The 2021 and 2022 seasons were lost ones for the Minnesota Twins. In 2021, regression of key players, injuries, and poor free-agent pickups sunk a team coming off back-to-back AL Central titles in 2019 and 2020. Many players ended up on the injured list in 2022, and the Twins missed the playoffs for the second straight year after leading the AL Central for most of the season.
There are other reasons for the Twins missing out on October baseball in 2022 and 2023. Talent wasn’t the issue for a large number of fans. It was that the team looked like a collection of guys playing baseball and not a baseball team. That may not be a fair criticism, but when the Twins were at their lowest, usually the struggles came from poor baserunning and below-average fielding. Rocco Baldelli made it a point to fix that heading into the 2023 season.
He made baserunning a focus in spring training. Baldelli even brought in his predecessor, Paul Molitor, to help the squad make fewer baserunning errors. “There’s probably nobody better to talk about base running,” Baldelli said at the time.
Fair or not, base running has been an issue since the Twins hired Baldelli in 2019. They had scored a minus-31.8 baserunning score, according to FanGraphs, fourth-worst in baseball, from Baldelli’s first season managing the team through 2022. Stolen bases were also low, with a league-worst 134 swiped bags during that same span.
Some of Baldelli’s critics could look at these numbers and blame the man in charge. That’s true to an extent. As the manager, he is in charge of the players on the field and has been the skipper in Minnesota since 2019. It also feels like their situational baserunning skills were poor compared to the rest of the league.
However, Baldelli didn’t always have the personnel to manage a good baserunning team. It’s tough to steal bases with Nelson Cruz and Miguel Sanó. There was only one Byron Buxton. Furthermore, quick players like Gilberto Celestino can make mental errors that negate their natural ability because of mental errors on the basepaths.
By adding baserunners like Michael A. Taylor and Willi Castro, the Twins compiled 86 stolen bases in 2023, which bumped them up from league-worst last year to 23rd this season. Outside of stolen bases, having a veteran-filled team may not have helped Minnesota’s overall sprint speed. However, it helped clean up issues on the bases. An overall minus-1 FanGraphs baserunning score ranked 18th in baseball in 2023. That isn’t a great number, but it’s still a major improvement from earlier seasons.
Speed is still an important factor in how well a team runs the bases. Even though a slower team would likely play it safer on the basepaths, that’s not exactly good baserunning either. Teams that run well don’t just steal bases. They also know when the right time to advance another 90 feet is. The Twins had a 4.7 speed ranking, according to FanGraphs, which ranks 18th in baseball. FanGraphs also gave them an 18th overall base running score.
That’s not to say the Twins have been perfect on the bases in 2023. Edouard Julien made a costly mistake on the base paths against the Toronto Blue Jays in late May. And Max Kepler’s baserunning mishap against the Tampa Bay Rays in early June came at a low point in his season.
Baserunning wasn’t the only fundamental issue that held Minnesota back, though. Jorge Polanco had some issues playing at third, and Julien also went through some growing pains at second base. And to be fair, it is a 162-game season, so every team battles imperfections. Even if this was a slight increase, going from worst to below average was enough to get them back to the postseason.
The Twins also had some issues in the field, despite having good defensive talent. Last year, the Twins had former Gold Glove winners Carlos Correa at shortstop and Byron Buxton in center field. But they had some issues with depth behind them. They had trouble filling that gap when Buxton didn’t play center due to rest and injuries. Their .983 fielding percentage was tied for 28th in the league last year.
However, they traded for Taylor before the season, and he outperformed expectations with a career-high 20 home runs. However, his Gold Glove-caliber center field stayed at a high level, leading the team with a 9-run fielding value. Free agent signee Christian Vázquez was second on the team with a 5 fielding run value. Some of these defensive stats can be subjective. Correa had a good season at shortstop. However, his lack of range due to his plantar fasciitis and bumped his fielding down to a minus-1 fielding run value. Fielding stats aren’t perfect. But paired with the eyeball test, all indications are the Twins were headed in the right direction defensively in 2023.
The Twins were a better team in 2023. Still, to say it was all on base running and defense would be an overstatement. Most of that goes to being healthier, more consistent run creation in the second half, and a stellar pitching staff. However, Minnesota made improvements in base running and fielding. The latter helped the Twins in a pivotal playoff game when Correa threw out a runner from shallow left field and when Sonny Gray picked off Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at second base in the Wild Card Series.
Good teams hit home runs and strike out opposing hitters to win games. However, doing simple fundamentals like above-average fielding and base running also makes a difference. Teams that qualify for the postseason must also be well-rounded and good at the little things that can make the difference in close postseason games. Baldelli and Co. made a point to make the Twins a more well-rounded team. That played a part in returning to the postseason and winning their first playoff series in over 20 years.