Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Time for Sano to be Picky

Miguel Sano is one of the Minnesota Twins most prolific hitters, and right now, he's also one of their worst. Through 17 games in the 2018 season, he's had 75 plate appearances and owns a .191/.253/.426 slash line. What's positive is that there's a very clear path to righting the ship. The downside is that the path is one that doesn't come easily for players toting power bats.

Thus far, Sano has struck out 32 times while drawing just eight walks. Extrapolating those numbers over a full 162 game season gives us a 305/57 K/BB ratio. Both of those numbers would be a career high, the strikeouts would be an MLB record, and it would be nearly a doubling of his 178 whiffs in 2016. To be transparent, I have no real problem with a three true outcomes type of hitter, but right now, Sano has to right the ship in order to produce more of the two positive outcomes.

Let's start with some good news. Sano owns an 18.2% swinging strike rate. That number is tied for 3rd worst in all of baseball, but it's directly in line with how he finished 2017. It's also in the same company as players like J.D. Martinez, Javier Baez, and Yoenis Cespedes. If you aren't a fan of swinging and missing, a more encouraging number is Sano's contact rate (63.3%) and his contact rate on pitches in the strike zone (78%). The former is a slight improvement from 2017, while the latter represents a new career high. To summarize, it's not as if Sano is missing hittable pitches, and he's got a very similar approach to what he's always done.

Here's where things get off track however. The Twins third-basemen owns a career worst 33.2% chase rate. That number is up four percent from a year ago, and expanding the strike zone doesn't allow for him to truly harness his power. We see that evidenced by his hard hit rate as well, which at 35.1% is the lowest mark of his career. After owning the 4th best hard hit rate in baseball last season, Sano's current total puts him barely inside the top 100 among qualified hitters this year.

Given the fluctuations in contact quality, it also matters how Sano is putting the ball in play. While the goal should always be to elevate the baseball, doing so with hard contact is a must. Right now, Sano has a career high 51.4% fly ball ratio, but he's dropped his line drive rate to a career worst 10.8%. With his HR/FB number dipping to 21.1% after 27.5% in 2017, we can see a perfect storm of negative events. Miguel is currently hitting the ball weaker, more up than on a line, and fewer baseballs are leaving the yard. For a guy looking to walk or homer nearly as often as he strikes out, the process has become a bit busted.

Earlier I noted that the blueprint for a fix is there however, and that remains true. As a right handed batter, pitchers have decided their best opportunity to work around Sano is to attack the zone low and away. The graph shown allows us to see that Miguel has helped out his opponents far too often this season. When he's offered at pitches, nearly 10% of the time he's doing so with little opportunity of making anything positive happen. Unless he waits back significantly and drives the low and outside pitch to right field, it's hard to get any lift or power generated on a ball you're reaching for.

Over the course of his career, Sano has shown an ability to go to all fields. While his spray chart skews home runs more to the pull side, the opposite fences aren't ignored. There's plenty of scatted doubles to be had the other way, and three of his four career triples have been sent to right field. The goal isn't necessarily to make Sano a hitter determined to use all fields as much as it is to impress upon him that dictating plate appearances is something that a batter of his caliber should be doing. Given the opposing pitcher is aware that mistakes will put them a run down, Sano must be more choosy in regards to the times he takes the bat off of his shoulder.

It's still early in the year, and there's plenty of opportunity for the ship to be righted. This isn't the blistering start that the Dominican native got off to a year ago, but it's hardly a death sentence either. If Sano is really going to be a three true outcomes hitter that's fine, but the process has to be one conducive to productive results.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Reinforcements Needed in Relief

After a drubbing to the New York Yankees in their first matchup since the Wild Card loss last season, the Minnesota Twins had some questions to be answered. Jake Odorizzi struggled, and the bullpen provided little in the form of relief. With position player Ryan LaMarre finishing out the game, Paul Molitor needed some reinforcements, but the question now is; where do they come from?

Leaving spring training, the Twins found themselves needing to juggle a bullpen to include Rule 5 pick Tyler Kinley. He looked promising with velocity out the wazoo, but in what we've seen thus far, little else has come with it. By including Kinley and Gabriel Moya (thanks to a timely Phil Hughes injury) on the 25 man roster, relief staple Tyler Duffey found himself making the trip to upstate New York. Since then, Alan Busenitz has also appeared out of the pen with the big club.

After the 13-run loss, and fourth straight defeat, the Twins optioned Busenitz back to the farm. He'd posted a 6.75 ERA across four innings of work, and while the seven strikeouts are nice, the eight hits are far too many. Moya had been jettisoned previously, as he owned a 10.80 ERA across just 5.0 IP. Giving up three longballs in his brief work thus far, a tweak has to be made as he's now allowed five in just 11.1 IP at the major league level. Kinley is still being held onto after being invested in as a Rule 5 player, but the 24.30 ERA across 3.1 IP simply is unacceptable.

To a certain extent, the problem for Minnesota lies in what moves they've already made. Getting Duffey back to the big league level is a good move. He's posted a 0.00 ERA across 11 IP at Triple-A, and owns a 14/1 K/BB. Behind him though, the options for Molitor and the front office are a lot of the names we've already seen. Busenitz and Moya both look like capable big league relievers to me, but neither has shown they are there right now. John Curtiss could be the next man up from Rochester, but he too would need to get off on the right foot. Outside of those names, there isn't another relief arm on the 40 man roster.

At Triple-A Rochester, Jake Reed (who's currently on the DL),  D.J. Baxendale, and Mason Melotakis are all names of intrigue. Of them, Reed probably has the most upside. None of those three are any sort of a sure thing however, and dipping down a level lower would be asking someone to make a big jump for the Twins. There is the option to ask a starter like Fernando Romero to work out of the pen, but unless he's used semi-regularly, that could be at a detriment to his development.

What this all boils down to is Paul Molitor needing more from the guys currently expected to bolster his pitching staff. Both Odorizzi and Lance Lynn need to be better out of the rotation. When entering from relief, it's been Addison Reed, Ryan Pressly, or bust. Trevor Hildenberger has to return to 2017 form, and Taylor Rogers desperately needs to string together a few strong outings. There isn't a golden ticket waiting to happen, and the cream really needs to rise to the top.

It's absolutely fair to note that the Twins have pitching depth, and it's also fair to suggest that there's a relative quality about it. That being said, the early season returns have been underwhelming, and the group as a whole must do some soul-searching to find out what more each individual can offer.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Odorizzi Shows Importance of Warmth

Thus far the Minnesota Twins have played just 12 games during the 2018 Major League Baseball season. When they have played, they've been met with suboptimal weather conditions more often than not. Playing in 80 degree heat against the Cleveland Indians down in Puerto Rico, Jake Odorizzi may have unintentionally displayed just how much of an effect the weather has on certain aspects of the game.

Over the course of his career, Odorizzi has hardly been the definition of an efficient pitcher. He's never reached the 200 inning plateau and there are no complete games on his big league resume. For a guy who's walked his fair share of batters over the course of his career, 2017 saw that category swell quite a bit. In his first handful of turns with the Twins, things hadn't slowed down in that category either. Then Jake was given the gift of warmth.

Against the Indians, Odorizzi threw 97 pitches across 5.0 IP and gave up four runs on six hits. Maybe most importantly, he walked just one batter while striking out six. The line looks worse than the outing was. Odorizzi served up a hanging curveball to Francisco Lindor on a 3-2 count at a point in which the ball should've been thrown nowhere near the strike zone. He then was teed off on by Jose Ramirez, and that should've ended his night. Left in a batter too long, Michael Brantley also got a solo shot in off the Twins starter.

Coming off two rocky starts though, Odorizzi had to like where his command was while pitching in Hiram Bithorn stadium. Despite having watched the game, I'm not able to visually break down the performance as the Puerto Rican venue isn't set up with Statcast necessities allowing the transmission of data to Baseball Savant. Even while offering strikes at a 60% clip, the former Rays pitcher found himself avoiding three ball counts, entering just four prior to Lindor's home run. Two strikes were a common theme, and being ahead of hitters was a place he routinely was able to work from.

There's no benefit to Odorizzi, or his new teammate Lance Lynn, suggesting that their slow starts have been due to the weather. While every player has to deal with it, gripping a Major League Baseball is a tough ask from the mound when each pill is practically frozen. Combining that with the inability to get and stay warm throughout an outing makes an already difficult task one that seems like an uphill battle.

Minnesota gave up very little to acquire Odorizzi, but that doesn't change the impact they need him to have on their starting rotation. No matter what the weather looks like, Jake is going to need to improve on a process that's yielded a 5.25 FIP thus far in 2018. Coming off a 5.43 FIP a year ago with an already solid defense behind him, it was going to be more on his pitching ability to turn things around than it would be the other teammates around him. With his back injury supposedly behind him, the hope is that the Twins starter can get back to the days of walking sub-3.0 per nine and pushing the FIP back below 4.00.

With the weather eventually (we hope) heating up here in Minnesota as well as across the country, we should expect to see more good than bad from Odorizzi going forward. The expectation would be that Puerto Rico is providing ideal weather conditions, and starts like the one we saw against the Indians represent more of the norm than the outlier. The flip side to the equation is that as the weather improves, so too do the opportunities for hitters. The ball flies further and they too are able to get in a better rhythm. For now Odorizzi has to keep working on the process, and know that as surrounding factors improve, so to will the results.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Could Jose Be This Good?

The Minnesota Twins have played fewer games than anyone in Major League Baseball thus far in the 2018 season. With weather cancellations and scheduled off days, Paul Molitor's club has almost been off the field for as long as they've been on it. Of the 11 games they have played however, Jose Berrios has pitched in three of them. While it's too early to draw any substantial conclusions, if the immediate returns are any indication, the bar as to just how good the Puerto Rican can be has been raised.

Jose Berrios routinely found himself on top prospect lists in 2015 and 2016. He was considered a top 30 prospect across the league, and topped out at #17 on Baseball Prospectus' list prior to the 2016 season. The reports surrounding his ability on the farm were glowing, but the general consensus was that he profiled as a number three starter with the potential to reach #2 type heights. What wasn't expected was for Berrios to profile as an ace. Those expectations were shared by plenty around the game, but the one who likely disagreed with them, was none other than Jose himself.

A workout warrior, Berrios has made a habit of posting his beach sessions during the offseason. He's pushed cars and flipped tires, all while continuing to hone his game from the mound as well. The result thus far in 2018 has been nothing short of exceptional. Opposing hitters have been overmatched, and Berrios has kept his inefficiency bugaboo at bay as well. Keeping this up would put him on the trajectory entering into that ace conversation. So, how is he doing it?

Velocity isn't the key here for Jose, as he's sitting at 94.2 mph on his fastball. That's exactly in line with his 94.1 mph career average. He's also throwing his pitches in similar amounts in comparison to a season ago. Relying on his fastball just over one-third of the time, his curveball makes up nearly another third of his offerings. What is happening though, is that opposing batters are clearly having a tougher time with the pitches being sent their way.

In 2018, Berrios has upped his chase rate to 35.8% as opposed to just 30.5% a year ago. He's generating a career best 10.6% swinging strike rate, and the 78.6% contact rate is also a career mark. Owning the strike zone is also something Berrios seems to have focused on. His 66.7% first strike mark is nearly 10% better than his career norms, and it jumps over 6% from the 2017 output. When he's at his best, Berrios is filling up the zone and making quick work of opposing lineups. It's when he slogs through outings that there seems to be more opportunity for the opposing offense.

Right now, through a three game sample size, it's as simple as Berrios being locked in. His 24/1 K/BB is dazzling for a guy who's posted 5.4 BB/9 and 3.0 BB/9 in his first two big league seasons. If homer runs and free passes have been the straw to break his back across previous starts, he's simply eliminated those detractors for the time being.

Now, over the course of what will hopefully be a 200 inning season, expecting Berrios to carry the 24.0 K/BB ratio, or the 0.629 WHIP is a fool's errand. What's not out of the realm of possibility however, is that he repeats a consistent process that yields opportunity for current results. There isn't a pitch the Twins hurler throws that doesn't have significant movement. Making sure to appropriately line up even his fastballs so that they catch or entice the zone remains a must. The more Paul Molitor and Garvin Alston can get Berrios to work with high strike percentages, the better.

At the end of the day, 2018 was going to be an interesting season for Berrios after coming off a 3.89 ERA and 3.84 FIP during 2017. Even substantiating those numbers would make him a key cog for the Twins in the years to come. Pushing towards the dominating strikeout machine he's trended towards to open 2018 would absolutely push him into a conversation for the next tier.

Whether or not batters continue to make less contact, chase often, or whiff more against Berrios remains to be seen. Keeping the ball in the yard and forcing the batter to work will forever be the key areas of focus, and right now, it looks like he's dialed in.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Kepler Committing Even if He's Not All In

Over the offseason and into spring training, plenty of discussions were had with Max Kepler in regards to his approach. Media covering the Twins probed, and I'd imagine that hitting coach James Rowson continued to challenge the young German. After failing to take a big step forward in 2017, it continues to seem like there's so much more potential left in there. Through the early part of 2018 however, it seems that Kepler has made a few tweaks, and given his comments, they may come as somewhat of a surprise.

When talking with Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press back in March, Kepler said "I'm not going to be swinging up and doing all that." He not that "it's not about launch angle" for him, and that his goal is to get his "bat head in the zone as early as possible." There's nothing wrong with any of those comments, but in recent years, we've seen the data suggest that the best avenue for success when putting the ball in play is by doing so in the air.
Kepler 2017

The reality at the big league level, is that ground balls simply don't equate to consistently high-yielding results. Major league players are more than capable of handling routine plays on the ground, and most are just fine turning even the spectacular opportunity into an out. Whether lifting the ball for liners in the gaps, or sending it flying for home runs over the fence, success in the game today comes through the air.

Despite Kepler's comments suggesting he isn't ready to adopt that principle, the results suggest that he may have seen the fruits the process is able to bear. After owning a 12.7 degree launch angle on average in 2017, he's boosted that to a 14.2 degree mark this season. In doing so, he's also seen his fly ball percentage go from 39.5% in 2017, to a whopping 53.6% this season. While getting the ball in the air, he currently has (an unsustainable, but notable anyways) a 20% HR/FB rate in comparison to just an 11.5% mark from a season ago.

Obviously getting the ball in the air also requires you to make strong contact. In that department as well, Kepler has upped the ante. He's generating a career best 42.9% hard hit rate, and pitch recognition seems to be something he's a bit more honed in on as well. With a career 29.5% chase rate, and a 28.5% mark from 2017, he's toting just a 25.6% chase rate thus far in the current campaign.
Kepler 2018

For a guy like Kepler, being able to generate enough power for extra base hits will be key to taking the next step forward. While he does have plenty of speed at his disposal (he did have 13 triples in 2015 at Double-A), being considered a true threat as a corner outfielder relies upon some thump rearing its head. What's encouraging is that Kepler's frame has always suggested that it will come, and the output has displayed a reality that it may just be a small tweak here or there from sticking for good.

Right now, it's plenty early to be drawing any season-long conclusions, but you absolutely have to be impressed with the results. If Kepler was consulted right now, I'm not sure that he'd agree in his approach being changed at all. It's also not particularly fair to attribute his early success solely to the lift he's applied to the baseball. However, if he's being fair, there's little to detract from the results at this point, and we have a measurable process to point towards.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Mauer Appears to Have Found it Again

Through eight games in the 2018 Major League Baseball season the Minnesota Twins have played to a .500 record. Having had to deal with blistering cold, and even some snow, it's hardly felt like a true baseball season. If there's one thing that has felt warm and fuzzy however, it's been the look and output of first basemen Joe Mauer.

In 2017, Mauer returned to the land of .300 batting averages for the first time since 2013. He posted an .801 OPS bolstered by a .384 OBP all while looking the part of a guy that has a trio of batting titles under his belt. Having already transformed himself into a Gold Glove caliber first basemen, getting back to his old ways at the dish was a nice sigh to see. What's encouraging is that early returns in 2018 suggest that there may be more to come.

To understand where we are, we should probably take a look back at where we've been. The last time Mauer was considered "himself" in 2013, he was putting balls in play with a 37.4% hard hit rating. His chase rates (O-Swing %) and swinging strike percentages have really never gotten out of line, which indicates that his going well has always been a reflection of barreling the baseball. Fast forward to when things took a turn for the worst, and we find ourselves at the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Mauer's .732 and .718 OPS in those two seasons respectively are a career worst. It's no coincidence that those numbers were posted in conjunction with 28% and 29.8% hard hit rates.

Now let's jump back to the present. A year ago, Mauer looked like a revitalized and rejuvenated player. His 2.2 fWAR last year was a high water mark since the last time he was an All Star (2013), and it was backed by a 36.4% hard hit rate. What's great is that the early returns in 2018 don't make that look like an anomaly, and if anything, suggest that things may be trending even a bit better.

Sure it's early, so let's pump the breaks on another MVP type season, but Mauer's start is pretty eye-popping. Thus far the Twins first basemen has a career best 47.6% hard hit rate, and he's already put 11 balls in play with an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher. A season ago his total was 204 and right now he's on pace to slightly eclipse that with a total of 223. Diving in even a bit further to those barreled balls, 10 of the 11 have been hit 100 mph or harder. In 2018 Mauer generated exit velocities of 100+ mph on 105 different occasions. With his current pace, he'd nearly double that in 2018 as he tracking towards 203 occurrences.

What we're seeing in the early going from Mauer is a batter that's not only locked in, but one that isn't being cheated either. His 13.4% chase rate is more than 3% better than at any other point in his career. Having always had a very good idea of where the strike zone is, Joe is currently dictating at bats, than walloping the baseball when it comes into his hitting zone. Last season, Mauer's 13.9 K% was 26th among qualified MLB hitters. At just 10% out of the gate in 2018, only 15 qualified hitters have posted better numbers.

There's no denying that there's a level of regression awaiting its turn to set in. After all, Mauer has a current seven game hitting streak and owns a .375/.500/.542 slash line out of the gate. The .429 BABIP is incredibly high, but also reflective of the quality contact he's continued to generate. Even with regression though, the process has yielded results that should display a level of sustainability with the assumption that the blueprint is stuck to over the course of the season.

At the end of the day, Minnesota isn't going to watch Joe Mauer win another batting title by the end of his career (Jose Altuve exists in the American League). What is becoming more clear however, is that there's some serious ability left in the tank for a guy trending towards a Hall of Fame career. On the final year of his deal with the Twins, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine would be well served to bring this guy back for another couple of years. If Joe wants to keep trotting out to the diamond, it doesn't seem like his skills have told him that's a bad idea.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Kinley Conundrum is Coming for Twins

Thus far in 2018, the Minnesota Twins have played seven baseball games. They've had to deal with frigid temperatures, some snow, and even a postponement in the early going. What they have yet to need due to the circumstances, is a fifth starter. That leash could soon be coming to an end however, and Rule 5 draft pick Tyler Kinley could be caught up in the heart of the shuffle.

Through the seven games, Minnesota has won three times by at least four runs, and they were beaten recently by the Seattle Mariners to the tune of a seven run deficit. Despite what would seem like a few opportunities, Paul Molitor has only inserted Minnesota's Rule 5 pick into one game. Kinley got an inning of mop-up work during the blowout loss to the Mariners. He threw 22 pitches over one inning and gave up a hit, run, and walk while tallying two strikeouts.

During his inning of work, it was ever apparent as to why the Twins both wanted to grab the former Miami Marlins prospect, and why they were able to. He topped out at 96 mph, reaching that velocity on nine of his 22 pitches. There was also three sweeping sliders at 88 mph that were offered to Mariners hitters. Just 50% of his pitches were in the strike zone however, and there were more than a couple that appeared simply non-competitive. Velocity and lack of command isn't a new blueprint, and it's one that many Rule 5 draftees possess. In being held back until this moment however, it seems widely apparent that manager Paul Molitor doesn't see the training wheels coming off any time soon.

This is where things begin to get a bit hairy for both the Twins and Kinley. With Ervin Santana still on the shelf (and frankly not looking like he'll be back before June), Phil Hughes is looking like the most likely candidate to be inserted into the Minnesota rotation. He could be needed as soon as Friday, and the expected move would be that reliever Gabriel Moya would be sent to the minors. In 2.1 IP thus far, Moya has allowed 2 ER on 1 HR and 2 H. It's a small sample size, and the numbers don't suggest much. While he has dominated in the minors, and looks the part of a big league reliever, he has the unfortunate burden of carrying options. What this does for Minnesota though, could be described as suboptimal.

In sending out Moya, Minnesota decreases their relief arms by two. Molitor already isn't using Kinley (for fair reasons), and Moya is no longer at his disposal. Coupled with the fact that Trevor Hildenberger simply has not looked right since spring training commenced and Zach Duke has been effectively (but equally ineffective) wild out of the gate with his new team, the Twins relief corps finds themselves immediately stretched. There's little denying that Alan Busenitz couldn't be helping the big league club, but right now there's just no avenue to make it happen.

While sorting this all out, Derek Falvey is also faced with a reality that could end up being somewhat of an "egg on face" situation. Sure, Kinley's velocity was intriguing enough to take a flier on, but he really didn't make sense for the Twins given the other options. During the roster shuffle surrounding the Rule 5 draft and beyond, Minnesota lost Luke Bard, Nick Burdi, and J.T. Chargois. Burdi wasn't going to factor into the plans this year as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, but both of the other two are on big league rosters and showing nicely.

As a Rule 5 pick, Bard has the same stipulations as Kinley does. During spring training with the Los Angeles Angels, Bard never appeared in jeopardy of missing out on the 25 man roster however. He's backed up the vote of confidence by turning in a 1.42 ERA across his first 6.1 IP this season. The eight strikeouts have equated to an 11.4 K/9, though he does have an ugly five walks in that same span as well. Chargois was a waiver claim by the Dodgers, and despite that suggesting he nearly passed through unclaimed, one of the best teams in baseball saw and avenue to improve their pen. He's rewarded them with 3.1 scoreless IP giving up just 2 H, striking out three, and working around 95 mph with his fastball.

Now is too late to boo-hoo over the loss of players that could have been capable of providing value in the Twins pen. What's going to be tough to stomach however is if Minnesota is forced to give up on Kinley after a matter of weeks, or even a month, and watch their alternative options thrive. At some point soon though, Paul Molitor and the Twins brain trust is going to face a crossroads that determines how they move forward. A team with Postseason aspirations can't have unusable assets out in the pen, and with guys scuffling out of the gate, there has to be more trustworthy options available sooner rather than later.

We shouldn't have to wait much longer to see how this situation plays itself out, and hopefully, the sting won't be too bad when all is said and done.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Twins Stars Being Attacked Similarly

Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton are arguably the Twins most notable young stars. On offense, they provide value in different ways, but Paul Molitor's hope is to get a high level of production out of each of them. So early into the 2018 Major League Baseball season, there's not much to be said about the sample sizes or returns. One thing appears certain though, opposing pitchers are attacking the Minnesota duo in a similar fashion.

Through their first four games, Sano and Buxton have seemed to be pulling off a handful of pitches when observing through the functions of the eye test. Both players have inflated swinging strike rates out of the gate (Buxton 22.7% Sano 21.2%), and it appears a good deal of the misses are coming in a similar place. When looking at the zone profiles for each batter, Sano and Buxton are both missing pitches in a near identical location.
Although opposing pitchers are making Sano work a bit more when it comes to pitch recognition, the low and away pitch presents a similar challenge for both Twins hitters. When Buxton is in the box, he seems to get a steady diet of fastballs in, with the out pitch being a sweeping slider or curveball that darts away. Bat speed isn't a problem for Buxton at this stage, but attempting to turn on a pitch darting away is almost always going to induce soft contact. Miguel may not be seeing as many pitches tail away, but the ball getting to that bottom right corner of the zone still doesn't present an opportunity for it to be driven out to left field.

Looking back at their body of work as a whole, I don't think there's any reason to suggest that either Buxton or Sano is a dead pull hitter with a significant deficiency when it comes to going the opposite way. Both have a significant amount of thump in their bat, and hitting to the pull side, when possible, is going to be conducive of the most ideal results. What we can see based upon where pitchers are throwing them, and the contact that comes as a result, is that the "when possible" note holds some significant weight.

Again, just looking back over the small sample size that is the 2018 season, both Sano and Buxton have an instance in which they properly attacked the low and away pitch. Against the Orioles on April 2, both players were served pitches more towards their swing and miss zone (although Sano's was pretty close to middle in). Buxton sat on the pitch (a fastball as opposed to a slider), and drove it to right field for a single with a 106 mph exit velocity. Sano attacked his opportunity to the tune of a 110 mph opposite field home run. Despite not utilizing a breaking pitch, Orioles pitcher Kevin Gausman tried to attack the two Twins hitters in a place where they've shown a deficiency. Handled correctly however, both were able to execute a solid approach and generate favorable results.

Over the course of the full season, protecting the outside corner of the strike zone will continue to be a must for the pair. While Buxton isn't going to hit home runs at the pace Sano will, both have the opportunity to accumulate significantly more hits if they can read up on the book that's apparently out on them. Taking away opposing pitchers areas of opportunity only will help to raise their own threat level at the plate.

At any level of the game, getting away from the tendency to yank everything, or finish swings early, is a practice that requires real discipline. By trusting their bat speed, and knowledge of the strike zone itself, there should be plenty of baseballs that both Miguel and Byron can drive into right field. For now, opposing pitchers are likely going to remain focusing on that area of the zone, and it'll be up to the two Twins stars to force their hand.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Digesting the Twins Early Success

Through the first weekend of the 2018 Major League Baseball season, the Twins have experience both heartache and jubilation. From a walkoff loss to a pair of dominating wins, the emotions have run the gambit. While not trying to analyze everything from such a small sample on a granular level, there's been a few things that have stuck out across the first trio of games.

Having now just left Baltimore and embarked on Pittsburgh, everything Minnesota has accomplished thus far has come in the same city. Even in such a small sample, there's a few things that have taken place, and a few more worth monitoring as the season draws on.

Here are a couple of the highlights:

  • Lost in the walkoff lost, Jake Odorizzi was exceptional. He gave up just two hits, displayed the very strong spin rate that was part of his calling card, and sent seven Orioles hitters back to the bench. Using Fernando Rodney in a second inning after sitting through the offensive side was a curious move, and putting Addison Reed in during an incredibly low leverage spot seems to diminish his value.
  • Kyle Gibson followed in Odorizzi's footsteps well, but the results weren't quite as indicative as the process. Sure he allowed no hits through six, but the five walks highlighted a bit of a command issue. At the end of the day, that's a strong debut in 2018 for Gibson, and substantiating his second half in 2017 remains key.
  • Miguel Sano already has back-to-back homer games, and that's probably going to happen often this season. Unfortunately he also leads the league with eight strikeouts in 14 at bats, and is on pace for an incredible 432 whiffs over the course of the season. While there's no way that pace continues, the Twins need him to be a bit less feast or famine. I'm near certain Sano hits 30 homers, and 40 should be well within reach also. He's got to be an OPS monster though, and that will require a bit more plate discipline than he's shown early on.
  • Brian Dozier has a 1st pitch homer to lead off a game. I'd imagine that's something we'll be repeating plenty as well.
  • Jose Berrios missed a Maddux in his first start by eight pitches. His dominating performance against the Rockies may have been a bit more sexy due to the 11 strikeouts, but there's something to be celebrated in a complete game shutout.
  • Entering 2018 and making the team as somewhat of a surprise, Ryan LaMarre had a 2-37 output in the big leagues. He's now 2-2 with the Twins in a pair of pinch hit opportunities. Coming off the bench as a bat, he's continuing to do his job early.
  • With a few hits to his credit already, Byron Buxton has gotten off to a better start than in previous seasons. Opposing pitchers are still have some success making him chase sliders low and away. Either letting them go, or sitting back and driving them to right field would be a strong approach for the Twins centerfielder.
  • For a team with Postseason aspirations, and one looking to close the gap on the Indians in the AL Central, beating the clubs you're better than is a must. That's started out well with a series victory in Baltimore.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Show 18 Digs In

One of the highlights of each spring training is the annual release of MLB The Show from Sony's San Diego Studios. Following an up and down year in 2017, MLB The Show 18 had some lofty goals to deliver on. With gameplay upgrades being the most integral features needing to be addressed, the team put in a ton of work. For their efforts, MLB The Show 18 comes out looking like a home run out of the box.

First and foremost, the presentation includes notable upgrades. On the menu screens, there's a much cleaner look to finding the avenue of gameplay you'd like to tackle. Not only are things presented better, but they also function at a much higher clip as well. Whether on the main menus or in Diamond Dynasty a season ago, menu lag was rather rampant. This season, everything flows smoothly and quickly, allowing you to easily cycle through your choices.

Game modes stay the same this year for the most part, outside of the exclusions of Online Franchise and Season Mode. In Franchise mode, there's relatively little of note worth highlighting. The reality is that the new "Phases" The Show 18 has introduced really only cuts up the experience into a more bite sized model. If you're a franchise player looking to go in depth with your favorite team, you'll likely find categorizing things into Phases as a somewhat unnecessarily simplified way to disperse information. At it's core, the mode remains the same, and that's a good thing. You can play franchise games in retro mode, as well as having multiple styles to complete games in less than the standard 45 minute window.

In Road to the Show, the RPG element remains, and the storyline starts to expand. No longer are you a top prospect, but instead you must feel the grind of rising through the minor leagues. Gone are the attribute points, and in their place is a system that integrates real time stat boosts reflective of your immediate in game performance. It seems to work just fine, and while there are now caps holding you back from being a 99 everywhere, picking a player type that you deem most valuable only adds to the strategy element of the mode. There's nothing groundbreaking here, but I'd imagine fans of the mode will find the tweaks to be refreshing.

Looking between the lines and on the diamond itself, the team at San Diego Studios deserves some serious commendation. After the hitting engine drew plenty of ire last season, it seems near perfect in this iteration. There's new post pitch feedback which helps to detail how you contacted every single pitch. The ball flight paths have only taken another step forward, and the physics involved mimic real life wonderfully. Outfielders still jog to balls a bit too often for my liking, and there's a premium placed on infield defense that sometimes makes what should be a semi-routine play turn into a base hit, but for the most part it all works.

After taking a massive step forward a season ago, Diamond Dynasty had a large amount of expectation to live up to. Content was king in The Show 17, and that needed to once again carry the mode that San Diego Studios draws in a significant cash flow from. While there's been server hiccups, it's nothing like we saw last year. I've lost a few games and stat missions early, and while frustrating, I'm willing to give a pass on the early innings missteps. 

What I didn't anticipate is that the shear volume of content involved with The Show 18's version of Diamond Dynasty actually feels like a turnoff. As opposed to teasing future missions and programs a season ago, a ridiculous amount of tasks are thrown at you right off the bat this season. The overwhelming feeling of things necessary to collect acts as somewhat of a deterrent. Plenty of players have loaded lineups already, and it's a direct reflection of money pumped into the mode. As someone that completed every single mission, program, and milestone from the mode a season ago (as well as doling out a significant sum of cash), I just find myself ready to take a significant step back from the competition this year.

As a whole, The Show 18 absolutely got it right. The graphics and presentation have taken another step forward, the gameplay is near flawless, and the shear amount of avenues to play is nothing short of great. For me, a more controlled approach to Diamond Dynasty would have been welcomed, but I look forward to diving further into franchise mode this time around. Not just a yearly roster update, The Show 18 is definitely worth a purchase.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Guys Carrying the Twins

We've made it, it's finally here, the last day without meaningful baseball for the next six months has arrived. On March 29th, the Minnesota Twins will kick off the 2018 Major League Baseball season with Jake Odorizzi toeing the rubber against Dylan Bundy and the Baltimore Orioles. Having offered some opinions on the league-wide awards, I figured now would be a good time to dive into my predictions for the hometown club.

Going into the year, expectations are relatively high for Paul Molitor's group. They're coming off a Postseason berth and have the advantage of playing in a weak division. Although the gap may not yet have been closed on the Cleveland Indians, there's no argument that it hasn't been made substantially smaller (at least on paper). If the Twins are going to make noise in the Central, American League, and across Major League Baseball as a whole this year, these are the guys who will be a big part of the process.

Team MVP- Miguel Sano

Despite being the reigning MVP, and entering a contract year, I think Sano overtakes Brian Dozier. Coming off an offseason that saw plenty of ups and downs, the third basemen appears all system go. There's no suspension looming, and the rod inserted into his leg doesn't appear to be holding him back in the slightest. Although the numbers don't mean much, Sano turned in an impressive spring, and they bat is absolutely going to play. I'd bet heavily on this being the first 30 home run season of his career, and pushing towards 50 is hardly out of the question if he can stay healthy. Twins fans have been waiting for his emergence since being a teenager, and Miguel Sano is finally ready to explode.

Pitcher of the Year- Jake Odorizzi

A season ago, Orodizzi posted the worst ERA of his career, was above 5.00 FIP for the first time, and walked a career worst 3.8 batters per nine. Why in the world would he be the best Twins pitcher at 28 years old? Well, I think there's plenty to be made of the back injury that he pitched through for the bulk of the season. Odorizzi isn't going to get much of a defensive boost as he already played in front of a good one with the Rays. I do believe he has middle-of-the-rotation stuff however, and the floor is very high with him. Jose Berrios has the ability to be a better pitcher than Odorizzi, but there's a decent level of volatility there as well.

Rookie of the Year- Mitch Garver

After finally making his debut in September 2017, I believed that Mitch Garver was deserving of a promotion much earlier. He absolutely raked at Triple-A Rochester, and it's his bat that brings intrigue behind the dish. Pairing with Jason Castro, Paul Molitor (won't but) should platoon his two backstops. Garver can dominate left-handed pitching, and he's more than capable behind the plate. He'll throw out his fair share of would be base stealers, and I'd expect him to be a bright spot for Minnesota. Deviating away from the veteran backstop that offers little in terms of offensive upside, Garver has the talent to be a true threat on his own.

Most Improved- Max Kepler

Last season saw the emergence of Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario, and even Jorge Polanco down the stretch. Miguel Sano has been a known commodity for a bit, even if I believe there's more in the tank. This season though, I think we see Max Kepler really begin to come into his own. For a while I've been of the belief that Kepler could be cut from a similar cloth as Christian Yelich. A good defender with adequate speed that has a real ability at the plate. Thus far Kepler has struggled with lefties, and he's yet to really set himself in the batters box. Hitting the 20 home run plateau for the first time is a good bet, and it's really only the tip of his offensive ice berg.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Here's How It Looks On Opening Day

Back on March 10th, I made some tweaks to my initial Minnesota Twins roster project and dubbed it 2.0. Looking back at that entry, it seems near perfect to me, but there's been a few minor tweaks since that point. With Opening Day happening this week, I figured it a good time to put everything down in pen and make a final suggestion as to what Paul Molitor has available in Baltimore.

Keeping with the previous theme, I'll include the players from roster projection 2.0 and simply strike-through the names no longer expected to make the club. Minnesota has an exhibition with Washington in D.C. on Tuesday the 27th, and then the games count. Here's who I expect them to open 2018 with:

Infielders (9)

  • Jason Castro C
  • Mitch Garver C
  • Ehire Adrianza Util
  • Brian Dozier 2B
  • Eduardo Escobar Util
  • Joe Mauer 1B
  • Jorge Polanco SS
  • Eduardo Escobar SS
  • Miguel Sano 3B
  • Logan Morrison 1B
This group should have remained the same, but Jorge Polanco failed a PED test and will miss the first 80 games of the season. I don't know that I trust Escobar's glove at short, but hopefully the bat plays with some of that 2017 pop. I do think Polanco's second half surge was more indicative of what he can be capable of producing, so not having that upper level talent will hurt. In the end, Minnesota could end up feeling the loss of Jorge most should the make another appearance in the Postseason.

Outfielders (5)
  • Byron Buxton CF
  • Robbie Grossman LF/RF
  • Max Kepler RF
  • Eddie Rosario LF
  • Zack Granite OF
There's no losses in this group, but Zack Granite finds himself as an addition. With the removal of Polanco from the 25 man, an additional bench spot opens up. Ideally, I wouldn't pair Granite and Grossman together. Minnesota is left without a true bat on the bench, could use some right-handed flexibility, and Zack is the far superior option when it comes to defense and pinch-running. There's been few waiver wire names of any intrigue, and while that could change, the Twins would need to add from outside if someone is going to unseat Grossman.

Pitchers (12)
  • Jose Berrios SP
  • Lance Lynn SP
  • Jake Odorizzi SP
  • Kyle Gibson SP
  • Trevor Hildenberger RP
  • Gabriel Moya RP
  • Zach Duke RP
  • Ryan Pressly RP
  • Addison Reed RP
  • Fernando Rodney RP
  • Taylor Rogers RP
  • Tyler Kinley RP
  • Phil Hughes RP
Pegging Kinley for a pen sport over Tyler Duffey back in early March turned out to be solid foresight. The Rule 5 draftee is a hard thrower, and Duffey had struggled mightily this spring. He'll head to Triple-A and gives Minnesota a known commodity in a relief or spot start option should they need one early on. The lone change here comes in the form of Phil Hughes. Although it hasn't been an awful spring, Hughes hasn't been particularly good either. The ball has left the yard plenty, and now he conveniently has an oblique strain. Starting the season on the DL seems to be a good bet, and the Twins can slowplay any decision as to whether or not he still belongs in their future plans. Gabriel Moya found himself in jeopardy of being squeezed due to options, but should now round out the pen even with Kinley in the mix.

Sorting Out Minnesota's Reserves

The Minnesota Twins recently broke camp down in Fort Myers and have since headed to Washington, D.C. to play their last exhibition game of 2018. With the Nationals lined up as the last action before heading to Baltimore, Paul Molitor will have to soon set his 25 man roster in stone. Given that the lineup is all but a guarantee, the bench is really the only area of intrigue.

Right now, there's two givens off the bench for the Twins. Both Ehire Adrianza and Mitch Garver are locked in. The former is a slick fielding shortstop, that has real questions with the bat. His .707 OPS across 70 games with the Twins last year was a career high, but it was also his first true big league opportunity. Without any real power, Adrianza keeping his OBP around the .324 mark of a year ago would be a nice tough. The latter is a former Minor League Player of the Year, and has plenty of thump at the dish. In 2017, Garver posted a .928 OPS at Triple-A, which followed up on a .764 OPS split between two levels in 2016. He has home run power and provides a nice platoon option from the right side with Jason Castro.

From there, things get more uncertain for both the available options and Paul Molitor. The safest bet would be to suggest both Robbie Grossman and Zack Granite are penciled in. Despite reclaiming Kennys Vargas off waivers from the Cincinnati Reds, the plan appears to again be an attempt at pushing him to Triple-A unclaimed. Ryan LaMarre has been nothing short of a superstar for Minnesota this spring, but the reality is 43 exhibition plate appearances shouldn't outweigh a 2-37 big league sample size bolstered by a career .719 OPS in the minors.

So, looking back at Granite and Grossman, the Twins have both a decision and an opportunity. Should both of those players make the club, Minnesota would have a bench of two switch hitters, a lefty, and a righty. Given a lefty heavy lineup, and two of them being corner outfielders, an area of opportunity would come in the form of a right-handed bat that can provide some thump from the corners.

Both Grossman and Granite making the club seems like an odd fit to me. Neither of them profile as hitters first, and that leaves Molitor pretty short handed when looking for something to happen in the late innings. Grossman's calling card has been his on-base prowess, but it dipped from .386 in 2016 to .361 a season ago. The last two years he's gone .696 and .994 respectively vs RHP when it comes to OPS. If the Twins believe the 2016 number is more reflective of his ability, then it makes sense to deploy him as the right-handed bat. If there's uncertainty there though, Grossman is a well-below average outfielder, that has average power, and provides no real baserunning asset.

Obviously the biggest question in going with Granite is in relation to his health. After making a diving catch and coming up with a shoulder contusion, his status is currently uncertain. If he's able to go however, he does provide the Twins with a different skillset. As a speedster capable of playing all three outfield spots, he's a plus-plus defender, and that speed also plays on the basepaths. He'd be valuable as a late inning pinch-runner and has stolen plenty of bases during his professional career. Despite an .867 OPS in 2017 at Triple-A, Granite is more of an on-base guy as well. A strong average is probably going to be his calling card as opposed to a high slugging percentage.

The safest and most expected route for Minnesota to traverse is likely to take both Grossman and Granite with them on the 25 man roster. That plan doesn't rock the boat, and represents the least amount of risk. Should Derek Falvey and Thad Levine be able to find someone either through trade or on the waiver wire, there's an opportunity to be had however. Replacing Grossman with a right-handed bat would allow Molitor to still have a defensive replacement and pinch-runner in the form of Granite, and the Twins would have a true hitting threat at their disposal.

Finding the right player to fill that role remains to be seen, but there's no doubt that the 25th man in Minnesota leaves a bit to be desired.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Best Bets for the 2018 Twins

The Minnesota Twins come into the 2018 Major League Baseball season with high expectations. After making an appearance in the Wild Card game a season ago, Paul Molitor's club is expected to make some waves this year. Following success, this club isn't going to sneak up on anyone, and Vegas seems to be included among that bunch.

After posting a betting primer for the 2017 season, a follow up only made sense. Last year however, offshore online bookmaker Bovada had a much lesser offering when it came to available Twins bets. Given their success a season ago, the opening options include a whopping 14 possibilities this season. Keeping in line with the 2017 blueprint, here's the best six future bets for Minnesota this year, and a confidence rating for each.

Brian Dozier O/U 30.5 HRs

A season ago, the number was 29.5 and Minnesota's second basemen was coming off a 42 long ball effort. In line for some regression, the under seemed feasible, even if it was going to take a dip of 13 home runs. Instead, Dozier garnered even more MVP votes, launched 34 long balls, and picked up his first Gold Glove (in part as a reflection of his offensive prowess). Going into a contract year with plenty at stake, it's hard for an argument to be made in favor of a significant slide. Over the past few seasons, Dozier has established himself as arguably the best second basemen in the game not named Jose Altuve. The power is real, and the bat has been more than productive. If this number was closer to the 34 from a season ago, I'd have a bit more hesitancy. ZiPS sees a 31 homer effort, and I find that to be a solid baseline. Take the over.

Over 30.5 HRs 3*

Eddie Rosario O/U 24.5 HRs

In the minor leagues, Rosario was always carried by his bat. After not working out as a middle infielder, he quickly shifted to the corner outfield and became somewhat of a hybrid. Not the slow and hulking type, he was more than capable of driving a ball and watching it sail over the fence. In 2017, 27 long balls were registered to his name and it came as somewhat of a surprise. With a .268 AVG and .735 OPS to his name over his first two big league seasons, the .290 AVG and .836 OPS was rather uncharacteristic. Despite having pretty static contact percentages and fly ball numbers, it was a 16.4% HR/FB rate that jumped off the page. It's probably a decent bet that the number settles in closer to 20 this season, and so that suggests we take the under.

Under 24.5 HRs 2*

Fernando Rodney O/U 25.5 SVs

Like wins, saves are a silly stat and extremely volatile. That being said, there seems to be some value here for the Twins closer. As a full time closer, Rodney has made 25 saves look like an easy benchmark to clear. He's coming off a 39 save performance with Arizona last year and even posted 25 in a season split between two teams in 2016. It's definitely fair to note that Rodney is an experience, but his blueprint forever has been effectively wild. While there's walks sprinkled in, he's still throwing gas and getting batters out on his own. By the end of the year, a different closer may emerge for Minnesota, but I'd imagine Rodney hangs onto the role longer than this line suggests. Minnesota should generate no less than 40 saves in 2018, and I'd take Rodney to account for 3/4 of them.

Over 25.5 SVs 4*

Jose Berrios O/U 12 Ws

Against better judgment, making a play on wins here seems to be worthwhile. In 2017, it was Ervin Santana a season ago with a 10.5 number and I thought the under seemed like a decent bet. He blitzed by that number and was Minnesota's best starter for a decent portion of the year. In 2018, Berrios will get his first crack at starting the year with the Twins, and he should push towards 200 innings. Last year, 145 innings were turned into 14 wins for a squad that won 85 games. Again, while wins are a volatile stat, there seems to be some value here. A larger opportunity should only bolster Berrios' chances, and I wouldn't be entirely shocked if he settles in as a true top-of-the-rotation starter in 2018. ZiPS has him pegged for 14 wins, and I'd take that as the low water mark.

Over 12 Ws 3*

Logan Morrison O/U 25.5 HRs

One of the more surprising offseason acquisitions for the Twins was the addition of left-handed slugger Logan Morrison. Surprising is used only in the sense that his addition seemed to be a nice bonus piece for Derek Falvey. Nabbed on a team friendly deal, and coming off a 38 HR power showing, Paul Molitor's DH spot immediately got a nice boost. Now the 38 long balls represented a significant career high, but it also came with a change in philosophy intended to put the ball in the air. Regression seems a fair argument given the significant spike in production, but the new process should continue to yield more positive results. In my mind, seeing Morrison dip should still end up with a number in the high 20's. This is yet another over for me.

Over 25.5 HRs 2*

Minnesota Twins O/U 82.5 Ws

A season ago, Molitor's club rebounded to the tune of 85 wins. Following up the disastrous 2016 with that effort only highlights to relative unpredictability of youth. Minnesota watched the maturation of players like Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Eddie Rosario carry them at different parts of the season. Fast-forward to 2018, and the club has no real losses to speak of while adding significant pitching and hitting talent. The AL Central should be a small dumpster fire at the bottom, and the Cleveland Indians stoop pat and allowed Minnesota to close some of that gap. It's fair to argue that Molitor's club played above their true talent level a season ago, and that they were more of a .500 team. Believing that should suggest a floor of 81 wins for the current year however, and that seems like a bare minimum. Before the addition of Lance Lynn, this group looked like an 87 or 88 win team to me, and now I'd be far from shocked to see them grab 90.

Over 82.5 Ws 5*

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Twins Next Important Coach

A season ago, the Minnesota Twins brought in James Rowson as their hitting coach. Following the dismissal of Tom Brunansky, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine handpicked a candidate of a lesser known name. WIth what he had done with some of the hitter in the Yankees organization however, there was excitement regarding potential results. Fast forward a year, and the growth with some young Twins hitters was incredible. In 2018, Minnesota will be looking for more of the same from their new pitching coach, Garvin Alston.

The Twins are coming off a 2017 that saw records in starting pitchers used (16), and arms as a whole (36). Knowing this club is coming into 2018 with high expectations and again focused on the Postseason, getting more consistent results on the mound is a must. In that regard, there's no coach more integral to Minnesota taking the next step forward than Alston.

A pitcher for the Colorado Rockies during his brief MLB career, Alston has spent almost the entirety of his coaching life with the Oakland Athletics. He was twice a minor league pitching coach, while serving as a pitching coordinator in 2015. During the 2016 season, worked as the bullpen coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks, and then he headed back to the Bay Area to serve in the same capacity for the A's a season ago.

Much like Rowson was able to help players like Byron Buxton and Jorge Polanco foster success down the stretch a season ago, Alston will be tasked with growth in 2018. Kyle Gibson may be the area for greatest success, but there should be no shortage of impressionable arms looking to reach the next level.

Among all Twins starters, no one is looking to replicate their second half as much as Gibson is. The 3.57 ERA across his final 12 starts (and 2.92 ERA across the final 8) would position him as a treue middle-of-the-rotation arm. After scuffling hard out of the gate, and looking like a non-tender candidate halfway through 2017, Gibby officially turned it around. With the offseason in his rear view mirror, and a solid spring training under his belt, Gibson will need to replicate his late season efforts in hopes of bolstering the Twins chances.

It's not just veteran arms Alston will be tasked with maximizing though, in fact the vast majority aren't veteran arms. Jose Berrios looked the part of a good starter last year, but there's real star potential there and he'll be trying to harness that on an every start basis. Eventually pitchers like Felix Jorge, Fernando Romero, Stephen Gonsalves, and Zack Littell will find their way onto the Target Field mound. Keeping command in focus and not allowing the moment to be too big, Alston will be forced to challenge the young arms while also keeping them in check.

For Minnesota, a retooling of the starting rotation was needed, and pitchers like Lance Lynn and Jake Odorizzi fall more under the notion of tweaks rather than full-scale hand holding. The bullpen also was bolstered with reinforcements, and guys like Addison Reed and Fernando Rodney should be cut from a similar cloth as their veteran starting counterparts. In relief though, Garvin Alston will oversee a guy in Trevor Hildenberger who had a breakout 2017 and became one of Minnesota's best relievers.

Through spring training thus far, Hildenberger has seen results anything but reflective of his 2017 exploits. A reminder that the slate is wiped clean and a 9.4 K/9 along with a 1.3 BB/9 came out of that arm a year ago will go a long ways to determine how the Twins handle late innings. Taylor Rogers will be expected to take a step forward, and eventually Jake Reed, Tyler Kinley, and any number of other arms could be called upon to get meaningful outs.

While there's a good argument to be made that most managers misuse or at least under-utilize their bullpens, it will be on Alston and Molitor to find a blueprint that gets the most out of their club. The 46 year old pitching coach will need to dance between relating to players not much his junior, and a manager significantly his senior.

Evaluation of a pitching coach is relatively difficult, and even more so in a small sample size situation. We may not know what Alston is capable of or has become for the Twins after 2018, but you can bet than a significant positive impact would go a long ways towards success. Seen as a pitching guru, Falvey tabbed Alston his guy, and giving him a staff that has a little bit of everything should provide plenty of opportunity to grow. Minnesota needs pitching to become a strength, and Alston pioneering that movement would be massive.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Bomb in the Middle Means Twins Must Rally

The Minnesota Twins had made it through 24 days of their spring training game schedule. Although Ervin Santana needed surgery, the timeline looked favorable and the organization had seen no other hiccups. Free agents were being amassed in droves, and the 2017 Wild Card team looked like it was eyeing an opportunity to close the gap in the AL Central. Then it happened, March 18th came.

If St. Patrick's Day is about luck, the day following saw Minnesota have next to none. Ervin Santana reportedly can not yet make a fist, let alone grip a baseball. That reality puts a May 1 return to the mound in serious jeopardy. The bigger bomb came in the early evening however, as starting shortstop Jorge Polanco was popped with an 80 game suspension after testing positive for PEDs.

When looking at the Twins 2018 outlook, it's unquestionably the loss of Polanco that impacts the club most. Despite suggesting he unknowingly ingested the banned substance Stanozolol (which coincidentally was the PED of choice for Santana back in 2015), the reality is he made a poor judgement in failing to fact check what a trainer in the Dominican may have handed him. Ideally there would've been a greater level of ownership, removing the "unknowingly" caveat, but he's decided to bypass an appeal and serve the suspension immediately. For the Twins and Paul Molitor, the question becomes where the club turns from here.

As I profiled just last week, Polanco was set to become the first shortstop since Pedro Florimon (13/14) to start back-to-back Opening Day's for Minnesota (and just the second since Cristian Guzman in 2004). Now, Molitor will likely turn the reigns over to Eduardo Escobar, who last owned the job during the 2016 season.

Escobar has played a solid utility role for the Minnesota Twins during his tenure following the swap that brought him over from the Chicago White Sox. The 1.6 fWAR a season ago was a nice rebound from the -0.6 fWAR he posted in 2016. The problem however, is that the negative number came with Escobar assuming the role of everyday shortstop.

Across 579 innings at short in 2016, Escobar was worth -7 DRS. Stretched out to a full season's worth of games (579 innings accounted for 66 starts), Escobar would be staring at a -17 DRS. Dating back to 2002 (where Fangraphs data begins), only 16 shortstops have posted a worse DRS over a full season. In fact, a -18 DRS was posted in 2012 by a 38 year old Derek Jeter, just to provide a visual for what that may look like. In short, it's not much of a surprise why the Twins played Escobar at short in just 16 games a year ago, even with the emergence of Polanco.

For Eduardo, his calling card with Minnesota has been and will continue to be his bat. His positional flexibility is relative, given that he can play many but is below average (-5 DRS in 600+ innings at 3B in 2017) at all of them. Coming off a career best .758 OPS with 21 homers, it's hard not to like the idea of his bat getting more reps. What both Molitor and the front office will have to evaluate is whether or not the negative cost in the field is outweighed by the boost his bat brings.

If not for Escobar, then Minnesota has three options currently. First would be secondary utility man, Ehire Adrianza. Profiled as a relative opposite to Escobar, Adrianza is slick with the glove and leaves something to be desired at the dish. Logging just over 200 innings at short for Minnesota last year, Adrianza was worth 1 DRS. His .707 OPS was a career best, and a massive jump from the .598 OPS he'd compiled across his first 145 career games. Having been used out of position some since joining Minnesota, Adrianza looked disinterested or lost at times while playing left field or even third base. Defensively, shortstop is his home, but his bat must prove worthy of consistent starts.

Brought in as Miguel Sano insurance, veteran Erick Aybar is now all but guaranteed a 40 man roster spot with Minnesota. Barring a Sano suspension, or injury to start the year, Aybar likely would've been looking for a new team. At 34 years old, Aybar is hardly a spring chicken, and he cuts the duo above somewhere down the middle. A .685 career OPS is reflective of a guy that's basically all average, with little boost from on-base or slugging skills. Unfortunately for him, 2015 is the last time his average was at .270 or above, and would need to be a relative baseline for acceptable production. With the glove, he's played at least 790 innings at short every season since 2009, but he's been no better than -3 DRS since 2012. Not the abomination Escobar is, calling him slick with the glove would be a stretch as well.

Rounding out the options for the Twins is a name that's not currently present. No, Nick Gordon isn't ready to fill in at the big league level on an every day basis yet (and there's valid concerns about him at SS anyways), and both Royce Lewis and Wander Javier are too far away. The "not currently present" designation would need to apply to a player outside of the organization. Veteran J.J. Hardy is currently a free agent still (though he's arguably a worse option than any of the internal trio), and the trade market has any number of fits. For Derek Falvey and Thad Levine to explore that path however, it'd likely need to be more of a stop gap player with upside, than some sort of drastic move that changes future projections.

At the end of the day, my hope would be that the Twins play it safe here. A lot of work has been done to increase the overall ability of the roster this season, and wavering too far on one side or the other could throw of a lineup or defense with an immense amount of talent. Escobar is a risk at a vital position, while Adrianza has all the makings of a rally killer. Start Erick Aybar, know what you've got, and inject both the utility men on a semi-regular basis. Escobar has thrived in that role before, and Adrianza was productive enough a year ago. It's not at all flashy, but if I'm Molitor, Aybar gives you the least opportunity to be exposed.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

On Buxton, Defense, and the Competition

In 2017, Byron Buxton won what should be the first of many Gold Gloves. He also won a Platinum Glove (fan voted), and the Wilson Defensive Player of the Year award. In short, his efforts for the Twins in centerfield have quickly become noticed by a national audience. The speed, ball tacking, and spectacular plays are all just a bit more routing for the Georgia native. What's worth wondering is whether or not he's already the greatest defensive centerfielder of all time.

Rather than dive into a debate across eras, I think it's safe to work under the assumption that the greatest current players would probably hold up working backwards. In short, Mike Trout would compare with Barry Bonds or Babe Ruth. In that sense, Buxton and his competition would hold up well in comparison with great defenders of yesteryear. For the purpose of this piece, there's only one other player that currently holds a candle to the Twins star. Needing no introduction, it's Tampa Bay Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier.

The bar to surpass for Buxton is the blueprint that the Rays defensive stalwart has already put forth. With an extra couple of years under his belt at the big league level, Kiermaier has two Gold Gloves and got edged by Byron for the first time in 2017. Moving outside of the awards though, it's the metrics that truly show how great Kevin really is.

Over the course of his five year big-league career, Kiemaier has played over 1,000 innings just once. Having dealt with injuries, he's only surpassed the 110 games played plateau one time, and has been under 100 games played once as well. During the 2015 season he put up a nutty 42 DRS and 30.0 UZR along with a 24.2 RngR. Dating back to the inception of Fangraphs metrics in 2002, the next closest number is 33 DRS by the Mariners Franklin Gutierrez in 2009. Those two players are also the only ones to ever post a UZR in CF at 30.0 or above (Gutierrez was at 31.0 in 2009). To put it simply, Kiermaier's 2015 was a defensive campaign for the ages.

What's important to note however, is that Kiermaier wasn't simply a flash in the pan or one-year-wonder. In 2016, he posted 25 DRS and a 12.3 UZR, and a season ago he totaled 22 DRS and 2.8 UZR. Given the sample size of those previous two campaigns coming in no less than 46 games shy of his 2015 output, the production only had room to rise. At nearly 28 years-old, Kiermaier should be well of from and decline, and he'll be pushing for the title of best defensive centerfielder for years to come.

Turning our attention to the Twins star, there's a very obvious asset that really can't be taught: speed. In the newly developed spring speed leaderboard from MLB's Statcast, Buxton is the fastest runner in baseball clocking 30.2 ft/sec. He's trailed most closely by Cincinnati's Billy Hamilton (30.1 ft/s) and Kiermaier's 28.9 ft/s check in at 13th among centerfielders. That elite top end speed allows Buxton to cover both gaps, and very realistically, make up for any route deficiencies he may have.

Being the Statcast darling that he is, you don't need to go far to find Buxton's name atop another leaderboard. Minnesota's man tops both the Catch Probability and Outs Above Average charts. In 2017, he was worth 25 outs above average, or better than every team in baseball aside from his own. No player, at any position, made more "4 Star" outs than Buxton's 26. His 89.7% conversion rate on plays deemed to have a 26-50% likelihood of an out is truly astounding. In summarizing his efforts, Statcast deemed that Buxton's expected catch percentage in 2017 was 87%. Instead, he posted a 93% mark and added unexpected outs 6% of the time.

Unfortunately, Statcast's data only dates back to 2016, so comparing Kiermaier's exceptional 2015 in the same realms is not possible. From a Fangraphs perspective, Buxton has room to grow. Last season, his DRS total checked in at 24 with a 9.9 UZR and 12.6 RngR. If there's an area most easily picked apart in Buxton's defensive game, it's his arm.

Buxton doesn't have a weak arm by any means, in fact he pitched at over 90 mph in high school. What he does lack at times from the outfield, is accuracy. Far too often in 2017, throws to bases were off line, and while the ball may have provided an opportunity for an out, the positioning was no longer there. The metrics seem to agree with those sentiments as well. Last season, Buxton's efforts were worth -2.4 (outfield arm runs above average). For comparison, Kiermaier's 2015 saw a 6.8 ARM rating. DRS is a metric that encapsulate's each piece of a defender's ability and displays a total defensive value. Posting a negative or lacking ARM tally will do no favors when calculating the overall production.

What I think is easy to suggest is that baseball fans are currently watching two of the greatest defensive centerfielders to ever play the game. While Kiermaier would benefit by staying on the field more, Buxton has a workable avenue to increasing his own production, and the battle will be a fun one to watch for years to come. Byron has yet to match Kevin's 2015 by some advanced metrics, but others are quite clearly in awe of how much he brings to the game with his glove.

It is on defensive merit alone that Buxton will be a yearly candidate for the All Star game in years to come. Should his bat display what it flashed down the stretch for the Twins, Minnesota has an MVP candidate waiting to happen, and a superstar in the making. At the end of the day, Twins fans should have plenty of fun watching their man go and get it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Polanco, Shortstops, and Stability

Over the past 13 seasons, dating back to 2005, the Minnesota Twins have started 11 different players at shortstop on Opening Day. Through those years, only Pedro Florimon has been given the nod in back-to-back seasons (13-14), and Jason Bartlett is the only other player to appear twice (05 & 07). To put it simply, consistency at the shortstop position isn't something that the Minnesota Twins have had in over a decade. With Jorge Polanco settling in to change that notion, it might be time to give it some real thought.

To know where the Twins may be going, we'll first take a look at where they've been. Before the revolving door got started in 2004, the last point of stability was none other than Cristian Guzman. From 1999 through 2004, the Dominican native started every Opening Day for Minnesota, and racked up 841 games played. A fixture in the Minnesota lineup, Guzman was a serviceable option that allowed speed to carry his game.

At the dish, you could argue that Guzman was a relatively replaceable asset. Owning just a .685 OPS with Minnesota, and averaging just a .303 OBP over his six-year tenure, there was nothing that jumped off the stat page. Leading the league in triples three times, and stealing double-digit bases in five straight years, quickness was highly valued at a time in the game where advanced analytics had yet to break in.

In the field, Guzman was as acceptable as it gets. Defensive data at Fangraphs only goes back to 2002, but over the three seasons accounted for, Guzman provided two at a net zero outcome. Both in 2002 and 2004, a total of 0 DRS was the result in over 1,200 innings. He displayed solid zone ratings, and above average range at the most demanding position in the infield however. In short, Guzman was the option for Minnesota because he did just enough to warrant the job, but also never really pushed the needle.

As the game has evolved, shortstops are among the most premier players on the diamond. To have a guy with an OPS south of .700 and be worth nothing more than league average defensively, you'd be hard-pressed not to insert the Pedro Florimon's of the world as a replacement. Fortunately for Minnesota, looking at stability this time around provides something of a significant advancement in the form of Jorge Polanco.

The former top-100 prospect will be entering his second full season as the Twins everyday shortstop. He's coming off a .723 OPS and a -1 DRS across 1,119 innings played. The sample size compiled thus far is incredibly small, but given a brief taste in 2016, we can quantify improvement. In the field across 69 games in 2016, Polanco owned a -8 DRS across 406 innings. With questions regarding his arm at short, the initial showing did nothing to dispel the notion that he wasn't fit to play anything but second base at the highest level. Displaying substantial improvements across the board, and a positive RngR factor last year though, Polanco put forth an effort reflective of lots of extra offseason work.

Regarding Polanco, it's always been the bat that was expected to carry him. After bottoming out at a .572 OPS on August 4th last season, a corner was turned. Over his final 53 games, Polanco posted a .942 OPS that saw him launch 10 homers and pick up another 14 doubles. Everything from launch angle to pitch recognition was maximized, and the turnaround was more reflective of the player Minnesota expected to have coming out of their minor league system.

Knowing baseball is a mental game, the loss of Polanco's grandfather likely weighed on him at points of the season. Widely reported as a father figure to the 24 year old, it's hardly unfathomable that performance would dip as his mind struggled to stay engaged. On the field, locking back in to a disciplined approach that produced career bests in SwStr% and chase rate no doubt aided the turnaround.

Looking ahead, Polanco should be in a position where he can secure the shortstop role to the point that a challenger needs to wrangle it away from him. The revolving door has stopped spinning at this moment, and by the time Royce Lewis or Wander Javier are ready for the next step, Polanco should allow Minnesota an opportunity to make them earn it. It's not far off that an up-the-middle tandem of Polanco and Nick Gordon can be seen as reality, but there should be little question in regards to who's best suited at short among that duo.

For any number of organizations across the big leagues, having answers on the mound, at short, and in center remain of the utmost importance. More often than not, the Twins have done well in center, and they've begun to right the ship on the mound. Polanco taking steps forward to own shortstop is a much-needed revelation, and it's one that he's only begun to own into. Obviously the sustainability of a .900+ OPS isn't great, but a full season of Polanco contributing with both the bat and the glove seems to be more expectation than hope at this point.