Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Making The Most Of Molitor

Coming into 2017, the Minnesota Twins were entering uncharted waters. A new front office was at the helm, and the captain of the dugout was managing for his life. Now, as the season rolls towards a conclusion, lots has changed but plenty still remains unknown. Without a new contract in place for 2018, it's time to begin wondering about the future of Paul Molitor and the Minnesota Twins.

Personally, I'm inclined to suggest that Derek Falvey and Thad Levine move on. While Molitor has been an integral part of the organization for many years, his value as a manager has never seemed anything but average at best. At times, it's seemed to be a struggle for him to relate to youth (which is the current lifeblood of the 25 man), and in game managerial decisions have been passable at best. Going forward, I'd hardly be disappointed in seeing the new regime bring in their guy, with the hopes of them helping the organization reach new heights.

Taking a step back however, and viewing things from what may (or is likely to) happen, who heads the Twins active roster in 2018 is a bit more confusing. There's plenty of reason to believe that Molitor will garner (and maybe even win) a handful Manager of the Year votes. The expectation from a national sense was that the Twins should be terrible. I'd argue that was misguided, and 2016 was more a reflection of the volatility that is young players. Minnesota wasn't expected to be a playoff team in 2017, but even a 90 loss season seemed laughable from the outset.

So, with Molitor's team positioned for a serious run at the 2nd Wild Card, it's fair to include him among the best manager's in the American League for 2017. He'll face stiff competition for the award in the form of both Terry Francona and A.J. Hinch. The Angels Mike Scioscia should get consideration as well, given that roster probably had even less talent than the Twins, and they have found a way to stay afloat as well. Whether the Twins skipper takes home hardware or not, the inclusion among the conversation only clouds the future further.

Let's operate under the assumption that Minnesota makes the playoffs and Molitor wins the award. In this scenario, the Twins manager would generate what should be quantified as two victories. In the front office though, it will be interesting to see what level of weight that holds. Recently fired Doug Mientkiewicz was produced winners throughout the minor leagues, and the message there screams of a guy that didn't fit the direction of the club going forward. At the highest level, it's probably a bit more difficult to can a manager that would have accomplished so much. Suggesting it's out of the realm of possibility isn't something I'm prepared to do, but you'd have to imagine the Twins brass better be well prepared for an explanation.

Should we assume Molitor is retained, whether on a single-year deal or a multi-year extension, there's a few conversations I think Falvey and Levine would be inclined to have with their skipper. Focusing on those of integral importance, here'
s a brief list:

  • Bullpen usage- Over the course of his tenure as Twins manager, Molitor has made more than his fair share of head scratching relief decisions. Whether playing into odd splits, relying on a guy too far, or over exposing a specific arm, there's plenty of room for growth here. It may be micromanaging to suggest a checks and balances system, but Paul clearly could use some prodding in more than a handful of relief situations.
  • Bunt deployment- Specifically the sacrifice bunt. Over the course of 2017, bunting has become more prevalent for the Twins than at any point I can recall previously. Whether having your cleanup hitter (regardless of who it is) drop down a sacrifice, or living by it in general, it's run way too rampant among a strong lineup. Minnesota has shown an ability to score runs, and a forward thinking front office can't be please with the general willingness to surrender free outs.
  • Relation to youth- This has been somewhat curbed by the additions of help to his coaching staff. At times in his first two seasons, it seemed Molitor was quick to wash his hands of a player. When struggles arose for a young player, they were quickly jettisoned back to the farm, and growth at the highest level was rarely achieved. Knowing that it's on the backs of a youth movement that Minnesota regains its prominence among the AL Central, Molitor will have to commit to uplifting and utilizing players without a significant track record.
  • Adaptation of numbers- Admittedly, I have no idea what level of value sabermetrics play in a game by game basis for Molitor or the Twins. That said, it's become apparent that Falvey and Levine put a great deal of stock in numbers. Minnesota is committing to winning off the field by developing a greater Baseball Analytics department, and the goal would seemingly be to implement those ideas on the field. Being an elder statesmen of the game, that's something that Molitor will have to be open to, and utilize.
At the end of the day, I'd suggest with near certainty that missing the playoffs results in Molitor being let go. A Wild Card exit probably also gets him fired, and even a Divisional Series defeat could see him walking through the door. Things become a bit more complicated if he's given the award (though I think regardless he's behind Francona), but as we saw with Mientkiewicz, the new front office has a direct plan. It may be nice to see a fresh face, maybe someone in the vein of Sandy Alomar Jr., but there's little to suggest that a drastic difference follows a change as well. No matter what the Twins do for their skipper in 2018, I'd imagine there will be more of a front office reflection on the field, and that's something I can get behind.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Buxton Showing Snapshot Of Greatness

On September 18, 2017 Byron Buxton owns a .258/.320/.430 slash line for the Minnesota Twins. While there's little to write home about a .749 OPS, it's well past time to take note of what the hometown squad's centerfielder is doing. Despite a September surge in 2016, we haven't seen anything like this from Buxton before, and he's already vaulting himself into the conversation of the best the Twins have ever seen.

Looking at his 2017 as a whole, it's easily apparent that everything has been watered down due to such a slow start. What's less apparent without digging under the hood, is just how incredible he's been since. Rather than getting words in the way, let's allow the numbers to speak for themselves:

  • Since May 14: 99 G .284/.341/.481
  • Since the All Star Break (July 14): 46 G .323/.369/.622
  • Since August 6th: 40 G .333/.375/.653
What we see here, is an incredible surge over a relatively decent sample size. Extrapolating Buxton's numbers from the All Star Break over 162 games, we arrive at 21 doubles, 18 triples, 39 homers, 106 RBI, and 35 stolen bases. In other words, Buxton sustaining a 46 game second half over the course of a full season has his walking away with an MVP award (and that's even before considering his defense).

While it's fair to still hold out for a little more of a sustained sample, this isn't simply a replication of a September 2016 performance against watered down competition. Buxton has been raking against good pitchers, across multiple scenarios, for multiple months. Over the course of 2017, working with new hitting coach James Rowson, the Twins centerfielder rebuilt his swing at the big league level while never taking a trip back to Triple-A. The long and short of Buxton's transformation has been nothing short of incredible. Now reaping the fruits of his labor, he's flashing all of the tools that made him the top prospect in all of baseball.

It wouldn't be fair to solely focus in on Buxton's offense, even if that's where the most growth has come from. In the field, he's all but ran away with the American League CF Gold Glove award. Leading all fielders not named Mookie Betts in DRS, Buxton has bailed pitchers out with both his arm strength and his range. Looking at Baseball Savant (Statcast), Buxton still tops the charts across MLB in 4 star outs. With a catch probability registering between 26-50%, Buxton has had 27 opportunities, converting 26 of them into outs. 

Things get even more nutty as you look at the newly introduced Outs Above Average metric. With 24 OAA, Buxton's individual total comes in ahead of every single team in the big leagues, with the closest number being the Rays 20 OAA. On balls Buxton can make a play on, he's been deemed to have an 86% expected catch rate, and in turn, has owned a 92% actual catch rate. When balls are put in Buxton's vicinity in the Twins outfield, he's added a 6% catch probability. Over the course of 2017, that in part, goes to illustrate why Twins pitchers have seen an uptick in their own numbers.

Simply put, Buxton has been the premier outfielder in all of Major League Baseball for virtually the entirety of 2017. When he's in centerfield, it's impossible not to see him as a game changing asset. What's changed, is that since the middle of the year, he's also become an incredible threat at the plate (and in turn on the basepaths). Instead of simply being a Gold Glove winner on an annual basis, this version of Byron Buxton is in the Most Valuable Player realm.

At just 23 years old, there's probably more to Buxton than we've seen thus far. For everyone else across the league, that's a scary thought to wrestle with. For those in Twins Territory, the only appropriate result is Buck Yeah!

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Crash Course Towards New York

With just a handful of games left in the 2017 Major League Baseball season, the Minnesota Twins find themselves with a hold on the 2nd Wild Card spot. As of September 13, they have a 2 game lead over the Los Angeles Angels, and this is their race to lose. That means, in the matter of a few short weeks, they're staring at a matchup with the Bronx Bombers. Really though, is it all that scary?

The way each of their schedules sets up, Minnesota finds themselves in a much more enviable position than the Angels down the stretch. With the assumption that the Wild Card lead only continues to grow, let's allow for the possibility to get ahead of ourselves. To kick off Postseason play, Paul Molitor's squad has a one-game playoff with Joe Girardi's Yankees.

This isn't the Twins of the early 2000's, and many things have changed. Ron Gardenhire isn't in the dugout for Minnesota, and there's plenty of reasons to believe that this club can get the proverbial monkey off of their backs. With one series left against each other this season, the Twins currently hold the advantage over New York by a 2-1 margin with a +4 run differential. Pulling out all of the stops however, there's a few things we can look at. So, how does Minnesota stack up?

On the bump, it's almost assuredly going to be Ervin Santana for the Twins. The Twins ace hasn't faced New York in 2017, with his last tilts against the Yankees coming in back-to-back outings a year ago. Split between home and the road, Santana posted 12.1 IP with a 2.19 ERA and a 6/2 K/BB in starts on June 19 and 25th. Looking at both of those lineups, only half remain in New York. With the emergence of players like Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez, Santana will have some fresh faces to get used to.

For Minnesota, the opposing pitcher is an interesting one. Girardi could go with the recently acquired Sonny Gray. He was the blockbuster deal this summer, and owns a 2.74 ERA across seven starts since swapping teams. It's 23 year-old Luis Severino that's been the Yankees best pitcher this year however, and his 2.96 ERA along with a 10.8 K/9 could be imposing against Twins hitters. In a one-game scenario, it probably makes sense to have whichever one isn't chosen to start, as an immediate piggy back option.

Offensively, the Yankees have scored more runs than all major league teams not named the Houston Astros. However, the Twins don't find themselves far behind with a 7th best tally of 721 runs. Swatting the fourth most longballs in baseball, the Yankees have benefitted heavily from the big fly. Minnesota should clear the 200 plateau, but they are currently middle of the pack across the sport. New York does tend to strike out at a higher clip than the Twins, and the team .776 OPS is 5th in baseball in comparison to the Twins .770 mark (9th). While the Yankees do lead in virtually every category, the margin is slim, and Molitor's group should be far from out of their element.

There's going to be two separating factors that should be evident in a one game scenario between these two clubs. The Yankees have a much deeper pitching stable, while the Twins have a defensive calling card significantly better than that of their foes. While Santana is capable of drawing the start, Minnesota has little room for error with a bullpen that offers little sure things in a winner take all format. The Twins will need to get up early, and protect their starter in what's generally assumed as a hitter's ballpark. New York can afford to lock down a lead, and even with the struggles of some big names lately, they have hurler after hurler that can jog in from the pen to snag three outs. Miscues will cost the Yankees, and a team with defensive limitations can be exploited by a surging Twins lineup.

Interestingly enough, Minnesota will get a chance to see how things stack up soon before the Wild Card game takes place. With a series in the Bronx on September 18-20, the Twins will step into hostile territory for what amounts to a tune up. A lot in terms of momentum could be up for grabs, and a definitive series win could go a long ways towards a morale boost. Regardless of the venue (and the Twins have played better on the road for most of 2017), these two clubs check in incredibly close to one another. While the Yankees have more firepower over the course of a series scenario, one game leaves all of the theatrics up in the air.

We've now gotten to experience a full season of meaningful baseball, and at least a handful of weeks following a playoff push. If it culminates in a one game playoff with Girardi's 25, the Twins should go in guns blazing. Overmatched in many of the earlier playoff series, the Twins don't find themselves in that scenario this time. Look for Molitor's group to put up a good showing, and the unlikely Twins could be making a push deeper into October.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Gibson Keeping Hitters Off Balance With Offspeed

Over the course of the 2017 Major League Baseball season, Kyle Gibson has been demoted to Triple-A, and experienced multiple periods of struggle at the big league level. Right now however, in the midst of a playoff race, he's been among the Twins most consistent starters. Diving deeper into the change, it doesn't appear anything more than a minor tweak was made. The results suggest that it may have made all of the difference.

Forever, Gibson has been noted as a ground ball pitcher. Despite owning just a 50% ground ball rate for much of the year, Gibson is a sinkerballer that has always had more talk of his wormburners than action. That began to change over the course of his last eight starts though, and since July 22nd, the Twins have ran him out every fifth day feeling pretty good.

Prior to July 22, Gibson had made 17 starts for the Twins. He owned a 6.29 ERA and was allowing a .920 OPS against. In that timespan, he'd posted just three quality starts, and was in general, being hit around the yard. On the 356 balls put in play, 25 of them (or 7%) were barreled. Roughly one in five fly balls left the yard, and his 16 homers allowed only helped to inflate already egregious numbers.

Since that point, the Twins former top prospect has made eight starts to the tune of a 3.19 ERA. Allowing just a .682 OPS against, Gibson has tallied four straight quality starts, and hasn't given up more than three earned runs in any of those outings. When allowing contact, with 184 balls in play, he's given up just four barrels (2%). To get that kind of turnaround, essentially halving the numbers, there has to be a monumental shift right? Well, the answer is, not so much.

Looking at Gibson's repertoire before and after July 22nd, not a whole lot has changed. He's still a sinkerballer first, and then turns to his two offspeed offerings. Throwing both a slider and changeup, it's on the heels of those pitches that opposing hitters are kept off balance. What's been integral for Gibson however, is a slight jump in usage for each.

Early in the season, Gibson was throwing his fastball just under 60% of the time, while dishing up sliders about 16% and changeups right around 15%. Fast forward to today, and his last eight starts have him going with the fastball 55% of the time (at a slightly higher velocity), the slider almost 19%, and the changeup 17% of the time. In cutting out some of his fastball usage (and curveball as well), he's been able to throw offspeed pitches forcing batters to stay back.

The results have translated to a hard hit rate down to 32% from 38% earlier in the year, but more importantly, a HR/FB rate cut from 20% to 9.4%. Gibson is generating ground balls 2% more often (53.1%), as well as giving up fly balls 5% less often. While keeping the ball in the yard, and giving his defense an opportunity, he's found success in utilizing one of the Twins greatest assets.

Now, nothing says the Gibson has found a sure fire path to rest on his laurels. Opposing hitters have a BABIP that's only six points lower (.331) during this good stretch. That number still falls within a normal realm across the big leagues, and in general, leaves plenty of room for success to be had. For a guy that has just a 9% SwStr rate as well as a 15.8% strikeout rate, he's always going to need a push for balls in play that resemble routine outs. As the pitch mix continues to morph though, it seems the current structure is something that can work.

Pitching coach Neil Allen is a big believer in the changeup, and there could have been some work done in getting Gibson to use it more often. The 17% usage rate would be the best single season mark since 2015, when he offered the pitch a career high 19.7% of the time. Maybe not so coincidentally, the Twins hurler relied heavily on his changeup and slider that season, en route to a career low 3.84 ERA.

Now five years into his big league career, and 29 years old, Twins fans are probably through with hoping Gibson has found it. All along though, it's seemed like if he could just hone this or that small thing in, effectiveness was sure to follow. As Minnesota eyes the Postseason, a steadying rotation presence was needed, and Gibson has definitely provided that. Only time will tell how effective the current tweaks are, but right now, all parties have to feel very encouraged.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Handing Out The Hardware

As the 2017 Major League Baseball season rushes to a conclusion, ballots have gone out for Postseason awards. As a member of the IBWAA, I have the privilege of casting a vote each season. With the awards being a reflection of a full season of work, my ballot has already been cast and is ready to be unveiled.

Throughout the 2017 season, we've seen a handful of exciting performances from veterans and rookies alike. Both on the mound and at the plate, major leaguers across both the American and National leagues have once again treated us to some spectacular performances. In rewarding their efforts, here's who I am suggesting for each major award.

Let's get into it.

American League MVP- Jose Altuve
Others receiving votes: Mike Trout, Chris Sale, Jose Ramirez, George Springer, Aaron Judge, Eric Hosmer, Elvis Andrus, Jonathan Schoop, and Francisco Lindor

Not willing to vote a pitcher for the MVP award, this was essentially a two horse race. Altuve's strongest competition was the Angels Mike Trout, and the time he missed due to injury hurt him here. Altuve has been incredible in 2017, and is going to run away with the batting title. He's actually upped his OPS in 2017, and continued to be the catalyst for a Houston Astros team that is on a crash course towards the World Series. Having finished third a season ago, it's time Altuve wins this award.

American League Cy Young- Chris Sale
Others receiving votes: Corey Kluber, Luis Severino, Chris Archer, and Carlos Carrasco

The Red Sox paid a hefty price to acquire Sale from the Chicago White Sox, but he's been worth every penny. Virtually a guaranteed win each time out, Sale leads the league in K/9 and FIP while essentially walking no one. He's not afraid of any hitter that steps into the box, and he's probably going to strike them out. If the Red Sox can make a deep Postseason run, it will be on the heels of Sale's dominance.

American League Rookie of the Year- Aaron Judge
Others receiving votes: Andrew Benintendi and Trey Mancini

Plenty has been made of Judge regressing in the second half, but the reality is his season has been nothing short of spectacular. Leading the AL in homers with 41, Judge has struck out plenty, but he's also coaxed a league leading amount of walks. The right fielder has been at the heart of the Bronx Bombers staying in playoff contention, and he should be plenty of fun for years to come.

American League Manager of the Year- Terry Francona
Others receiving votes: AJ Hinch and Mike Scioscia

After a World Series loss a season ago, the Indians are again a threat in October. While Francona club stumbled out of the gates, they've turned it on down the stretch. While it was the Astros that looked like they'd run away with the league, Cleveland has held their own and gotten hot at the right time. Dealing with plenty of injuries, and getting more from key contributors like Jose Ramirez, it's impossible to overlook the job Francona has done.

American League Reliever of the Year- Craig Kimbrel
Others receiving votes: Andrew Miller and Tommy Kahnle

Forget the 32 saves this year for the Read Sox, Kimbreal owns a 1.50 ERA and a ridiculous 1.25 FIP. He's striking out almost 17 batters per nine innings and he has a career best 1.8 BB/9. If there's a guy you don't want to see on the mound in the 9th or any other inning for that matter, it's Craig Kimbrel.

National League MVP- Giancarlo Stanton
Others receiving votes: Charlie Blackmon, Anthony Rendon, Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt, Corey Seager, Bryce Harper, Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, Zack Cozart

There's been plenty of seasons in which we've wondered what a full year of Giancarlo Stanton might look like. The answer we've been given is that we probably weren't prepared for this. With 50 plus homers already, and the potential to hit 60, his power stroke has been insane. A .644 SLG is an incredible number, and Stanton has taken his OPS to new heights. He plays on a mediocre team, and that was considered, but this offensive year was too fun to ignore.

National League Cy Young- Max Scherzer
Others receiving votes: Jimmy Nelson, Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, Zack Greinke

The Nationals made a significant investment when they signed Max Scherzer, and with the deferred money, it could hang over their heads for some time. The club needs to win a World Series with him as their ace, and in 2017, they'll again have a strong shot. Again a strikeout artist, Schewrzer owns a career best 2.32 ERA and his 5.6 H/9 leads the league. He's positioned to repeat as the Cy Young winner, and should tally his third award.

National League Rookie of the Year- Cody Bellinger
Others receiving votes: Paul DeJong and Ian Happy

Few rookies burst onto the scene and look as complete as the Dodgers Bellinger. Taking over a starting spot since his promotion, Bellinger has been a threat at the plate and an asset in the field since day one. With 34 long balls and a .939 OPS, he's among the best hitters in the National League already. Just 21 years old, Los Angeles is in for a lot of great production from a player advanced well beyond his years.

National League Manager of the Year- Dave Roberts
Others receiving votes: Dusty Baker and Torey Lovullo

Despite slumping somewhat down the stretch, it can't be overstated as to just how good the Dodgers have been in 2017. The NL West has two other potential playoff teams, and Los Angeles has been double-digit games clear of them for months. The team calling Chavez Ravine home has so much talent, and Roberts has positioned them well for the majority of the season. It's World Series or bust for this grouping, but they have been tough to beat when at their best.

National League Reliever of the Year- Kenley Jansen
Others receiving votes: Felipe Rivero and Archie Bradley

Jansen just continues to get better each year. Utilizing virtually one pitch, he has mowed down hitters in 2017. With a 14.1 K/9 and just a 1.0 BB/9, he's about as money as it gets when it comes to any high leverage situation. With the Dodgers calling on him to close out games, he's been more up to the task, and he's as much a sure thing as it gets. Jansen is the gold standard when it comes to relief work, and that should continue to be the expectation going forward.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Mauer Making Us Reconsider The Hall

10 seasons into his Major League Baseball career, Joe Mauer was a number one overall pick playing for the hometown team, and owned the title of being the best catcher in the sport. Across that span, he had played in 1,178 games slashing .323/.405/.468. With awards piling up, it seemed certain a career was destined to be capped off with a Hall of Fame ceremony, the a traumatic brain injury occurred. Things have been different since, but in 2017, the Twins long tenured star is forcing us to reconsider.

There's next to no argument that can be made against Mauer's first ten years in the big leagues being among the best we've ever seen from a catcher. He piled up three batting titles, and MVP award, three Gold Gloves, four Silver Sluggers, and six All Star Game appearances. Despite playing arguably the most demanding position on the diamond, he was among the best players on either team on a nightly basis.

Since 2013, Mauer's post playing accolades have become murky. Dealing with the lingering effects of a career-altering injury, he's been a shell of his former self. Forced into a positional switch playing first base, he profiles oddly for the position as he's never been the traditional power hitter. From 2014 onwards, his slash line has dipped to a more human .275/.360/.388. There have been no awards handed out, and he has put forth just one season above 1.6 fWAR (the current one, in 2017).

Now, looking at his career arc as a whole, Mauer presents an interesting case for Hall of Fame enshrinement. First and foremost, the largest caveat remains that his playing career is not over, and may be far from reaching that point. With another year left on his current deal in Minnesota, and good reason to continue playing (at least briefly) beyond that, we're not in a place for definitive conclusions. That being said, 2017 has presented us an opportunity to take another look at what could become a compelling case.

Knowing what the numbers are, Mauer likely is never going to hit the "automatics." While he'll surpass 2,000 hits, he won't reach 3,000. He's not going to hit 500 homers, and and he may not even reach 1,000 RBI. His case for a plaque really never hinged on those targets anyways though, so let's take a look at what matters.

Assuming he never wins another, Mauer's three batting titles put him in rare air. he's only the third catcher in history to win a batting title, the first since 1942, and the only ever for the America League. With three batting titles to his credit, only 14 players in the history of the sport have repeated as winners more often than the Twins star. Somewhat of a throw in for his batting title years (and one extra), he also has four Silver Slugger awards.

Looking at his MVP award, Mauer also profiles rather favorably. Getting the nod in 2009, he became the first catcher to accept the honor since Ivan Rodriguez in 1999. Only 17 catchers have ever taken home the hardware, and only five have done so since 1970. Most backstops are brought in for their defensive acumen, or the ability to hit for power. Mauer combined both in 2009, and as a catcher, was a threat both with the bat and the glove.

That takes us to arguably the most compelling award, the Gold Glove. Mauer tallied three of them behind the plate. Only 11 catchers in the awards history have won more Gold Gloves than Mauer. Three is an impressive total on its own, but it's what Mauer is positioned to do in 2017 that takes thing up a notch. Joining Placido Polanco and Darin Erstad, the Twins (now) first basemen, would be just the third player in history to win a Gold Glove at two different positions. He would also be the first player in history to win Gold Gloves at catcher, and any other position.

Statistically speaking, Mauer is going to have a hard case to make. Since 2013 and going forward, his career is far from what it was. However, he'll likely still end his time in the majors with a solid .300+ average, and his fWAR will still do some good. Currently he has composed a career mark checking in above Hall of Famers such as Ralph Kiner, Kirby Puckett, Phil Rizzuto, Roy Campanella, and Lou Brock. What needs to be his calling card however, is what could have been, and the hardware that is.

There's no telling whether or not Mauer can put up another Gold Glove caliber season at first base. He's still young enough, and has looked incredible in the role this year. Whether or not that happens depends on usage and how he ages. Right now though, assuming the award is properly distributed in 2017, the Minnesota natives case for The Hall just got a lot more interesting.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Like The Outfield, Buxton Now Owns The Plate

In 2017, the early narrative for the Minnesota Twins was again the offensive struggles for Byron Buxton. The uber prospect had slumped out of the gate, and that's putting things nicely. Through May, he was hitting just .201, and a June slump bottomed him out at .195 as of July 3rd. Then things changed, and they've only gotten better since. While Buxton has grown at the plate, it also appears he's able to command it as well.
Byron Buxton has gone from missing down
the heart, to forcing pitchers to live on the edges.

Early in the season, Buxton struggled with both pitch recognition, and contact rates. He seemed to be guessing often, while swinging through offerings at an alarming rate. Through July 3, the Minnesota centerfielder had tallied 156 swinging strikes in 1,027 opportunities (15.19%). Since that date, there's been just 78 swinging strikes across 583 opportunities (13.38%). While the decrease may not be substantial, the locations tell a different story.

When struggling at the plate, Buxton was missing pitches in the heart of the zone. Whether a by-product of poor recognition, or an inability to get the bat around to a contact point, he was simply leaving far too many hittable pitches on the table. Fast forward to where we are now, and pitchers have begun to shy away from the Twins hottest hitter. Owning a .368/.409/.654 slash line across 39 G since the 4th of July, that's not surprising, but Buxton has dictated that change. The opposition is now needing to use the outside edge of the zone, as well as going up and away, to get him swinging through pitches.

There's also a significant difference in the quality of contact Buxton is making. With 50 hits since July 4, he already has surpassed the 46 he recorded in his first 78 games. Now seeing pitches more clearly, and displaying a better ability to generate solid contact, Buxton has barreled twice as many base hits. Balls in play have come off with better launch angles, and the expected outcomes have only trended upwards.
Buxton's contact has not only been more
significant, but the quality has seen an uptick as well.

At different points throughout the year, we've heard notions that the goal for Buxton needed to be beating the ball into the ground. Whether by bunting or hitting sharp grounders, the though process was that his speed would turn those scenarios into base hits. While that could've been a training mentality, it's not a mindset that ever made sense, and hopefully not one the Twins truly imposed upon the young hitter. At any rate, his surge has seen an increased lift on the ball, and as the launch angle of base hits has grown, so has the overall productivity. It's a pretty basic concept that a hitter isn't going to drive balls into the gaps or generate home runs on balls that are hit on the ground. As Buxton has lifted the ball, his slash line has followed suit.

In summary, it's really been a perfect storm for the Twins young outfielder. He went from having a .280 BABIP, 30.5% chase rate, and 13.9 SwStr% through July 3rd to completely flipping the script. Since that point, those numbers are .432 BABIp, 32.6% chase rate, and 10.8 SwStr%. Still susceptible to expanding the zone, Buxton has covered the entirety of its center,. As opposing pitchers attack him insider or on the outside edge, the next goal will be to define a strong sense of discipline to lay off anything he can't execute on.

No longer beating half the balls he puts in play into
the ground, Buxton is elevating and seeing enhanced results.

What's maybe most scary for Buxton is that there's still room to grow. Expecting a guy to hang onto a .400+ BABIP isn't realistic, but continuing to hone in on the strike zone would help to curve any expected regression. All of this is being done while playing elite, Gold Glove level, defense and that only adds to his overall value. After being a negative fWAR player for early portions of the season, Buxton has jumped that mark all the way to 3.2 trailing only Brian Dozier among Twins. It appears this is much more than a brief flash in the pan moment, and for a 2018 squad that should be legitimate Postseason contenders, that's a great development to bank on.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Who Are The Twins Adding In September?

As the summer draws to a close, the Major League Baseball season is again set to throw us a roster shakeup. With teams having their rosters expand from 25 players to 40, there will be a host of additions to big league clubs across the sport. For a team like the Twins in the midst of a Postseason race, each call up could prove integral when it comes to squeaking out an extra win or two. The question is, who's on their way up?

To refresh, virtually the only stipulation for September roster expansion is that any player called up must be on the team's 40 man roster. While clubs are being given an additional 15 roster spots, they obviously will not have that many openings on their 40 man. For example, the Twins currently have a full 40 man roster, so anyone promoted that's not currently on it, would make another move necessary.

First, let's take a look at how the Twins can clear some space. There's not a ton of options for the club, but the most likely would be transferring players on the 10-day DL to the 60-day. The problem for Minnesota is that there isn't a ton of options.

Both Adalberto Mejia and Dietrich Enns could be shifted to the longer DL if the club doesn't expect them back. J.T. Chargois has had virtually a lost season, but he's not on the MLB DL, so there's no way to clear a spot involving him outside of a DFA, which isn't logical. The Twins could clear space by DFA'ing players like Buddy Boshers or Hector Santiago, but none of those instances seem entirely likely either. So from a top down view, the Twins are looking at maybe one or two spots on the 40 man being open.

To fill those spots, I'd wager Jake Reed and Stephen Gonsalves appear the most likely. The Rochester Red Wings are currently battling for a playoff spot, and with the likelihood that both would be used out of the pen for Minnesota, I can't imagine a promotion prior to the Triple-A season coming to an end. Reed can definitely help the big club in relief, and should've been up a long time ago if not for an injury to start the year. Gonsalves is going to be a difference maker in the coming years, and while his value is as a starter, getting his feet wet in 2017 is hardly a bad thing.

Looking at what's currently available on the 40 man roster, there seems to be a few more candidates worthy of a promotion. Boshers seems much more certain to rejoin the big club than to be DFA'd, and both Aaron Slegers and Nik Turley should join him. Slegers could be a spot starter down the stretch, while Turley profiles well in relief. Despite being on the 40 man and previously making the jump, I'm not sure there's much allure to bringing either Felix Jorge or Randy Rosario back up. Like Gonsalves, Fernando Romero is an impact starter for the Twins future, but with a workload well above previous seasons, and slowing of late, I'd just call his season quits.

From a position player perspective, there's only two players not on the active roster that are possibilities. Engelb Vielma is a glove first shortstop in the same vein as Ehire Adrianza. With Adrianza already used sparingly, and Vielma hitting just .212 in 84 Triple-A games, I can't imagine it worthwhile to ask him to sit on the Twins bench. From a bat perspective, Daniel Palka makes some sense. He's an outfielder by trade, but survives as a slugging hitter. He's a lefty, not the righty that the Twins need, but he owns a .272/.324/.428 slash line in 78 games for Rochester this year. He's a power threat, and adding another pinch hitter for the final month is hardly a big issue.

The way I see it, Minnesota has very little space to create room, and they don't have a ton of candidates needing a call up either. I think we see more players return to the big league club, than we see fresh faces. Also, despite the big league club taking precedence, I'd be far from shocked if we don't see a few players hold out at Triple-A until and Postseason run is concluded.

If I had to handicap things right now, here's who I see coming up, and the likelihood that they do:

Buddy Boshers 100%
Nik Turley 100%
Aaron Slegers 80%
Jake Reed 60%
Stephen Gonsalves 55%
Daniel Palka 50%

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Other Twins Breakout

August has been an exciting month for the Minnesota Twins. While they have continued to command the second American League Wild Card spot, they've also watched Byron Buxton continue an incredible breakout. Despite all of the praise he's garnering, there's another youngster commanding your attention. Enter 24 year-old, Jorge Polanco.

On June 7, the Twins placed Polanco on the bereavement list. His grandfather had passed away, and the Minnesota shortstop was set to return home to be with family. There's been plenty written about the relationship Polanco had with his grandfather. A close friend, Polanco leaned on his elder as a father figure, and respected him very much. 

Upon returning to the diamond, it was almost as if the emotions were continuing to take their toll on him. In 32 games following his return to the lineup, Polanco had hit the skids. He posted a .146/.205/.214 slash line, and he had just five extra base hits over that time frame. For a guy who's bat had always been his calling card, his line had bottomed out at .213/.265/.308.

Then, as the calendar turned to August, Polanco had also seemingly turned a page. Over the course of his last 24 games dating back to August 2, the Twins shortstop owns a .378/.411/.656 line with 15 extra base hits and four longballs. He has been a catalyst for a Twins lineup that is surging, and he's seen his efforts rewarded being bumped up to the third spot in the order. A bat first player, Polanco had once again regained his swagger.

It's incredibly hard to deduce what, if any, impact the passing of his grandfather had on his game. It is fair to note that baseball is an extremely mental sport, and for a guy struggling at his profession, there was probably other things weighing on his mind. Out of minor league options, Polanco was likely spared from a fate that could have had him back at Triple-A Rochester. Instead, he wrestled through his own struggles, and has gotten back to the player Minnesota has always expected him to be.

On the season now, Polanco owns a .253/.300/.390 slash line. While the .689 OPS still sags behind the .757 mark from a year ago, it's a microcosm of how far he had fallen off the wagon. After looking like a player that may need some seasoning to get things back in line, he now appears to be the impact bat that can continue to help Minnesota stave off regression.

What's maybe most impressive when it comes to Polanco, is that he's gotten back on the horse while never truly falling off with the glove. There hasn't ever been much concern with Polanco's ability to hit, but him sticking at short in the big leagues has always been met with skepticism. Now through 130 games in 2017, Polanco has played 860.2 innings at short. In total, he's been worth an even 0 DRS while improving his UZR to -3.7 (from -10.9 in 2016) and increasing his RngR to 1.7 after a -5.5 mark a year ago.

Given the inefficiencies of defensive metrics, numbers aren't nearly the be-all-end-all. What they do tell us however, is that Polanco is hardly a detriment. He doesn't cover the ground you'd necessarily hope for from a shortstop, but his range is above average, and he is hovering right at replacement level when it comes to runs saved. Given the demands of the shortstop position, and the amount of elite gloves that play there, he's been far more an asset than a detriment.

With just over 30 games left for Minnesota, Polanco is putting it together at the right time. His bat is scalding, and while it will see some slowing down the stretch, expecting it to level off to career norms is hardly a negative. On defense, he's continued to toe the line, and that's probably a bit better than was expected.

Over the course of his career, whether or not he has to make a move to second base, the trajectory continues to be an upwards one. Polanco is a guy that should continue to be mentioned among the core of Buxton and Sano. The youth movement has not only begun, but has taken shape, and allows the Twins to be thought of in a different light for the immediate future. This team is going to make waves in the AL Central and beyond; this 2017 run is only the beginning.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Everything Breaking Right For Twins

Coming off a 103 loss campaign a season ago, there was plenty of room for tempered expectations in 2017. While many feared another lackluster season, the expectation always should have been a generous step forward. Given the uncertainty of youth, a three year span with a boom, buster, and normalization felt appropriate to surmise. As we go down the stretch in 2017 however, the Twins have become much more.

Going into 2017, I felt pretty confident that something in the upper 70's seemed like a realistic win total for Minnesota. A .500 record seemed doable, if not a best case scenario, but a certainty to bank on was the floor not once again dropping out. Fast forward to late August and the hometown nine is within striking distance of the division, and pacing a tight knit group for the second Wild Card spot. The results have no doubt been a culmination of 120 plus games of solid baseball, but right now, something different is taking place.

Looking ahead, the 2018 Twins appear to be a team that should target the Postseason or bust. With the maturation of the youth, integration of the veterans, and the landscape of their division, it's a perfect storm. That all held relatively true regardless of what took place this season. Over the past few weeks however, it's been a tying of the old guard, and the new, that has really positioned Minnesota to crack a smile.

As of this writing, Brian Dozier, Joe Mauer, Jorge Polanco, Byron Buxton, and Eddie Rosario are all pacing Minnesota at the same time. Hot streaks tend to come and go, but each of the aforementioned names have seen a consistent and sustained level of success over a period of weeks. While it's great on an individual basis, it's also explained why the Twins have been so able to fight off regression. It's fair to wonder whether one may cool off, but with the chips stacked as five players go off at the same time, there's definitely some room for error.

Each player could have an entire post dedicated to their surge, but from a snapshot view, here's what we're looking at from the names above since the month of August kicked off:

  • Brian Dozier .333/.429/.702 12 XBH 9 HR
  • Joe Mauer .303/.379/.395 5 XBH 1 HR
  • Jorge Polanco .382/.417/.647 10 XBH 3 HR
  • Byron Buxton .316/.349/.566 9 XBH 4 HR
  • Eddie Rosario .346/.375/.679 13 XBH 7 HR
That group above accounts for over half of the Twins nightly lineup. Given the fact that their combined average is well north of .300, and they have produced a glut of extra base hits, it's no wonder why the Minnesota offense is clicking. There's some like Rosario and Buxton that have sustained it longer than others, but the goal is to try and continue to increase the sample size for each of the parties involved.

Quite possibly the best news about the group currently putting the Twins ahead on a nightly basis, are the names it doesn't include. Miguel Sano has been scuffling since the All Star Break (and is currently on the DL), while Max Kepler has yet to really find a groove in 2017. In it's entirety, that full contingent of seven players remain with Minnesota not only for this year, but at least the one that lies ahead as well.

It'd be foolish to suggest that Minnesota is a World Series contender in its current state. As we've seen as 2017 has drawn on though, this team is ready to make some waves. The offseason ahead provides some real opportunity to supplement a strong nucleus, and continuing to get production from a blend of player types will have a Derek Falvey and Thad Levine squad as must watch entertainment.

At some point in the not so distant future, it's a good bet there will be some cooling off. The hope would be that opponents fall victim to the same situation. Given the lay of the land however, the Twins have the deck stacked in their favor right now, and that's not a bad situation to be in at all.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Buxton Turning To Process In Redefining Results

On May 13, 2017 Byron Buxton was near rock bottom. 30 games into his season for the Minnesota Twins, he looked lost at the plate, was batting just .168, and owned a paltry .500 OPS. After an exciting September 2016, his new season had gotten off to a terrible start. Fast forward to today and things have changed, but it's the "how" and "why" that tell the story.

Despite continuing to play otherworldly defense, Buxton was once again scuffling at the big league level. Despite raking at every stop along the way, he just couldn't put it together for the Twins. With only 5 extra base hits through 30 games, and a 4:1 strikeout to walk ratio, things were all going downhill. From the outside looking in, it's not as if there was a point in which things clicked, but small tweaks along the way have now narrated a different story.

Fast forward to August 21, and Buxton is batting .243 with a .682 OPS. It's still a far cry from where he'd like to be, but there's no denying the massive jump in production. He's in the midst of a 12 game hitting streak (.400/.408/.800) and owns a .366/.402/.6123 line in 27 games dating back to July 4th. While the production in and of itself are fun to marvel at, it's worth digging to see what changes took place.

Having both added and abandoned the leg kick multiple times over his career with the Twins, Buxton's swing has been a work in progress. At times, he's struggled with plate coverage, and a weak front side has prevented him from reaching and driving the outside pitch. He's continued to work with new hitting coach James Rowson to find something that works, and as the results come, so to does the comfortability. Outside of the physical changes though, we can eye a few trends that have yielded positive results.

Through April, Buxton had a swinging strike rate of 16.1% and was making contact just 65.3% of the time. Both of those numbers are lackluster, and combining them with a 31.8% chase rate, there was little room for success to follow. Jump ahead to August, and Buxton has overhauled two of those three areas. He's swinging through just 11.4% of pitches, and his contact rate has jumped to 76.9%. He's still chasing often, now 34.8% of the time, but it would stand to argue that the reason isn't because he's being fooled.

Like teammate Eddie Rosario, Buxton is somewhat of a free swinger. Now generating more contact and having an enhanced level of success, he's likely finding himself expand the strike zone on pitches he genuinely likes. While that still isn't going to produce ideal results, it's a better practice than flailing the bat head at pitches you've simply been fooled on. In fact, what Buxton's chase rate illustrates, is that his approach at the plate is still a work in progress, and there's even more to squeeze out when it comes to production.

There have been times throughout Buxton's maturation at the plate he's struggled with different zones of coverage. Whether it be not having the ability to turn on the inside fastball, or to drive the outside breaking pitch, plate coverage was a by-product of a breakdown in swing mechanics. As those have begun to correct themselves, the Twins centerfielder has seen an uptick across the board. The next step for him is to settle in even further on pitch recognition, and hit balls in the zone he choose, rather than the ones opposing pitchers dictate to him.

As the confidence has grown, the output has turned more favorable as well. Looking at the first two months of the season in comparison to the last three, quality has taken a significant leap forward. Rather than dribbling balls into the ground, Buxton has generated quality contact with launch angles that give him a chance to do something on the basepaths. His radial charts between the two instances display a night and day difference.

Right now, as a .240 hitter, the Twins have themselves and above average regular. A Gold Glove defender is doing enough at the plate, Minnesota can't complain. Getting up closer to something like .260/.340/.480 would put him in elite territory. It's encouraging to see the process take shape in more than just the month of September, and it's great to know that there's still room to grow. At 23 years old, the Georgia native is probably just beginning to scratch the surface, and the prime that lies ahead of him remains incredibly exciting.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Emptying Out The Twins Mailbag

It's been a while since I've done a Twins mailbag here at Off The Baggy, and with the Twins playing some really fun and exciting baseball, it seemed like a good time. Soliciting questions from readers on Twitter, there was a handful of solid submissions. As the summer draws to a close, we'll get more concrete answers to some of these.

Before letting the Twins play out the rest of their 2017 season, it seemed like a good time to take a look at some lingering questions about the year that has been, and what lies ahead. This group has no doubt played well above expectations, and that's created a heightened level of excitement surrounding the hometown nine. With that said, let's get into these questions.

There's a ton of talent with those three names, and I think they each carry a unique situation. Among the group, the one I think makes the biggest jump a year from now is Blayne Enlow. He was a steal for the Twins in the 2017 draft, and has dominated short season GCL ball. He could go to Elizabethton considering his age, but he appears ready for full season ball in Cedar Rapids.

Both Landon Leach and Tyler Benninghoff are exciting prospects as well, but there's a bit more reason to slowplay them. Benninghoff, an 11th round pick in 2016, has just returned to the mound following surgery. At 19, there's no reason to rush him. Leach is still relatively new to pitching full time, and while I think he has promise, I'd make him show you at every level for the next few seasons.

I can only surmise that Colon's diet doesn't solely include salads. Not knowing his background, and having never been to the Dominican, trying to peg cultural foods is tough. I can say I love me a good (if that isn't an oxymoron) hot dog, some mac and cheese, or maybe even the two mixed together.

For one reason or another, it seemed like the Twins were destined to keep Garver down until September. He would have been an easy one to peg, but is now finally up. With Rochester playoff bound, I'd imagine we don't see a ton of immediate promotions on September 1st. Also, the 40 man roster is pretty well represented at the big league level.

I'd guess we could see Randy Rosario again, as well as maybe Felix Jorge or Fernando Romero getting work out of the pen. Romero is being limited right now for Chattanooga, and I'd guess he'll be coming up to an innings limit soon. Zack Granite and Daniel Palka should be near certainties from a position player standpoint with both being on the 40 man. If there's a candidate or two off of the 40 man, both Jake Reed and John Curtiss make a ton of sense.

While the quick and easy answer is anybody, the realistic one requires a bit more thought. I've gone back and forth internally as to whether or not a Postseason run saves Molitor. I think though, he's shown enough to prove to Falvey and Levine that the results don't justify the means. It's been a situation in which the Twins have won despite him on more than one occasion.

I think the biggest thing for any new hire is going to be relatability. Minnesota trots out one of the youngest lineups in baseball, and the manager needs to be someone that can connect with youth, as well as different cultures. A progressive thinker isn't going to hurt as well, and someone that meshes with the desires of the new front office will be a must. A name I've wondered about is Sandy Alomar Jr., but I haven't done near enough digging to see if he checks off any of those boxes.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Twins To Perk-O-Late The Pen

After suffering a severe shoulder injury that required his labrum be reattached over the offseason, Glen Perkins is nearing a return to the big leagues. I was skeptical this day would ever come, but the Twins former closer has worked his tail off to be where he is today. The question remains, can this version of Perkins be an asset in relief for Paul Molitor's squad?

Perkins last appeared on a big league mound on April 10, 2016. It marked two innings of ineffective pitching a year ago. You'd have to go back to July 11, 2015 to find the last instance in which Perkins was right on the mound. Fortunately for the Twins, when Perkins was right, he was among the best in the game. A three time All Star, Perkins totaled at least 32 saves each year from 2013-2015. He has been a steadying force at the back end of a bullpen for what amounted to pretty poor teams. As he returns though, it's fair to wonder what is left.

Having now pitched at three different levels on the farm in rehab stints, Perkins has posted a 6.14 ERA across 7.1 IP. His 10 strikeouts in that span are exciting, but they've been paired with an unfortunate five walks. Velocity returning has been a big question, and aside from a few low 90's reports, he's hovered somewhere in the high 80's. It's hard to imagine the life on his fastball being better than what it was, and he's dipped from 96 mph in 2013, to 92.1 mph a year ago.

Looking at the boost Perkins could provide however, is somewhat notable given the Twins current situation. While the bullpen has been better than it started out, there's still some easily replaceable parts. Maybe the easiest place to see the former closer slot in, is with a swap for lefty Buddy Boshers. Across 29.0 IP in 2017, Boshers has posted a 4.66 ERA that's due for even more regression with a 5.41 FIP. His strikeout rate has dipped to 7.4 K/9 and his walk rate has ballooned to a 3.1 BB/9 mark. Effective only against lefties, he's been exposed at the highest level of the game.

Asking Perkins to slot in and take over Boshers' spot in the pen is a pretty mediocre ask. Being better than a 4.50+ ERA while limiting walks shouldn't be a tall task for a big league arm. What we don't know is whether or not Perkins still has the stuff to play at the highest level of competition. It's an easy move to tag him in, and it could end up being just as easy to remove him.

The day appears to be coming that the Twins will need to make a decision. In terms of his rehab calendar, there's only a few days left in which the Twins can leave him on the farm. From everything Glen has stated publicly, he believes he's ready to go and wants to compete. For a guy that's given the organization so much, and has a team option left for next year, he's earned the opportunity for a swan song.

It'd be pretty unfortunate to see Perkins go out and be shelled, effectively ended his time as a big league. His rope is probably pretty close to the end regardless, but it would be a much better story to allow him success and the ability to go out on top. This book is probably in its final chapter, but the author has yet to write the last few pages.

Derek Falvey and Thad Levine are going to have to give the Minnesota native an answer, and the result seems to be a harmless one no matter what takes place. Perkins replacing Boshers is of little note, and should he too need to be replaced, there's more than a few capable arms still in the prospect realms waiting to hear their names called.

Baseball is a tough game, and it generally dictates to everyone when they'll be done playing it. Rarely do athletes go out on their own terms, and some have harder exits than others. I'm pulling for Glen Perkins to ride off into the sunset, but I'm not certain how rocky the path will be.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

All Strikeouts Are Far From The Same

223. That's the number of strikeouts that Arizona Diamondbacks infielder Mark Reynolds put up in 2009. It's a major league record, and has stood for the past seven seasons. In 2017 however, it's almost certain to fall, and both Miguel Sano and Aaron Judge are chasing it. The question is, are all strikeouts the same?

There's an association with the strikeout that it is representative of negativity. In a certain context, that's a fair principle. At it's core, the strikeout is a non-productive at bat the results in an inning likely becoming less fruitful. For guys like Sano and Judge however, it seems a necessary evil, that most major league teams have given into.

Thus far in 2017, both Sano and Judge have launched their share of homers. The former has 26 to his credit, while the latter has 36. When striking out his big league record amount, Reynolds clubbed 44. There's some key differences among the trio however. As the strikeout ties them together, it's the underlying factors that separate them.

During his record setting season, Reynolds drew 76 walks and posted an on base percentage of .359. With a SLG percentage of .543, he totaled an .892 OPS. In comparison, it's Judge that has made his strikeouts less of a detriment than the Twins Sano. On the year, Judge owns a .420 OBP thanks to his league leading 87 walks. at a 1.028 OPS, he also leads the league. On the flip side, Sano has walked just 49 times, and owns only a .354 OBP. While his SLG is a solid .511, his .865 OPS checks in below the .916 mark he put up in his rookie season.

Looking at the group from a top down view, none of the three represent a black hole for their club. The production, despite the strikeouts, remains an asset. Chris Carter, virtually for his whole career, is where you get into the territory of the positives not being worth the strikeouts. While he launched a good deal of homers from 2013-2016, his OBP hovered around .300, while his OPS was north of .800 just once.

For the sake of this argument, Reynolds' 2009 is probably the baseline for where you'd like the combination to come in. The 44 longballs are a great offensive boon, and the .359 OBP is plenty efficient. Under those sentiments, Sano's 2017 is in jeopardy of leaving plenty to be desired. While he has just 26 homers to his credit, he hasn't picked up the pace significantly in the walks department. Finishing with an identical .269 average across 80 games in 2015, Sano has a .385 OBP. Right now, the Twins need Sano to trend more towards Judge, or even Reynolds.

Judge has drawn plenty of criticism for his second half slide. After batting well north of .300 for the first half, pitchers have beaten him consistently with the low and away pitch. Still though, he's drawn walks and has posted elite numbers despite the strikeouts. When the dust settles, his average is probably going to hover somewhere around the .270 mark. Even with that reality, he should have an OBP up in the .380 range, and his OPS will remain above the league leaders.

Strikeouts are something that plague most power hitters, and teams tend to put up with them to a certain extent. Chris Carter is jobless because his peripherals were of next to no value. Mark Reynolds has since reinvented himself and become a much more complete hitter. Aaron Judge is slipping some, but still owns extraordinary supporting stats. The Twins need Miguel Sano to tighten it up at the plate. In 2017, he's trended more towards Carter than Judge or Reynolds. The power will need to play for more longballs, and the in between times need to have more walks filtered in.

Right now, Sano has just over 1,100 big league at bats, and he's still just 24 years old. He can continue to mature as a hitter and shape his approach at the dish. As the Twins continue to work with him, they'll need to focus on the aspect of discipline and punishing mistakes. There's no cause for concern as it relates to the strikeout, but Minnesota needs more production when the ball isn't leaving the yard.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Twins Going Streaking

The 2017 Major League Baseball season has been one that's proven incredibly tough to read for the Minnesota Twins. After pacing the division for much of the first half, there's been multiple times in which the club looks to have lost all hope. As the summer draws to a close however, they've hung around, and it's been in large part to a handful of key pieces getting hot.

Coming off a franchise worst 103 losses, there should have been a massive expectation that this Twins would rebound. While they weren't a team destined for the Postseason, 2015 and 16 highlighted the volatility of young players. After surpassing expectations two years ago, virtually the same group failed them mightily last year. Once again on the upswing, this group is probably much closer to a settling in point.

The veterans in the lineup are doing their part to keep a good thing going. Chief among them, Brian Dozier, is once again experiencing his patented August surge. Recently written about at Twins Daily, Dozier has consistently turn in a strong month to round of the summer. Now through 12 games, he has six home runs and a .340/.375/.736 slash line. Dating back to July 14, the Twins second basemen has posted a .982 OPS, and is once again trending towards a strong finish.

On a much smaller scale, Joe Mauer has always experience a slump and a streak in August. After starting slow, he turned series against the Brewers and Tigers into a .321/.387/.464 slash line that has brought his batting average back up to .279. While he's no longer going to contend for batting titles, he's remained an asset against right-handed pitching, and is contributing at the best time possible.

Looking at youth, the continued emergence of Eddie Rosario has been a sight to behold. While you could consider him a bad ball hitter, the reality is more that he simply chases balls that he has no business swinging at. Arguably his greatest knock as a pro remains his plate discipline, and the amount of time he spends expanding the strike zone. As the months have gone on in 2017 however, he's continued to dial that reality back, and leads Minnesota in batting average because of it.

Now experiencing career best chase rates and swinging strike marks over the past two months, Eddie Rosario owns a .333/.376/.581 line since July 1st, and has put forth a 1.143 OPS in the month of August. In dialing back his approach, he's become arguably the Twins best hitter, and one that hits for both power and contact. Despite the defensive dip this season, he's been incredible at the plate.

On a lesser scale, Byron Buxton is again rounding into form. Since July 4th (and with a DL stint in between), Buxton owns a .371/.420/.500 line across 19 games. Dating way back to May 9, Buxton has played in 71 games for the Twins and has posted a .258/.322/.355 OPS, While that isn't going to do much offensively, combined with his Gold Glove ability in center, that makes him an incredible asset. Whether he continues to shape into a player reflective of the smaller or larger sample size remains to be seen, but the promise is still through the roof.

Unfortunately, players like Miguel Sano and Max Kepler haven't yet hopped on the streaking bandwagon. While each has seen their struggles down the stretch, the hope would be that each has a nice burst left to finish the year. It's absolutely promising however, to see such an offensive contribution from so many different parts of the lineup.

At the end of the day, the Twins probably still aren't a Postseason team in 2017. What the stretch run is showing us however, is that the expectation for 2018 should be a Postseason berth. Given the landscape of the division, and the emergence of this group, things are trending in the Twins favor. No matter what happens the rest of the way, Minnesota is on a better pace than the 2015 squad, and is going to play some really exciting baseball right up until the dust settles.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

2017 Highlights Twins Postseason Dreams Are Close

The 2017 Minnesota Twins have been among the luckiest teams in baseball. No matter how you define luck, arguably the most indicative stat in the game is run differential. Despite being incredibly lopsided in that category, Minnesota finds themselves sitting at .500 on August 10. While it creates somewhat of a mirage for the current season, it highlights the excitement that 2018 should bring with it.

Coming into 2017, Minnesota was looking to turn the page on a season that resulted in a franchise worst 103 losses. Despite not being indicative of their true talent level, the organization absolutely had to reverse course. As the development of young players has continued, they've achieved that result, and will begin 2018 with a whole new outlook. A year from now, we should be watching a team with a realistic Postseason opportunity, and there's a few reasons why.

Maturation Of Youth

It can't be overstated how volatile young players are at the highest level. Miguel Sano went from a rookie phenom, to a sophomore slump, to now settling in to a slugger that can play adequate defense. Max Kepler has struggled mightily against lefties, but has proven valuable, and Jorge Polanco has been forced to work through his first professional struggles. Throw in the emergence of Jose Berrios and the development of Byron Buxton, and the Twins have a nice set of building blocks.

Next season, Minnesota can afford to add in pieces like Fernando Romero, Stephen Gonsalves, Mitch Garver and a host of bullpen arms with the notion that they'll be taken care of. The roster got younger and more talented at the same time, allowing the group to progress and grow together. There's little doubt that some of the next wave will take their lumps too, but the group as a whole will be better positioned for sustainability than in 2016.

The Depth Of The Division

We are starting to see this play out now, but to begin 2018, only the Twins and Indians will have a realistic shot at winning the AL Central. The Chicago White Sox have already gone into a full blown rebuild, and the Kansas City Royals are an offseason away from watching half of their roster walk out the door. In Detroit, the 25 man was held onto too long, has gotten old, and now will need to be pieced together.

Looking at where each organization is presently, only Cleveland and Minnesota appear to have the pieces for sustained winning in the near future. Even before making offseason moves, the Twins find themselves in an enviable spot within their own division. Consider the fact that they'll play those teams most often, and the Twins could wind up with among the easiest schedules in baseball during 2018.

The Front Office Makes Its Mark

It's been mostly a feeling out period for Derek Falvey and Thad Levine this year, that will change over the winter. Front office personnel have already been shown the door, and the expectation should be that it will continue in the coming months. I'd be shocked if Paul Molitor is back, and there will be other coaching staff changes that likely follow.

While a big league manager may not make an incredible amount of difference, over the course of 162 games, a better option can steal a few victories. Look for Falvey and Levine to bring in people ready to elevate the play of their young roster, and get the most out of them for years to come. Who is put in charge this offseason in key positions, has the potential to bear fruit well down the line.

We could take a look at the opportunities outside of the organization as well, but even before that, it's apparent Minnesota has things going for them. During the winter, Minnesota will be in a position to spend and supplement internal talent for the first time in a while. They can realistically elevate their Postseason positioning by making key and timely acquisitions. Knowing that those moves can be paired with a formula already trending in the right direction; the Twins have to be looking ahead with a smile.

Although the excitement of meaningful games late in the season is back during the 2017 season, it'll be a year from now that the Minnesota Twins should be discussing how their Postseason starting rotation looks. It will actually matter, because they'll have fall games to go and win.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Vargas Carousel Revolves Again

As the Minnesota Twins are faced with another roster shuffle, it appears Kennys Vargas is in fact on his way back to the big leagues. After Adalberto Mejia went down, Paul Molitor was faced with an open roster spot. Needing another starter in the coming days, the Twins could turn to already rostered Dillon Gee. With an opportunity to bring up another bat, it's Vargas who gets his seventh transaction, and fourth recall, of the year.

While there's plenty of reason to be excited about a player that looks like the shadow of David Ortiz, the reality is that the comparisons stop there. Now 27 years old, Vargas is hardly a prospect (and was never considered a top 100 entrant even when he had prospect status), and he's done little to separate himself at the highest level. Across parts of four big league seasons, Vargas owns a .738 OPS and a 228/55 K/BB ratio. With 32 homers to his credit, he hasn't exactly excelled at launching the long ball either.

In 2017, things have gotten even worse for what Minnesota may have hoped Vargas could provide. As a switch hitter, he's generally been more dangerous from the right side. Unfortunately this season, Vargas owns a .170/.231/.277 line against left handed pitchers, and just one of his eight long balls have come from that side of the dish. In 47 at bats versus lefties, he's compiled just three extra base hits, and the .507 OPS leaves an incredible amount to be desired.

Quite arguably a greater source of frustration is not necessarily Vargas' struggles, but how they could be avoided. In continuing to promote him, the Twins have passed by alternative options. Mitch Garver and ByungHo Park both represent a higher ceiling addition to the big league club, despite neither of them getting a chance. The Twins roster construction has begged for a right handed power bat virtually all season, and both of the aforementioned names also profiles better in the field.

Through 82 games for Triple-A Rochester, Garver owns a .909 OPS and has been an asset behind the plate. As a catcher, it could be argued that he should've replaced veteran backup Chris Gimenez some time ago. Knowing he can play first base and some outfield as well, his not being added to the big league roster is confusing at best. Garver almost certainly make the 25 man next spring, and not jump-starting his debut seems a bit foolish.

Although Park is not currently on the 40 man, that's hardly an issue for the Twins. Given the club has open spots, as well as an opportunity to trim if they need to, Park should've found his way back. After missing time to start the year, he's hit well at Rochester. Since June 17, Park owns a .309/.355/.495 slash line at Triple-A. The lack of power has been odd (he has just six homers), and the swing and miss tendencies have remained poor (63/11 K/BB). That said, he's 31 and coming up on the latter half of his current deal with the Twins.

Between Garver and Park, Minnesota has two avenues they could choose to push the envelope with. The former appears ready to jump in and contribute at a high level, while the latter represents more of an alternative to Vargas that has some crash and burn potential. What's somewhat frustrating however, is that Vargas represents a move that really doesn't move the needle at all. Despite realistically being a long shot for the playoffs, Minnesota is still playing meaningful games. By making the move they did, it seems Minnesota chose the lowest common denominator.

If everything breaks perfectly for Kennys Vargas, he's a serviceable bench bat. When a team has opportunity to aim higher and make a bigger impact, it would seem to reason that they should. Minnesota will probably welcome one or both of Garver and Park in September, but it'll represent at least a month of missed opportunity.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Closers By Creation, Twins Making It Work

Rewind back a few years and the Minnesota Twins knew who would be getting the ball in the 9th inning. For a long time, the answer was Eddie Guardado. The man nicknamed "Every Day" passed the torch to Joe Nathan, and it was then turned over to Minnesota native Glen Perkins. In recent years though, Minnesota has needed to get more creative. As they have done so though, it seems they've consistently created closers out of thin air.

In 2015, Kevin Jepsen was Minnesota's answer to Perkins breaking down. Acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays, he racked up 15 saves despite having just five across 315 appearances to that point. Then again, a year later, Brandon Kintzler emerged. The long time Brewers veteran picked up his first save since minor league ball, and he would go on to run off 44 more up until July 2017. Over the course of three years, Minnesota had consistently created closers out of thin air.

Should this tell us anything, it's likely that the narrative be closers are overvalued, and underutilized. The save is a statistic that places more importance on the 9th inning of a ball game, despite their being no evidence that it actually is. Sure, the game comes to a close when a team is winning after the 9th, but the game likely was decided long before that. In having a pitcher designated to get the final three outs, one of your best relievers may have missed the opportunity to get a much more important trio of outs earlier in the contest.

It really doesn't matter whether or not a big league team has a "Proven Closer," and holds even less importance for a team not destined for the Postseason. That being said, the Twins appear on a path to again create an asset and this time it's in the form of Matt Belisle. The question is, are the pieces there to make it work?

Unlike Kintzler before him, Belisle is not a groundball machine, and he tends to miss some bats. The former throws harder than the latter however, and they both leave something to be desired in a high leverage situation. For Belisle though, there's a few things working in his favor.

During 2017, Matt Belisle has racked up strikeouts at a 7.5 K/9 clip. That mark is his best total since 2013, and the third highest total of his career. While he does induce groundballs 43% of the time, Belisle uses a low 90's fastball to generate swings and misses over 10% of the time (for just the second season of his career). He's giving up contact at a career low 78% of the time, and balls are being hit hard a respectable 27% of the time.

The beginning of the season didn't go well for the 37 year-old veteran. Through his first 17.2 IP, he owned an ugly 8.66 ERA and was allowing opposing hitters to post an .833 OPS. His last 27.0 IP however have been a different story. He's posted a 1.67 ERA and opposing batters have posted just a .598 OPS. Suggesting it's been a tale of two seasons is more than fair.

Down the stretch, the Twins will be on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Having been sellers at the deadline, they realize the uphill battle doesn't seem in their favor. With such an ugly run differential, regression should be expected to hit hard. However, with 52 games remaining as of August 8, the club has exactly half of those contests against teams with sub .500 records.

As the summer turns into fall, Matt Belisle should be expected to get most of the Twins save opportunities. He's absolutely the veteran candidate that manager Paul Molitor falls in love with. In closing out games, Belisle is hardly a worse option than either of the previous two created closers. Whether or not anything more than a handful of saves comes out of his work in the 9th remains to be seen, but for now the Twins have again created from within.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Twins Will Work Harder And Smarter

On August 5 at Target Field, Baseball Prospectus embarked on the bowels of the stadium to have an in depth discussion with General Manager Thad Levine. Speaking on the course of the season as a whole, and the plans for what lies ahead, there were a few key indications as to what changes may be coming for the Minnesota franchise. Arguably chief among them is that the Twins will win as they fine tune their process.

During the course of the conversation, Levine discussed the fact that both he and Derek Falvey didn't immediately ask to skyrocket the Twins payroll. While they are aware funds are available to them, they'll be making a conscious effort to spend wisely on the guts of the organization, to make the on field product improve. This transition began to rear its head recently, as the departures of Jack Goin (head of what amounts to analytics) and a handful of area scouts were moved on from.

Levine noted that the Twins Analytics Department currently consisted of four full time employees, and that it could swell to nearly double in size a year from now. On the scouting front, he talked pregame Sunday that it was necessary to retain those let go through the draft and trade deadline, before transitioning to the future. It's in these internal areas that the Twins can carve out somewhat of a competitive advantage.

Over the offseason, Minnesota will find themselves in a position to spend for the first time in nearly a decade. A team with an opportunity at a realistic playoff run, supplementing from outside makes a ton of sense. While they're almost certain to be out on big name fish like Yu Darvish, they'll land more middle ground options to help the club take the next step. In making sure those brought in both fit, and elevate the club, Minnesota will lean on those internal departments to help dissect decision making.

Minnesota has already been able to employ different practices and strategies brought in by the new front office. It was noted that the Analytics Department played a very integral role in the recently completed MLB Draft. Figuring out the probability of players lasting past a certain round, to deciding what level of success a guy may have, baseball was being married from an eye test to what the numbers also suggested.

It's in this strategy that Minnesota can begin to shape its future. Given the perceived volatility for players hovering in the middle ground, a more forward thinking process will hopefully give the club a higher ceiling for success. Levine and Falvey will look to employ an organization full of forward thinkers looking to squeeze out every bit of advantage the team can find. Although the dollars may not be spent on the big splash free agent, the hope would be that a commitment to spending from all angles will produce more fruit from each acquisition the club makes.

Looking back at how the organization has been run for years, this is a pretty drastic deviation and something Twins fans will likely look upon with favor. There's no doubt the transition will come with some hiccups, but finding a competitive advantage for an organization that has made the middle ground home, is something you'd be hard pressed not to get behind.

We've already seen some of the internal transition begin. I fully expect a new manager and a handful of other positions to experience turnover in the coming months. What will be worth monitoring, is where each player brought in can squeeze out that extra bit of success that the process will have dictated they are capable. This new regime is beginning to put their stamp on things, and in the years ahead, that should prove favorably for fans across Twins Territory.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

A Deep Dive Into The Twins 40 Man

With the 2017 Major League Baseball trade deadline now behind us, and the end of the season not that far off in the distance, it seems a good time to take a look at the Minnesota Twins 40 man roster. While it's the 25 man collection that draws the most focus, it's the 40 man that represents where answers will come from in any given season. As the club looks to revitalize the 40 man, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine will soon be faced with some tough decisions.

Recently at Twins Daily, prospect guru Seth Stohs wrote up a comprehensive piece looking at who needs to be added to the 40 man roster in November. He outlined the stipulations for 40 man additions, and broke down the situations regarding more than a handful of key names. Looking at his work, the question now becomes, who makes the cut.

Despite being a few months early, here's a stab at where I see Minnesota needing to allocate roster openings to:

Stephen Gonsalves- This is a no-brainer, and he should probably be added before the end of 2017, with the idea that he makes a September big league debut. He's been dominant at Double-A, and should factor into the Twins rotation next season.

Jake Reed- Another guy that should have a very real shot at an August or September debut, Reed profiles well out of the Twins pen. He is a hard thrower, and the hope would be that he continue to blossom into a high leverage option for Minnesota.

Zack Littell- Recently acquired from the New York Yankees in exchange for Jaime Garcia, Rob Antony all but suggested Littell was a lock in a recent interview with Darren Wolfson. Antony noted Littell was the name Minnesota targeted from New York, and sees him as an impact starter for them as early as next year.

John Curtiss- Like Gonsalves and Reed before him, Curtiss is another guy that should be up with Minnesota before the end of 2017. He's been dominant as a closer this year for both Double-A Chattanooga and Triple-A Rochester. With the Twins needing a pen overhaul, it'll be some internal options that are likely called upon first.

Lewin Diaz- I haven't been nearly as high on him as other outlets, failing to rank him among the top 15 Twins prospects. Diaz is just 20 though, and has continued to show power (10 HR) at Cedar Rapids this year, after a .928 OPS in the Appy League a year ago. There's too much upside to let him go unprotected, though I think it'd be a massive ask for a team to roster him at the MLB level all year in 2018.

Kohl Stewart- The former 4th overall pick in 2013 hasn't fared nearly as well as the Twins would've hoped. He continues to post low ERA's, but really hasn't struck anyone out. That being said, he's been good at Double-A Chattanooga since coming back from the DL this year, and I don't think there's any way he'd go unclaimed.

Lewis Thorpe- Having missed essentially two years due to Tommy John surgery and his recovery, Thorpe is still at High-A Fort Myers. He's looked good there though, and is probably more advanced than his current level would suggest. I'd imagine he'd be a stash option for a team, and the Twins will want to protect him.

By my count, the Twins have seven names they'll need to figure out how to protect. I could see Aaron Slegers being added to the 40 man in 2017 for a debut, but am not sure he would need to stick. Recently acquired reliever (from the John Ryan Murphy trade) Gabriel Moya is an intriguing name, and Luke Bard is another guy that appears to be knocking on the big league door. Given that he passed through waivers unclaimed this year, I can't see the Twins making Mason Melotakis a priority, and Nick Burdi shouldn't be an option as he'll be recovering from Tommy John surgery.

As things stand right now, Minnesota has 37 players on their 40 man roster. Glen Perkins will need a spot coming off the 60 day DL if he does pitch this season, but I'm not sure what's left there. Going into 2018, Minnesota will be hoping Phil Hughes can be useful as well, though that seems uncertain as well. If you're having to create room, here's a few guys that could be battling for their spots:

Matt Belisle- Signed a one year deal, and while he's been better after a dismal start, I can't imagine the Twins will bring him back for a second tour.

Buddy Boshers- Boshers has been solid, but isn't posting the per nines he tallied a season ago, and his FIP is ugly. This is a spot you can upgrade with a much higher ceiling player.

Bartolo Colon- A fun story the rest of the way, Colon may retire at season's end. Even if he doesn't, the rotation shouldn't have him in it, and likely won't.

Dillon Gee- This seems somewhat of a tossup, and I've been harsh in regards to Gee. He has never been anything above average, but if the Twins have room to keep him, you could do a whole lot worse as a spot starter.

Kyle Gibson- Far from a certainty, but the Twins will need to offer Gibson an arbitration deal this winter, and they could definitely choose not to. I'd imagine that's unlikely, but the possibility exists.

Nik Turley- Having had a few turns in the rotation, Turley doesn't look like a big league starter. I think his stuff can play out of the pen in shorter bursts, but if he's not given an opportunity they, you can move on.

Chris Gimenez- On a one-year deal with the Twins, Mitch Garver should have taken over his position by now. Regardless, there's not much need to bring Giemenz back in 2018 when the goal will be moreso finding a lower tier depth option.

Ehire Adrianza- This should sort itself out in the coming months, but the reality is that there isn't room on the 25 man for Eduardo Escobar, Ehire Adrianza, and Jorge Polanco. The former two are utility men with somewhat competing skillsets, while Polanco should be the starter of the bunch but has struggled. Adrianza seems the easiest to squeeze out in hopes of better utilizing a bench position.