is a single unique event, and the impact of a single ball hit the opposite way against the shift would be devastating. It didn’t happen in Game 6, and I’m not sure Smoltz articulated the position  as more than a gut feeling (I’ve written about my feelings at length elsewhere on this blog), but I know what he meant. Gone are the days of the 1991 Twins, when Jack Morris pitched into the 10th inning, refusing to be relieved, rising to the magnitude of the moment. Not incidentally, Smoltz was pitching for the Atlanta Braves that night.

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.

The Shift – 2

An undiscussed consequence of the tendency to overshift pull hitters is what it means for the scoring. In a game last night the Angels played their shortstop in short right field, in between the first and second basemen. I presume a ground ball hit to the shifted shortstop will be scored 6-3. But now, what does that mean? It’s no longer an indication of where the batter hit the ball. It also messes up any fielding analysis. The main use I make of my scoresheet when I’m at a game is to look back and remind myself of what a batter has done in his previous at-bats. When I see a hitter went 6-3 in the 2d inning, how will I remember that he hit the ball to the right side of the infield?

Another way of looking at it: the scorer’s number designates the position on the field, not the player. Thus, when Jake Cave moves from center to left field as Byron Buxton enters for defensive purposes, his number changes from 8 to 7. In my example above, why shouldn’t David Fletcher, the Halos’ shortstop, change from 6 to 4 when he is shifted between the first and second baseman? Does it have to be for more than one batter? If Buxton got hurt after one batter and Cave went back to center, he would still have been a 7 then back to 8.

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.

When Will The Games Return?

Boy, do I miss my baseball season! Where’s the box score I can peruse before going to bed each night? Where’s the split screen on my computer I can zoom in on when the Twins rally? Where’s the intellectual stimulation of thinking how I would have managed the game differently? Where’s the agony of seeing the Yankees win again? This would have been such an entertaining year to be a Twins fan – even better than 2019 if Buxton and Sano could somehow stay healthy and show more maturity and Donaldson could play as advertised. But would I want a season played entirely in Arizona begining July 1? It’s hard to say something wouldn’t be better than nothing, but so much of the beauty and legitimacy of baseball comes from its 162 (or 154)-game schedule. If the season were only a month long, Chris Colabello would be an RBI champion and Eddie Rosario would have led the league in home runs. A shortened season would be of interest, but not something to take too seriously.

The big issue for all sports is economics. Would the owners lose more if games were played without spectators in a truncated season than if the season were called off? Every sport is different in this regard. I can see golf coming back online well before anything else. One, there are no salaries. Prize money can be set at the discretion of the tournament, and players could participate or not. They could practice social distancing, just like country club golfers are already doing. And spectators are of less importance to golf than any other major sport, both in terms of revenue and atmosphere. So, to be sure, let’s get enough testing in place to test the golfers and their caddies, then bring on the Masters.

The NBA was far enough into its season that it could go right to the playoffs without complaint, whenever health requirements permitted. Spectators add a soundtrack, but games on the playground can be plenty competitive, as would games with pros. Contagious contact is a given – and the NBA was early in identifying cases among its players – so testing before every game would be a necessity, but that could be done for 12 players and 3 coaches per teams and 5 officials. 35 tests a game is not outrageous. If spectators were eliminated, there would be no compelling reason to hold games in the teams’ own cities, and concentrating play in central locations would eliminate travel that is often an issue. Basketball revenue, I am sure, comes largely from TV; so the owners should want to put on the show. Players’ salaries will be the big sticking point. How do you “pro rate” if you’re only playing playoff games? What about players on non-playoff teams?

The NFL is the first to take the spotlight, with its three-day player draft this week. This provides a veneer of activity, but it’s basically a mirage. The numbers in football dwarf those in basketball; testing would almost have to be universal before it could be considered safe to play (not that football is terribly “safe” to begin with). Social distancing is impossible. TV revenue is still the king, but ticket-buyers must be a much bigger revenue source than in any other sport, and the absence of crowd noise would also be a much bigger factor. A shortened season would create competitive disadvantages, but that could be accepted, given the circumstances. There isn’t the option, as there would be in basketball or baseball, of compressing or extending the schedule. Football is truly “America’s Sport” now, and this will be where the rubber meets the road: will the NFL have a 2020 season?

Tennis is like golf, except for the relative lack of TV revenue. The game could be played quite safely, and there are no salaries that owners have to pay. The question is, would anyone put up enough prize money to make it worthwhile for enough name players to compete? People will watch golf on TV for the sake of the game. People will not watch tennis unless they care about the participants. Both golf and tennis rely on corporate sponsorships and naming opportunities for the events. Will a corporation, struggling with its bottom line in a faltering economy, throw a chunk of money at a sporting event without spectators and, perhaps, dubious TV viewership, just to get its name before the public?

As is my wont, I will pass on hockey.

In all of the above I see a goldmine for lawyers and agents. How much less money will professional athletes be willing to accept? Some seem willing to play for the love of the game. Others measure their worth by how much they get paid. Collective bargaining agreements between players and owners take months, if not years. Will there be time, given the fluid health advisories, to strike a deal and get in a reasonable facsimile of a sports season?  I have no one to bet with, but my guess is that golf and tennis will both resume activity in 2020, with golf leading the way. Baseball, basketball and football will have enough to do, figuring out their responsibilities to their 2020 contracts, and will cross their fingers and hope to resume in 2021.

Super Bowl and Tricks

On 4th and 1 inside the 49er 5-yard line, the Chiefs lined up with four men in the backfield, with the quarterback under center. Then, on cue, all four pirouetted(!) like synchronized swimmers and moved one step to the right. The ensuing snap then bypassed the quarterback and went directly to one of the running backs, who charged directly ahead for a first down, almost breaking the goal line. I heard this morning on ESPN that the Chiefs borrowed this maneuver from the University of Michigan’s 1948 Rose Bowl victory, although a clip showed the shift but not the pirouette. What effect the spin had on the defense, or the success of the play, I don’t know, but it sure was fun to see and must have been a kick to practice.

My second thought was that in years of watching the Minnesota Vikings, I have never seen such flamboyant trickery. There were also numerous reverses, flips, option runs and other creative plays more imaginative than anything done by the Vikings. Maybe it’s the nature of their stolid, Midwestern division: Chicago, Detroit and Green Bay tend to play straightforward football without the multidimensional quarterbacks rising elsewhere in the NFL. I recently watched a 15-minute YouTube video of Trick Plays in the NFL: fake field goals and punts, halfback passes, the Philly Special, etc. Conspicuously absent were the Vikings.