That’s right, you heard it here first — the Minnesota Twins will win 80 games in the 2017 season. This isn’t a hot take to generate clicks and it isn’t a convoluted stance that’ll end up on Cold Takes Exposed; I genuinely believe with all of my heart that this team is talented enough to win 80 games…this season!
After all, it’s not a drastically different team that won 83 games in 2015. Of course, it’s not a drastically different bunch that won 59 in 2016, either — at least not yet. There’s still some time in the offseason for the new brain trust to add a bat that could alter the look of this offense, but by and large the team looks what it’s going to look like in 2017, barring a re-kindling of the Brian Dozier trade chatter.
So why the big difference in 2015 and ‘16 records when the team was largely the same? After all, the primary swap out was Torii Hunter for Byungho Park. Hunter wasn’t ultra productive on the field — nor was Park — so what was the primary culprit behind the huge slide? It can’t possibly be clubhouse leadership, can it? The most sabermetrically-inclined people may diminish the value of clubhouse leadership, but I’ve come full-circle on it — sort of. Mind you, there’s no way I believe the Twins lost an additional 24 games from one year to the other because Torii wasn’t the central figure during the increasingly infrequent postgame dance parties.
The Twins didn’t lose more games in 2016 because there was less crooning of “Little Red Corvette” before games.
But make no mistake, Hunter mattered. He helped revitalize the clubhouse, if only for a year. He made baseball fun and winning seem easy. Maybe too easy?
What I’ve deduced on my own — with no help from statistics or inside #sources — is that maybe Hunter’s presence eased the burden on some pretty good young players coming up, like Eddie Rosario and Miguel Sano. Both of those guys experienced significant slides as sophomores in 2016 with Hunter not around. Is it possible that both had such an easy go of it in 2015 that they thought they had “arrived” and thus didn’t need to work as hard to maintain their level of performance? I can’t prove it and I can’t say that it’s true — but it’s possible.
The problem is that playing big league baseball is hard. We’re constantly searching for a reason why players succeed and fail, and for me it boils down to this — there’s a winner and a loser on every single play. The pitcher wins, or the hitter wins. The hitter wins, or the fielder wins. It’s an annoying web of events that ultimately spits out a season worth of statistics that may or may not contextualize what exactly happened. But in other words, the game says you’re destined to fail — a lot. The cruel irony of it all is that sometimes a player does something really well on a play — and it goes for naught. An opponent makes an unbelievable play. A ball is hit right at someone. The opponent just so happens to be a superstar like Mike Trout, who makes things look easy.
The game will drive you insane if you let it.
Wright Thompson wrote a brilliant feature last September on Theo Epstein as the Cubs were gearing up for their ultimate World Series win. The entire thing is tremendous from top to bottom, and if you leave this piece to read that one, I’ll never forgive you. That is, because you’ll never read me again after drinking in Thompson’s style. He’s wonderful. Anyway, he breaks down a day in July, and in doing so says this:
“All teams are more fragile than people want to admit to themselves.”
Wow. If that’s the shot, here’s the chaser:
“If we have a horsesh*t month, if we lose this lead, they will be paying attention to what time I come into the office,” Epstein says (in July). “They will be thinking we got complacent. It’s a human phenomenon that there has to be a reason for everything. There almost never is. Inexplicable sh*t, like flipping a coin or the outcome of a baseball game, we need to tell ourselves a story: This team has great chemistry. This team is tough. You know what? That sh*t all matters, but it’s never the full answer that people want it to be. It’s why we have stories about the stars in the sky, and the planets and the seas and gods and mythology. We evolve to a point where we can tell and understand the stories. Some are real and some are not, but we attach meaning to all of them.”
When I read that, it sort of reshaped how I view baseball. Especially since I read it as I was coming down the stretch of covering a record-breaking Twins team — in a dubious fashion.
That doesn’t mean I had to stop wondering why the Twins failed. I felt like it just meant I could write about it without having all the answers. This is liberating.
What players are least likely to handle failure well? Ostensibly, young players. The Twins were littered with young players in 2016. According to BaseballReference.com, the Twins had the second-youngest offense in the American League last year with a weighted average — by plate appearances — age of 27 years. Houston was slightly younger at 26.6. The pitching staff was a bit older, but still below the league-average age (28.6) at 28.3 years old.
In some ways, I think the 0-9 start got into the minds of some of the guys as well. As much as we wanted to make the case that big leaguers lose multiple games in a row and are able to dig deep within to find ways to stop skids, younger players are going to be less apt to have that experience or know-how to fall back on when it comes to that.
Maybe it’s all a cockamamie excuse for a team that drastically underperformed, but I feel like it was a perfect storm of youth, a bad start and a team that was woeful at pulling wins out of the margins.
Wait, pulling wins out of the margins? What does that mean? Let me explain.
I have a theory that I think is sort of backed up by the variance between the two teams in 2015 and ‘16. How else could two similarly talented teams win such a disparate number of games outside of some weird cosmic force? My theory is that there are things in games that teams to steal wins here or there — perhaps more veteran or savvy teams — that the Twins didn’t do in 2016. Some of them may not be easily quantifiable — like stopping the bleeding when a two-run inning becomes a seven-run inning on defense — and some, like pitch framing, are things we’re improving on each and every day to see just how much value it actually provides.
It’s just something I’ve been thinking about, and if I sound like Doc Brown, I totally get it. My basic theory is that I really think WAR is good at giving us a general idea of how many games a team can win over the replacement level — or at least how good a single player is over their replacement in a given season — but I think there are things inside the margins of the game that good managers and intelligent players can do that make a big difference, too.
What it means for me right now is that I think Jason Castro will single-handedly revamp what this pitching staff brings to the table. There is talent on this pitching staff. Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes were first-round picks who had fairly good seasons recently. Trevor May was interesting before the Twins inexplicably moved him to the bullpen in favor of Mike Pelfrey. Ervin Santana is coming off one of the finest years of his career. It’s a little baffling based on his peripherals, but Hector Santiago has a career ERA that is a quarter-run better than Santana’s. There’s hope in youngsters Jose Berrios and Stephen Gonsalves, and maybe a bit further down the road for Kohl Stewart and Fernando Romero. The bullpen has some guys who throw hard and started finding strikeout stuff last year.
Castro on his own should provide a fair amount of value — especially if used properly. His triple-slash lines since making the All-Star Game won’t make anyone blush — they all start with a 6 if you’re not aware — but in his career he’s hit a passable .247/.328/.424 against righties. Pairing him with right-handed hitting John Ryan Murphy — speaking of people who have something to prove in 2017….– should make for a solid platoon for Paul Molitor. Regardless of if it’s Murphy, Mitch Garver or even recently-signed Chris Gimenez, the Twins did the wise thing and invested heavily on the long side of a potential platoon.
Where Castro, and for that matter Murphy as well, stand to help the team in a less obvious way is in pitch framing. If we’re being slavish to pitch frame values — and it’s not necessarily wise but will at least give us a ballpark here — StatCorner.com lists Juan Centeno as the second-worst framer in MLB in 2016, with Kurt Suzuki markedly better, but still not very good. Together, they provided the Twins with roughly minus-22.0 runs of framing value. On the other end, Castro was fifth in the game at plus-12.8 runs. Again, if we’re slavish to the values, Castro provides a nearly 3.5-win upgrade just in framing pitches.
It helps that Murphy also gets positive marks from BaseballProspectus, which does framing for both the big leagues and the minors. Across the 5,196 pitches Murphy caught in the minors last year, he was worth 20.6 framing runs. Now it’s impossible to make an apples-to-apples comparison because in this case Murphy and Centeno/Suzuki were catching concurrently, but it’s not hard to get excited about how much having competent defensive catchers should aid the starting rotation that finished last in ERA in 2016.
Basically, no team stands to benefit more from good pitch framing than this bunch.
Another benefit is that for the most part, guys will be playing in position this season. Even I, one of the final people to call the Sano-in-right experiment a debacle, can hardly scoff at people who’d suggest that was part of why Miguel had a drop-off in production. No, it didn’t help that Sano showed up to camp heavier than the Twins would have liked according to Patrick Reusse, but we should call a spade a spade. Third base might not be the position Sano was born to play, but he’s clearly better equipped with the lateral quickness and arm — holy hell, the arm — to play the hot corner as opposed to chasing down wicked smashes and odd caroms in the difficult right field corner at Target Field. I remain convinced he can be at least an average defensive third baseman with a plus arm.
It was not a fireable offense to put Sano out right field on its own — and Terry Ryan is a prince of a man who’ll do great things in the Phillies organization — but it would be foolish to say it didn’t hasten the exit.
The keeping of Dozier — at least of this writing — didn’t alter my perception of this team too much. Sure, it’ll lead to more of Jorge Polanco being shoehorned in at shortstop, possibly making for a dubious left-side duo with Sano, but for a team that doesn’t have aspirations other than poking its head above water, that can be lived with. A team whose ceiling is playing relevant baseball in September for just the second time in the decade can spend a season finding out what these two guys are capable of. And again, Polanco at short is nowhere near as egregious as Sano in right. They’re about as far apart as shortstop and right field, really.
Moving Dozier could have cleared up a logjam, but the duo of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine wisely placed a value on the slugging second baseman that has yet to be reached. Maybe nobody ever reaches it, and that’s fine. Dozier playing out the final two years on his deal and at the very worst, being slapped with a Qualifying Offer has value to the Twins. First of all, if you’re at all buying what I’m selling here, you’ll realize the Twins aren’t destined to be horrible in 2017. That’ll make this season a stepping stone to what should be a fairly good 2018.
What Falvey and Levine have wisely done is not treat Dozier like a $5 bill burning a hole in the pocket of a seven-year-old. Dozier’s value to the team — on the field, in the clubhouse and community — is gigantic, and they’ve set the bar there. Hurdle that bar, and he can be yours. Fall short, and risk beating your head into it. It’s a hell of a poker face from a baseball official that has never been down this road, but he’s played it beautifully.
In some ways, 2015 can be the worst thing that could have happened to the Twins. Whatever it did to cause 2016 — and there are a ton of theories that could be cooked up — it still showed that the team overall is talented enough to be fairly good. Again, it also shows how fickle young talent can be, and how prone it can be to go into funks when things aren’t going right.
But it also should show that there is enough high-end talent to see a positive ending here in the near future. Byron Buxton’s blistering September run was like nothing he’d done on the big-league stage before, and should get the wheels in motion for him to reach his potential. Sano has been training hard this offseason to show he can handle third base full-time. A Twins source told Cold Omaha around Christmas that Sano had already lost eight pounds as part of his preparation for the 2017 season. Max Kepler was red-hot before cooling off down the stretch; he looks like a full-time regular — and then some — moving forward.
Basically, it’s like this: an easy case can be made that virtually everyone on the 2016 roster who is returning in 2017 has an untapped ceiling to reach. The only real exceptions are Dozier, Robbie Grossman and maybe Ervin Santana. This isn’t an unwinnable division. Cleveland is going to be extremely good again, but after that it’s a dogfight for second place. Kansas City has done some reshuffling. Detroit has largely stood pat, with all of its key players a year older. Chicago has embarked on a full rebuild, and should be the odds-on favorite to finish in last — especially if they move any of Jose Quintana, Jose Abreu or David Robertson in the near future.
If the Twins come out hungry enough, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be a .500 club.