Playoff Preview

I’m looking forward to the Astros-Red Sox ALCS with pleasure, the Dodgers-Braves NLCS not so much. What a contrast in personalities and style of play. Both AL teams can flat-out hit, up and down their lineups, aided by the DH, too. Both NL teams had trouble scoring–and there weren’t a lot of dominant pitchers causing the problem. The Red Sox scored 26 runs in their three victories; the Dodgers’ 2-1 nailbiter last night was similarly emblematic. It may also be a gross generalization, but the NL squads seem unusually white, even whitebread. Any team featuring two Turners and a Taylor is pretty bland (or pretty Southern California) in this era. I don’t know a lot about the Braves, but their star is Freddie Freeman! By contrast, Boston, the last team to integrate, is led by Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers and Kike Hernandez. The Astros themselves could qualify for the Latin World Series, with Altuve, Gurriel, Correa. Alvarez. There’s a lot of attitude, enthusiasm and flair on both teams. And whereas playoffs often come down to a hot pitcher, that role has been diminished by managers who take their starters out at the slightest slump, even in the 2d or 3d inning.
So bring on the bats and let the games begin. And even if there is no play as exciting as Randy Arozarena’s straight steal of home for the Rays, I’m expecting highlights aplenty from the American Leaguers, and a bit of a snooze from the Nationals.

Yankees Lose

The Yankees’ 2021 season came to a fittingly ignominious close with a convincing 6-2 trouncing by the Red Sox in the Wild Card Play-In game last night. I say “fitting,” because the punchless Yankees deserved no more after scoring only 7 runs in their final four “must-win” games and being outclassed by the Tampa Bay Rays, their potential playoff opponent, both in the last weekend and over the course of the season.
The Bombers’ offense came down to two home runs around Fenway’s Pesky Pole, neither of which would have gone out of any other Major League ballpark. On the other hand, Giancarlo Stanton hit two rockets off the Green Monster, both of which would have been home runs elsewhere. Their only “rally”–two hits in a row–started with another infield single by Aaron Judge. I say “another” sarcastically because Judge won the crucial season finale against the Rays with a ground ball to second that was officially scored a single, even though he would have been out by ten feet had the second baseman thrown to first. With one out and the game-winning run coming in from third, the infielder had no choice but to throw home instead. It was still a classic Fielder’s Choice for scoring purposes, not a hit, and I’m still awaiting an explanation.
Judge’s single was followed by what the commentators agreed was the key play of the game. (For me, however, the key play was Xander Bogaerts’ two-run homer in the 1st inning, which set the tone of the game.) Judge tried to score on Stanton’s double off the wall and was thrown out at home plate by a perfect relay from centerfielder Kike Hernandez to Bogaerts. Alex Rodriguez stated definitively that Judge should have been held at 3rd–indeed, he should have known on his own to stop there–and when the play-by-play announcer tried to suggest that the issue was debatable, A-Rod told him he was wrong. In my view, however, it was the right play. Judge was barely out, maybe by half a step. A less than perfect relay and he would have been safe. How many times is such a relay less than perfect? Way more than half, from my experience. Bogaerts had to field the ball cleanly (it came to him on one hop), turn and fire a strike under pressure. All Judge had to do was run. If Judge had stopped at 3rd, his fate would have been left to Joey Gallo, whom A-Rod had continually called the “safe landing strip” for Red Sox pitchers. In other words, they should steer clear of Judge and Stanton and pitch to Gallo whenever they had the choice. Based on his average, the chance that Gallo would get a hit was maybe one-in-five, and marginally better that he would somehow get the run home. As it was, he popped up to shortstop, and Judge would have been stuck at 3rd, unless the next batter hit safely–a one-in-four proposition, going by averages alone. The 50-50 chance, if not 65-35, that Judge had of scoring on Stanton’s double was greater than the odds of his scoring by stopping at 3rd. But A-Rod and the commentators who followed him all claimed that Yankee 3rd-base coach Phil Nevin had blundered.
The other happy takeaway for me was the failure of Gerrit Cole to last more than two innings in the Yankees’ most important game of the year. They paid him gazillions to be the best pitcher in the league, and he wasn’t. This gave me hope, once again, that you can’t always buy the pennant; that no matter how much the Yankees spend, they can be beaten. Conversely, the Red Sox got a dominant 1-2-3 8th inning from Hansel Robles, whom the Twins had picked up on the cheap and who was useless in Minnesota earlier this year. Go figure.

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?

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.