Twins Post-Mortem

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

Twins’ Homers

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

The Twins’ Triple-A’s

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

A Save Anomaly

The Twins were leading the A’s 4-1 starting the 9th. Enter Sam Dyson in a “save” situation. He retires none of the four batters he faces, giving up a single, double and two walks, leaving the game with the bases loaded, no outs and a 4-2 score. Enter Taylor Rogers, who proceeds to strike out the side after giving up one hit that scores two runs and ties the game. Clearly, Sam Dyson has blown a sure win for the Twins, and his ERA will show that he gave up 3 runs; but for his trouble he gets a “hold (H)” next to his name in the box score, merely because his team was still ahead when he departed. Conversely, Rogers, who made the best of the fraught situation he inherited, gets a “BS” – blown save.
This anomaly repeated itself Labor Day with the Twins on the winning side this time. Ahead 3-2, the Tigers brought in Buck Farmer to start the 8th. He gave up a walk and two singles, leaving with the bases loaded but no runs scored, so he was awarded a “hold.” The next pitcher gave up one hit, resulting in two runs scoring. He, not Farmer, got the “blown save” – although Farmer, incongruously, received the loss to go along with his hold!

The Problem Called the Shift

Data analytics having taken over baseball-think in 2019, there’s scarcely a team that hasn’t committed to shifting its infielders at the slightest suggestion of a pull hitter at the plate. Three infielders on one side of second base is no longer reserved, as it was in my youth, for Ted Williams. My observations are based solely on watching Minnesota Twins games this year, but so far I can say that I Hate the shift.
1. and least important is the traditionalist complaint: it dilutes and distorts the classic alignment and function of the nine defensive positions.
2. it’s not helping the Twins: Maybe someone is keeping track, but it seems to me that Twins hitters, especially Max Kepler, have been deprived of many more hits than the opposition.
3. it exposes a modern-day failing: it should be easy to get on base by hitting, or better yet, bunting, against the shift. I saw Eddie Rosario, early in the year, square around and bunt a pitch toward third base, where no one was playing. He could have walked to first, and in fact almost had the chance to stretch it to a double. With hits so hard to come by – the best hitters make outs 7 out of 10 times – why not take what the defense gives you? Either players don’t want to, because they’re so intent on hitting a home run, or they haven’t learned to bunt or hit to the opposite field – old-school skills that used to be a part of learning to play the game but are seldom seen anymore. (I can’t remember the last time the Twins tried a hit-and-run.)
4. this is the big one: there will always be ground balls that make it through the infield for hits, but against a standard defense the ball has to be fairly well hit. When the infield is in the shift, a weakly hit ball against the shift is automatically a base hit, because there is no one there to field it. How discouraging to the pitcher who makes a great pitch, only to have the hitter flail and hit a nubber…to no one.
My Solution: Earlier this year there were rumors that Major League Baseball might consider implementing a rule requiring two infielders to be positioned on either side of second base. Other sports – including the NFL and NBA – add and change rules with some frequency, so it can be done, even if baseball has been slow to follow their lead. I haven’t heard much discussion lately, compared to conjecture about an electronic strike zone or adding a 26th player to the roster.
The other solution is the natural one: convincing players to beat the shift on their own, by bunting and punching balls to the other field. Not only could they pick up easy hits, they would force the other team out of the shift, opening up the normal holes. For every action there’s a reaction, and I hope this particular pendulum will start swinging back, returning baseball to the grand old game I so love.

The “Quality” Save

According to Wikipedia, a sportswriter in 1985 coined the term “quality start” and defined it as a pitcher’s completing six innings while surrendering three or fewer runs. Whether this is an “official” statistic – whatever that might mean – I have no idea. I have also been unable to learn whether such a quality start loses its quality if the pitcher in question gives up a fourth run after the sixth inning. Many commentators have criticized the standard as too lenient, pointing out that allowing a run every other inning isn’t so great, and a 4.50 ERA is only acceptable for a team’s fifth starter. But decades of computer analysis have shown that the pitchers with the most quality starts are invariably the best pitchers by every other measure, so the concept, meaningless or not, has lingered.
The save, by contrast, has been an official Major League statistic since 1969, although it has been refined in the years since. It can be earned in several ways, but the most common is by finishing a win while pitching the 9th inning with a lead of three runs or less. The creation and glorification of this statistic led to the emergence of a specific position on every roster: the “closer.” Modern analytics-driven managers have recently started to deviate, but for many years – certainly every year that Ron Gardenhire was managing the Twins – every time a team entered the 9th with a three-run lead or less, the manager brought in the closer. Conversely, if the lead exceeded three runs, another pitcher would be used – even if the lead had been three and the closer had been warming up. This mindless worship of the Save obscured the fact that this statistic was arbitrary and relatively meaningless. It also led to hugely inflated salaries for those relievers who had been anointed closers.
To take the obvious example: a reliever enters in the 9th with a 3-0 lead and gives up two runs before recording the final out. He should be rewarded for this? Apparently I am not the first to notice this, as Wikipedia informs that in 2000 Rolaids, which gives reliever awards, came up with the “tough save,” when the reliever enters the game with the tying run on base. Never having heard of this, however, I shall assume this idea went nowhere.
My idea is to introduce, instead, the “quality save,” to correspond to the quality start. My test would be simple: if the reliever faces the potential tying run without being responsible for any of the runners on base and finishes the game while maintaining a lead. (The aforementioned “tough” save specified having the tying run on base; but as baseball has evolved and the home run has become so prevalent, I consider the situation sufficiently perilous if the tying run is at the plate.) This not only eliminates the no-stress three-run, one inning save, it eliminates the save when the reliever starts the 9th with a two-run lead. He can allow a run and still record an official save; he just won’t get a quality save. If a reliever is asked to pitch only one inning and he can’t do it without allowing a run, it’s not a quality effort – period.
As with every iteration of a save rule – and there have been many, both official and unofficial – there is another situation that makes my simple rule not so simple, and it involves a reliever’s entering the 9th with runners already on base. If he has a four-run lead but the bases are loaded, he will be facing the potential tying run – thus making him eligible for my quality save. What if he allows all three runners to score but still preserves the victory? How does that count as “quality”? Still, his assignment is infinitely more challenging than that of the reliever who faces a clean slate. If the latter can give up two hits and a walk and still record a quality save, why shouldn’t the former be able to, as well?
The other problem with quantifying a closer’s saves and listing league leaders for the category is that the playing field is not level (see my earlier post on rbi’s). Obviously, a pitcher can only get a save if his team is winning; therefore, the teams that win the most will inevitably offer their closer many more save opportunities than the Miami Marlins, who are usually behind in the 9th inning. A better statistic than total saves is percentage of saves converted. Commentators do mention this – e.g., Blake Parker has converted 10 of 11 save opportunities for the Twins this year – but there is no listing by percentage. Maybe this could be an addendum; and maybe the same should be done for stolen bases.

The Shift

The trend toward analytics in baseball has led teams to employ infield shifts with a regularity new to the game, and I can’t say I approve. It is not so much the hits I see taken away from my favorite Twins, such as Max Kepler, as the hits I see a shift giving to the opposition. If I were a pitcher and I got Albert Pujols to hit a weak grounder to the spot where the second baseman normally stands, and it rolls into right field for a hit because there is no one there, I’d be frustrated and pissed at my coaches. I didn’t keep scientific count, but I felt the Twins were being hurt far more often than they were being helped by shifting their infielders in the games I watched. More annoying: when a hitter beat the shift by intentionally hitting the other way, the Twins kept the same shift on when that batter next hit, as if to say, it’s not the shift’s fault.
There was talk earlier in the season about a potential future rules change, requiring two infielders to be positioned on either side of second base. My hope is that the players will remove shifts from the game themselves, by hitting away from the shift or even – as Eddie Rosario did once (but why only him and only once?) – by bunting toward third base when no one’s there. The other way to beat the shift, which seems to be the Twins’ main strategy, is to hit over it, into the stands. That, of course, was the strategy long employed by Ted Williams.

Stephen Curry

As much as like the Golden State Warriors – their personality, their style of play, their dominance – and Stephen Curry in particular, I wasn’t heartbroken by their loss in the NBA finals to the Toronto Raptors. For starters, they had every excuse for losing: injuries to Kevin Durant and, especially, Klay Thompson, meant it wasn’t the real Warriors that lost. Second, they had every chance to win (Game Six, at least): their best player, Curry, had a makeable three-point shot in the final seconds that would have given Golden State the victory. He missed, so they have no one to blame but themselves. Third, the Raptors’ win spread the wealth, something I always like about sports. It was the first championship, ever, for a Canadian team, and the Raptors are not likely to win again next year. There appeared to be no hard feelings between the teams, just a good moment for Sport.

Twins at 50

Fifty games is less than a third of a baseball season, yet it seems a milestone that the record-keepers are noting; so it presents a good opportunity to assess, nay gloat, in the Twins’ remarkable start to 2019. They have the best record in the majors, albeit only a half-game ahead of the Yankees, and lead their division by an astounding 9 games, which speaks equally to the ineptitude of the AL Central. Their 101 home runs sets a record pace, by a lot, but the most amazing number, mathematically at least, is their 300 runs scored. That computes, exactly, to an even 6 runs a game!
The instinctive tendency is to say, they can’t keep this up. Yes, every team and every player goes through slumps over the course of a season, and the Twins have been unusually injury-free. But countering both these inevitabilities is the way the Twins’ success has been achieved, with contributions coming almost equally across-the-board. There has been no Aaron Judge or Miguel Cabrera powering the attack. Everyone in the lineup has hit his share of home runs, even Jason Castro. It is a safe bet that eight players will end up with more than 20 homers and none will reach 40.
Similarly, there is no one position player whose loss would be devastating. This is largely because the three bench players – Marwin Gonzalez, Willians Astudillo and Ehire Adrianza – can play multiple positions and have already done so with great effectiveness, including catcher.
What’s fun is seeing who powers the offense in each game. Sometimes it will be the franchise cornerstones, Polanco and Rosario. Next game it will be the free-agent newbies, Cron and Schoop. Then Max Kepler will get hot or Adrianza will surprise. Finally, there are the former saviors-to-be, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, who finally appear on track to contributing more hits than strikeouts. There is no let-up in this lineup, especially once Mitch Garver returns to replace Castro behind the plate.
The excitement about the home runs has partially obscured another, perhaps more important, strength of the team: its pitching, especially its starters. Odorizzi, Berrios, Perez and Gibson give the Twins a chance to win every game they start, and Pineda may yet reach the same level. The bullpen is considered the one Twins weak spot, but with one blowout game after another and the starters going 6 or 7 innings every time, they haven’t been fully tested. So far, Blake Parker has been a serviceable closer and Taylor Rogers an unhittable setup man. Magill, Morin and May have all shown power arms, while Ryne Harper has been devilishly effective. How much more do you need? If Tyler Duffey can finally capitalize on his array of quality pitches, manager Baldelli should recognize that he doesn’t need to carry 13 pitchers, as he’s done much of the year, giving him room to keep his valuable bench once DH Nelson Cruz comes off the IL.
I see only two clouds on the horizon. When a surprise team is labeled a “team of destiny,” it is usually because they come from behind and keep finding ways to win close games. So far, when the Twins fall behind after the 5th inning, they usually lose. I don’t think they’ve had a walk-off win all year. It would be nice to see some of those, to give them confidence even when they don’t open up a six-run lead. Second, they still can’t seem to beat the Yankees, and if they get to the postseason, you know that’s who they will have to play. The Astros are tough, but Odorizzi’s 1-0 win over Verlander gives me hope in that matchup. Against the Yankees, that hasn’t happened. Yet.

Twins Update

Two losses in a row, and I’m already resigned to the mediocrity of recent years. Berrios gave up 12 hits and didn’t look like the ace I don’t consider him to be. (I’m more impressed with Odorizzi.) The Twins got two two-run homers, but that was it. You wonder if they’ve become over-reliant on home runs and incapable of building rallies. They were 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position. Worse, they failed to move any runner over from second. What has happened to the bunt. Aside from Rosario’s shift-beating bunt against the Tigers, I can’t think of a Twin bunting all year. So much can happen.
Another annoying trend: the Angel hitters beat the Twins shift four times, and it didn’t stop a single hit. In fact, Mike Trout got two hits driving ground balls through the shift. If I were a pitcher and saw Albert Pujols drive in a run by hitting a weak ground ball to the second baseman’s vacated position I would not be happy.
We’ll see if the Twins make adjustments and execute a little better the rest of this important series. On the other hand, Cleveland lost to the White Sox; so the Twins’ losses aren’t hurting them in the standings.