How do they score runs? Are they notably home-run dependent? Notably light on power? Is their lineup predicated on depth, or on huge production from a few stars?
The Twins have quietly been a solid team offense for a couple years in a row, now. They finished with the second-highest walk rate in the Majors in 2014, and they were fifth in the American League in runs scored. Only three teams throughout baseball scored a lower percentage of their runs via homers in 2014, but the Twins had average power, as a unit.
Joe Mauer is far from the one-man wrecking crew he was in 2009. The offense has found traction because it has chained together several players with decent blends of on-base and slugging skills. Brian Dozier has anchored the top of the order. Oswaldo Arcia has racked up home runs, considering his overall playing time, at a very impressive rate. Mauer has been the linchpin of the operation, though that began to change in 2014, and will need to continue to change if the team wants to have another surprisingly strong offense in 2015.
Does the manager use pinch-hitters and platoons liberally? Does the team have the platoon advantage in an especially large or small percentage of their plate appearances?
Mercifully, at least one or two years too late, Ron Gardenhire felt the front office’s boot after last season. That creates a whole new world of opportunity. Gardenhire was infamous for his intransigence on matters of platooning, matching up and moving players around in the order. For a long time, the team has played players who were exposed by bad matchups in one or more positions on more days than not. After a while, GM Terry Ryan even seemed to acquiesce to the Gardenhire way of life, bringing in more and more players whose greatest strength was a lack of weaknesses.
As it turns out, though, giving players of that ilk a little extra time to figure things out can have fringe benefits. That insistence upon the ability to play one guy every day is how Danny Santana played his way into full-time work at a position he never called home in the minors. It’s how Trevor Plouffe, whose strongest point might be that he’s much less vulnerable to right-handed pitchers than most guys with similar skill sets, hung on to his job long enough to have something like a breakout season. It’s how Kennys Vargas came to be called upon instead of any of a handful of older, stiffer, platoon-friendly DH types when injuries and trades opened up a significant role in the middle of the order. Vargas flourished. The Twins aren’t optimizing the benefit they receive from their players’ production, but with their holistic approach to player development and evaluation, they might be optimizing the production itself, and that ends up being the same thing. As for pinch-hitting, Paul Molitor might well do things differently, but under Gardenhire, the Twins were the AL’s median team in terms of pinch-hit at-bats taken.
What is the team’s collective approach? Do they look to take a large number of pitches? Does the manager put on the 3-0 green light very often? Are players benched or criticized by management for striking out too much? Are they more than usually given to fouling pitches off?
I’ve written about this before, but it certainly bears repeating: There is, or has been, a firm Twins Way when it comes to approaching at-bats, and players who don’t comply with same can expect to see their playing time—if not their very roster spot—stripped from them. For two straight seasons, the Twins have had the second-lowest swing rate on the first pitches of plate appearances, surpassing only the Red Sox each time. It’s not even especially close. Only three teams saw more of their plate appearances end with the batter ahead in the count: the A’s. the Indians and the Rays. The Twins aren’t thought of as a sabermetric team, but offensively, they’re the old Billy Beane ideal. They take pitches as a matter of course, take them because the front office says so, and they get on base a lot because of it. At least, I suppose that the front office is giving that say-so. If it was actually Gardenhire and his field staff who were imposing that stricture, maybe some Twins will change their tack in 2015. I’m not sure such a change would be for the better, even if it would be the more natural thing for many on the team.
(I mentioned this to Sahadev Sharma, who’s doing the beat writer interviews this year, and he said he would ask about it, so if you’re not already listening to the podcast as you read this, make sure to do so. There may be more insight there.)
Does the manager call for steals and hit-and-runs often? Is the team aggressive in taking the extra base on hits and outs? Do they lay down sacrifice bunts with unusual regularity, or irregularity?
The Twins were almost perfectly average in all areas of small-ball in 2014. That’s not to say they’ll be the same sort of team in 2015. Gardenhire became a proponent of station-to-station baseball as he got older, and as his roster became increasingly laden with guys whose best chance to put a run on the board was bludgeoning the ball. The dynamic of the lineup is changing somewhat, with Santana and Dozier just the tip of the potential iceberg, and Molitor certainly seems the type to take a few more chances on the bases, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll depart much from the way Gardenhire ran the offense. The prospect of Mauer, Vargas, Oswaldo Arcia, Josmil Pinto and Torii Hunter batting in any consecutive sequence, though, threatens to limit the options Molitor actually has at his disposal.
Where are the pressure points? Who might need to be replaced? What will their optimal batting order be? Is it likely to be adhered to?
Center field is the obvious weak spot heading into the season. Aaron Hicks has the inside track on earning a third straight Opening Day start there, despite two abysmal seasons that have left him on the brink of washing out of the Majors. It’s not a coincidence that the Twins have left that job more or less in Hicks’s hands, with the best prospect in baseball (Byron Buxton) slated to open the season in Double-A. Until the moment Buxton takes over, which should happen sometime this season, there will be no end of speculation about the position.
If center field is a simple case of waiting for the inevitable, third base is a much more nuanced question, and the resolution will be much more interesting. As I said, Trevor Plouffe had a strong season, one that makes him a perfectly cromulent regular for a team in Minnesota’s position. A year ago, it looked like a sure thing that Plouffe would give way to an embiggened version of himself, in Miguel Sano. However, Sano had Tommy John surgery last spring and missed the entire season, giving Plouffe the opportunity to break out and complicate matters. Sano and his prodigious power still comprise a sexier long-term profile, but it will probably take a trade of Plouffe to create an opening.
The perfect lineup construction for the Twins is virtually impossible to nail down. Danny Santana was a perfectly good leadoff man last season. He was electric, really. He also had a .405 BABIP and five strikeouts for every walk, so how heavily do you want to bet on him to be good again? Buxton and Sano should slot first and fourth, respectively, once they take over their positions, and that kind of anchoring in two crucial spots helps solidify everything else, but there’s no clearly correct choice until then.
|First Half, v RHP||First Half, v LHP||Second Half, v RHP||Second Half, v LHP|
|Dozier – 2B||Santana – SS||Buxton – CF||Buxton – CF|
|Mauer – 1B||Dozier – 2B||Dozier – 2B||Dozier – 2B|
|Hunter – RF||Mauer – 1B||Mauer – 1B||Hunter – RF|
|Vargas – DH||Vargas – DH||Sano – 3B||Sano – 3B|
|Arcia – LF||Hunter – RF||Vargas – DH||Vargas – DH|
|Plouffe – 3B||Plouffe – 3B||Hunter – RF||Mauer – 1B|
|Suzuki – C||Arcia – LF||Arcia – LF||Suzuki – C|
|Hicks – CF||Suzuki – C||Suzuki – C||Arcia – LF|
|Santana – SS||Hicks – CF||Santana – SS||Santana – SS|
Are park factors a large or small consideration? Does the team’s park favor a particular batter type or handedness? Will the schedule or overall level of competition they face vary widely from the league average?
If anything, Target Field belongs to pitchers, especially during the third or so of the season during which temperatures can stay cool and help knock down fly balls. In an effort to avoid bitterly cold, black nights at the park early in the year, the team moved several early schedule dates from evening to daytime starts. They finished with an American League-high 68 total day games. That also helped offset the dampening effect of the weather on run scoring. They have 61 games scheduled for daylight hours in 2015, so things should stay more or less the same. The park is a bit friendlier to right-handed pull hitters than to lefties, but not much.
The AL Central is a strange animal, and here’s where evaluating teams can be a noble endeavor foiled by an ignoble schedule imbalance. The Twins scored 373 runs in their 76 intradivisional games in 2014, for an average of 4.91 runs per game. In their other 86 contests, they scored 342 runs, for an average of 3.98. They were nearly a run a game better within their division. Now, the sample sizes and the timing of the schedule are mitigating factors, but there’s still something clearly off about the numbers under an imbalanced schedule. This is just the best of many examples.
In 2015, of course, a lot could change. The Royals and Tigers are each slightly worse, it seems, but the White Sox appear to be much better, especially on the pitching side. The division might not be the worst in the American League anymore, so even if the Twins have made real improvements (they have), they might not make any progress in the standings.
What is their balance between pitching and fielding? How is responsibility for keeping runs off the board apportioned?
Here’s where a sinister disconnect is happening. The Twins’ competitive offense was wasted by the league’s worst run-prevention effort in 2014, and there’s not much reason to think the team defense will be better this year.
Only two American League teams finished with more batters faced than the Twins. None finished with fewer strikeouts. In fact, the Twins were nearly 80 whiffs shy of next-worst Texas, despite their pitchers facing 17 more batters. Big-splash free-agent signee Ervin Santana brings a bit of punchout power to the front of the rotation, but only a bit. He cracked a 20-percent strikeout rate in 2014, but for the first time since 2008, and then largely thanks to fanning 23 of the 60 pitchers he faced in his first and only season on the senior circuit.
Free-agent relief arm Tim Stauffer might increase the strikeout rate of the middle relief corps somewhat, and that’s badly needed. Alex Meyer looks like a guy who will miss bats, and should be in the starting rotation by May at the latest. Still, nobody’s projecting this team to vault toward the front of the pack when it comes to striking hitters out.
That’s more fatal a flaw than usual, too, because the Twins are a very bad defensive team. Their likely starting outfield of Oswaldo Arcia, Hicks and Hunter could be the worst in the American League. A bunch of batted balls making their way out to subpar fielders is a recipe for disaster, and a disaster is what the Twins’ run-prevention situation remains. Santana was a shortstop in the minors, with widely varied reports on the quality of his glove there. He played center field almost exclusively in his rookie campaign, though, and there have to be questions about the readjustment period, now that he seems to be moving back to the most important defensive position on the diamond.
Is the starting rotation generally a flat one, or one dominated by one or two aces? Does the manager allow his starters (or some subset of them) to go especially deep into games? Do the starters share common characteristics, or are there any philosophies the team’s pitching coach seems to drill into each?
Of course, we can’t know much about how Molitor will manage his pitching staff yet. What we do know is the makeup of the unit itself. It’s a deep one, without elite talent anywhere (don’t get so excited about Phil Hughes’s breakout campaign as to lose sight of the fact that he wasn’t a capital-A Ace even in 2014, and is likely to regress this season) but with an increasing number of attractive options in roles where there used to be decidedly unattractive ones.
|Phil Hughes||Glen Perkins|
|Ervin Santana||Casey Fien|
|Alex Meyer||Tim Stauffer|
|Ricky Nolasco||Brian Duensing|
|Kyle Gibson||Michael Tonkin|
|Trevor May, Tommy Milone, Mike Pelfrey||J.R. Graham|
As long as you’ve known anything about the Twins, you’ve likely known them as the ‘pitch to contact’ people. That’s begun to change. While there’s no question that a lack of strikeouts is the pitching staff’s greatest shortcoming, it’s more talent shortfall than mistaken coaching philosophy at this point. The risky choice to bring along Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham as a mop-up man reflects the organization’s renewed commitment to finding guys who can throw hard and miss bats. They’re looking for more of that everywhere. It’s just taking them a while to dig out of the massive hole they’ve created for themselves by shunning strikeouts as an objective throughout the dawning of the Age of the Strikeout.
When the middle and late innings come, does the manager have a long or a quick hook? Does he often make multiple pitching changes during innings? Is he aggressive and aware of matchups? Is the bullpen strictly hierarchical? Is it dominated by a set-up man and closer, or are there a large number of usable, interchangeable arms?
Again, Molitor is a total mystery. I think the Twins will use a huge number of relievers in 2015, but mostly because the bullpen is going to reshape itself two or three times over the course of the season. Recent, hard-throwing draftees like Nick Burdi are going to press for innings sooner, rather than later. The resolution of the competition for the last rotation spot or two will leave at least one would-be starter in need of a foster home in the bullpen. Most importantly, the organizational depth (however unimpressive a thing it is, in the grand scheme of things) will dictate that a few turnovers take place just to give a fair shake to pitchers with talent and enough remaining promise to deserve a crack at a real role. Molitor’s greatest challenge, in this first season, will be to manage all of that frenetic change.
Does the team deploy a large number of infield, or even outfield, shifts? Do they turn double plays well? Does the outfield control runners on hits into the gaps and on flyouts? Are any players out of position? If so, is it strategic, or does the team overestimate the defensive abilities of those players? Are any players on the bench used as late-inning defensive replacements?
The 2013 Twins put on 85 infield shifts, the second-fewest in the American League. In 2014, that number skyrocketed, to 478. They’re still one of the less aggressive teams in the AL, in this regard, but the huge leap in 2014 signals that the team has embraced the strategy, and should be able to continue deploying shifts effectively going forward. Molitor, again, is an enigma, but he seems open to ideas like shifts.
As documented above, the Twins are a terrible fielding club. Arcia and Hunter could fairly be said to be playing out of position simply by virtue of taking the field without a batting helmet on. The Twins claim to be aware of the limitations of their outfield defenders, but are taking no steps to mitigate the problem. I suspect they don’t truly understand what they’re putting out there.
Does the primary catcher frame pitches well? Does he control the running game? Does the backup complement him, either by being excellent all-around or by doing things the starter does poorly?
Josmil Pinto does, in fact, complement Kurt Suzuki well. Suzuki is a small, lithe, athletic catchers, not good at framing but good at most other elements of defense behind the plate. He’s well-liked by his pitchers and a cherished veteran presence, despite his clear flaws and limits.
Pinto is a monster of a man, whose contributions at bat will mostly come via home runs and walks. Defensively, he’s sturdy enough to make a missed spot look good every so often. His receiving skills, though, threaten to make him a non-candidate to catch in the near future.
Is the farm system well-stocked? Have any recent performances or additions changed the perceived standing of that system? Are there players on hand, in the upper levels of the minors, who are ready to take over roles with the parent team in the event of injury? Are there players who make especially good potential trade chips?
The Twins remain one of the most loaded teams in the Majors, in terms of the depth and potential impact of their players in the minors. Buxton and Sano, we’ve talked about. Meyer and Burdi should be reinforcing the pitching staff by the time summer comes. Beyond them, there are another wave of solid prospects matriculating into the high minors this year. Jorge Polanco, a very young shortstop, filled in at the MLB level to cover for some injuries last season, and acquitted himself fine. Polanco has a future as a regular in the Majors, although not a star. He’s not even one of the team’s 10 or 12 most closely-watched and highly-regarded prospects. That’s how deep the Twins run.
Speaking of injury, who is particularly fragile, or coming off off-season surgery that might impact their season? How deep is the team at the positions where they have injury-prone players?
One can’t have this conversation without talking about Joe Mauer. Mauer is the most injury-prone Twin, but hardly the only one. Hunter, at his age, must be counted on to miss at least some time. Notably, the team might be deeper at those spots (first base and corner outfield) than anywhere else. If Mauer and Hunter go down, Vargas, Arcia, Pinto, Jordan Schafer and Eddie Rosario can fill in capably. If the pitching breaks down, that will be real trouble.
Is the team currently trying to win? Are they rebuilding or shooting for contention right away? Is their current course the most advisable one? Do they have payroll flexibility, either to make another addition before the season begins or to supplement the roster as needed during the campaign?
The Twins are a bit more reticent to admit to rebuilding than most teams in their situation have been over the last decade. Then again, they’re a bit less aggressive about doing it, so perhaps that’s a denial they come by honestly. They won 94 games in 2010, then 63 in 2011. After 2011, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel each left via free agency. The Twins had a golden opportunity, at that point, to really burn it down and figure out a way forward. They passed it up. They’ve been traveling the middle road ever since, still rebuilding, certainly not contending, but not committing to the rebuild quite the way one might expect.
It’s clear that, if the Twins were in a position to spend well in free agency, the money would be there. They’re not in that position, though, so they’ve mostly spent two winters throwing good money after bad, and spinning their wheels. The farm system keeps getting deeper, but only because no impact player has successfully graduated to the big leagues during this four-year (going on five-year) rut.
Institutional memory has value. So does revolutionary thinking. The two must be kept in balance at all times, or an organization will fall into dysfunction. The Twins, who have been run by the same people for 30 years or so, are an organization out of balance, mired in dysfunction. They’re awash in talent, and progress is right there on the horizon, but it’s impossible for an objective observer to harbor the kind of optimism for the Twins that the same observer might feel about the Cubs or Astros. The difference isn’t between Byron Buxton, Carlos Correa and Kris Bryant, or between Joe Mauer, Jose Altuve and Anthony Rizzo, but between Terry Ryan, Jeff Luhnow and Theo Epstein. As decent, hard-working and savvy as Ryan is, he’s holding back the Twins, and it’s so fundamental a roadblock that it won’t be cleared until he’s out of the organization and someone completely, really new is running the show.
What move (or moves) should they make as soon as possible, in order to bring their long-term goals into focus (without setting them back in regard to their short-term ones)? Make a recommendation.
There’s a lot of uncertainty swirling around the edges of this roster, heading into Spring Training. The team could alleviate much of it by trading a few of its prime-aged, low-cost, low-ceiling contributors right away. Plouffe should be gone. One of Gibson, May and Milone should be gone. If the Twins really aren’t ready to commit to Josmil Pinto, he should be gone. Holding onto players like these has created two-plus years of confusion as to when the way is really clear for young players to step into major roles in the Major Leagues. Indecision plagues the player-development process in Minnesota. A few decisive moves could begin to lift the fog and give the players who remain a clearer sense of what’s expected of them. They should also net at least an interesting asset or two. Plouffe, in particular, is an affordable option at a position where many teams (even teams with competitive aspirations) are quite weak.
What’s likely to happen? Will the composition of the team change? Will they compete? Will they win anything? Make a prediction or two, as specific or as vague as you would like, but make a prediction.
The Twins will be better in 2015 than in 2014, but they could well lose more than the 92 games they lost last year, because their divisional schedule has gotten tougher, in composite. They’re not going anywhere in 2015, but if Meyer, Buxton and Sano all debut and play significant stretches of the season with the parent club, it could still be an exciting season.Next post: EW Email Wednesday: Episode 87
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