Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Prep Or Bust For Twins In The Draft?

While losing isn't fun for anyone, there's a silver lining when it comes to most professional sports. In Major League Baseball, the team with the worst record is awarded the number one overall pick in the amateur draft the following year. In 2017, the Minnesota Twins have that honor, and while there's no Bryce Harper to be had here, it seems like a two-horse race.

Now having landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and in a really solid feature by Lee Jenkins, Hunter Greene has become a household name in Minnesota. The multi-talented shortstop and pitcher has been noted to touch 102 mph and hit for a very strong average at the plate. As he wraps up his senior season at Notre Dame High School in California (alma mater of Giancarlo Stanton), he weighs a pro contract or a freshman year at UCLA.

Through 20 games this season, Greene owns a .277/.342/.492 line with five doubles and three home runs in 65 at bats. On the mound, Greene has thrown 28.0 IP and has compiled a 0.75 ERA with a 43/4 K/BB ratio (13.8 K/9). By all statistical measures, Greene is otherworldly. He checks off the character boxes, and looks the part of a kid way beyond his years.

For the prep righty, the biggest question remains whether or not projections should scare away the Twins. At just 17 years old, Greene has lots of growing left to do, and plenty more mileage to put on his arm prior to getting any big league time. Can he stay healthy? What happens if he blows out? Does he both hit and pitch at the pro level? Minnesota has plenty of things to consider, and they'd be the first team to ever draft a right-handed high school pitcher first overall, making it literally uncharted territory.

On the opposite end of the spectrum Derek Falvey and Thad Levine seem to be zeroed in on a similar type athlete of the two-way variety. Brendan McKay, a first basemen and left-handed pitcher for Louisville has put together an incredible year. He's batting .405/.530/.746 with 11 HR (and a recent 4 HR game) as well as an 18/34 K/BB ratio. On the mound, he throws between 92-95 mph and has posted a 1.83 ERA along with an 83/15 K/BB ratio across 59.0 IP.

If you're considering down-the-line projections with Greene, your bet is somewhat hedged with McKay. Already playing top tier college talent, he's being tested against better athletes on a daily basis. Also, at 21 years old, McKay has already started to grow into his frame, and likely has a shorter development arc prior to the big leagues.

By no means am I a draft expert, and selecting players among literally thousands of possibilities is more than a daunting task. When it comes to what name to call first though, the Twins know they can't miss. Byron Buxton remains promising, but there's plenty of misses since that time. For a team that needs to restock the cupboard, a top tier prospect is a must, and they need the guy the organization believes can develop into something spectacular.

With what I know about both players, I'd hope the Twins go with Hunter Greene. His upside is immense, and if everything breaks correctly, we could be talking about him in All Star Games and winning postseason awards for years to come. Brendan McKay has all of the tools that would seem to follow that same vein, but also appears to be the safer pick with less of an ability to reach the top tier that the Twins would so badly covet.

Should Minnesota tend to stay conservative, McKay seems obvious, and would be hard to argue against. Given the organization has their choice though, I'd rather see the guy with an undefined ceiling eventually debut at Target Field.

We'll continue to hear reports all the way up until the draft this summer, and staying plugged into both players is a must. There's a lot to like here no matter what way you cut it, and the Twins are in the driver's seat.

Ervin Santana Giving Twins A Good Problem

The Minnesota Twins have seen a nice turnaround to start the 2017 Major League Baseball season. Hovering around the .500 mark, Paul Molitor's squad looks much more reflective of their true talent level than the team did just a season ago. You could argue that the club's main attraction thus far has been their ace Ervin Santana. This go round though, he's not just the Twins ace, but is currently pitching better than anyone in baseball.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece on Ervin Santana and what he needed to do in order to be effective in Minnesota. The crux of the discussion is that on his own, Santana has had a solid career, and his best years have come with good outfields behind him. Up until this point, that's something the Twins ace hasn't been able to say. Now with Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, and Eddie Rosario behind him on a nightly basis, he's enjoying the returns.

Through five starts, Santana owns a 42.4% fly ball rate. That's the highest mark of his career since 2010 with the Los Angeles Angels. His ground ball rate is on par with his career averages, and his line drive rate is actually reduced. Summarizing the balls put in play. Santana is getting more fly outs, and combining that with the fact they aren't being hit as hard (his 24.1% hard hit rate is a career low).

When it comes to stuff, Santana isn't rewritting his book by any means. He's still throwing fastballs, sliders, and changeups all at the same relative velocity. In fact, outside of his changeup, which he's relied on a bit more, Santana is utilizing his repertoire in roughly the same fashion as well. He's not getting opposing hitters to chase that much more (33.1% is a career high, but just up from 31.4% in 2016), and he's actually generating less swinging strikes (8.4%). Batters are being allowed to put the ball in play (82.3% contact rate is a career high), but Ervin is also striking out just over one-fifth of the batters he faces (21.1% K rate).

Again, it's not some reinvention of the wheel, but rather a solid pitcher that's been given exceptional circumstances. We also see the evidence in looking at Santana's FIP mark to date, 3.06. With a sparkling 0.77 ERA, it's actually been the fielding that has helped to significantly elevate the overall results.

When broken down to results, Santana finds himself atop the proverbial mountain for the time being. He's 4-0 through five starts. His 35.0 IP have yielded just three earned runs, and he's got a serviceable 2.6 K/BB ratio. Leading the league in WHIP (0.657) as well as hits per nine (3.3), the Dominican has himself positioned to benefit exponentially from good defense behind him.

There's been plenty of talk regarding what to do with Byron Buxton. He's scuffled to start 2017, and his bat has lagged behind his glove. Although that's turned somewhat recently, it will remain a question how much Minnesota can give up offensively to keep their outfield defense in tact. I'd imagine if the club asked Ervin Santana of his preference, it'd be that those behind him in the field stay the same.

Unlike volatile signings like Phil Hughes and Ricky Nolasco, players that had a pretty wide variety of potential outcomes, Ervin Santana always appeared to be a safe, high floor pitcher for the Twins.He's proving as much at this point, and the strong defensive effort is elevating him to new heights. As the year draws on, the Twins will find themselves with a decision to make.

Minnesota is on the hook to pay Santana $13.5 million in 2018, with a $14m team option in 2019, or a $1m buyout. If the club continues to tread water around the .500 mark, it makes sense to keep Santana and pair him with a top tier arm for a playoff push a year from now. Should the timeline look farther off, they could have arguably the most valuable trade chip on the market come the middle of the summer. It's a good problem to have, and for an organization that has been pitching starved for so long, a welcomed one.

It could've been expected that a focus on catching and defense would raise the ability of the pitching staff, but Santana is making that work to perfection. By and large, he's the same guy he's always been, and the sum of Minnesota's parts has turned him into a gem to start the year. Now, it's up to the entire collection to keep it rolling.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

From Korea With Success: Thames Paves For Park

The Minnesota Twins inked ByungHo Park to a 4 year, $12 million deal prior to the 2016 Major League Baseball season. Park's first year stateside didn't go well, and I believe a lot can be attributed to a nagging wrist injury. In 2017 however, fellow KBO slugger Eric Thames is taking the league by storm, and it's fair to wonder what the difference is.

Thames came up with the Toronto Blue Jays, making his debut in 2011 at the age of 24. He was a 7th round pick out of Pepperdine, and his first two big league seasons (he also spent time with the Mariners) equated to just a .727 OPS and 21 total homers. After struggling to grab hold in the big leagues, Thames took his talents overseas.

Both Thames and Park were in the KBO during the 2014 and 2015 seasons. The Twins slugger totaled 105 homers in those two years, and posted back to back seasons of OPS numbers north of 1.100. If there was a detractor, it was that Park also fanned a whopping 303 times in 268 games. For Thames, there power was there also, as he hit 84 dingers in that time span. Like Park, Thames also posted back-to-back years with an OPS north of 1.100 but he struck out just 190 times in 267 games (Thames actually had a 91/103 K/BB in 2015).

While both Eric Thames and ByungHo Park were gargantuan power hitters in the KBO, it was Thames who was showing a bit more underlying sustainability. The Californian was more locked in at the plate, and it was his discipline that helped to foster his power.

Fast forward to 2017, and Thames is continuing that same narrative at the big league level.

When Thames debuted, he was more of a free swinger with a powerful hack. He owned a 175/38 K/BB ratio across his first 181 MLB games. In 2017 however, the Brewers slugger has struck out just 18 times while drawing 13 walks. On top of that, Thames owns just an 8.8% swinging strike rate, and he's chased pitches out of the zone just 20.6% of the time. His contact rates are on par with his career numbers (77.4% in 2017, 75.6% career), but he's simply going after more quality pitches.

Across the 10 homers Thames has to his credit thus far, we see that he's victimized all pitches in all zones. He has hit fastballs, changeups, curveballs, and sliders over the fence. He's also taken pitches inside, outside, and down out of the yard. Somewhat surprisingly, the one type of pitch he's yet to homer on is the ball up in the zone. Waiting out his pitch however, has put Thames in the driver's seat when it comes to dictating an at bat.

With no data to speak of in 2017, Park's numbers come from his debut season. It was apparent that he struggled with velocity, and reading breaking pitches seemed to be a challenge at times as well. I'd wager that a good deal of the problem was his wrist injury, but he displayed a much lesser ability to wait pitchers out than the aforementioned Thames. Although the 26.7% chase rate isn't terrible, Park had a poor 15% swinging strike rate.

Right now, the Twins slugger is on the shelf, but his 2017 production is reliant upon two key abilities. One, he absolutely needs to be right and healthy. The wrist injury was probably more than he let on a year ago, and that needs to be behind him. Secondly, Park needs to dictate more while at the plate. The strikeouts probably are going to continue, but if he can develop a stronger ability to command the zone, he should find plenty more opportunity to put the ball over the fence.

Just as the expectation shouldn't be that Thames continues his torrid pace, it's probably fair to assume Park has quite a bit more in the tank than he initially showed. Regardless, it would be fun to see both of these guys contributing at the highest level sooner rather than later, and there's no doubt the Twins would be better for it.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Where Does Buxton Go From Here?

Through his first 15 games of the 2017 Major League Baseball season, Byron Buxton owns a .082/.135/.122 slash line. He's just 4-52 and has struck out in 24 of his at bats. There's no one who wants to see things turnaround more than Buxton, but the question is, where do we go from here?

First, we have to take a look at what isn't working. The reality is that Buxton is striking out 46.2% of the time, up from 35.6% a season ago, and easily the worst mark of his career. Despite his success at Triple-A, he posted a 27.8% strikeout rate in 49 games during 2016, and that number has only increased at the big league level.

On top of the strikeouts, Buxton seems to be guessing far more often than not at the plate. His hard hit rate of 24% is a career low, and his 20.1% swinging strike rate is worse than every qualified big leaguer not named Paulo Orland (21.2%) or Danny Espinosa (23.1%). As would be expected with all of the whiffs, Buxton's contact percentage comes in at just 61%, down from 67.9% a year ago, and easily a career worst mark. That number is the second worst among qualified hitters, thanks again to Danny Espinosa (58.5%).

While I don't expect Buxton to hit for the average he's posted in the minors, he appears to revert into a complete guess hitter while struggling. The belief that his average will be left on the farm is mainly rooted in the idea that I see power being more a part of his game at the big league level. If things are working, an average somewhere around .240-.260 seems to make sense, as long as there's 20 or so homers with it.

The most concerning thing at this stage is Buxton's ability, or lack thereof, to put the bat on the ball. Through April 20, he's seen 240 pitches. 34 of them have been called strikes, while he's swung through another 40 or so. Although he does have problems with breaking pitches, there's been more than a handful of fastballs that the Twins centerfielder's bat has avoided. Looking at his swing and miss chart to this point, the book appears to be targeting him down and away. A guy that chases and already struggles to make contact, is going to have a real rough go with that type of pitch.

Parker Hageman, from Twins Daily, compared Buxton's swing from last September to where it is now. His plant foot has virtually closed him off to the inside pitch, and it leaves at least a third of the zone that he's unable to do anything productive with. This could be an effort to reach the outside edge, but data tells us that those pitches aren't being executed on either. In striding directly back towards the pitcher, Buxton would have a much more realistic view of not only the zone, but ability to spray pitches from where they are pitched.
Of the nearly 50 at bats Buxton has had this season, the Twins youngster has had two strikes on him in 30 of those instances. He's been behind in the count roughly half of the time (23 ABs), and has faced 0-2 or 1-2 counts in 19 at bats. If you're going to close off the hitting zone, guess through pitch sequences, and fail to drive your hands through the ball, none of those additional factors will set you up for success.

Now, why shouldn't we worry? First and foremost, this sample is based off of less than 50 at bats. Right now, the White Sox Avisail Garcia (a career .260 hitter), leads MLB with a .423 average. There's also 12 big leaguers batting sub .150, and they include names like Napoli, Story, Granderson, Swanson, Bautista, Reyes, and Martin (no wonder why the Blue Jays are off to a slow start eh?). On top of that, Buxton is still just 23 years old.

It's absolutely fair to groan a bit when looking at the reasons for positivity when it comes to Buxton, we've heard them plenty of times before. That doesn't change the reality however. Most big leaguers don't truly show what they are as a hitter until right around 1,000 career at bats (Buxton has 474). In total, across three seasons, Buxton has played just 152 major league games as well (he debuted at 21).

Looking back at some former Twins greats, Buxton is already quite advanced. Kirby Pucket was at Single-A as a 23 year old, Torii Hunter had just 17 at bats in the big leagues prior to his 23rd birthday, and really, Joe Mauer is last the last true success story at an age younger than Byron (Mauer had a .297/.371/.440 slash line in 166 G prior to his 23rd birthday). With Buxton still being among the youngest players at the highest level of the game, it's not incredibly surprising that he's still trying to find his footing.

If the two biggest reasons to pause on concern for Buxton remain related to his age and lack of experience, repetition would continue to be the biggest remedy in my book. As the Twins carry on through the 2017 season, there's little to gain by jettisoning Buxton back to a level he's dominated any time before the summer. Continuing to allow him to learn and hone his craft against the level he must succeed at seems like a logical plan. Unfortunately, it's not one I'm certain the Twins go with.

Recently, Paul Molitor pinch hit Eduardo Escobar for Buxton late in a game against the Cleveland Indians. There wasn't much reason for the move, it took an at bat from Buxton, and the Twins short bench forced Escobar out of position into left field. It's moves like these that beg the question as to whether or not Molitor understands how to develop the organization's future.

When evaluating whether the Twins skipper is the right man for the role, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine could be compelled to look no further than Buxton. It's one thing to not have a first round pick to work out, but when you have the consensus number one prospect in baseball, failure really isn't an option. Molitor hasn't gotten any measurable success from Buxton's development, and his trust in him would seem uncertain as well, as witnessed by a move such as the pinch hit scenario. Regardless of who the Twins sign or trade for, the reality is the future rests on the shoulders of players like Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Jose Berrios.

To summarize, there's nothing that hasn't been frustrating about Byron Buxton's start through the first two weeks of the season. He knows that, and anyone watching him play knows that. There also is plenty of reason for pause when it comes to writing him off, it's been two weeks. The best remedy to get him right is continued repetition, and fine tuning what isn't working. His manager also needs to remain committed to that goal, and the talk of any demotion needs to be shelved in lieu of consistent playing time for at least the next month.

Right now, nothing is going right, but the mixed messages don't help the process either. Byron Buxton may not hit at the big league level, but we shouldn't be anywhere near that question at this point.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Less Body, More Dip. Hughes In Trouble?

Over the offseason, Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Phil Hughes rehabbed from his recent Thoracic Outlet surgery. After getting hit on the kneecap by a comebacker, it seemed Hughes was going to use the months ahead as a time to get all phases of his body right. Now looking at early returns in the 2017 season, it's fair to wonder if "right" is something that will ever completely exist again.

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is a condition that causes symptoms such as numbness in extremities, as well as shoulder and neck pain. The cause is from nerves or blood vessels being strained in a person's chest, and the remedy involves a surgery the removes a rib from the body. In baseball, it's a surgery that has become more prevalent, but one that has had mixed results, and leads to a good deal of uncertainty.

For much of 2016, Phil Hughes seemed to be laboring, and at times was even called into question as to why he was pitching at all. There were conflicting reports, and eventually he found himself shelved. His season ended after suffering a left knee fracture endured on a comebacker from J.T. Realmuto. This also served as a time in which he could undergo the TOS surgery, and rehab both injuries to get ready for 2017.

At points throughout 2016, Hughes had his velocity questioned, and the results showed there was cause for concern. For a pitcher that hasn't sniffed a double digit strikeout rate since being used as a reliever with the Yankees during 2009, the room for error has always been relatively small. In Hughes' corner, is the reality that with the Twins, he's issued very few free passes (setting an MLB all time record in K/BB during 2013). As things stand now however, hitters seem to be teeing off on what Hughes puts over, and they're having a good amount of success.

Starting with velocity, Hughes sees his biggest red flag. When at his best with Minnesota in 2013, he posted an average of 92 mph on his fastball. This season, through three starts, he's averaging under 90 mph on his fastball, with each of his other pitches following suit (in fact, he's lost 3 mph on his changeup). The combined result has equated to Hughes giving up hard hit contact 51.9% of the time (up from 37.7% in 2016, and 30.2% in his career).

It seems Hughes is looking for answers as well. In his second start of the season, he threw 25 changeups to opposing batters. For a guy that used the pitch just 3.8% of the time a season ago, his usage rate has skyrocketed to 21.7% this year. Then however, when facing the Indians on April 18, Hughes threw his chanegup just five times in 73 pitches, and was tagged with 6 runs (4 earned) on 8 hits over just 3.1 IP.

Over the entirety of his career, Hughes has always been prone to the long fly. In 2015, his 29 homers surrendered led the league, and giving up 11 in 12 games prior to shutting down last season wasn't a great path either. The trend has continued in 2017, as he's allowed three longballs in three starts. What's worse is that along with the lack of velocity, or trust in his offerings, is that Hughes' location hasn't been ideal either. He's given up homers on absolute cookies.

What it all boils down to is uncertain at this point, but there's some pretty concerning trends here. The lack of velocity is a real issue, and one that won't correct itself over time. Whether he moves to the pen or not, Hughes' effectiveness is going to be sapped by his declining pitch speed. On top of that, he seems to be guessing as to which pitch he trusts most, and that could leave him in a spot with nothing to rely on.

When the dust settles, Phil Hughes is in a place where a guy that doesn't strike many out doesn't want to be. The Twins hurler is giving up a ton of hard contact, keeping lots of balls in the zone, and doesn't have a way to get a pitch by an opposing hitter. With two years and over $26 million left on his contract, the Twins need some sort of revolution from Phil, and it's a serious predicament as to whether or not it will happen.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Mound Squeeze Coming To Minnesota

Right now, the Minnesota Twins have an unsustainable pitching output. While they find themselves near the top of Major League Baseball in ERA, WHIP, and BAA, the reality is that regression is coming. Regardless of how steep that hits, the reality for the Twins in the coming months, is that they should finally have some tough decisions to make on the mound.

For far too many of the previous seasons, the practice for Minnesota has been to simply swap out a broken down arm for the next man up. Whether in the rotation or the bullpen, the Twins have just swapped out an arm with a heartbeat for another. Although top tier pitching depth isn't something the organization has in spades, it's getting close to the point that the cream of the crop is rising to the top.

The rotation may be the most murky situation for the Twins braintrust to figure out. Ervin Santana and Hector Santiago are going nowhere, unless a trade presents itself. Phil Hughes has been serviceable, and at this point, seems to have put to rest any worry about fallout from his Thoracic Outlet surgery. While still raw, Adalberto Mejia deserves some run, and projects as a solid back end option. While Kyle Gibson has turned decent starts into mediocre ones due to a bad pitch or inning, there's not much place for him to go either.

Nearly ready to claim a spot back on the big league bump is top young pitcher Jose Berrios. He's been all but lights out in Rochester thus far, and has made two starts stretching out to just over 80 pitches. Through two starts, Jose owns a 0.64 ERA, 8.4 K/9, and has walked just one batter in 14.0 IP. It's absolutely fair to worry about his big league struggles, but he's mastered Triple-A and needs the next step.

There probably aren't too many other arms that factor into the rotation discussion in 2017 (unless Stephen Gonsalves gets healthy quick), but 2018 could see Gonsalves, Fernando Romero, and Felix Jorge knocking on the door. If Berrios is beginning to command room in the rotation, it's the pen that is going to have suitors in short order as well.

It's pretty apparent the Twins pen has been good to start the year. What is also easy to see though, is that it's relatively void of impact arms. Guys like Ryan Pressly, Tyler Duffey, and Taylor Rogers are probably entrenched as they should be. For the rest though, it will continue to be a "prove it" scenario on a nightly basis.

Mason Melotakis and Nick Burdi have both kicked off 2017 nicely. Neither has allowed a run, and both are piling up strikeouts. Pitching for Double-A Chattanooga, it's fair to assume they could be moved up quickly. Trevor Hildenberger has continued to throw well for Triple-A Rochester, and should also be forcing himself into the picture. If you want to throw in Tyler Jay and Jake Reed (neither has pitched yet in 2017), there's a good amount of mouths needing to be fed soon.

The crossroads Minnesota would welcome, is a scenario in which these top young arms are forcing out guys on the big league roster. Rather than simply realizing a Michael Tonkin or Craig Breslow can't hack it, the Twins could find themselves in position to pick the guys with the greatest upside. It's a scenario that has escaped the club for quite some time, but one that could help to turn the tides back towards relevancy.

Regardless of how hard regression hits this pitching staff, the help from Jason Castro, and a much improved defense is going to keep a good portion of it in check. It'd be a welcomed breath of fresh air to see Minnesota around league average in the heart of the summer, and find themselves in a position to take the next step from within.

Velocity, strikeouts, and staples are what a good deal of the next wave of pitchers should bring to Target Field. Replacing guys that are already capable with that level of ability is something we can all be a little bit excited about.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Law Rounds The Bases With "Smart Baseball"

Keith Law is easily among the most polarizing figures on baseball Twitter. Whether he's doing his routine Klawchat, discussing top prospects, dishing for ESPN Insiders, or breaking news, he's among the best in the business. For anyone that has followed his work for any period of time, there's one certainty, he's got an opinion. In his new book "Smart Baseball," he's right nearly 100% of the time.

I should point out that I received a review copy of "Smart Baseball," and while it should be noted that the goal is never to sway the interest, there's no way any freebie could add more value to what was already printed between the pages. Law lays out a perfect explanation of the game that has grown to new heights in recent years, and it's a must for fans both new and old, as well as connected and casual. As I flipped from chapter to chapter, I found myself nodding at the titles, and having my feelings confirmed throughout the ensuing pages.

At it's core, baseball is a thinking man's game. It's meant to be enjoyed by all, but there's plenty more to be understood when you look under the hood. Sure, some will argue that means you must completely delve into the world of Sabermetrics, but even before Law opens that can of worms, he kicks tradition right in the behind.

For the past few years, I've grown a deeper level of vitriol towards batting average. It tells a falsified story, explains too little, and is accepted as rule by far to many. "Smart Baseball" takes aim and presents both OPS as well as the more advanced wOBA. Continuing on the dusty trail, the RBI is obliterated, and shown for what it is. Even the devil itself, the sac bunt, gets exploited among Law's journey through understanding the game better.

As you read through the book, Law has crafted a way in which a fan from any background, and with any level of understanding, can further appreciate and understand the diamond. While the story will never be complete, and predictability is an inexact science, the game of baseball begs us to dig deeper. Appreciating the game for what it is on the surface, only grows dramatically as you are able to connect with the bigger picture taking place.

There's no shortage of examples in "Smart Baseball," and Law calls upon plenty of well regarded sources for help. He can illustrate with Baseball Prospectus, lean on Fangraphs, or even call to a handful of other previously authored publications. From a man that knows the game at its highest level inside and out, "Smart Baseball" is a journey that every fan should be chomping at taking.

Coming in at just over 300 pages, "Smart Baseball" is a quick read that takes each chapter as an inning, and blitzes through it. There's enough meat in each space to keep you going, and the goal is to expand, rather than to recreate. If there's a way to build a better mouse trap, Law's "Smart Baseball" is destined to take you there between the foul lines.

We probably aren't far away from many of the principles laid out in the book becoming more mainstream, and the greater population of fans that get on board early, the great revolution the game can see.

This work isn't prospect focused, it isn't confined to 140 characters, and it isn't directed towards a single fangroup. "Smart Baseball" is for you, the baseball fan, and you'll be better for reading it. So will the game.

Smart Baseball releases on April 25, 2017. Buy it on Amazon here.

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.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Twins Have Their Own Pen Weapon

Coming into the 2017 Major League Baseball season, there were few things that looked like a bigger question mark for the Minnesota Twins than their bullpen. With an uncertain starting rotation, the pen had been comprised mainly of holdovers, with veteran additions of Matt Belisle and Craig Breslow. What’s worth noting though, is the Twins have their own secret weapon.

Last fall, we saw relievers put onto full display in the Postseason and World Series. The Chicago Cubs leaned on Aroldis Chapman heavily, and no arm was more valuable to their team than Andrew Miller late in games. What was interesting with Miller, is that while he’d likely be the most dominant closer in baseball, Terry Francona routinely brought him into games much earlier.

Throughout the Postseason, we saw a pitcher being used in a very unconventional way. Miller has become the gold standard in the big leagues out of the pen, and the Indians turned to him whenever they needed an out. Entering games with runners on in key situations, Miller’s usage bucked the trend of saving your top arm for the final inning. He allowed Cleveland to escape jams and hold onto leads. While the Twins don’t have Andrew Miller, they have their own way to recreate the same scenario.

Enter Ryan Pressly.

During the offseason, much has been made about what the Twins will do at closer. Brandon Kintzler hanging onto the job while striking no one out is a big ask, and Glen Perkins could be all but done with his major league career. The consensus is that next in line would be either J.T. Chargois or Pressly. For now though, Pressly gives the Twins a really, really nice weapon.

Recently, Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse tweeted “Modern bullpen use: Ryan Pressly is Twins best, but not the closer. He's getting 2 outs & leaving lead run on 3rd earlier.” He couldn’t be more spot on. In the third game of the season, Pressly entered in relief of Craig Breslow during the 6th inning. With runners on second and third in a tight game, Pressly got two straight outs and allowed the Twins to leave the inning still tied up.

Pressly turned in an 8.00 K/9 in 2016, and got strikeouts against just north of 20% of the batters he faced. Each year since joining the Twins as a Rule 5 pick in 2013, Pressly has upped his velocity, averaging 95.2 mph on his fastball a year ago. He also features a wipeout slider at 88 mph and a strong curveball in the low 80s. Posting a new career high, Pressly generated swing strikes 11.7% of the time a year ago, and he was forcing batters to chase out of the zone one-third of the time.

For 2017, Pressly makes right around $7 million less than the Indians superstar, and he has nowhere near the same level of fanfare. Don’t let that fool you though, Paul Molitor has a weapon of his own. While it may be conventional wisdom to have Pressly work the eighth or close games for the Twins, using him as a shutdown arm when the game commands it most gives Minnesota an advantage that is all too valuable.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Twins Have Offense, Will Travel

Coming into the 2017 Major League Baseball season, there were some very fair concerns surrounding the Minnesota Twins. The team was coming off a franchise worst, 103 loss season, and the offseason didn't bring much in the form of change. That being said, most of the concerns for the upcoming year were pitching related, and really, it should remain that way. The reality is that this team should hit, and we've seen that early.

The crux of the argument that the 2017 squad should be significantly better than a year ago is built around a progression concept. With a roster filled with developing cornerstones, experience should result in growth and then equal production. Players like Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, and even Eddie Rosario, should only be more productive year over year for the foreseeable future. In the batters box, this team should be expected to compete.

There's very little to take away from a small week on sample size. Combine that with the fact that the Kansas City Royals don't have a very good pitching staff on their own, and your left with mostly speculation. However, in the first couple games of the season, Minnesota has shown discipline, power, and production at the plate. Betting on that to cease is probably a fool's errand.

A year ago, the Twins were 16th in MLB scoring 722 runs, and that mark was good enough for just ninth in the American League. From an OPS perspective, Minnesota checked in at just 8th in the American League, and 13th overall. They clubbed exactly 200 homers (12th in MLB), and drew 513 walks (13th). As a whole, the Twins were average at best, and with a poor pitching staff, that just wasn't going to get it done.

Noting the development and progression I spoke of earlier, expecting a slight jump into the top third of both the big leagues and the American League is a realistic bet for Minnesota. They had just two players (Dozier and Sano) hit 20+ longballs last season, and that number should almost certainly double in 2017. Dozier and Sano remain candidates to repeat, with Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, and ByungHo Park realistic candidates to join them. There's no doubt this team will strike out, but as evidenced in their second game of the year, they'll take free passes on bad pitching (Twins drew 9 walks against Kansas City).

As with the bulk of Major League Baseball teams, the Twins will only go as far as their pitching is going to carry them in 2017, but their offense will provide plenty of opportunities. 2016 was a historically bad year on the mound, so that in and of itself has some real room to reverse its course. Combined with better defense, especially in the outfield, and the expectation that pitching with leads will be more common, this club could provide some fireworks.

Early on this year, Paul Molitor has displayed a welcomed ability to understand that lineup effectiveness can be bolstered against different handed pitchers. He has new voices like James Rowson and Jeff Pickler to aide him, along with a front office that is well equipped to help him put his own best foot forward.

In short, 2017 still has plenty of questions for the Twins to answer, but whether or not the offense will be an effective one, is not among them.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Community Behind The Show

Each year, the highlight of spring training is the annual release of Sony's MLB The Show franchise. Developed for Playstation 4, MLB The Show 17 has raised the bar once again when it comes the sports video games. While the game itself is always spectacular, there's an incredible group of people behind it that take the level of immersion up a notch. Enter the Operation Sports Full Minors creators.

I reached out to Scott Spindler, the man behind the @OSFMRosters handle on Twitter. it is through the efforts of Scott and a few confidants, that Franchise mode in The Show is transformed into the most realistic organizational experience in console based gaming. While MiLB players are not allowed to be created in video games as they aren't represented by the MLBPA, it's due to the efforts of the OSFM guys that each of these up and coming talents not only gets in the game, but is also realistically represented.

Sure, names, heights, and weights are all imported, but the OSFM rosters encompass complete facial representations, attribute accuracy, and a deep dive into how each player should be reflected for their respective franchise. In an effort to more completely understand what all goes into creating such a great user experience, I asked Scott a handful of questions about all things OSFM rosters.

Off The Baggy: Can you provide me a little background info about the rosters? How many of you guys work on them? Anyone you'd like to name specifically? How many years has it been this same group?

OSFM: First of all thank you for allowing us to talk about this amazing project and what we do. We take pride in what we do and strive to release a top quality product. We have had past releases downloaded well over 500,000 times.

It is a community effort at Operation Sports, a sports gaming community. These rosters were first started by a man named Michael Koncz, or Knight as we know him. We have continued, on I am Scott Spindler a father of 2, and married guy who does this as a hobby. This year's team is led by myself as well as Chase Bast, also known as Showtyme on OS, Billy Brent, Aka Willard and Christian Weber also known as Bacon. He is a University of Milwaukee college student. I have been involved for over 10 years and the other guys came on board in the last few. I originally partnered with Knight to do it, but he has since stepped aside to live life but still gives his blessing. I dedicate every set each year to him. 

OTB: With the annual launch of MLB The Show, the OSFM rosters have become a must have for Franchise players. What made you decide to take the plunge on what is no doubt, a very time consuming process?

OSFM: It's my love of the game. All of us, we want perfection. The baseball community is tight knit and wants the best. Same for the sports gamers. Sony has given us a great game to take and make the what we can of it and the response has been amazing. We are not affiliated with Sony at all.
It is very very time consuming. This current roster is based on past years and we work on it year round. When the new game comes out I put in over 200 hrs of work alone, and the other guys do the same. Its incredible.

OTB: Year after year, the OSFM rosters highlight some of the best young prospects in the game. Have you had interaction with any players you've created?  

OSFM: Absolutely, I have had many many interactions with minor league guys asking if I will put in a certain stance or bat, or if I can boost some rating. It's all good and the players love the set as well.

OTB: If you can think back over the past few years, is there a prospect you really nailed and were incredibly proud of? Anyone that has significantly beaten your ratings that sticks out to you?

OSFM: I am a Phillies fan so obviously I take heart with that team, but in no way let that affect the way we do any ratings. We are such perfectionists that we won't release if a career minor leaguer's height and weight aren't accurate. We make sure when we release it's as perfect as can be. Obviously we are human and have errors but for a project involving us to create thousands and thousands of players, our quality control is top notch.

OTB: Given the time commitment, and the overall quality of the OSFM rosters, have you ever considered charging for the end result, or at least noting that donations are appreciated

OSFM: We have been approached many many times. Its not about money or getting paid to do it. We do it for the love of baseball and the show. We have thought about some kind of donations or fundraising so who knows maybe at some point we will do something with that but not now.

Make sure to check out the @OSFMRosters on Twitter to find out exactly when you can get your hands on the latest version. You won't want to be playing MLB The Show 17 without them.

I also happened to reach out to Steve Noah, the owner of Operation Sports. The community itself fosters a lot of these exciting projects, and rosters are built for a handful of different games. He had some thoughts he wanted to share as well. In relation to the site itself, he said "It's all about the love and passion the community has with the games. I'm just happy they have somewhere to gather details and generate discussion to make the best rosters possible. I'm not sure how they do it, but every year, they get better at what they do."

Operation Sports has created an incredibly strong community, and a go to forum destination. Fans and developers alike access the website, and both the content as well as the user base in top notch. Steve also directed a comment specifically to the guys behind the OSFM rosters saying, "As for OSFM and all of the other rosters that are worked on at OS, I can't thank them enough for providing fans an updated roster every year. It takes a lot of time, more time than people realize. I can't thank them enough."

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Buxton Bares All Early For Twins

With Opening Day now behind us, the Minnesota Twins have set out on the right foot. Winning their first Opening Day game since 2008, this club is already in a better position than many of those from seasons past. Although the seven run performance, highlighted by a Miguel Sano blast, was fun, it was Byron Buxton who should have had your full attention.

On offense, things weren't ideal for the Twins phenom. In five at bats, he struck out three times. He was dealt a heavy dose of fastballs, and the majority were over the middle of the plate. Among the 21 pitches he saw from Royals hurlers, the Twins centerfielder swung through eight of them. The roughly 30% strikeout rate isn't something I think Byron gets away from, but he can't miss pitches at nearly a 40% clip.

I have suggested a good amount this offseason, that I think Buxton comes into more power than we may have anticipated. Although I believe it comes as a detriment to his average and on-base percentage. Buxton could put 20 balls in the seats while batting .260 and the Twins should feel pretty good about it. His swing and miss tendencies are going to remain, but the offensive ability should rear it's head this season.

Even if (when) the breakout does happen offensively, it's going to be defense that carries most of the star centerfielder's value. During the game, I discussed the defensive value that Buxton had shown a year ago. With just 3 DRS to his credit across 773.2 innings a season ago, we can see some of the fickle nature that defensive analytics are subject to. Buxton was never consistently in centerfield for Minnesota last year, and he was pressing quite often. Despite being noted as a defensive stalwart, Buxton's DRS total lagged significantly behind the Rays Kevin Kiermaier's (25 DRS in 872.1 innings).

With the idea that Buxton has a full 2017 in centerfield for the Twins ahead of him, we should get a much more realistic sample size. Likely playing around 150 games in the outfield for the Twins, Buxton should log north of 1,000 innings. Allowing the one-time top prospect that type of run, we should have a very firm standing as to how fair his defensive measurements represent the output.
A season ago, Buxton logged six "5 star catches" per Statcast. Even with his choppy sample size, he checked in as among the most prolific outfielders in the game. On Opening Day this season, Buxton logged his first "5 Star Catch" as well as making a second diving grab. The snag on Alex Gordon's liner required him to cover 36 feet in roughly 2.9 seconds. His closing speed being impeccable as it is, made the out look much more routine that can even be stated.

On Opening Day, I think the reality is that Buxton has come full circle to show us both sides of his game. He's no longer timid in the box, and is swinging with authority. Likely more often than most would like, that will cause some issues. That being said, there's a level of restored confidence there, and that should contribute to bigger offensive production, and a real expectation for power numbers.

In being able to settle in at the dish a bit more, Buxton is going to be in center to stay. For that, Twins pitchers will find themselves thankful much more often than not. Even with some deficiencies offensively, the Twins centerfielder is a weapon in the outfield, and as he rounds out his game as a whole, the arrow only continues to point up.

This season, we should see Buxton develop much more significantly into the player he'll spend the next ten years or so being. Right now, he's far from a finish product, but in the span of one after, we were shown just about every aspect of his game that we can expect to play out.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Here We Go! Things To Focus on In 2017

You've made it Twins fans, Opening Day is here. The long winter has since ended, and meaningless spring training games are in the rear view mirror. As Ervin Santana toes the rubber at Target Field, the first pitch of the 2017 Major League Baseball season for Minnesota will commence. With a 162 game slate ahead, here's what you should be watching for.

First and foremost, let's catch you up if you aren't. These are some key pieces for the 2017 season that you may have missed:

With that out of the way, I think there's four key narratives to be watching this season. While the playoffs may be out of reach, it's these storylines that will dictate the path that the Minnesota Twins find themselves traveling on in the seasons to come:

Paul Molitor

Right now, Molitor is managing as a lame duck. He's on the last year of his contract, and was mandated that he be retained by his now current bosses. At this point, Molitor has put up two seasons with mixed results, but ultimately, a flawed process. A year ago, he showed poor bullpen usage, lackluster lineup construction, and a failure to develop and connect with his young talent.

Regardless of what the results end up being, Paul Molitor is going to need to hone in on his process. Can he nail down a lineup that has more sensibility to it, or at least stays consistent for some period of time? Will he be able to manage a bullpen, that already seems a bit thin, in a way that gives Minnesota an advantage? Can Minnesota's skipper get the most out of his young players and help them develop into the stars they've been touted as.

It's make or break for Molitor this season, and if he wants to stay in charge of this club, the Falvey and Levine regime are going to need to see something.

Byron Buxton

More than any other player, it's important that Buxton breaks out. Miguel Sano is an exciting name, but a big home run threat with a high ability to strike out is something we've always expected of him. With Buxton, the elite defense is already apparent, but the offensive game needs to come into its own as well.

With what we know about Buxton as a hitter, and what I believe him to be capable of, I see a guy more likely to hit 20 homers a season than bat at a .300 clip. If he can display some solid power, steal a handful of bases, and brandish the offensive tool that made him the number one prospect in all of baseball, the Twins will be in good shape.

The immediate relevancy of the Twins relies upon Buxton's ability to become the player he was seen to project as. At this point, the time is now.

Jose Berrios

Similar to Buxton, Berrios needs to emerge for the Twins. While Minnesota is relying on Byron to round out his game, the organization needs to allow Berrios to sink or swim. While it's fine that he'll start at Triple-A Rochester, keeping him there past April would seem to be a major mistake.

There's never been any real steam to Berrios being an ace, but for an organization starved for pitching, the reality is the Puerto Rican needs to round into a top of the rotation starter. If that takes half a season of him taking his lumps from big leaguers, so be it. Jason Castro and Neil Allen hold the keys to unlocking Berrios' final hurdle, and it has to happen now.

2018 can't be a question mark for Berrios and the Twins. Minnesota needs to know what they have, and Jose needs to be given ample opportunity to prove it.


At this point, the Twins farm system is nowhere near what it recently was. That's hardly a bad thing however, as the graduations have resulted in a big league roster filled with top tier ability. On the farm though, there's a handful of names that are integral to the immediate and sustained success.

Players like Nick Burdi, Jake Reed, Mason Melotakis, Tyler Jay and J.T. Chargois need to establish themselves this season. Having those arms in the pen allows for Minnesota to build relief from within, and it's on their shoulders that big games will be closed out for years to come. We need to see Fernando Romero, Kohl Stewart, Felix Jorge, and Stephen Gonsalves all ready to kick the door in. Again, with starting pitching an issue, having a stable of big league ready arms by season's end is a must.

Should development of the young offensive talent turn into refined big leaguers by season's end, it's these "next up" prospects that will join a roster ready to make playoff runs in 2018 and going forward. Having them advance through the system, and look ready to contribute, is something we need to see happen.