Monday, April 17, 2017

Push May Shove Molitor Too Hard

Before the 2017 season began, I wrote that Minnesota Twins manager Paul Molitor may be managing for his career in 2017. The crux of the thought process is that he's unproven, age isn't on his side, and a new job isn't incredibly likely to present itself. Now into the early part of the season, it's beginning to appear that the Twins record may not be the determining factor in his employment status a year from now.

While not electrifying by any means, the Twins have gotten out to a nice start. After losing their first 9 games to kick off the 2016 season, a 7-5 record through 12 this year is something Twins Territory will accept. The club has notched two series victories, and really should have had a third (and second against the Chicago White Sox in as many tries). It's that second series against the White Sox though that presents the case against Molitor for new front office mates, Derek Falvey and Thad Lavine.

On Sunday April 16, the Twins held a 1-0 lead thanks to an unlikely inside-the-park home run from Brian Dozier. Hector Santiago was pitching quite a gem, coming on the heels of an Ervin Santana one hit, complete game shutout.

The hometown nine gave up the lead on some rather unfortunate fundamentals from normally sound centerfielder Byron Buxton. Despite leading the big leagues in defensive runs saved through the early going, and having a cannon for an arm, Buxton failed to get in proper position on a Matt Davidson fly ball, allowing Jose Abreu to score from third. There's plenty of room to suggest even a properly played ball would have allowed Abreu to score, but the reality is that Buxton didn't get behind the ball, fielded it to the wrong side, and uncorked a less than desirable throw. It hopped a few times, and came in late.
Davidson's sac fly for the White Sox came in the 8th inning, and it's there that we find the first curious move from Molitor. To start the inning, Molitor replaced Robbie Grossman in right field with Danny Santana. Although Grossman is no asset himself, Santana as a defensive replacement is laughable at best. A year ago, he was worth -9 DRS in the outfield, and he's among the worst defensive players on any 25 man roster. Given the reality that Minnesota was currently going with a three man bench, the move makes no sense, and would eventually come back to haunt them (more on that in a bit).

While not nearly the gaffe that Santana's entry was, Molitor turned the ball over to Matt Belisle in the 8th. It's been relatively apparent in the early going that Ryan Pressly has the best stuff of any Twins reliever. He has strikeout ability, and his velocity is a task for big league hitters. With Jose Abreu and Avisail Garcia due up 2nd and 3rd in the inning, the leverage was calling for the club's best pitcher. Belisle struck out Tyler Saladino, hit Jose Abreu, allowed a base hit to Garcia, and then watched the White Sox first basemen to come around and score on Davidson's sac fly. Pressly may not have held the South Siders down, but I'd have given him the chance.

In the bottom half of the inning, Molitor's decision defensively immediately came back to bite him. Removing Grossman, a high on base guy and a batter with a strong early slash line, Danny Santana hit behind Joe Mauer who had reached on a single. Santana promptly went down swinging and Mauer never advanced beyond first base.

Neither team could push a run across in the 9th, and Molito's earlier decisions were set up to again bite him in extras. During the top of the 10th inning, Leury Garcia hit a looping ball to right field. Not deep in the gap, Santana took a very inefficient route, and turned the base hit from a single to a double. Ryan Pressly was now tasked with a runner in scoring position and no outs, as oppsed to simply having a runner on first.

Whether Pressly or Molitor, the Twins decided to pitch to slugger Jose Abreu with Garcia on third and one out. They struck him out, but then decided to double down on their fortune and throw to Avisail Garcia, who was already 3-4 on the day. Despite Garcia not being an otherwordly hitter, Matt Davidson and Cody Asche followed him in the order, and are arguably easier outs. Garcia made the Twins and Pressly pay, as he ripped a 98 mph pitch over the fence in right field.

In a vacuum, I can understand how nitpicking a single game over a slate of 162 doesn't hold much water. The reality is that marginal teams need to win the ones they have to their advantage, and steal some down the stretch too. What happened against the White Sox was a perfect example of Paul Molitor managing his way out of competitiveness.

Over the course of his tenure with the Twins, he's shown a real ineptitude at times with the bullpen, a lack of understanding in how to best utilize his offensive assets, and an inability to develop his youth. Whether the Twins win or lose 90 games this season, I'd have to imagine the front office is more concerned about how capable Molitor truly is at handling big league scenarios. As the missteps add up, he's building a case against himself. There's validity to Paul Molitor the baseball player being an elite baseball mind. There isn't much to that comment when speaking of the manager though.

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