Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Necessary Struggle

What a fun Twins season so far, huh? I was looking at the standings after their 17-inning marathon win against the Red Sox the other day and it was beautifully symmetrical - 48 wins, 24 losses, 2nd best run-differential in Major League Baseball... It feels like it has been so long since we had a Twins team that we could really get behind. I'm excited about the youth the Twins have throughout most of their lineup and about the energy that Rocco Baldelli has brought to this team. Based on the players I follow on Instagram, it seems like they all genuinely like each other too, which is great to see.

With all that being said - the Red Sox and Kansas City series' have revealed some weaknesses on this team, and a recent spat of injuries will likely lead to a slump for this team over the next couple of weeks...but I think that is actually a good thing. Especially for a young team like the Twins. Jumping out to a huge lead in the division so early was making it look like this was going to be a fun summer, but also one in which the team might have been tempted to pull back a little and not put everything in to every game - which I think would ultimately be detrimental to a probable playoff run.

Reasons for Hope and Reasons for Pessimism
I'm a stats guy - always have been since the glory days of this blog. When I look for reasons to be optimistic or pessimistic, I don't look at individual performances in games, but rather, I turn to the stats. We are at a point in this baseball season where there is enough information to start to read trends. Let's look at the pitching first.

Twins starting pitching has been pretty good so far this year. The Twins rank 3rd in MLB in starter's ERA (3.58), 2nd in MLB in starters WAR (8.8), and 7th in MLB baseball in starters FIP (3.91). This isn't likely to be news to anyone - Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi have been consistently excellent, Martin Perez started off hot but has faltered a bit lately, Kyle Gibson has been his normal streaky self, and Michael Pineda has been steadily improving after a slow start. The starting pitching, combined with a spectacular offense, is a big reason the Twins are one of the best teams in baseball through the first half of the season. I would love to see the Twins add a solid mid-rotation starter and move a guy like Pineda (or maybe even Perez) to the bullpen, but if they don't make a move there, I think they will be fine. A playoff rotation of Berrios, Odorizzi and Gibson would be pretty good.

Equally unsurprising to anyone watching the Twins will the fact that the bullpen has been, once again, mediocre. Twins relievers are 19th in MLB in ERA (4.58), 12th in MLB in FIP (4.26) and 9th in MLB in WAR (2.0). The numbers suggest that Twins relievers have actually pitched a little bit better than the result have indicated, but still, no matter how you slice the data, they haven't been great. Close leads have never felt very safe with this team and the closer position has been a merry-go-round for most of the season. This is going to be an obvious area of focus for the Twins over the next 6 weeks before the trade deadline and it will be interesting to see what they do. I was really hoping they would have sprung for Kimbrel, but alas.

The recent injuries to guys like Byron Buxton and Marwin Gonzalez are the most concerning thing to me. Buxton's offensive resurgence notwithstanding, his absence in the outfield is what the Twins will miss the most. The Twins, to-date this season, are the 2nd best fielding team in baseball, only slightly behind the Diamondbacks. You could make a very easy argument that this defense has been one of the biggest reasons for the improvement we've seen in the rotation. An outfield of Rosario, Buxton, and Kepler on a day-in, day-out basis, with the occasional fill-in from Marwin Gonzalez (who is also an above average corner-outfielder) is a huge reason that the Twins starting rotation is one of the best in baseball. I'm hoping that Buxton recovers well from his wrist-injury, an injury that always threatens to sap a batter's power upon return.

Adversity Will Help This Team in Long Run
Twins' hitters are the 13th youngest team in Majors (28.0) with the league average being 28.2 - if you take Nelson Cruz out of the mix, who is 38, you're looking at a line-up that is among the youngest in the league. Pitching-wise, the Twins are also about league-average for age. So, relatively-speaking, this is a fairly young team and there are not many players on the roster who have any significant playoff experience. In this author's humble opinion, simply running away with the division would not be the best thing for this team - a little bit of adversity here in the middle of what has been an excellent season so far, will help this team learn how to pick itself up. It will test, and hopefully strengthen, some of the camaraderie that developed as well.

I also think that some adversity will help Baldelli as well - he has had the luxury, up until now, of managing a squad that has far out-performed expectations. In fact, up to this point, this team has yet to lose more than two games in a row. His first real test as a manager will be if this team goes on a longer losing streak.

The upcoming schedule will be a bit of a test - 4 games on the road at Kansas City starting tonight, followed by 3 at home against Tampa Bay and then a 6-game road trip against the White Sox and Oakland A's. Tampa Bay has been mostly good all season and the A's have been playing pretty well as of late. The White Sox have been hovering around .500 for awhile and have played some decent ball this month.

The Jury is Out for Falvey and Levine
Thad Levine and Derek Falvey have me and many others believing in this team - which levers will they pull to address the bullpen situation and perhaps, the addition of another starting pitcher to the mix as we head towards the trade deadline on July 31st? The salary space is there, this team has been drawing well over the past month, and the farm system is fairly stocked. There is no excuse for not making some impactful moves for a team that seems to be almost a lock to make the playoffs. Most of the moves they made in the off-season have worked out as well as they could - let hope they have a few more rabbits in their hat.

Odds 'n Ends
- Since his 0-for-21 skid, Max Kepler is hitting (13 Games): .391/.509/.935, 13 Rs, 7 HRs, 14RBIs, 9:11 K:BB ratio, in short, an absolute monster. He practically single-handedly won the game for the Twins the other night after coming in as a pinch-hitter.
- Willians Astudillo hit .526/.525/.763 in Triple-A (9 games) after being sent down by the Twins. He came back up last night and went 3-for-4 with a HR. The Twins have to find some way to keep him mad all of the time.
- Over his last 5 games, Miguel Sano has been putrid, hitting .105/.261/.263 with 12 SO and 4 BB. In the 17-inning game against the Red Sox, he was 0-for-7 with 5Ks which was good for a -0.433 WPA. That -0.433 WPA was easily one of the top 5 worst single-game performances in baseball this season.
- Since the start of June (3 starts), Jose Berrios has been ridiculous. 20.2 IP, 1.31 ERA, 22:3 K:BB ratio, opponents hitting .184/.215/.329 off of him. He has lowered his season ERA from 3.27 at the beginning of the month 2.86 currently. Unfortunately for him, the Twins have only won 1 of his 3 June starts (thanks bullpen!).
- On the opposite end, Martin Perez has been pretty bad in his 3 June starts. 16.1 IP, 5.51 ERA, 15:6 K:BB ratio, opponents hitting .269/.329/.328 off him. Overall, his last 5 starts have all been mediocre-to-bad, without a quality start in that timespan. Let's hope he can rediscover whatever magic he had going earlier in the year.
- Love me some FanGraphs and just today the had a blog article about how Minnesota's own Jake Odorizzi has the best fastball in MLB so far this season. Check it out.