Thursday, September 28, 2017

Playoffs And It Feels So Good

In April, no one expected the Minnesota Twins to be here. Even the loftiest of expectations had this club somewhere around 80 wins and simply keeping things interesting. On September 27, 2017 however, the Twins punched their ticket to the Postseason. Reflecting on that, and the season that has been, only invokes a certain level of awe.

Coming off 103 losses, the Twins are the first team ever to go from losing 100 or more games only to make the playoffs the following season. That means, not only did the organization add the number one overall pick in Royce Lewis this year, but they've also played meaningful baseball for the entirety of the schedule. While this group was expected to make waves, the thought was that 2018 looked like the opportune time for the window to open.

Don't tell guys like Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, or Eddie Rosario that they weren't supposed to be here yet however. That trio had went through ups and downs this year, eventually leading to breakout seasons, and ignited the bats on any given night. Joe Mauer wasn't supposed to flash like his old self, and there were questions as to whether or not Brian Dozier would even be in Minnesota this season. Suggesting everything happens for a reason is about as simplistic as it gets. For now though, it works.

On Tuesday October 3, Paul Molitor will field a playoff team for Minnesota. That will be the first time the Twins organization can say that since October 9, 2010. While they'll have a monumental task ahead of them, knocking off the Yankees on the road, the culmination of all the excitement suggest we've made it. The appointment TV, tense at bats, and champagne popping have all been the highlights of the last month or so in Twins Territory.

Count the Twins out against the mighty Yankees if you must, but I can assure you this group doesn't care about narratives. Youth or veterans, these guys could care less about what the Twins of yesteryear carved out. They'll go into New York with more than a fighting chance, and in a one game scenario, anything is bound to happen.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Dynamic Shift In Twins Lineup

It would be beyond silly to suggest that the Minnesota Twins lineup is better with Miguel Sano not in it. However, since the hulking third basemen last played on August 19, Minnesota has actually seen an increase in run production. Paul Molitor's club has risen to postseason play without one of their best players, and it's interesting to dive into how that happened.

On August 19, the Twins were averaging 4.67 runs per game (good enough for 17th in MLB). Fast forward to today, and Minnesota is 4th in baseball averaging 5.08 runs per game. In the 35 games since August 19, they've scored double-digit runs on 10 different occasions. In the month of September alone, despite being just two games over .500, they've posted a +41 run differential. In other words, the Twins have been ambushing opposing pitchers for over a month now.

When in the lineup, Miguel Sano generally he's batted 3rd or 4th. Since he's been out, that role has been given to a group consisting of Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, Eduardo Escobar, and Eddie Rosario. While none of those players are the home run threat that Sano is, they've each shouldered the load as an integral run producing fixture for the Twins.

Sano's season will end with 111 games played. He has a .267/.365/.870 slash line. A three true outcomes player, he's walked, struck out, or homered in 60.6% of his plate appearances. While the home run numbers increased marginally from 2016, his strikeout rate has jumped off the page from his 80 game debut in 2015. If we're looking for something to point to as reason for the Twins additional run production, that could be it.

To date, Sano owns a 35.8% strikeout rate. The guys who've filled in for him own totals of 29.2% (Buxton), 14.6% (Polanco), 19.5% (Escobar), and 17.8% (Rosario). Even the highest mark of the group is more than a 5% decrease from where Sano was at, and it all points towards more balls being put in play. Despite not having the same power numbers, run production has been aided by contact rates that surpass Sano's.

Again, none of this is to suggest the Twins are better off without Sano in their lineup. While the Minnesota third basemen has been better this year than in 2016, trending more towards his 2015 debut would be ideal. In 80 games back in 2015, Sano drew 53 walks while striking out just 119 times. In 2017, he needed 111 games to draw 54 walks, but struck out 170 times. His contact rate is actually up (62.4%) from 2015 (60.9%), but the swinging strike rate has jumped to a career worst 18.1%.

Going into the postseason, it's probably not realistic to expect any sort of a contribution from the slugger. Had his leg injury healed to the point of him being able to take at bats, a pinch hit scenario could be interesting, and pose a problem for opposing pitchers. As things stand however, he'll be unavailable, and the Twins will continue to turn to a group of non-traditional middle-of-the-order hitters.

It shouldn't be overlooked that the fill-ins have flashed power of their own. Rosario may hit 30 homers, Escobar has 20, Buxton is at 16, and Polanco has added 12 of his own. Instead of being power, a free base, or nothing however, the group has made opposing pitchers attack the heart of the Twins lineup differently. Over the past month, it's worked better than anyone could've imagined, and Minnesota is going to have a postseason berth to show for it.

When Paul Molitor takes this group to Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, he won't have his club's version of Miguel Sano in the lineup. That being said, if a New York pitcher thinks they're getting a break with the Minnesota 3-4-5 trio, they'll be sadly mistaken.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Prepping For The Postseason

By the looks of things, the Minnesota Twins are destined to head to the Big Apple to square off with the New York Yankees. Set to secure the second American League Wild Card spot, Paul Molitor's club will have a do-or-die scenario in hopes of returning to Target Field to play October baseball against the Cleveland Indians. The question is however, how should the Twins go about making that happen.

Over the course of 2017, the Twins are 2-4 against the Yankees with a -8 run differential. Those two wins came at home, and were started by Adalberto Mejia and Jose Berrios. In a one game Wild Card however, the roster rules change. Back to a set 25 man roster, Minnesota can alter their deployment of players each round. For the purpose of a one game scenario, the construction of the 25 man should look vastly different than that of a full five or seven game series. When Paul Molitor takes the Twins to New York, here's who he should be bringing with him:

Pitchers (9)

  • Ervin Santana SP
  • Kyle Gibson SP
  • Alan Busenitz RP
  • Dillon Gee RP
  • Tyler Duffey RP
  • Trevor Hildenberger RP
  • Ryan Pressly RP
  • Taylor Rogers RP
  • Matt Belisle CP
Ervin Santana is going to start the Twins Wild Card game, there's no uncertainty about that. The Minnesota ace has been the most steady arm all year, and he's coming off a performance against the Yankees that allowed the Twins an opportunity to win. While not a strikeout artist or league-wide ace, Santana is a front line starter that can should the load. Should things go wrong, it's Kyle Gibson I'd turn to. While Jose Berrios has been Minnesota's 2nd best starter in 2017, I feel Gibson is a better fit out of the pen. As a sinkerballer with a bit more experience, he could piggyback for the Twins with a higher chance for success.

From there, Molitor would have the full deployment of his standard bullpen. Gee probably becomes redundant with Gibson in a piggyback scenario, but he's a veteran that could go more than an inning if need be. With a must-win game on tap, having the ability to play matchups is huge for the Twins stable. Taylor Rogers remains dominant against lefties, and there's a handful of young options that have emerged into capable high-leverage arms. Molitor could opt for one other lefty in the group, but I'm not sure who I'd remove to find a place for Buddy Boshers.

Hitters (16)

  • Jason Castro
  • Chris Gimenez
  • Ehire Adrianza
  • Brian Dozier
  • Eduardo Escobar
  • Mitch Garver
  • Joe Mauer
  • Jorge Polanco
  • Byron Buxton
  • Robbie Grossman
  • Max Kepler
  • Eddie Rosario
  • Kennys Vargas
  • Zack Granite
  • Niko Goodrum
  • Miguel Sano
This is where the benefit of a one game round comes into play. Not needing a full stable of starting pitchers, the Twins are ablt to afford themselves a handful of extra bench options. While the lineup should remain as it has been down the stretch, late inning pinch running options like Zack Granite or Niko Goodrum could prove to be invaluable. Miguel Sano is included in the group, and if there's any ability for him to hit, I'd bring him with. The expectation would be that he'd only be deployed in a pinch hitting role, and he'd immediately need a runner. However, if he can make it through a BP session or a simulated game, his home run power off the bench would be huge.

While you'd rather not see the game have to be managed to a point in which the edges of your bench play meaningful roles, it's definitely a positive to have more options than less. What would need to be heavily discussed however, is the level in which Molitor may choose to micromanage this group. Whether it be bunting or pinch running, the additional headcount shouldn't dictate anything as it relates to game flow. Because you have extra bodies, more speed, or better bunters, the Twins should still operate in a way that doesn't see excessive and unnecessary meddling.

In short, the Wild Card is as must-win as it gets in Major League Baseball. Bringing along a couple of extra starting arms that aren't going to factor into the outcome are a wasted opportunity. You'd hope that your bench goes untouched, but having the ammunition to what should be a fight, seems like setting yourself up for the best possible outcome.

Yes, the Yankees are a better team than the Twins. Yes, they won more games in 2017 than Minnesota has. Yes, New York has dominated the Twins organization for the better part of a decade. However, on one night in October, none of that holds much weight. Nine innings will suffice to provide a result. For the Twins, stacking the deck towards a favorable one is a must.

The Twins Tale Of The Tape

With just a few games left in the 2017 Major League Baseball season, the Minnesota Twins fate is all but decided. Paul Molitor's group is going to represent the AL Central in the Wild Card game, and it appears they'll take on the Evil Empire of the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Knowing this organization is coming off 103 losses a year ago, it's somewhat astounding to look at how we arrived here.

Not needing too much of a deep dive into the analytical side of things, this Twins club has plenty of eye-popping numbers at its disposal. Whether looking at snapshots of the season that has been, or taking a top down view from the entire 162, it's hard not to be impressed. Here's a handful of numbers that will threaten the safety of your jaw:

  • 82 wins (and counting)- Coming off 103 losses, the Twins already have a turnaround of 23 games. That's tied for the best turnaround in club history (a 1965 team that lost in the World Series), and is almost certainly a number that will be added to across the final six games of the year. With an over/under set in Vegas at 74.5 prior to the season, Minnesota surpassed that mark with 18 games to spare.
  • +96 run differential- Through August and September (up until the 25th), Minnesota has completely flipped the script in the run scoring department. At a -72 run differential on August 1st, the Twins have ripped off two of their best hitting months of the year. Outscoring opponents by nearly 100 runs across their last 53 games, the club now owns a Pythagorean W/L that sits at 80-76 (a mark unfathomable even a few weeks ago).
  • 92.1%- The total jump in percentage that the Minnesota Twins playoff odds have taken since August 1st. Forced to decide their fate prior to the trade deadline, the Twins had just a 5.6% chance on July 31st. At 50-53, they were 4.5 games back in the AL Wild Card. In needing to make a decision, the club flipped closer Brandon Kintzler and rental starter Jaime Garcia, for some solid future pieces. Today their playoff odds rest at 97.7%.
  • 199 home runs- With their next longball, the Twins will surpass the 200 HR plateau. Having done so in back-to-back seasons, they'll have accomplished that feat for the first time since the 1963/64 seasons. As of August 29, they were on pace for just 197. Right now, four players have at least 20 homers, which is the first time Minnesota has reached that mark since 2009. If Max Kepler can add one more, the Twins will have five 20 HR players for the first time since 1986.
  • 96.4% Stolen Base efficiency- Byron Buxton has stolen 27 of the 28 bases he's attempted to swipe this year. The one in which he was thrown out, he overslid the base. At the time of his 24th steal, I checked into his efficiency. Since 1946, 1,483 players had stolen at least 24 bases in a season. Only five had been thrown out just once. Now 27 of 28, that group has gotten even smaller.
  • 3 Multi-position Gold Glove Winners- At the conclusion of 2017, Joe Mauer will look to join Placido Polanco and Darin Erstad as the only players to win Gold Glove awards at multiple positions. He'll be the first to do so at catcher and first base. Currently, Mauer ranks 1st among AL first basemen in UZR, UZR/150, and RngR. His 5 DRS checks in third. While teammate Byron Buxton is a guarantee to win the Gold Glove in CF, it would be a major upset if Mauer didn't take the award at 1B.
  • 24 DRS- In 2017, Buxton's current 24 defensive runs saved are the highest number by any Twins outfielder since tracking began in the early 2000s. Denard Span posted a 19 DRS mark in 2012, and Torii Hunter's high water mark was 18 DRS in 2004. Despite scuffling at the plate, Buxton has been a game changer all season in the Minnesota outfield.
  • Five- That's the amount of regular position players that the Twins have in their every day lineup age 25 and younger. Over half of their regular order has yet to reach a level where they would be considered and established big league veteran. Jose Berrios and Adalberto Mejia fall into this category on the pitching side. With prime's still in the future, there's plenty of reason to believe we've yet to see the best of what's to come.
No matter how 2017 ends, and how far into October this club gets, looking back on what's been a fun year should provide plenty of excitement for what's ahead. Meaningful baseball was played for virtually the entire 162 game slate, and down the stretch, Minnesota has been appointment viewing. This club is trending in an upward direction, and among a division that has plenty of holes, that should put the rest of the league on notice.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Making The Most Of Molitor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 18, 2017

Buxton Showing Snapshot Of Greatness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Crash Course Towards New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Gibson Keeping Hitters Off Balance With Offspeed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 11, 2017

Handing Out The Hardware

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

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

Let's get into it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Mauer Making Us Reconsider The Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Like The Outfield, Buxton Now Owns The Plate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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