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Wetmore’s 5 thoughts: 5 encouraging signs from the Twins in 2017

The Minnesota Twins got plenty of late-season pub from national outlets this year, and their paid attendance eclipsed 2 million customers one season after losing 103 games. They were a trendy team to talk about, but not many analysts gave them a fighting chance against the bullpen-heavy New York Yankees in the Bronx. The Twins pounced to an early lead, but unfortunately for the plucky club and its fan base, Ervin Santana had one of his bad starts and the Yankees bullpen was more than up to the task of overwhelming Minnesota for more than 8 full innings.

The season ended with a gasp.

And still, I don’t know that enough has been said of the remarkable turnaround the team experienced from 2016 to 2017. The club that lost 103 games had underperformed, sure, but it also had a big heavy load of bad pitching all season, and no offense could overcome what the Twins ran out to the mound last year. This year’s team got a little more respectable pitching, became one of the best fielding teams in the big leagues, and watched its offense blossom over the course of the season into legitimately one of the best lineups in the game—without star slugger Miguel Sano.

It was a buzz-kill finish to the year in New York, no doubt. Here are 5 positives to pull from the 2017 season, with a nod to the developments that should help the Twins be more competitive in the near future.

1. Derek Falvey might be a genius.

This one is a little anecdotal. If you’re a Twins fan, I can understand why you’d believe that Falvey is getting way more credit than he deserves to even be mentioned on this list. He took over a team, didn’t clean house, signed Matt Belisle and Jason Castro, and then handed out a couple of minor leagues deals for Craig Breslow and Chris Gimenez, and called it an offseason. Then he assessed his team’s chances of making a run at the postseason in late July – on the heels of a tough week for the Twins and identical 9-game winning streaks for the Royals and Indians – and decided to ship out a recently acquired mid-rotation starter and the Twins’ all-star closer, Brandon Kintzler.

The clubhouse surged in amazing fashion and the other wild card teams laid down during the stretch run in September, and the Twins improbably made the postseason, despite Falvey taking pieces away and not adding big names over the winter.

I hear you. I’m not ignoring the notion that those surface-level facts make it look like the Twins succeeded in spite of Falvey, rather than because of him.

I’m basing this off my perception, and what I’ve been told behind the scenes. Falvey’s thought process runs deep. He’s a really sharp baseball guy, but he’s also numbers-savvy and a great communicator. He strikes me as CEO material, and I’ve only interacted with him a handful of times.

A few points in his favor:

-He was patient and didn’t fire everybody the day he set foot on campus.
-He hired James Rowson, who in my mind just finished a terrific first year as Twins hitting coach.
-He hired Jeff Pickler, who in my limited interactions has come across as a fantastic addition to a coaching staff.
-He promoted Sean Johnson to scouting director and they drafted Royce Lewis first overall; both seem like wins from my perspective.
-He’s beefed up the baseball research department, and continues to make additions in that area.
-He added Jeremy Hefner as a sort of video advance scouts to help put together plans for games and series, and Hefner has drawn some praise for his work in the role.
-To Falvey’s credit, Matt Belisle and Chris Gimenez and Craig Breslow did have an impact on the clubhouse, and while I’m not sure we’re close to being able to quantify that impact, I think it matters.
-In my view, Falvey got the trade deadline decision “wrong,” but I appreciate that he weighed the facts at the moment and made a calculated decision based on probable outcomes. It backfired, but I think Falvey and GM Thad Levine went about the decision making process the correct way.

I listed the overseer of the baseball operations department first, because executives can have an outsized influence over a club relative to what they’re paid. If the Pohlads got the Falvey hire right, it will pay dividends for years.

2. Byron Buxton looks like a star.

Buxton held a spot in the lineup even though he was hitting sub-.200 a couple months into the season. He did that for a few reasons, but all the talk about his unwavering confidence and work ethic would have meant next to nothing if he wasn’t an elite centerfielder. If he was struggling to hit his weight and also giving back runs in the field, it would have been an easy decision to demote Buxton to the minor leagues in June, which the Twins considered at the time.

But Buxton was already showing a Gold-Glove capability in centerfield, along with an improving sense of his own ability to steal bases almost at will. He finished the year with 29 steals in 30 attempts. Notably, he started to look this year like he wasn’t just a speed demon outrunning an opposing battery—he started pairing his top-of-the-charts speed with good reads and situational awareness, earning a green light from his manager to steal a base in nearly any circumstance.

You already know the story about his defense. Buxton stated his case this year to be considered one of the most valuable fielders in the game. He led the world in Baseball Savant’s new stat Outs Above Average, which is a range-based metric that tries to measure how much better a fielder was at turning balls in the air into outs. Buxton’s 25 Outs Above Average was higher than Ender Inciarte (19), Mookei Betts (16) and Lorenzo Cain (15). Buxton finished second amoung outfielders in Defensive Runs Saved, according to FanGraphs.com, where his 24 DRS was second only to Mookie Betts’ 31 DRS. And Buxton was again second among outfielders as measured by Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average, which also favored Betts over Buxton (27.2 FRAA to Buxton’s 23.8).

It’s not breaking news to announce that Buxton is an exceptional fielder, or that he could win his first of many Gold Gloves this winter. It’s just that it’s a necessary context to point out that a guy that adds a ton of value with his glove and while running the bases has also blossomed into a great hitter.

Buxton’s offensive stats for the year don’t jump off the page. That’ll happen when you spend the first 75 games of a season struggling to tread water at the plate, barely managing to hit .200 while striking out almost one in every three trips to the plate. Buxton added three hits on the Fourth of July, and from that day until the end of the season he batted an impressive .314/.359/.553 with 12 home runs in 248 plate appearances. He still struck out more than 27% of the time, but now he was at least trading that for some forceful contact and power. If we’re cherry-picking his stats from July 4 until the end of the season, Buxton looks like a star offensively – not just because of his other abilities in the field. His .390 Weighted On-Base Average during that stretch would have ranked 16th in baseball over a full season. It’s halfway between Paul Goldschmidt and Cody Bellinger, a batting line that compares with guys like Marcell Ozuna and Jose Abreu.

It’s only 250 plate appearances and so far in his career there’s been more bad than good at the plate for Buxton. But if his final few months of 2017 are any indication, Buxton is on track to be a superstar. He’s 23 years old.

3. J.O. Berrios pitched like he belongs at the top end of a starting rotation.

Berrios posted dazzling minor league numbers before his MLB debut last season, and it’s safe to say that his first year didn’t go as well as he’d hoped. He may have been overwhelmed at times after making the jump to the highest level at 22 years old, and command issues led to him posting a 8.02 ERA in 58 1/3 innings as a rookie. I still believed the minor league track record more than the rocky debut season, but it was pretty hard to ignore it altogether. What would Berrios have in store this year?

As it turned out, he began the year in the minor leagues, but quickly earned his way into the rotation and proved to be one of the most capable starters once he got there.

He logged a new career-high with 185 1/3 combined innings, and vastly improved his earned-run average, as well as his fielding-independent numbers. Berrios’ 3.89 ERA was second-best among Twins starters with more than 5 innings pitched; he also ranked 19th in ERA among American League starters with at least 140 innings pitched.  And there aren’t a whole lot of A.L. starters with a full-season workload that were better at striking out hitters than Berrios. The young Twins’ righty struck out 22.6% of the hitters he faced this year, which ranks just ahead of Sonny Gray for 12th in the league.

There’s plenty more to say about Berrios, and we’ll save that analysis for a future column. For now, Twins fans ought to be encouraged that their young starter looked the part of a top-line starter at a fairly young age in 2017.

4. Eddie Rosario looks like an impact player who improved his biggest weakness.

I’ll be the first to admit that I was skeptical of Rosario at this time last year. I just thought he chased pitches outside of the strike zone far too often to be a consistently good hitters. He’d rack up plenty of hits, sure, because his hands are great. But he tried so often to be a “bad-ball” hitter that he rarely ever drew walks and far too often struck out. He could keep a good batting average doing that for stretches, but his on-base percentage suffered in a big way, and I wasn’t sure if he’d ever correct the problem, which limited his potential in my estimation.

Well, it looks like I was wrong.

Rosario transformed into one of the most productive players in a productive lineup. He’s still not flawless in the outfield, but what impressed me about his 2017 season, briefly, is that he shored up what used to be a glaring weakness in his game.

There was a scouting report out there that you didn’t always have to throw a strike to get Rosario out. In 2016, he swung at pitches outside the strike zone 41.7% of the time, according to FanGraphs.com, which tied for 11th worst rate in the Majors. (Note: “worst” is used here assuming that swinging at pitches outside the strike zone is bad.) That in part led to a swing-and-miss rate of 15.3%, per FanGraphs, which ranked 14th-worst in baseball – territory ordinarily reserved for all-or-nothing sluggers like Chris Carter or Khris Davis.

But this year Rosario ratcheted up his plate discipline to new heights, he beefed up his walk rate (and OBP) in a meaningful way, and he cut down his rate of striking out big time. He still swings and misses a fair amount, although his batting line this year was plenty healthy based on my expectations. Rosario hit .290/.328/.507 with 27 home runs in 151 games.

It was an impressive correction and an impressive season for a guy who now looks like a lineup mainstay for the foreseeable future.

5. Trevor Hildenberger looks like a setup man.

Hildenberger was the Twins’ best reliever at the end of the year. Actually, you could make the case he had the best season of any Twins reliever, including the guy that made the all-star game and was then traded away at the non-waiver deadline, Brandon Kintzler.

Kintzler pitched 3 more innings and had a better ERA (2.78 vs. 3.21), but fielding-independent numbers favored Hildenberger by a wide margin. Hildenberger had by far the best xFIP among Twins relievers, which factors in only the things a pitcher can directly control: walks, strikeouts, hit batters and fly balls. (It assumes that every pitcher, if given enough innings, will eventually gravitate to a league-average rate of fly balls leaving the park.) The stat is designed to fit the ERA scale for ease of interpretation, so Hildenberger’s 2.92 xFIP is quite good – in fact, it ranks 13th in the Majors among relievers with at least 30 innings pitched, just one spot behind Padres stud reliever Brad Hand.

The side-armer has a dynamite changeup. He’s yet to pitch 50 innings in the big leagues, but the early returns make it look like he’s the real deal. Hildenberger’s combination of strikeouts (25.9% of opposing hitters) and ground balls (a very good 58.8% rate of grounders) makes Hildenberger look like a back-end fixture for years to come in the Twins’ bullpen.

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  • dbsdbs

    One more sign — Falvey/Lavine made Molitor a much better manager this year. The Twins have lagged MLB in the use of analytics and I think that is true of Molitor as well. Terry Ryan certainly believed more in what he saw on the field that what his analysts might tell him. I think Molitor, due at least in part to the front office, was also slow to use analytics last year. But this year he had no choice and it was pretty clear that he bought in — just look at his tinkering with batting orders compared to last year — and as a result Molitor is a much improved manager

    • fritzdahmus

      I’m guessing Falvey/Levine did not like all of Molitor’s sac bunting. No stat on the planet supports it. But I liked it, and the baserunning/stealing as well. Teams aren’t generally used to seeing that from the Major League hitters and baserunners…..good chance for throwing errors or misplays…….and extra bases for the Twins. It’s old fashion baseball. Must drive Falvey/Levine nuts.

      Stats can’t tell you everything.

      • ogredragon

        Molitor is smart.. bunting is situational and numbers for average can’t reflect games situation because each game is an entity unto itself. All numbers are zeroed for the game. Your worst player can be your best and the situation my differ from any game. People forget Molitor had them playing above expectations the first season too. This year I think i read a “stat” that said the twins were 14-6 in games they sacrificed bunted. If true. That is way beyond average or their season numbers. Maybe Molitor is a genius and people don’t under stand him.

  • davidborton

    Couple of thoughts:
    * “Buxton is a great hitter.” Not yet Derek. .253 is avg at best. Can’t parse the season. 162 games is a long season and next year will be telling.
    * Rosario – You only spoke to his hitting. His zany throws to the wrong base; to random places in the infield at times are maddening. That, coupled with his spastic base running will drive a mgr to swallow his chewing tobacco.
    * Hildenberger – Excellent analysis. Connect the dots and you will see why Falvey traded Kintzler and why Falvey will go after closer this winter.

    Excellent article.

    • fritzdahmus

      Why not both Kintzler and Hildenberger? And still go after high priced closer? Or…go after Kintzler again along with the high priced closer!

  • Tim P. Mc Lellan

    The farm system had a successful season at all levels. I read that all aspects of instruction and training techniques were changed from the past. We have oodles of shortstops, relievers and outfielders waiting in the wings. No top of the line starters in the system yet, but I expect that to change soon. I also like the fact that the big club has lots of speed.

  • Steve Anderson

    Very good article — let’s hope BB continues his progress and that Sano can stay healthy. Maybe more importantly, let’s hope DF turns the farm system into a never-ending fountain of talent that provides trade assets when needed and young, inexpensive talent on the field.

  • ogredragon

    sorry derek… But get a newspaper or some other form or reliable media. Falvey was not allowed to Blow the Team up. Those words came right out of the horses Polelad… Yes They were not geniuses. They were following orders. The master genius blew it when in May it was evident that The Twins had a real shot at the post season . And what did the Dynamic Duo do… they said they were not in the season to win the season in June. Now that was pure genius. Threw away an opportunity . Opportunities are not givens. Doesn’t mean there will be one any time in their tenure. It was Wile E Coyote Genius. then to top it off on the last day of the season for radio fill on the rain delay Levine says that they didn’t have a clue the team was special until they made the August run. Talk about having your head so buried up you plans you fail to see the reality. Molitor answer the same question this season. He said he thought they were special in Spring training and knew they were after the opening series of the season… So their Genius was really their blindness to the reality of the situation and talking orders from the boss…





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