When Derek Falvey and Thad Levine were hired as the Minnesota Twins chief baseball officer and general manager, respectively, in October of 2016, many wondered how long Paul Molitor would retain his job as manager. Hired by the Terry Ryan in 2015, Molitor’s ability to hit into his 40s turned him into a Hall of Famer, and his detail-oriented approach to the game was supposed to be his strongest asset as a manager.
But conventional wisdom suggested that maybe he wouldn’t be a fit with the new, younger brass. Ryan’s strength as an executive, especially in his first stint, was drafting and developing young talent that he was often very loyal to. As an organizational philosophy, the Twin valued homegrown talent and players with hometown roots — from All-Stars like Joe Mauer and Glen Perkins, to players with lower upside like Cole De Vries.
Molitor is from St. Paul, played at Cretin-Derham Hall and the University of Minnesota and finished his career with the Twins. But would that be valued by two executives from out of town? More importantly, would he be willing to adapt to Falvey and Levine’s new-age tactics, or would this be a Billy Beane-Art Howe situation?
So far the arranged marriage — owner Jim Pohlad said that Molitor would remain the manager in 2016, even after Ryan was fired — appears to be working out. Perhaps Molitor’s calm demeanor and open-mindedness are as important as his attention to detail when it comes to managing a team. The Twins went 85-77 last year, played in the Wild Card Game and Molitor was named AL Manager of the Year and was awarded a three-year contract extension.
While his bullpen management and willingness to bunt has perturbed vocal advocates of new-age baseball, his embrace of the shift indicates that he’s willing to adapt to how the game is played now. According to a Minneapolis Star Tribune study from June, the Twins have the third-highest shift rate in the majors.
“The infield shifts [have] increased, and the reason they’ve increased is because they’re effective,” said Molitor before Wednesday’s game against the Kansas City Royals. “They’re not perfect, it’s gonna go the opposite way for you every now and then, but you’re doing what you think is best in that particular moment in the game.”
Not only are the infielders shifting, but Minnesota has implemented against Royals outfielder Lucas Duda as well as players like Justin Smoak, Joey Gallo and Eric Thames.
“It’s all been left-handed hitters. High fly ball-to-ground ball ratio guys, minimal balls on the left side of the infield,” said Molitor. “We have some pitchers that are yes. Some pitchers are no for our staff. What their general return rate on balls in play and then you have the situations.”
Twins starter Jake Odorizzi understands that shifting is part of the game, but expressed frustrating at a missed double-play opportunity in mid-June. Utility man Ehire Adrianza wasn’t technically shifted, but was playing deep in the hole at short against Chicago White Sox slugger Jose Abreu. Abreu hit a weak grounder and advanced to first on what would have been a routine double play if Adrianza would have been in his normal position.
“When you first [pitch with the shift], you think you might give up a hit on a certain ball and you turn around and there’s a guy standing right there,” Odorizzi said at the time. “Some of those are happy surprises when you see a guy take away a hit, but then you get the frustrating ones where it’s a ground ball where a guy should be playing traditionally and it’s a hit even if it’s a 20-hopper and not a lot of high velocity off the bat.”
“We have asked for input, if anybody has had any issues at certain times. We still do that with the infield,” said Molitor. “We’ll talk to (the pitchers) about it and probably show some data on why I think it’s right. If they’re not comfortable with it I will usually respect that for the most part.”
It’s important to note here that it’s Molitor advocating for the shift with his players, not Falvey and Levine pushing the shift on Molitor.
“The few guys that we’ve decided to put the four men there in the outfield, a combination of whether it’s prevention of doubles, whether it’s just a fact of where the guy hits the ball, his ground ball-fly ball ratio, the factor of if you got a ground ball or a fly ball pitcher on the mound — there’s just a lot of things,” said Molitor.
“Then you’ve got scoring situations, and what’s the possible downside. So we’re learning, we’re trying things when it makes sense. Like I said, you gotta be open-minded to the fact that every once in a while it can backfire. But hopefully, more times than not it comes out in your favor.”
Versatility has become increasingly more important for players, whether they are trying to break into the league as a utilityman — like the incredibly unique and fun Willians Astudillo — or master a specific position in the field.
“That’s one of the reasons is because you do have a lot of different looks on the defensive side,” said Molitor. “Plus, for the most part you’re playing with 12-man pitching staffs so you have less position players with abilities throughout the game.”
It has become an emphasis in Spring Training, as well as in player development in the minors and scouting reports in the majors.
“As best as we can, we go over every scenario with a guy like Duda,” said Molitor. “If the players look confused about what they’re supposed to do, it doesn’t look particularly well, so we try to get them an indication.
“We have a hand signal for what we’re looking for but there are different plays that come up. If you have a four-man and a guy on first, the guy in the middle is going to have to cover second base and the catcher will have to cover third. Some of those kinds of things you have to be aware of.”
Even with Molitor’s extension, it is an open question among the fanbase and in the media if he’ll be back next season. The Twins are facing steep odds to win the AL Central, where the Cleveland Indians are clear favorites, or play in the Wild Card game given that either the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox are likely to occupy one spot, and the surprising Seattle Mariners will likely take the other.
Falvey and Levine likely would have had a list of managers that they were considering if Molitor had not been the incumbent when they took over, and they may want to install their own guy at some point. But Molitor isn’t your typical ex-star player. He is not caught up in his playing days — he frequently quashes any talk of his Hall of Fame career when it comes up — and embraces elements of the today’s game, especially the shift.