The 2016 season opened with a walk-off loss for the Minnesota Twins in Baltimore.
Then again, it also began with Miguel Sano playing right field, so the parallels probably stop there.
But the Twins opened the 2018 season in stunningly similar fashion to two years ago, when the wheels fell all the way off on the path to a 103-loss season, the No. 1 overall pick and the bouncing bundle of prospect joy that is Royce Lewis.
This team is probably just a bit more well-prepared to stomach such a loss, even without Ervin Santana for probably the next six weeks. Santana started that fateful game against the Orioles in early April 2016, but both he and Chris Tillman were bounced early after a nearly two-hour rain delay. Another delay two innings later meant the teams spent almost six hours at the ballpark with under three hours of game time to show for it.
It’s hard to come up with a better metaphor for the 2016 season, but either way, we’ll save that for a rainy day.
The weather was just fine as the Twins again fell 3-2 on Opening Day to the Orioles, this time off the bat of Adam Jones instead of Matt Wieters. Jones attacked the first pitch he, or any hitter for that matter, saw from Fernando Rodney in the bottom of the 11th, ambushing a 92 mph two-seam fastball and driving it deep into a sea of orange.
For the first six innings of the game, the attention was on the starters. Dylan Bundy kept the Twins in check as he tossed seven shutout frames, while Jake Odorizzi did the same through six before handing things off to Zach Duke.
That’s where things got dicey.
Trey Mancini struck out swinging, but Jason Castro was unable to corral the third strike. Mancini reached first, then took second on another wild pitch before Duke eventually fanned Tim Beckham. Former Twin Danny Valencia pinch-hit for designated hitter Pedro Alvarez, and was intentionally walked to set up a possible double play off the bat of Craig Gentry.
Earlier in the game, Gentry had robbed Twins left fielder Eddie Rosario of a home run with a terrific leaping catch at the fence in right-center.
Gentry struck out swinging, but with two outs, No. 9 hitter Caleb Joseph stroked a first-pitch triple into the right-center gap, bringing home both Mancini and Valencia to give the O’s a 2-0 lead. Duke recovered to strike Chris Davis out looking for the rarely-seen fourth strikeout of the inning, something he told reporters afterward he’d only ever done before in high school.
According to Baseball Almanac, that’s the fourth time in Twins history that a pitcher has fanned four batters in an inning, though all have happened in the last decade. Scott Baker (June 15, 2008), Francisco Liriano (June 5, 2012) and Tyler Duffey (May 8, 2016) were the first three.
Both Twins runs came in the ninth off interim closer Brad Brach, who is filling in while Zach Britton recovers from a ruptured Achilles. Sano struck out swinging, and Rosario followed with a grounder to first that Davis couldn’t handle — which was somehow ruled a single.
Rosario took second on a wild pitch, and Logan Morrison walked with Ryan LaMarre coming in to run for him. After Eduardo Escobar struck out on a full count pitch down in the zone, Max Kepler set the standard for best plate appearance of the year early, as he fought off multiple tough pitches before taking an 11-pitch walk to load the bases.
Molitor made the second — or third, depending on your mileage — decision of the day that left some fans scratching their heads as he had Robbie Grossman pinch-hit for Byron Buxton, but it paid off as Robbie’s flare into left-center landed just beyond the glove of Orioles shortstop Manny Machado to tie the game.
However, that was all the Twins offense was able to put together, with Jones sending the hometown fans happy after a couple innings of bonus baseball.
Here’s what we saw from our vantage point:
Odorizzi was terrific
The scouting report on Odorizzi said that he liked to mix in high fastballs, and that was exactly what he did in silencing the Orioles. It was especially obvious when he fell behind Jonathan Schoop 3-0 in the bottom of the first before firing three straight four-seam fastballs past him, each at 90 mph while evading the powerful young hitter’s swing. Odorizzi has one of the best swinging-strike rates on his fastball in the past — I saw it on a stats graphic but forgive me, I can’t find it — and he uses spin rates rather than velocity to get swings and misses.
Molitor’s decisions were more justifiable than you think
One of the sticking points from fans was that Molitor pulled Odorizzi too early, because he after all was cruising. Another was using Duke where he did, with the game tied and three righties in the span of four hitters coming up. Finally, people were also upset that Molitor pinch-hit Grossman for Buxton.
Let’s look at these each individually:
First of all, as noted by Jason Collette on a recent episode of Midwest Swing, Odorizzi has a severe third time through the batting order penalty.
Now this is from 2017, which certainly wasn’t one of Odorizzi’s best years, but it’s the most recent data we have, and without a doubt is what the Twins have to base most of their decisions on with the righty until they see him in his element a bit more. You’d better believe new Twins pitching analyst Josh Kalk — hired away from Tampa Bay in the offseason — has this tattooed on the inside of his brain.
Pay no mind to the fourth time splits; it’s a terribly small split and has virtually no bearing on what we’re saying, anyway. Nevertheless, when the No. 9 hitter Joseph came up for the second time, Molitor had Trevor Hildenberger up and warming despite Odorizzi barely having crossed the 70-pitch threshold. Between the data points and the eight-man bullpen the team has at his disposal, that was the right move.
One could argue that warming Hildenberger up twice, then not putting him right into the game right away wasn’t an ideal move — and maybe they’re right — but that’s the life of a non-closer out there. Odds are Hildenberger wouldn’t even bat an eyelash if you asked him about it.
With Duke, the primary gripe was having him face four righties in a row — three in the batting order with Valencia at Buck Showalter’s right side — but that also isn’t the hugest of deals. It’s possible to make the argument Hildenberger should have pitched there, though with how his day went maybe that subverts the argument a little bit. It’s also possible to say Addison Reed — who had warmed up — should have pitched, but the reality is that it was the bottom-half of a very top-heavy Orioles lineup, so Molitor was most likely saving Reed for the top-two guys in Davis and Machado.
To me, that’s defensible.
Reed ended up facing the exact same spot in the order two innings later, and blitzed through them like a knife through hot butter.
A lot of people have looked at Duke’s numbers from the last two seasons, but that isn’t particularly productive, I don’t think, because right in the middle of them, the lefty had Tommy John surgery. At the very least, why not clear out the sample to look as his numbers since becoming a full-time reliever?
Count 2012 however you wish, but I’ll lump it in while we use the splits too on Fangraphs. From 2012 to last year, Duke has made 287 appearances and just one was a start. He has a 3.18 ERA, 9.2 K/9, 3.6 BB/9, a FIP of 3.49 and a WHIP of 1.25 — all very solid numbers.
Jumping on the splits tool, we find that he’s fared quite well against lefties, and in fact, solidly against righties, too:
- v. LHH – .224/.292/.319, 27.9 percent K rate
- v. RHH – .228/.324/.368, 21.6 percent K rate
Obviously, it’s not like he’s Kenley Jansen against both sides, but this is not a LOOGY/platoon guy. He’s not Brian Duensing of yore or even present-day Taylor Rogers. This can be a fairly fluid thing as lefties age, but there’s no reason to expect Duke can’t hold his own against righties until he tells you otherwise in a significant sample size.
For that matter, he didn’t pitch that poorly, either. If Castro can block either of the wild pitches, the inning looks drastically different. The ball hit by Joseph was pretty well struck — 104.4 mph with a hit probability of 85 percent — but you’re going to gamble in favor of Duke every single time he’s facing a career .225/.276/.363 career hitter.
As for hitting Grossman for Buxton, it came down to needing a guy to at least get on base, but also give the team a chance against Brach, a righty with nasty breaking stuff. That’s a particularly difficult matchup for Buxton, who had looked foolish on a few breaking balls in the zone earlier in the game.
Buxton also had just a .298 wOBA against right-handed curves and sliders last year, according to Baseball Savant’s Statcast search. Grossman, by comparison, was a little better at .311.
Rosario has a strong day at the plate — even with the robbery
Rosario walked, had an infield single and nearly hit a home run early in the game. All told, seeing 17 pitches in five plate appearances could be improved on, but keep an eye on his walk rate. The closer he gets to league average — which was 8.4 percent for AL hitters in 2017 — the better he’s going to be.
Also, your day tends to look better when this doesn’t happen to you:
There’s no shame in being shut down by Bundy
No Twins batter had more than one hit, and all eight hits for the team were singles as they were eating out of the hands of Bundy and company all day long. Bundy is a legitimately solid MLB starter who finally appears to be coming into his own after being taken fourth overall in 2011 and battling arm issues for multiple years afterward.
The O’s will go as far as their trio of Bundy-Kevin Gausman-Alex Cobb carries them.
The Twins did their part to silence a powerful Orioles offense, too
The Orioles only had five hits — the Twins had eight — but they made the most of them with a double from Machado, the Joseph triple and the home run from Jones which ended it. Still, less than a hit every other inning against a solid offense like Baltimore’s means the Twins basically did their job on Opening Day, pitching-wise.
- The Twins are 1-9 in their last 10 Opening Day games.
- The Twins and Orioles were a combined 3-for-18 with runners in scoring position (MIN 1-for-9, BAL 2-for-9).
- Buxton stole his franchise-record 25th straight base without being caught. He was caught just once last year, when he overslid the bag against the Orioles at Camden Yards and was called out.
- Three Twins — Escobar, Kepler and Sano — all saw more than 20 pitches in Thursday’s game.
- Reed threw 20 of his 23 pitches for strikes in his Twins debut, which was two perfect innings with a pair of strikeouts.