The Twins are right in the middle of a race to the postseason. They’ve spent the majority of the season forcing analysts to revise their opinion on the Twins. They apparently were not just a team playing well over its head after losing 103 games last year. If the season ended on Labor Day, the Twins would have won the right to play in the postseason as the second Wild Card team in the American League, and they’d have a one-game playoff with – who else? – the New York Yankees.
There’s been plenty written about some of the guys that have helped the Twins surge to where they are in the standings right now. After an incredible 20-win month of August, the Twins went from sellers at the non-waiver trade deadline to holding a playoff spot, and guys like Byron Buxton, Brian Dozier, Eddie Rosario, Jorge Polanco, Ervin Santana and J.O Berrios absolutely deserve the credit they’ve gotten for that run.
This column, though, presents a handful of guys that I don’t think have received ample credit for their respective role in keeping the Twins in the hunt. It’s an inexact science and I can’t claim that it’s an exhaustive list. I’ve broken it down into a few categories here.
For a couple months, Belisle looked like he was pitching his way out of town. In the middle of June, he held an 8.59 ERA in a bullpen that was struggling badly. Since that time, he’s emerged as the guy Paul Molitor trusts to close out most games now that Brandon Kintzler is wearing a different uniform.
The turnaround for Belisle has been dramatic and surprising. Over his past 28 2/3 innings, Belisle owsn a 1.57 ERA, with a 31:8 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and opponents are hitting just .206 against him.
Dave Cameron at FanGraphs wrote about Belisle’s run of success recently, and he basically concluded that the 37-year-old reliever isn’t doing a whole lot different, except that some base hits are turning into foul balls, and then Belisle is finishing the job with strikeouts when he gets two strikes on a hitter.
Maybe Hildenberger’s gotten the proper credit in some circles, but I think it’s important to point out his contributions.
He’s more or less replaced the production Brandon Kintzler offered the Twins, albeit in slightly lower leverage roles. In a bullpen that lost its most dependable reliever – and saw the second-most reliable guy, Taylor Rogers, trend in the wrong direction – Hildenberger has been a terrific stabilizing force. In the second half, the side-arming reliever has a 2.74 ERA in 23 innings, including a fantastic 25:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. And the one walk after the all-star break was intentional. Oh, and his 60% groundball rate is tops among current Twins relievers, and would rank 10th in all of baseball if he had enough innings to qualify for the reliever leaderboards on FanGraphs.com.
His fastball is nice, whether he’s throwing it from the funky angle or from over the top. His real devastating weapon, in my opinion, is his changeup.
Other guys who’ve really helped the bullpen this past month would include Dillon Gee (long relief), Ryan Pressly and Alan Busenitz.
In his past 7 starts, Kyle Gibson has a 3.29 ERA after struggling to go deep in games or find consistency for most of the season for the Twins. He’s been a big reason why the Twins’ starting staff went from just hoping that Ervin Santana or J.O. Berrios could start every game, to a top-5 A.L. staff since the All-Star break.
Gibson’s changed a few things recently, and I wrote about those changes the other day. The short version of the story is that he’s throwing more 4-seamers, changing the speed, and Byron Buxton pointed out some type of mechanical flaw that may have been making it easier for hitters to pick up Gibson’s slider. Buxton was standing in the batter’s box against Gibson in mid-to-late July, and he told the starter that he noticed a difference between some of his best sliders of the bullpen session and other, less effective breaking balls. The upshot of all those changes is that Gibson’s strung together 7 starts in which he hasn’t allowed more than 3 runs, he’s getting more swings and misses, and he’s shaved nearly a full run off his ERA.
When the Twins signed ‘Bix Sexy’ in mid-July, some baseball fans around the country hoped. Others laughed. Hoped, because they wanted there to still be juice left for a guy seems quirky, is a successful overweight professional athlete, is older than most players – and some coaches — and who’s apparently been popular at basically every stop of his baseball career spanning two decades. But others laughed because, ‘Wow, typical cheap-skate Twins dumpster diving to find any washed-up arm to fill out their starting rotation.’ I won’t claim allegiance with either camp, but perceptions are perceptions.
Twins CBO Derek Falvey said the Twins spotted some evidence that Colon hadn’t exactly pitched as poorly as his 8.14 ERA in Atlanta had indicated, and I wrote a column about how, yeah, there might be something to a Bartolo Colon bounceback in Minnesota.
But who saw this type of performance coming? A 44-year-old who mostly throws one pitch and doesn’t throw it hard anymore has somehow used command, late movement and veteran savvy to post a 3.94 ERA in 10 starts for the Twins, including a complete game, for crying out loud. He’s finished at least 5 innings in all but his first start in a Twins uniform, and he’s never surrendered more than 4 runs. I’m not a fan of the made-up “Quality Start” stat, but it’s safe to say that Colon has kept the Twins in most of the games that he’s started, and the team has won 5 of the past 7 games he’s started. His impact on the clubhouse is immeasurable, but the indications I’ve gotten are that he’s been a real net positive for the Twins in that area, too.
A lot of people will nitpick some in-game tactical decisions. I get that; it’s the nature of baseball in the information age in which everyone can create a publishing platform.
Personally, I think Molitor’s done a good job this year on the aggregate. I’ll first point out that of course it’s possible that the Twins are succeeding despite the presence of Molitor. I just think that it’s more likely that the Hall of Famer with a steady hand has had a net positive impact on the club from the manager’s office.
As Travis Sawchik pointed out recently, the Twins are one of the best teams in the American League at leveraging the platoon advantage. (Sure, they’ve got a lot of switch hitters, so maybe we’ll give a half point of credit here.)
But one area that I think Molitor gets overlooked when he shouldn’t is what I’ll call big-picture vision.
He’s working to get the Twins to the postseason amid the backdrop of uncertainty about his own future in the organization, as his job status seems to be a frequent topic of conversation among people who follow the team closely. He’s working with an imperfect roster that got worse at the non-waiver trade deadline, and somehow he guided the Twins to 20 wins in August. If you’re going to assign blame to Molitor for the 103-loss disaster of a season in 2016, then he should be getting credit for the turn-around in 2017.
During a July media session, Molitor was asked if he had tried to plead his case with his front-office bosses about why this year’s Twins team deserved to be buyers at the trade deadline. I was surprised to hear him respond by saying, and I’m paraphrasing, that he didn’t want to be too outspoken about that, since he saw a big-picture vision of the multi-year trajectory of a young Twins team learning how to win with a lot of relatively inexperienced players. The bosses had to appreciate that, considering Molitor’s own contractual status.
Then, when the team indeed sold off two pitchers, Molitor did not throw in the towel. I think human nature would dictate that every person in the clubhouse experienced some amount of disappointment on that Monday of the trade deadline. Molitor didn’t allow any feelings of self-pity or anger swallow the season down the tubes.
“No retreat, no surrender,” he reportedly wrote on a white board inside his team’s clubhouse the next afternoon. The Twins lost 3 of their next 5 games, but recovered to win 20 games in an August jam-packed with meaningful games.
I asked Molitor about conveying a positive vibe despite what seemed at the time like long odds of success for the season.
“I think it’s more experiential,” Molitor said. “You go through it as a player and coach, and you see how these seasons can go. And even with a month to go – and we’ve put ourselves in a decent position – you know that even over [the rest of the season] there’s potential for volatility there. I think being resilient in June and July and even August has been good, but true resiliency will get tested from here on out.
“I think the message is to try to stay as steady as you can, regardless of a particular game. And I think these guys, especially some of the players that have been through it, will provide some of that leadership for us,” Molitor said.
This kind of credit is tough to dole out quantitatively, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Rowson took over this year and suddenly guys like Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton and Jorge Polanco have become dangerous at the plate after flailing for stretches in the past. There are counter-examples, of course, but based on what I’ve seen so far this year I think the Twins have found a good hitting coach.
Do people realize how good of a season Joe Mauer is having? He’s hitting .302/.382/.416 in exactly 500 plate appearances, and he’s playing Gold Glove-caliber defense at first base. I think people generally are aware of the year Mauer’s putting together at 34 years old, but in a weird way I do think his performance has been undervalued. Because of the way he’s paid and the way he’s underperformed for a couple of season – and, I’ll contend, because his soft-spoken personality makes him an easy target for people who day-trade sports opinions – I think Mauer will always have a contingent of people against him no matter what.
But here are three facts to consider and then I’ll leave it alone. 1) Mauer is hitting .355/.413/.484 since the non-waiver trade deadline, as big a reason as just about anybody why the Twins offense has suddenly become one of the best units in baseball; 2) If he stays healthy and productive through next season, Mauer could be on pace to track down Harmon Killebrew as the all-time Twins leader in getting on base; and 3) After racking up 4 hits in his first 4 plate appearance in a 17-0 blowout Saturday, Mauer committed a selfless act that will probably go underappreciated. Paul Molitor approached him in the dugout and asked if he’d like to stay in the lopsided game to go for a fifth hit. Mauer asked the manager what he’d do if Mauer was 3-for-4, and Molitor told him he’d pull him from the game to get ready for tomorrow’s matchup. Mauer, in short, said that winning the next game was more important to him than chasing a rare 5-hit game, so he sat down, and was back in the lineup the next day at first base in a day game after a night game.
I think Dozier has earned attention for the way he’s played since the trade deadline – he’s hitting .315/.422/.623 with 11 homers in 154, plus almost as many walks (21) as strikeouts (24). He’s also played good defense at second and stolen 4 bases in 5 tries. What I think needs to be stated about Dozier’s contribution is that he’s one of the few players in the clubhouse with enough tenure, track record and history to challenge the front office on its decision to be sellers. Dozier was a vocal advocate for adding pieces before the deadline, and when the sell-off of Brandon Kintzler and Jaime Garcia occurred, Dozier was the first in line to say that it didn’t mean the players in the clubhouse were about to lay down and quit on the season.