Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Moment Randy Dobnak Has Earned

You could call him a former Uber driver, but you’d be selling it short. You could call him a prospect, but he probably never garnered that status. Instead, Randy Dobnak is a self-made grinder that went from small-college West Virginia to one of the best pitchers on a staff that supports one of Major League Baseball’s best teams.

After spending the better part of three seasons in the minor leagues as an undrafted free agent, Dobnak will toe the rubber tonight in what equates to his backyard. From South Park, Pennsylvania, Dobnak takes the ball for the Minnesota Twins against his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates. Something out of a storybook, this narrative couldn’t have played out better, but if you haven’t been expecting it you might also have not been watching.

Pitching for three different levels in the Minnesota Twins minor league system last season Dobnak posted a 2.07 ERA 7.3 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9. No level was too big for him, and each stop he made the job continued to get done. Then he was promoted to the majors and got even better. With the Twins a year ago Dobnak owned a 1.59 ERA 7.3 K/9 and 1.6 BB/9. After putting just 28.1 IP under his belt at the highest level, he was called upon to pitch game two of the American League Division Series against the New York Yankees.

Despite all of the success a year ago, nothing was guaranteed for 2020. Dobnak was on the outside looking in when it came to a rotation spot or even a big-league job. The Twins had acquired the likes of Kenta Maeda, Rich Hill, and Homer Bailey to round out the rotation. COVID-19 had threatened the season as a whole, and the man with the mustache became somewhat of a forgotten commodity once again.

Now two turns through the rotation in 2020, Dobnak is reminding those around the sport once again, his title is Major League Pitcher. He owns a 1.00 ERA allowing a single run in nine innings on six hits. He’s fanned seven and given up an uncharacteristic four walks. When he steps on the mound in the bottom half of the first inning at PNC Park however, none of that will matter. It’ll be another night of work for a guy that’s become a lunch pail type ready to get the job done each time he’s tasked with doing so.

Although every team is looking for their ace that throws 100 mph and blows the doors of every batter they see, it’s clear there’s different ways to get the job done at the highest level. Dobnak knows who he is as a pitcher, and that’s probably why he continues to see success. One of the most light-hearted personalities you’ll see postgame, Randy genuinely enjoys playing baseball and his mental makeup allows him to never let the moment get too big.

Tonight, some of his biggest fans including his wife and dad won’t be in attendance. In fact, no one will be. I can’t imagine that Randy envisioned his first start in Pittsburgh to be without anyone in the stadium, but you can bet there will be plenty of eyes glued on him attending from their couches. It’s a moment he’s earned, one that he won’t allow to get bigger than him, and if any previous indications are to be believed, one he’ll rise to the occasion of.

Every team in baseball would like to have a Randy Dobnak. Someone unphased by the situation, routinely able to produce, and always willing to soak it all in. Unfortunately, not all Uber drivers turn out to be Major League Pitchers.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Critical Week for the Twins

The Minnesota Twins have jumped out to a 7-2 start for the 9th time in franchise history, and first since 2001. Facing arguably the toughest portion of their schedule, they’ve certainly been up to the challenge. Now with some basement dwellers on tap, this is a massively important week.

Rocco Baldelli’s club welcomes former bench coach Derek Shelton to Target Field tonight for a two-game, home and home series. The Pirates are just 2-7, don’t have much in the form of Major League talent, and also aren’t ready to call up any impact prospects. The Twins getting four games with a team expected to finish near the bottom of the NL Central is a nice reward following the tough stretch.

From there, things don’t get too much tougher either. While the road trip does continue to Kansas City, three games with the Royals is something this very good ballclub should be licking their chops about. Mike Matheny’s group may not finish below the Detroit Tigers, but both clubs should be battling to be the worst in the AL Central.

While that’s seven games in a row where Minnesota should be substantial favorites, the schedule also tilts in their direction when it comes to the chief competition. Cleveland has a home and home series with the Reds before traveling to face the White Sox and needing to cannibalize a division rival. Chicago does the home and home thing with Milwaukee to start their week off.

Just nine games in the Twins already have a 2.0 game lead, but they also have a +22-run differential with the White Sox behind them at +5. By the end of the week Minnesota could have something like a four or five game lead, and in a season that the number represents over 8% of the total action, that’s substantial.

You could make a very solid argument that the Twins toughest part of the season is now behind them. They do have a difficult run in September that spans just over a week and includes the Cardinals, Indians, White Sox, and Cubs as opponents. While that period certainly will determine the division, setting themselves up in such impressive starting position is a very enviable spot to be in.

Only the New York Yankees have a better record than Minnesota right now and just the Dodgers have a better run differential (+30). Baldelli’s lineup hasn’t come close to thriving yet, and still a significant part of the damage is being done in the first two innings. However, the Twins haven’t lost when scoring first so jumping on the opposing starter early is hardly a bad strategy.

We knew this season was going to be a sprint, and a good start generally sets up the ability for some pace in the middle. Josh Donaldson needs to get healthy and return. The lineup needs to get going. There are some tweaks to be made, but this group is setting up for something special.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Where Is MLB’s Planned Taxi Squad?

This morning Major League Baseball was hit with another blow. The St. Louis Cardinals had two players test positive for COVID-19 with an immediate fallout of postponement of action against the Milwaukee Brewers. We’re playing through a pandemic here however, so what really was the plan?

When Rob Manfred and the owners finally came to agreement on economics it appeared, they also had sorted out safety protocols. What it seems they didn’t have ironed out was the logistics surrounding continuation of play. It’s one thing to suggest that a season be decided on winning percentage if not all teams get 60 games in. That can’t happen if some only play 30 or 40 games.

These teams are tested every other day, or potentially daily in some instances. Rapid tests are taken at will, and in the case of the Nationals Juan Soto, relatively indicative of what the saliva tests may show. What has to be determined, and seems like it remains up in the air, is what constitutes an outbreak and what doesn’t.

Last week the Miami Marlins decided via group text to play through a game despite four players testing positive. They allowed the virus to run rampant within their clubhouse and now have over 60% of their 30-man active roster dealing with positive results. Something like that isn’t going to be overcome by a 3-man taxi squad, and very clearly isn’t as easy as calling on players from the alternate site either.

On the other hand, the St. Louis Cardinals had just two players test positive following their departure from Minnesota on Wednesday night. To postpone action against the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday seems to negate the planning MLB put in place. The 3-man taxi squad was not designed to account for injury, that’s why there’s an additional 30 players at the alternate site. What the taxi squad was talked about doing was providing an immediate replacement should someone need to go on the COVID-related IL.

Each team has up to three players traveling with them to all away games. If they aren’t going to be immediately substituted onto the active roster when a positive tests appears, then there’s little reason for them to be subjected to travel and increase virus contraction at all.

Since the beginning Major League Baseball’s goal has been to play an unprecedented season amidst a global pandemic. That’s going up against some significantly substantial odds, but if you’re going to operate like that there has to be a level of “next man up.” Postponing each game in which a test or two come back positive on any given day will certainly fail to give this season a chance.

Maybe this was always going to be the probable outcome. We still don’t have this under control across the country, so the feasibility of baseball being doable remained a longshot anyways. However, as unfortunate, and competitively unjust as it is, the show must go on. Either Rob Manfred has to decide that taxi squads have a purpose to fill in rosters (and maybe even expand that group), or even a limited number of positives will bring the sport to its knees.

It has been a tenuous start to this whole thing, and there won’t be much more opportunity to get it right. Step back and get it together now, or we’ll continue to go through the motions on something that fizzles out shortly anyways.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The Most Interesting Man in Minnesota

Over the winter Twins fans clamored for starting pitching. After losing to the Yankees in the Postseason again, a constant bugaboo was deemed the source of weakness. Needing an ace, the Twins sought out some arms. Swinging a deal for Kenta Maeda was nice, but it may be Rich Hill that represents the haul.

Sure, he’s 40 years old but try telling Nelson Cruz that’s a milestone anyone should care about. The reality is that Hill has both been often hurt and often good. Good probably isn’t even a fair assessment, he’s been downright great. His 3.00 ERA dating back to 2016 is the 6th best mark in Major League Baseball. He’s coming off a season in which he posted an outstanding 2.45 ERA across 13 starts for the Dodgers, and he hasn’t had a year with less than double-digit strikeouts per nine innings since 2012.

In a world where velocity is king, Hill laughs at the notion. He flips his fastball up there at an average of 90.6 mph, and that’s not much of a decline considering the peak was 92.9 mph in 2012 with the Red Sox. He’s learned to live with what he has, and there’s very little surprise in how he’ll attack you.

Last season Hill utilized just two pitches. His four seem fastball was chosen 52% of the time while his big breaker was utilized at a 45.8% clip. The velo change on that curveball is staggering, dropping 15 mph all the way down to an average of 74.5. It’s not that those two types of pitches are anything special, but it is that when they derive from Hill’s hand, they’re nothing short of majestic.

Hill’s fastball spin ranks in the 91st percentile, but it’s the bender that gets the love here. The curveball has an average spin rate of 2919 RPM, or 4th best among pitchers that threw at least 300 of them a season ago. It’s in the 95th percentile across the league, and it’s why Hill’s hard-hit rate is an elite 98 percentile tally.

That curveball is a thing of beauty in and of itself. With a combined 12 inches of vertical and horizontal movement above league average, barreling it remains one of the league’s toughest tasks. It’s why a hitter can step in and know they have just two pitches to look for, but still be frozen on a meaty fastball right down the gut.

You might argue there’s nothing flashy about what Hill does on the mound, and that’s probably a fair assessment. There is a level of intrigue or a mystique feeling about how he competes, however. The stuff may lull you to sleep but being that dominant by going virtually against the grain is something we don’t see in baseball anymore.

Minnesota brought Hill in to bolster a rotation down the stretch. Now he’ll work right from the jump and could end up being the heart of it. When the dust settles, he’ll look to add onto his 53 Postseason innings, and those that add onto the 15 he’s pitched in the World Series could certainly culminate with a ring.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Riding the Rollercoaster with the Twins

This weekend was an absolute blast. The Minnesota Twins took the field and despite a hiccup on Saturday, looked the part of a superior team ready to assert themselves. On their off-day Monday, Major League Baseball did its best to go up in flames. I expected a rollercoaster this season, but I’m not sure this was how I envisioned it.

Max Kepler started the season with a dinger, and then he went ahead and did it again. Nelson Cruz blasted his way into the record books with a seven-RBI performance on Sunday, and Rocco Baldelli’s club looked like a clear favorite in the AL Central. This week is highlighted by tough matchups with the St. Louis Cardinals and Cleveland Indians, a good measuring stick pair of matchups.

As I eagerly anticipated the return of Twins baseball at Target Field today, even without fans, I couldn’t help but feel an immense level of uncertainty. The Miami Marlins now have zero idea how they’ll field a team, and the Washington Nationals want no part of player such an infected organization. Rob Manfred has said it’s not a death blow to the league, but he also hasn’t stepped up with any real plan forward.

I guess all of that leaves us in this weird limbo that 2020 continues to serve up.

The three days tweeting real, live, Twins action over the weekend were some of the most fun I’ve had in all the years spent doing this. It was a reprieve from the world around us, and while not sticking my head in the sand, it was a necessary getaway. The unfortunate flip side is whether or not it will all be taken away, and a matter of how abruptly.

I’m not going to pretend I have any clue how to navigate these waters, or that playing baseball through a global pandemic is even an entirely possible endeavor. What I do know though, is that this Twins team has already flashed reason to believe they’ll be among the best in franchise history, and I’d hate to see that go wasted.

My hope is that there’s a way forward and that some ugly situations early present an opportunity for discussion, planning, and growth. Maybe we’ll look back at this first week much like we can hope to in regards to 2020 as a whole, and just shake our heads at the absurdity we experienced. I’m not sure what lies ahead, but you best believe it will be better if Twins baseball remains a part of it.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Four Months of Waiting, but Twins Baseball is Here

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. When I went down to Fort Myers in early March to cover the Twins, I wasn’t supposed to leave under the haze of a global pandemic. My office has been closed for months. Sports have been shelved just as long. The Twins defending the AL Central crown wasn’t intended to take place in just a 60-game sprint. None of this was supposed to happen, but here we are, and we have baseball.

I don’t know if we’ll get through the entire schedule. I think MLB has done a decent job making sure they have significant protocols in place. My hope is that even while a 16-team Postseason is looney, we’ll see it play out. For one day, one night, tonight, things stand still though. Opening Day presents an opportunity for everyone to begin anew.

Last year’s 307 home runs hold no weight as to what takes place in 2020. The Bomba Squad and their 101 wins don’t carry over. Rocco Baldelli has won a Manager of the Year award and Nelson Cruz has gone over the hill. All of that is in the past now, and the Twins future remains bright as ever. Brimming with the best lineup in the sport, equipped with a lights out relief corps, and bolstered by a rotation chocked full of depth, this could be the year.

A World Series ultimately defines a team’s season, but it doesn’t negate the quality along the way. Because the Twins didn’t bring home a ring in 2019 doesn’t take away from what they accomplished. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine haven’t been building to look back on those accomplishments however, and the step they’ve put forward this season is their best year. The roster is primed to make serious noise, and even with the oddities that will follow this year, the Twins are in as good of a position as anyone.

I appreciate you all for reading, following, and trying to make it through this lull. Now we’ve got that in our rear view too, and Opening Day allows us to dive full speed ahead into what could quite possibly be the best season in Minnesota Twins history.

We weren’t supposed to get here this way, but we’ve arrived, and Opening Day is just as beautiful as it’s always been. Settle in, it won’t be as long, but you can be assured it will be every bit as fun.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Projecting the 2020 AL Central Division

We’ve finally made it and baseball is back in just a matter of days. The Minnesota Twins will kick off this 60-game sprint in Chicago, and they’ll look to distance themselves from a team looking to prove they’re ready. I put out a 162-game projection back in February, but with so many logistical changes and update is necessary.

I don’t foresee any changes in the positioning among the teams from where I had them at the beginning of the year, but we’re obviously only going to play roughly one-third of the games now. There’s significantly more volatility involved, and it will play against Minnesota more than any other club.

That said, here’s how the division shakes out this season, and in parenthesis what the PECOTA projections are for each team in this scenario:

Minnesota Twins 36-24 (35-25)

There’s no argument to be made that Minnesota isn’t the best team in this division. They have arguably the best lineup in baseball and aren’t far behind with their bullpen. The rotation is cemented in depth and there’s plenty of candidates to be a top-tier arm as well. Josh Donaldson is a massive addition and having Rich Hill from the jump should be a nice boost. The Twins have stiffer competition in the White Sox this year, but it’s hard not to see the Indians having taken a step backwards.

Cleveland Indians 32-28 (32-28)

While it won’t be long before Chicago overtakes Cleveland, I’m not sure it happens in 2020. Cleveland still has an awesome rotation at the top with Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber. Clevinger is already a health risk though, and Carlos Carrasco’s return is a question mark. Save for Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, there’s also concerns about star power in the lineup. Should this club stumble out of the gate, maybe Lindor gets moved at the deadline.

Chicago White Sox 31-29 (31-29)

I’m all in on Luis Robert, he’s going to be a stud. What his career ends up being remains to be seen, and while I think he could break out right away, there’s still plenty more that needs to go right for the White Sox. Lucas Giolito faded at times in 2019, and neither Dallas Keuchel nor Gio Gonzalez are impact pitchers anymore. Yasmani Grandal is a huge addition, but someone had to supplement the flash in the pan that was James McCann a year ago. The Southsiders will be knocking at the door soon, and the shortened season helps their chances, but give it one more year.

Kansas City Royals 24-36 (25-35)

Down here you’re really competing for the best of the worst, and I’m not certain what way these final two shake out. It’s my belief that the Royals slide will be less drastic than the volatility of the Tigers prospects. Kansas City isn’t good, and they aren’t exciting either. There are some pieces here though that can squeak out enough to stay out of the bottom spot in the division.

Detroit Tigers 22-38 (26-34)

I’m really excited to see what Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Alex Faedo, and Riley Greene can do. Unfortunately, none of those guys will be on the Opening Day roster, and while watching Miguel Cabrera chase down records is fun, there’s nothing else of note here. I don’t think Ron Gardenhire is the right guy to push a prospect-laden team forwards as that’s where he ended his tenure with the Twins, so he may see his way out around the time new faces make their debuts.

In case you missed it, here’s how I have the yearly awards and Postseason shaking out as well: