Monday, September 28, 2020

Yearly IBWAA Awards Time


While it did seem like we would struggle to have baseball in 2020 for a period of time, Sunday marked the culmination of the regular season. Major League Baseball overcame outbreaks and adverse conditions to reach its destined conclusion. Now, as a member of the IBWAA, I needed to look back and hand out some votes.


Just like the BBWAA, the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America votes on all major award categories on a yearly basis. The results will be tabulated and revealed at a later date, but here is what my ballot looked like.


American League MVP: Jose Ramirez (runners up: Jose Abreu, Mike Trout, Brandon Lowe, Nelson Cruz)


Ramirez posted 3.4 fWAR in 2020 to lead all players in the game. Cleveland made a strong comeback into the AL Central Division race at the end of the season, and it was on the bat of Ramirez that the White Sox met their match. Cleveland’s lineup struggled to produce for much of the season, but it was Ramirez that provided the spark and will be their leader come Postseason play.


National League MVP: Freddie Freeman (runners up: Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis Jr., Mookie Betts, Trea Turner)


What a story in the National League. The Atlanta Braves were expected to be good, but Freeman was dealt a tough hand when contracting COVID-19 and dealing with substantial symptoms. He mentioned being extremely fearful in the midst of his illness and got a late start to Summer Camp. He then posted a 3.3 fWAR on the season and trailed only Cleveland’s Ramirez in that category across the entire landscape of the game.


American League Cy Young: Shane Bieber (runners up: Kenta Maeda, Hyun-Jin Ryu)


Little debate needed to take place here. While there were other strong pitching performances this season, it was Bieber that was the cream of the crop. Not Justin posted double-digit strikeout performances in eight of his 12 starts this season, and he gave up more than two runs in an outing just three times. It was mastery each time he stepped on the mound.


National League Cy Young: Trevor Bauer (runners up: Yu Darvish, Jacob deGrom)


Cincinnati looked to be a darling team this year, and if they make noise in the Postseason it’ll be in large part due to their pitching staff. Trevor Bauer takes down the ERA title and racked up a career best 12.3 K/9. He led the league in ERA+, WHIP, and H/9. In his final year with the Reds, there’s little denying a nice payday is coming.


American League Rookie of the Year: Kyle Lewis (runners up: James Karinchak, Luis Robert)


Chicago’s rising star was expected to run away with this, but it was the Seattle Mariners rookie that jumped out to a quick lead and hid. Kyle Lewis has plenty of swing and miss in his profile, but he played a great centerfield while shower tremendous power with his bat as well. Adjustments will be necessary down the line, but there’s little denying he was the cream of the crop in 2020.


National League Rookie of the Year: Devin Williams (runners up: Ke’Bryan Hayes, Alec Bohm)


Taken in the 2nd round of the 2013 draft, Williams took his time getting to the big leagues. In 27.0 IP this year he racked up a ridiculous 17.7 K/9 and allowed just a single earned run on eight total hits. Dominance is what the Brewers got out of their stud reliever, and it’s that effort that took him from unknown to award winner.


American League Manager of the Year: Kevin Cash (runners up: Bob Melvin, Rocco Baldelli)


With the Yankees expected to run away in the AL East, the Tampa Bay Rays capitalizing on opportunity was impressive. Reaching 40 wins and posting the best record in the American League, Tampa consistently beat not only New York, but Toronto and the rest of the division as well. Cash got great seasons from more than a handful of players and the Rays have him to thank for their position as the one seed.


National League Manager of the Year: Don Mattingly (runners up: Dave Roberts, David Ross)


This season was always going to be one of unprecedented proportions, but when you need to replace over half a team due to a virus outbreak, you’ve got another thing coming. Don Mattingly not only overcame that massive hurdle, but he guided an afterthought Marlins team back to the Postseason. Miami could pose a threat in a three-game series, and their skipper is to thank for positioning them there.


American League Reliever of the Year: Liam Hendriks (runners up: Brad Hand, James Karinchak)


Operating as the closer for one of the best teams in baseball, Hendriks got plenty of opportunity to perform in key situations. He racked up 14 saves while posting a 13.1 K/9. He also owned a 1.78 ERA and had an even better 1.14 FIP. All of the strikeouts, none of the free passes, the Aussie continues to be one of the best in baseball.


National League Reliever of the Year: Devin Williams (runners up: Edwin Diaz, Raisel Iglesias)


It was nice to see the Mets Edwin Diaz rebound from 2019 and be in the running here, but the Brewers rookie was among the most dominant pitchers the sport has ever seen with his work in 2020. He didn’t pitch the 9th with Milwaukee having the services of Josh Hader, but Williams was often the guy in key spots. His efficiency only fueled his dominance and taking home another award here is only fitting.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Maeda Emerges as the Ace Minnesota Needed


All offseason the talk was that the Minnesota Twins needed an ace. Someone that could slot into the rotation at the level of Jose Berrios or higher would fit that bill. There was plenty of consternation when it took moving Brusdar Graterol to land the piece, but Kenta Maeda is here to stay.


The Dodgers signed Maeda out of Japan and his first season in the majors came at 28-years-old. Despite being relied upon for over 500 innings while with Los Angeles, Maeda was often shuffled back and forth between the rotation and bullpen. Given their overall pitching strength it was a luxury LA had, but one that wore on the Japanese star.


Deemed expendable this offseason and enticed by a flame throwing prospect, the Dodgers made the move and Minnesota got their guy. Dubbed a number three in the Dodgers rotation behind the likes of Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler, there was always plenty of upside for the Twins to exploit. Fast forward to the final week of the 2020 Major League Baseball season and Minnesota seems to have found their ace.


Through 10 starts Maeda owns a sparkling 2.52 ERA. He has a career best 10.5 K/9 and also is allowing a career low 1.5 BB/9. He leads the league with a 5.3 H/9 and also has a league leading 0.758 WHIP. He’s got a 5-1 record in the decisions column, and Minnesota is 7-3 when he takes the ball. He’s yet to miss a quality start in any turn, and he’s gone at least 6.0 IP in seven of his 10 total outings.


No matter how you define the role of an ace Kenta Maeda has embodied it this season. He’s been dominant. He’s been reliable. He’s been consistent. Now it also looks like he’ll be rewarded as Minnesota’s game one starter in the Wild Card round of the Postseason. Starting on Wednesday the 23rd against the Tigers, he lines up to toe take the ball when the Twins open a home playoff series.


There could certainly be some handwringing over the fact that it’s Maeda and not Jose Berrios being entrusted with the opportunity to set the tone in a short series, however this elevation of ability is probably good for both of them. Berrios really struggled out of the gate this year for the Twins, and despite being dominant of late, he had an uphill battle to climb. It was hoped that 2020 would be another step forward for Jose, and while the sum of all parts may represent as much, it’s again been a tale of two halves.


As Minnesota looks to rebuild their rotation again in 2021, with plenty of departures pending, it will be a welcome relief that Berrios is joined by another constant in Maeda. Neither of these guys will crack true ace status across baseball, reserved for just the top ten or so arms in the sport. However, both can pitch as staff aces, and the ability to be interchangeable or play off of one another is something that Rocco Baldelli and his staff have to be excited about for years to come.


It’s certainly not easy moving on from a prospect that has been talked up for so long. When you have an opportunity to cash in for proven, upper level talent though, you have to jump at it. Maybe Brusdar Graterol will turn out to be more than Maeda ever is, but by that time Minnesota will be long past the current window they’re looking to capitalize on.


You wanted an ace Twins fans, and he’s here, in the form of Kenta Maeda.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Overtaking the White Sox


The Minnesota Twins begin a four-game set tonight in Chicago, and it’s arguably their most important series of the year. How much importance lies in the amount of weight put on Postseason positioning, however.


After sweeping the Cleveland Indians over the weekend Rocco Baldelli’s club has all but put a nail in that proverbial coffin. Terry Francona’s squad has another tilt with the White Sox yet to play and cannibalizing divisional foes shouldn’t help them climb back into the race. That leaves Minnesota and Chicago, four games, division on the line.


Here’s the deal, there was never a point in which it seemed in doubt that the Twins would miss the Postseason. They are one of the five best teams in baseball, and an argument for the top two is more than healthy. Despite a midseason skid, even in a sprint, they’ve been well positioned the entire way. It’s that positioning, and exactly what they’re playing for, that remains to be seen.


Winning the AL Central in just 60 games loses some of its luster. Having home field advantage with no fans, and for just one three-game series prior to moving to a neutral site waters down impact. What Baldelli and his club must not lose sight of however, is understanding exactly what they can control.


Right now, it appears that some combination of the White Sox, Indians, Houston Astros, and New York Yankees could all be included amongst the bottom half of the Postseason clubs. Two of those are well known divisional foes, while the other two are regular juggernauts on an annual basis. None of their positioning is determinable solely by Minnesota, however.


If there’s a “lighter” inclusion come playoff time, it’d have to be argued that the Toronto Blue Jays qualify. Minnesota trying to play a matchup game seems like a losing proposition however, and a shift in mental makeup that generally would thrive off competition. Short of playing guys through injury, it’s time to go for it.


Winning this series against the White Sox, as they have done twice already this year, should be viewed as a must. Go grab hold of the AL Central and chase down the Tampa Bay Rays in hopes of landing the best seed in the American League. From there, setting yourself up for familiarity during the most volatile series makes too much sense.


First through fourth gets home field advantage in the opening round of the Postseason. Having secured that while winning the division sets a momentum building precedence going into somewhat of a crapshoot. There’s a definite boost playing within the confines of familiarity and having the ability to escape the game outside of a hotel room.


Regardless who Minnesota finds in the opposing dugout come October, they’ll all have more warts. Cleveland and Chicago have been routinely bested in the regular season, while the Astros and Yankees have pitching and injury question marks of their own, respectively. As was thought to be the case going into the year, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine’s club should have a leg up on virtually anyone they square off against.


The sky doesn’t fall if the Twins come up on the short end of the four-game set on the South Side. That said, it’s a series that should be managed with the highest priority and with no stones left unturned. Time to get it done and begin riding a wave that ends in a parade.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Big Mike Provides a Steadying Presence


Everyone has seen the movie, “The Blind Side,” right? While we’re not going to get into the plot, it chronicles the life of Michael Oher, a former NFL lineman. He’s nicknamed “Big Mike” and his persona is one of a steadying calmness. After watching Michael Pineda come through for the Twins yet again last night, is there any other way to attribute his own “Big Mike” moniker?


Following a nightmarish start to one of their biggest series of the year, Rocco Baldelli’s Twins were searching for answers. Rich Hill was bad, the bullpen was taxed, and a demoralizing loss was hung on them by the rival Chicago White Sox. Pitching for the first time in nearly a full year, the former Yankee was ready to take the ball.


Pineda was suspended under PED violations for using a diuretic intended to help lose weight. Because he was able to prove the usage was for weight loss and not an intention to mask PED usage, the suspension was reduced. Minnesota brought him back on a two-year deal knowing they’d be without him for roughly the first third of 2020. As the season was shortened to 60 games, the time off turned into what amounted to half of the season.


As is the case with all players not currently on an active 28-man roster, but still in the 60-man player pool, Pineda got his work in at Minnesota’s alternate site. He ramped up to an ability that would’ve allowed for 80-100 pitches in his debut per manager Rocco Baldelli. Big Mike’s calming presence was going to be allowed to show itself, but would it?


Coming off Tommy John surgery and having not pitched in a Major League game since 2017, Pineda owned a 6.21 ERA through his first six turns last year. By his 11th start things started trending up as the ERA dropped to 5.34. By the end of June, through 16 starts, Pineda owned a 4.78 ERA and then he turned it up a notch. Over his final 10 starts in 2019, Pineda was Minnesota’s best pitcher. He owned a 2.88 ERA and allowed just a .666 OPS against. Had it not been for the suspension, he was squarely in the conversation to be the Twins game 1 starter in the ALDS.


Despite having ramped up and faced other batters for a couple of months in St. Paul, Pineda remained a question mark before last night. When he showed up on the mound to face one of baseball’s most difficult lineups, all he did was efficiently shove.


Chicago got two first inning runs thanks in part to miscommunication by Miguel Sano and Ildemaro Vargas on the right side of the infield. From there though, Pineda went untouched. Scattering six hits across six innings, he fanned four while walking one and generating plenty of swinging strikes. He topped out at 94 mph, after averaging just 92 mph on his fastball a year ago. In a night that Minnesota needed their starter to pick them up, a guy just returning to the team answered the call.


There are only 23 games left in the regular season at this point, meaning Pineda will get at most a total of five starts this season. That there’s no training wheels attached, and he can go deep into games remains a big plus. The hope would be that 2019’s slow start was injury related, and the way it finished is how Pineda fares going forward. Should that be the case, there’s another arm in Baldelli’s rotation that’s locked in and not going anywhere.


A division title remains an enviable accomplishment even in a bastardized season. However, in a year that everyone will make it to the Postseason, being ready to advance beyond that three-game series out of the gate should be the goal. Big Mike is back and he’s ready to put the Twins on his back, calming presence, and all.