MINNEAPOLIS – The Twins entered the all-star break as surprise contenders in the American League Central, and they owe a good chunk of that success to the three players who represented in the Mid-Summer Classic: Miguel Sano, Ervin Santana and Brandon Kintzler.
This column is about those three – and some of their co-workers – who’ve exceeded my own personal expectations this season. We’re also planning a future column about how a team with a good lineup, a respectable young core, and three all-star reps can be middling in the won-loss record, and may need a push in the next three weeks to convince its front office that it’s a club worth investing into. That column is for another day.
Here are 5 things that have exceeded my expectation this season:
For all that’s been written and said about Sano’s offensive firepower, I think the underrated storyline of his 2017 season has been on the other side of the ball.
As a rookie in 2015, Sano primarily was the Twins’ DH with Trevor Plouffe entrenched at third base. Sano started the year July 2 with the Twins and was selected team MVP, to give you an idea of his offensive contributions. Last year, the Twins misguidedly tried playing him in right field, and Sano didn’t do well at all with the challenge; he was a bad outfielder in his first try at the position since he signed his first contract at age 16. His offensive numbers dipped, and even when he eventually played some third base, he committed errors at an alarmingly high rate. Then there was the lingering question about his weight and whether or not he could fulfill his defensive duties at third base for an entire season, let alone whether he’d be an asset or a liability at his position.
Sano has more or less silenced the critics with his glove work this year. Sure, he has 21 home runs at the all-star break and took second in the Home Run Derby behind only Aaron Judge. But Sano also has taken away the bunt option from a lot of opponents with his ability to charge the ball from his position at third base and make highlight plays with his cannon arm. He still won’t make every play — he’s a far cry from a Gold Glove at the position, and advanced metrics currently say he’s currently hurting the Twins defensively, although I’d consider his 500 or so innings at third base to be an unreliable sample size. To my eyes, in roughly half a season the big man has acquitted himself well at what might be his most natural position of third base.
That matters mostly because Sano’s bat has him looking like a star player. After a cooling off period of late, Sano’s still hitting .276/.368/.538 with 21 home runs and 62 RBIs at the break. All that’s left to learn is whether he’ll be Franchise Cornerstone-good or merely Great Young Player-good.
I don’t know if Santana will be a member of the Twins at this time next month, only because so much is uncertain on a team that’s playing well but hasn’t declared that it’s in it to win for this year. But Ervin is a big reason the Twins have gotten to the juncture at which adding players at the trade deadline is even a consideration. They lost 103 games last year and they might be buyers in a few weeks. Crazy.
In the first month of the season Santana surrendered just 3 earned runs in 41 innings, for an improbably low ERA of 0.66. He’s blown up half a dozen times since that incredible run, but his overall numbers still look great. Santana has a 2.99 ERA in 18 starts, and with one guaranteed year and one team option year (2018-19) left on his affordable contract, Santana could be one of the Twins’ most valuable trade chips – that is, if they decide it’s time to cash in their chips on the present team in the hopes of fielding more robust winners in the future.
I’ll have plenty more to say about Santana this month as the non-waiver trade deadline approaches. One thing that I’m not sure has received proper attention: his influence on J.O. Berrios in his breakout campaign. I’m not here to say that Santana’s calming veteran presence is the sole reason for the younger man’s success. That’s definitely not true. But I think it’s a nontrivial component that sometimes gets overlooked when we’re doing an accounting of Santana’s value to the Twins.
Berrios deserves loads of credit for his performance and for helping to carry, along with Santana, a Twins rotation that would look like a wrecked ship without those two. At basically every level since Berrios was drafted in the supplemental round of the 2012 draft (the Buxton draft), there’ve been evaluators who question his future “ceiling.” Would a pitcher who stands at 6-foot-flat be able to carry his minor league success to the big leagues?
The answer last year was no. He was 22 years old. It was not the rookie year he had envisioned for himself.
The answer this year appears to be an emphatic yes. Granted, it’s early, but Berrios has been a big component of the Twins’ success so far this season. Without him holding down an important spot in the rotation at 23 years old (he’ll start the first game out of the All-Star break for Minnesota), I’m not sure what the rotation would look like. So far, the workout fiend from Puerto Rico has a 3.53 ERA in 71 1/3 innings, to go along with his 8-2 win-loss record. He’s also walked 6.5% of hitters, which would rank 20th in baseball among starters if he had pitched enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. His 23.7% strikeout rate would rank 23rd. Of course, there’s more to pitching than not walking hitters and striking out hitters. That’s a really good place to start, though, and Berrios’ numbers so far seem to give credence to what your eye sees when you watch him pitch: a mid-to-upper-90s fastball, a 2-seamer that runs a lot, a good changeup and a couple different breaking balls that can leave good hitters second-guessing what’s about to come next.
I suspect this story could start to get more national attention. Kintzler is an underrated closer with a strong track record in the role for a team that is surprisingly in contention as the trade deadline approaches. Oh, and he was pitching in independent baseball a few years ago.
Kintzler would be a reasonably good trade chip if the Twins decide to go into sell mode, and that’s a tribute to his success of the past two years. Last season, he took over the role by process of elimination – first Glen Perkins then Kevin Jepsen then the idea of a closer-by-committee with Fernando Abad. He proved wrong a bunch of doubters on his way to a 3.15 ERA and 17 saves in 20 tries (85%). That Brandon Kintzler relied almost exclusively on a 2-seam fastball that opponents would hit into the ground (81% sinkers translated to an elite 61.9% groundball rate).
This year’s Brandon Kintzler has also been good at converting save chances into Twins wins, and along the way he’s added another tool to his belt, a slider that breaks the opposite direction of his 2-seamer. He’s more than doubled the frequency of his slider (16%, per BrooksBaseball.com), and he’s thrown a handful of effective changeups. He runs his fastball up to 94-95 mph. The slider stands out the most to me, because of how the break plays off his trademark sinking 2-seam heater to keep a hitter guessing. He’s still racking up saves.
We spend a lot of time talking about how the Twins’ bullpen has been bad because it has been bad. The Twins did very little this winter to address what was a bad bullpen a year ago, and had basically lost all three of the guys they expected to be their go-to guys at the end of games entering the 2016 season: Glen Perkins to an extended absence following shoulder surgery; Kevin Jepsen to DFA; Trevor May to the starting rotation competition and then Tommy John surgery.
It didn’t register as a huge shock that the bullpen was bad in the first half. Rogers, though, has been quite good. He’s got a 2.14 ERA in 33 2/3 innings. He has decent but not eye-popping strikeout totals (25 this year, and if you include last season, he’s at 89 in 95 total innings). He’s walked 23 hitters out of the 401 he’s faced in his short career (5.7%). And he’s not just your lefty specialist, either.
When he was rising through the Twins’ minor league system, I think that some evaluators fairly wondered if he’d be able to get righties out as effectively as lefties, despite not reliably using a changeup. This season, righties are hitting .244/.286/.302 off him, while lefties are batting .225/.295/.400. So lefties are having more success against Rogers, which was far from the case last year.
He’s been so good that based on manager Paul Molitor’s recent bullpen usage, it seems that Rogers has taken over as the team’s primary setup man in front of closer Kintzler.
I’ve been rather critical of Rosario in the past – I just didn’t see how a young hitter that routinely struggled to get on base and apparently didn’t have a well-refined idea of his own strike zone, would become the well-rounded player that many seemed to be projecting for Rosario. He had a great rookie year defensively and had a lot of extra-base hits in 2015. In some ways that masked his low on-base percentage from that season (.289), and it helped insulate him from criticism in his second season, 2016, when I personally felt he regressed as an outfielder, and when he posted worse overall batting numbers in Round 2 in the big leagues.
A few weeks into this season, on April 22, plenty of Twins fans could tell you that Byron Buxton was struggling mightily at the plate. But did you know that Rosario was batting just .228/.267/.298 in 61 plate appearances at that point? Yikes.
But since that time his offensive numbers have significantly improved. In 234 plate appearances since that rough start, Rosario is hitting .303/.341/.500 with 9 home runs, 19 RBIs, a 19% strikeout rate and a 5.5% walk rate. There are also some underlying signs that he’s not only improved his results as a hitter—he’s improved his process. More on that in a later column.