Greetings from Target Field, where it’s 80 degrees and sunny. It might be the only nice day this week — thunderstorms are expected tomorrow, rain on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
In fact, it’s giving Twins manager Paul Molitor an excuse not to set his Saturday starter and solidify the five-man rotation. “I know who it might be,” he said, without divulging it. “No need to put it out there until we make it final, just because there’s potential rainouts and double-headers and things that could get in the mix.”
Today it’s Phil Hughes (R, 4-1, 4.74 ERA) vs. Kyle Freeland (L, 3-2, 2.93). Joe Mauer sits against the lefty, and Eduardo Escobar is the designated hitter:
— Tom Schreier (@tschreier3) May 16, 2017
And here’s the Colorado Rockies lineup:
— Patrick Saunders (@psaundersdp) May 16, 2017
Battle of two first place teams
This is the Rockies first visit since the Target Field opened in 2010, and only the fifth series between the two teams. Colorado has been a surprise success this year, leading the NL West with a 24-15. The Los Angeles Dodgers are right behind them with a 22-17 record, but the San Francisco Giants are 16-24 so far.
Twins v. Rockies:
2-1 at Target Field
2-1 at Metrodome
3-3 at Coors Field
— Heather Rule (@hlrule) May 16, 2017
All everyone wanted to talk about, however, was the Twins tenacious hold on first place in the AL Central. Molitor wisely avoided putting too much into that.
“I don’t look at it a ton,” he said. “We’ve played good baseball, I think I’m more pleased with that than the record. The fact that most days you come down to the last inning or two, and we’ve had a chance to win, if not leading. That’s more pleasing than the record itself.”
The Twins still don’t have a set lineup or batting order. The former is more concerning than the later, of course, but still… the Twins are 19-15. The Cleveland Indians are 20-17. The Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox are around .500. And it’s 34 games into the season.
“These guys feel good about how they’re playing,” he said. “Hopefully they’re mindful of the fact that we haven’t even reached the quarter pole yet. There’s a lot of baseball yet to be played.”
Nineteen and fifteen is a marked improvement from last season, however, and Molitor says that a big difference is that his team is paying closer attention to detail in their play.
“It’s one of those things where you can try to stress certain things that you want to see improved, and a lot of times you use last season as a foundation of areas that jump out at you that need attention,” he said.
“For young players that first get here, they hear it in the minor leagues and they hear when they get here. But their focus a lot of times is trying to find out how to play the game at the major league level, and some of those things get lost in the shuffle.”
Balancing information and intuition
Molitor says that he’s using more information in determining defensive positioning and setting his lineups this year.
“It’s just part of the increased information that seems to exponentially grow every year, in terms of detail and what you have breaking down your defensive charts, and maybe taking a few more chances and putting people in spots that might look a little funny from the eye in the sky, but playing percentages,” he said.
“And these guys are stepping outside their comfort zones to be willing to try those things, and they’re seeing that it’s paying off.”
Michael Rand of the Star Tribune pointed out how good the Twins defense has been in a recent piece. Asked if the advanced information has influenced that, Molitor shrugged.
“There’s multiple factors in that,” he said. “You look at our team early in the year last year, and who’s playing the majority of the time now, and just the personnel itself is different. And some of the personnel that’s the same are in different positions.
“Like any part of the game, it can kinda get into a little bit of a role when you’re hitting well or pitching well or running the bases well. Defense is the same way, it gets a little bit contagious — guys know we’re making plays.”
Individually, Byron Buxton makes a difference, he said, but he also feels that Joe Mauer’s play at first base has as well.
Asked about Twins' improved defense, Molitor pointed out Joe Mauer's improvement at 1B as unsung. Statistically his best year since moving.
— Phil Miller (@MillerStrib) May 16, 2017
The advanced information has influenced his lineups, however. Molitor famously got flack for putting Mauer in the cleanup spot and Buxton in the 3-hole early in the season, but now Miguel Sano and Kennys Vargas are occupying the middle of the lineup.
Mauer still serves as an on-base guy, hitting on the top of the order with guys like Brian Dozier and Robbie Grossman.
“I’m trying to use more information to determine not only who plays, but where they might have the best chance to help us in the lineup on any given day,” he said. “Sometimes you go more on hunches and than who’s swinging well, and that’s information too, but there’s more things to look at in pretty much every area that you make decisions on on a daily basis, and you can decide how much of it you want to allow into what you actually do.”
The direction is not necessarily coming from CBO Derek Falvey and GM Thad Levine, either. It’s just another step he’s taken as a manager, trying to wring as many wins out of this flawed team as he can.
“Everybody here understands that it’s a little more time-consuming, and things that you need to pay attention to, because we have such extended resources, but it’s kinda fun to sift through some of those things,” he said.
“A lot of times the personal aspect comes into play, in who these guys are and what you know about them, but you’re trying to use the information the best you can.”