In a season that took 2,468 games to decide a champion, it might seem foolish to base any conclusions on the result of one game. But no game is more important and, therefore, more revealing, than a World Series Game 7. So here’s what we learned from the Astros’ World Series win.
The Astros took the lead in the first inning of Game 7 with a leadoff double followed by an error by 22-year-old, first baseman Cody Bellinger, who also struck out thrice in the game and finished the series with a .565 OPS. Alex Bregman then stole third base on Darvish, who seemed to forget about him, which resulted in a second run when the likely American League Most Value Player, Jose Altuve, did exactly what he needed to do -- hit a ground ball past the pitcher. That was enough to win the game.
Darvish’s thoughtful, Twitter reaction to Yuli Gurriel’s insensitive, racially-charged gesture following a home run in Game 3 was a pleasant surprise in what’s been a year defined by racial divisiveness. But Darvish’s World Series performance might leave some MLB general managers reluctant to sign the starter to a big-money, long-term deal in free agency this offseason. As the moments got bigger, Darvish got worse. He allowed eight runs over three-and-a-third innings in the World Series while allowing just two runs in 11-and-a-third innings in his other two postseason starts. He was responsible for two of the Astros’ four wins.
More importantly to his free agent value, Darvish was either really good or really bad in 2017. In his 10 wins during the regular season, Darvish averaged just 1.6 earned runs allowed. In his 12 losses during the regular season, Darvish averaged 4.17 earned runs allowed. He allowed five or more earned runs five times during the regular season. Including the postseason, Darvish allowed four or more earned runs eight times.
Kershaw tossed four innings of scoreless ball in Game 7 but blew his chance to shake his bad postseason reputation in Game 5 -- the most important game of the series. He allowed six earned runs over four-and-two-thirds innings pitched, and like Darvish, performed better earlier in the postseason. Kershaw actually lowered his postseason ERA from 4.44 to 4.35. His regular season ERA of 2.31 led the majors. Unlike Darvish, I doubt Kershaw’s postseason struggles will scare away any general managers looking to sign him next offseason if he declines his player option with Los Angeles. He’s still the best regular season starter in baseball.
The Astros will likely return their entire roster next season, but the team is built for long-term success thanks to home-grown talent. Altuve won’t be a free agent for another two years, and Carlos Correa won’t hit free agency until 2022, which is the final year of Bregman’s arbitration eligibility. And now Houston has Justin Verlander signed through 2020, so look for the Astros to be perennial contenders for the next three to five years.
Regardless of what happens with Kershaw after next season, the Dodgers aren’t built for sustainable, long-term success. While the Dodgers could have up to $96 million coming off their books after 2018, they would like to stay under the $195 million luxury tax threshold to avoid paying the 50-percent tax reserved for teams exceeding the threshold for three consecutive seasons. So paying Kershaw $40 million annually might not be feasible. The Dodgers will also have to consider signing 25-year-old, center fielder Joc Pederson long-term, who was their best player in the World Series with a 1.344 OPS. He’s eligible for arbitration for the first time this offseason.
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Target Field staff played a delayed feed of the national anthem on the Jumbotron while Brian Dozier homered to open the game and Eddie Rosario followed it with a two-run dinger, but despite missing nearly all the action, and the game becoming predictably uncompetitive, I still think the world needs more one-game playoffs.
The Minnesota Twins were the David to the Goliaths of the Major League Baseball Playoffs. ESPN’s Sports Nation staff ranked Minnesota’s roster last amongst the MLB playoff teams in all three areas -- lineup, starting pitching and relief pitching.
The Twins were huge underdogs not just to win the American League pennant, but the Wild Card Game. A $100 bet on the Twins to beat the Yankees would have paid $225. Those are the worst odds in the short history of MLB one-game playoffs. In the first American League Wild Card Game, a $100 bet on the Baltimore Orioles to beat the Texas Rangers paid $195.
Better yet, a $100 bet on that guy who had never boxed before against that guy who had never lost before would have paid just $40 more than a bet on the Twins to beat the Yankees. Apparently 50 million Americans watched that fight, which would be 15 percent of the U.S. population. The overnight rating for the American League Wild Card Game was 5.2, meaning Nielsen estimates 5.2 percent of households watched the game -- up 58 percent from last year.
So people watched because anything can happen in one game -- and did it ever. We saw baseball like never before because of the one-game playoff format. For better or worse, we saw how managers can affect a game -- something that isn’t the case over the course of a 162-game season -- or even a seven-game series.
Paul Molitor might win the American League Manager of the Year Award, but Joe Girardi was the better manager Tuesday. He made all the right moves. Girardi lifted starter Luis Severino after a third of an inning before his postseason ERA ballooned over 100 (it’s 81.00). When the Yankees badly needed to strand two runners in scoring position with just one out down three runs in the first inning, Girardi called on Chad Green, who struck out Byron Buxton and Jason Castro -- who didn’t touch a ball and probably should have been lifted for a pinch hitter at some point with three catchers on the Twins’ roster.
Molitor could have lifted Ervin Santana after a third of an inning, too. Santana was visibly struggling with his command, but instead of going to Trevor Hildenberger with two runners on, Molitor left Santana to allow the home run that tied it and sucked whatever mojo the Twins had stolen in the first half of the inning.
Girardi used his best bullpen pitcher (by the numbers at least) in the most dire situation while Molitor used his best bullpen pitcher, Trevor Hildenberger, to start the sixth inning down three runs -- with nobody on base! And instead of lifting Santana for Hildenberger, Molitor went to Jose Berrios, who like Santana, struggles to find his command early in games. Berrios predictably allowed a home run that put the Twins in a seemingly insurmountable three-run hole with the best of the Yankee bullpen yet to come.
Whatever mojo Molitor might have had in negotiating an extension with the Twins, he’s lost it in my opinion. When one game is your season, that game must be managed flawlessly. But that’s part of the beauty of one-game playoffs. Managers are faced with situations that don’t exist outside of a one-game playoff -- like removing your starting pitcher with one out in the first inning.
Anything could have happened on Tuesday in New York, but the better team won, as is mostly the case in MLB one-game playoffs. The favorite is 7-3 in MLB Wild Card Games, with those previously mentioned 2012 Orioles being the biggest underdog to advance. The 2014 Kansas City Royals were barely underdogs against the Oakland Athletics at +101, and the 2015 Houston Astros and Yankees were basically drawing even, but the Astros were playing in New York.
So if the better team wins the one-game playoff 70 percent of the time, the world needs more one-game playoffs. I’m not advocating the expansion of the MLB Wild Card format, but in a world where so much is wrong, one-game playoffs like that of the MLB and NFL Playoffs and NCAA March Madness provide wildly entertaining relief. I hope there’s a tie for a division championship or a three-way tie for a Wild Card spot next season.
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Prior to the Minnesota Twins taking on the New York Yankees to close out their regular season series in New York, I wrote that I thought the Twins were a better team than the Yankees in a five-game series. The Twins proceeded to be swept by the Yankees in a three-game series at New Yankee Stadium, proving me wrong and leaving an all-too-familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach.
That all-too-familiar feeling is the result of 12 consecutive playoff losses by the Twins, nine of which came at the hands of the Yankees. And with 12/1 odds to win the American League pennant and 20/1 odds to win the World Series, the Twins are the short stack at the Major League Baseball final table.
On paper, the Yankees are overwhelming favorites in the American League Wild Card Game. They’re playing at home, where they will have played their final seven regular season games and where they have hit 134 of their 235 home runs this season. So the Yankees will be comfortable, especially coming off a three-game sweep of the Twins at home.
New York will run Cy Young candidate Luis Severino to the mound against Ervin Santana -- a right-handed, fly-ball pitcher in an unforgiving ballpark for right-handed, fly-ball pitchers. And Santana has been susceptible to the long ball, especially in New York. He allows one every five innings at New Yankee Stadium.
Santana did show improvement over his career numbers at New Yankee Stadium (0-5, 6.43 ERA, 1.714 WHIP) in his last start, however. He went five and two-thirds innings allowing seven hits and two earned runs, but he did allow a first-inning home run to Aaron Judge that might not have carried out of Target Field. The Twins will need the Santana who showed up that day to have a chance at ending the Yankee playoff curse.
Despite the Twins having so few at-bats against Severino coming into the game, they showed an ability to at least make contact in an 11-3 loss two days after Santana’s start. All three runs were charged to Severino, as he struggled to put Twins hitters away over the course of three innings and 71 pitches. The Twins connected on 21 foul balls to extend at-bats against Severino. That patience will be a key to success again for the Twins, as the earlier Minnesota can get into the Yankee bullpen the better their chances will be to win.
While the Twins are young, so are the Yankees. In fact, the Twins’ active roster has an average age of 28.1 to the Yankees’ 27.8, so the Twins are actually more experienced than the Yankees on average.
When it comes to playoff experience, though, the edge goes to New York -- big time. The Yankees have 14 players on their active roster with playoff experience to the Twins’ six. The Yankee players with playoff experience are more likely to get into the Wild Card Game, too.
Of the 14 Yankees with playoff experience, seven of them are position players. Of the Twins’ six players with playoff experience, just Joe Mauer and Jason Castro are position players. Mauer is 10-for-35 in the playoffs. Castro has just one hit in 14 playoff at-bats.
Yankee players have 466 playoff at-bats and are hitting .253 as a team in the postseason. Their starter in this game, however, has not pitched in the postseason, but Dellin Betances, David Robertson and Aroldis Chapman have.
The Twins can call on closer Matt Belisle and, perhaps, Glen Perkins, for bullpen arms with playoff experience. Perkins might not make the Wild Card Game roster, though, so no lead is big enough for the Twins on Tuesday in New York.
So if the Twins can score early and often and get into the Yankee bullpen, keep the ball in the ballpark and play clean defense, and score runs like they have since the All-Star Break (5.67 runs per game is second only to the Cubs), they can end the Yankee playoff curse. At least an incorrect call on a double down the third base line won’t be their undoing this time.
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Boston Red Sox starting pitcher David Price, backed by some members of his team, humiliated NESN broadcaster Dennis Eckersley on the team’s chartered plane because Eckersley uttered the word “yuck” in response to Boston pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez’s poor stats that were displayed onscreen during the broadcast of a Red Sox game.
This was originally published at FoulPlaybyPlay.com, a community of foul-mouthed sports broadcasters and bloggers.
Price’s ire with Eckersley has been apparently building because Eckersley rarely visits the clubhouse. But Eckersley’s job isn’t to buddy-up with the Boston Red Sox. His job is to provide entertaining, insightful commentary during games, and sometimes that insight must be critical of the home team. It’s a lot harder to remain objectively critical of your friends, which is likely why Eckersley stays out of the clubhouse.
We all deal with criticism at work, but most of that criticism is kept inside the office and not broadcasted on live television. As a journalist for more than six years, I can somewhat relate to the criticism baseball players and other athletes deal with on a regular basis. Publishing an opinion in the newspaper is not unlike stating an opinion on television or radio, except the response isn’t immediate. I’ve had multiple responses to opinions I’ve published in the editorial sections of newspapers throughout Montana, and as an atheist socialist in a red state, none of them were in support of my opinion. That’s the risk you take in being critical.
I’ve also been threatened with violence for reporting a story, so I feel Eckersley’s pain. Like Eckersley, I didn’t get attached to the players I covered for fear of losing the relative objectivity required to be critical of them when it was necessary (and it becomes necessary more often than not). But NESN won’t defend Eckersley like a newspaper editor defends a reporter because the Red Sox pay the bills, and if a broadcaster isn’t on speaking terms with a star player, it makes it hard for the broadcaster to do his or her job. David Price sells NESN -- not Dennis Eckersley.
We run into similar issues at GCN. We have about 80 shows broadcasted from a satellite on the roof, and while just the hosts of our sports show, View From The Couch, are GCN employees, the network still has to keep the show hosts happy because the show hosts pay the bills.
Eckersley could be loved by NESN viewers and lose his job because David Price doesn’t like him. Judging by his interview with WEEI’s Rob Bradford, he might just resign or retire at year’s end given how tough this season’s been on him. He said he won’t change the way he broadcasts games, but Price thinks he’s been more positive since the incident.
This is a common struggle for local newspapers. Fans want to be reassured. They want to know things will improve and that the team is learning from its mistakes. As a sportswriter for many a bad team, I can tell you I’ve dug deep for positives in games that had very few. Sometimes it’s focusing on the important minutes young players got to play during garbage time. But you never ignore the mistakes. You can treat them as learning experiences for so long, but at some point after the same mistakes are repeated multiple times, it’s hard not to be critical of the team or player who doesn’t seem to be learning from the mistakes.
I can understand taking offense to public defamation, but delivering a derogatory comment on a player’s statistics is not public defamation. Commenting on performance is Eckersley’s job description as a commentator, as is painting the Red Sox in a favorable light that helps sell NESN. With 23 years of Major League pitching experience, he’s certainly qualified to comment on the performance of a pitcher. And while we’d all hope more insightful commentary could be provided than “yuck,” the comment is hardly insensitive. “The Red Sox are hoping those numbers are an aberration and not the new norm,” would have been better, but Eckersley was probably reacting to the statistics in real time. He didn’t have time to think of a way to present his reaction in a positive light.
It makes you wonder what Price would have done to Eckersley had he commented on how Price hasn’t lived up to the seven-year, $217 million contract he signed with Boston as a free agent prior to the 2016 season. Immediately upon signing the deal, Price’s ERA+ dropped from a career high of 164 in 2015 to 111 in 2016. A comment on Price’s lack of playoff success might have ended in violence (2-8, 5.54 ERA). Injuries have limited Price to just 66 innings on the mound this season, just the second of the seven-year deal paying him more than $30 million annually.
The moment local sports broadcasts stop being critical of local sports teams is the moment local sports broadcasters become the team’s public relations personnel instead of sports journalists. If Price’s idea of a purely positive, local broadcast is the future of sports broadcasting, I’ll take my baseball on mute.
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The reeling Boston Red Sox are doing everything they can to hold off the New York Yankees in the American League East playoff race, including cheating. The Yankees have long suspected the Red Sox of stealing signs, and according to ESPN’s Buster Olney, the Red Sox have finally been caught “red-handed,” or in this case, red-wristed.
This was originally published on FoulPlaybyPlay.com, a community for foul-mouthed, sports broadcasters and bloggers.
The Yankees suspect the Red Sox have been using an Apple watch to relay signs from the video room to the dugout. A member of the Red Sox organization reportedly watched video of opposing catchers flashing signals to pitchers. That person quickly decoded the sequence that signifies which pitch would be thrown. Then the information would be texted to Red Sox assistant trainer Jon Jochim’s Apple watch, who relayed the information to Red Sox batters. So with a runner on second, the Red Sox runner would look in at the catcher and relay to the batter what pitch was coming. The most common response on Twitter was the surprise that the Red Sox had found a use for the Apple watch, but the results are no laughing matter.
Keep in mind that the only thing making the Red Sox guilty is the use of technology to steal signs. Had the Red Sox successfully stolen signs without the Apple watch, they’d be revered in baseball circles. Instead, they could be facing a fine, the loss of a draft pick and possible suspension of their assistant trainer. That’s a paltry penance for a team who could win the pennant thanks to its cheating.
A game in Boston on Aug. 18 could have been decided because of the transgressions of the Red Sox. During a pitching change, Red Sox catcher Christian Vasquez, who was at second base, reportedly received signs through Jochim that he relayed to the Red Sox batters. The Red Sox would go on to score four runs in a 9-6 comeback win over the Yankees at Fenway Park. The Yankees are just 3.5 games back in the AL East, and could be 2.5 games back or less had it not been for the Red Sox cheating.
Did the sign stealing work for the Red Sox in any other games? It’s difficult to determine, but judging from the numbers, it seems the Red Sox didn’t bother changing their ways while the investigation was ongoing.
Olney reported that the Yankees filed their complaint against the Red Sox all the way back on July 18. The Red Sox couldn’t hit anything with a runner on second base over the first nine games against the Yankees, going 2-for-43 through July 16. Overall through July 18, the Red Sox were actually worse (.381 OPS) at the plate with a runner on second base than without (.417 OPS). But after July 18, the Red Sox team OPS with a runner on second base was .463 compared to .389 when there wasn’t a runner on second. So the Red Sox could have very well won multiple games thanks to cheating.
The AL East could come down to that one game the Red Sox stole on Aug. 18, and if the Yankees and Red Sox finish the season separated by just one game or less, the Yankees should be allowed the option to replay the Aug. 18 game at Fenway Park. It will be a nice addition to the schedule since Major League Baseball didn’t think anyone would want to watch the Yankees and Red Sox play in September. The Yankees could end up winning the division and forcing Boston to play the Wild Card game. New York holds a 11-8 record against Boston this season, so an AL East tie would break the Yankees’ way.
Demanding the game be replayed could end up hurting the Yankees if they are indeed out of the AL East race and have to play a Wild Card game immediately after the replay game. So offering the option to replay the game is the best way to reward the slighted Yankees and punish the cheating Red Sox. If the Yankees decide against replaying the game, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred can still fine or suspend the Red Sox or take a draft pick or two. But an instance of cheating that could have decided multiple games deserves a more immediate punishment than the St. Louis Cardinals got for hacking the Houston Astros’ player database. That didn’t decide any ballgames or a pennant race.
With his last three swings in Toronto on Sunday, Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton likely erased any doubts of his ability to hit Major League pitching -- the final step in securing his place amongst the stars of Major League Baseball. New Twins’ president Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine have little reason to worry about signing Buxton to a long-term deal as early as this offseason, and that’s not an overreaction to Sunday’s three swings.
This was originally published at FoulPlaybyPlay.com, a community for foul-mouthed sports fans and bloggers.
Falvey and Levine can probably stop worrying about Buxton’s bat. Baseball Prospectus editor Aaron Gleeman’s “life is devoted to posting positive Byron Buxton stats,” and he couldn’t keep up with Buxton on Sunday.
You don’t need stats to see that Buxton has “turned a corner” as they say. Even ignoring those last three swings you can find an at-bat that proves Buxton’s progress. His first plate appearance of the game came with two outs in the first inning with runners on first and second. Resisting his younger self, he didn’t try to pull a fastball that was on the outer half of the strike zone despite it being elevated. Instead, he drove a hot grounder up the middle for a single that scored the first run -- the perfect approach given the situation and pitch. That might say more about his progression at the plate than the three swings.
In the top of the fourth, though, again with two outs and a runner on third, Buxton banged a hanging breaking ball into the Toronto bullpen in left center, reminiscent of Kirby Puckett.
On the very next pitch he saw to lead off the top of the seventh, Buxton attacked a changeup left up that started outside and tailed back over the outer half of the strike zone. His timing was perfect because he’s no longer worried about being late on a fastball. In fact, he wants to be late on a fastball because it puts him in a better position to punish offspeed mistakes, which are harder for pitchers to locate. So instead of fouling the ball down the third baseline, he deposited the changeup into the second deck of left field seats.
And on the very next pitch he saw, Buxton bent his knees to reach a 91-mile-per-hour fastball at the bottom of the inside corner and drove a line drive home run down the third baseline. The swing actually reminded me of Reggie Jackson, who is the only other MLB player of which I know who’s homered with three consecutive swings.
Buxton’s final swing on the fastball down and in was the swing of an evolved hitter. It didn’t look like Buxton was looking fastball all the way. It looked like he reacted to the fastball and trusted the quickness of his hands. It’s another hole Buxton seems to have closed in his swing, so if pitchers are going to pitch him inside, they’re going to have to get him swinging at pitches off the plate inside.
In three swings baseball fans got a glimpse of a star being born. It took the nebula that is “The Twins Way” more than 850 MLB plate appearances, multiple swing alterations, injuries and demotions to produce Buxton the star, but Buxton’s explosion was blinding and so beautiful it probably brought grown men to tears.
This isn’t the first time Buxton’s offered a glimpse of his potential at the plate. The kid figured out big-league pitching at the end of last season, too, posting a .936 OPS in September of 2016. Trout’s OPS over the same stretch was .962.
If Buxton repeats his success from last September, the Twins will make the playoffs. They’ve gained some ground on the Angels and Mariners, sitting alone in the second Wild Card spot with a 1.5-game cushion and have two fewer losses than the four teams chasing them. And while the Twins have relied on a slew of young players (Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco) to remain in the driver’s seat, it’s been Buxton who’s contributed the most over the course of the year, and it’s not even close.
Buxton’s WAA (wins above average) of 3.0 is 1.8 better than Brian Dozier’s and 2.1 wins better than Miguel Sano’s. The second most valuable Twins player this season has been Ervin Santana, worth 2.3 wins above average. So Buxton should at the very least be Falvey and Levine’s top priority whenever they do decide to start offering contract extensions. But waiting until after next season would be a mistake for more than one reason.
Falvey and Levine could end up paying Buxton a little more than a half million dollars next season, but fear of Buxton competing for the Most Valuable Player Award next year should be taken pretty seriously. What little money the Twins might save in 2018 won’t be more than what can be saved by signing an employee to a long-term contract in an industry that only sees salaries increase.
Last year was the 14th consecutive season of revenue growth for MLB -- a record of nearly $10 billion. Those long, slow games have really cut into the bottom line, eh Commissioner Manfred? Despite those long, slow games and people cutting cable at record rates, MLB seems to be doing just fine thanks to the live streaming market. I’m pretty sure MLB was the first major sports league to debut live streaming in 2002, which has allowed them to work out the many kinks that were present even when I watched my first game on MLB.TV in 2006. The streaming service is so valuable that Disney bought a majority stake in it to include with ESPN’s streaming service expected to launch sometime next year.
So the biggest reason to sign Buxton long-term this offseason is because it’s unlikely he’s less valuable next year. If he stays on the field, he can only improve, and even if he doesn’t improve, arbitrated salaries most certainly will improve for players -- every year -- until Manfred ruins the game by starting extra innings with a runner on base. At this point, it would be more of a surprise for Buxton to regress than progress.
Joe Mauer was also in Buxton’s boat. If you ask just a few Twins fans the biggest mistake the organization has ever made, it won’t take long for you to hear someone complain about Mauer’s eight-year, $184 million contract. But the mistake in signing Mauer long-term when the Twins did was not a failure to predict injury. You can’t predict that one too many foul tips to the head will alter your best hitter’s vision and force him to change positions.
You can predict a player’s prime, though, and Terry Ryan didn’t do Bill Smith any favors by extending Mauer for four years prior to the 2007 season. Mauer was coming off his first All-Star appearance at age 23 -- just his second full season after the knee injury. While Ryan bought out Mauer’s arbitration years for $33 million, why he didn’t sign Mauer through his prime is mind-boggling. Sure he’s a catcher that’s had a knee injury, but he caught over 1,000 innings the previous season and won the batting title -- as a catcher!
Mauer’s monstrous contract isn’t Bill Smith’s fault; it’s Ryan’s. That 2007 extension should have been for at least six years, making Mauer a candidate for an extension in 2011, an injury-plagued season, or a free agent after a rebound season in 2012 that saw him finish 19th in the MVP voting. Instead, Smith was forced to act after Mauer’s MVP season in 2009 to avoid losing the league’s best player to free agency after the 2010 season. That would have been a hell of a trade chip, though, huh?
Waiting for an up-and-coming player to prove his worth always costs more because you’re paying for past success instead of potential success. Offering arbitration to an All-Star-caliber player is like writing an IOU that changes in value but always comes due, and generally at a higher rate than the original figure.
That’s the big worry isn’t it? There’s nothing worse than signing a player to a long-term contract only to see said player get hurt and get paid the same amount to be a lesser version of the man who earned the contract.
Buxton’s injury probability is likely higher than average due to his propensity to go all-out all the time. But only injury history, not injury probability, should influence contract negotiations, and Buxton’s injury history isn’t worrisome.
Remember that collision that left him concussed in 2014? Twins fans everywhere gasped in collective fear and concern for their top prospect. Twins fans know better than most what blows to the head can do to careers. But Buxton came back two months later and collected 15 hits in 13 games of Arizona Fall League action. And while the next concussion will be invariably worse, it’s not as though Buxton is running into outfield walls at the rate Joe Mauer was taking foul tips off the head. Besides, Buxton’s legs are his most valuable asset to the Twins, and those have managed to stay out of harm’s way for the most part (knock on wood).
If Buxton ends up carrying the Twins into the playoffs he will have earned a long-term contract, especially if Sano can only provide designated hitting services the rest of the season due to his shin injury. Buxton wasn’t an All-Star this year, and while Sano was, the Minnesota Twins center fielder has been more valuable than the slugging third baseman, and any other Twin for that matter.
Buxton has been flying under the radar because of his well-documented struggles finding his swing. Given Sunday’s three swings, that won’t be the case much longer. Buxton is probably going to win the American League Gold Glove in center field this year and maybe for the next 10 years. Even before he was hitting, Buxton was contributing more than the slugging Sano thanks to his speed and defense. His 23 defensive runs saved so far is best amongst fielders let alone center fielders. But now he’s starting to figure it out at the plate, culminating in the first two- and three-homer game of his young career on Sunday.
Buxton’s 3.8 WAR was fifth amongst all MLB center fielders entering Sunday’s game and more than a win better than Sano’s 2.5 WAR thus far. After Sunday, Buxton’s WAR improved by half a win (4.3) -- third amongst MLB center fielders, behind Charlie Blackmon (4.8) and Mike Trout (5.4).
While Buxton is looking like a player who can carry the Twins into the playoffs, he’s still not Trout, but he deserves the same treatment when it comes to his contract. If the Twins were to sign Buxton to a six-year deal like the Angels did Trout, Buxton would hit free agency for the first time at 29. Trout will be just 28 when he hits free agency for the first time.
Buxton’s arbitration years aren’t going to be cheap and will only get more expensive with every season that passes. He’ll likely enter arbitration after next season as the most valuable arbitration-eligible player on the field -- physically and fiscally. When considering what Buxton could earn in 2018, Marcell Ozuna is Buxton’s most comparable contemporary (5.0 WAR this year). The two-time All-Star is making $3.5 million in this his first year of arbitration, which is probably a bit less than Buxton would demand.
So if Buxton makes the same Ozuna made in his final year of team control ($.57 million) and the same Ozuna’s making in his first arbitration year, that’s $4.07 million over the next two years. Call it $5 million just for sake of inflation. In Buxton’s second year of arbitration eligibility, he could be making Charlie Blackmon money ($7.3 million). In his final arbitration year, Lorenzo Cain’s $11 million salary doesn’t seem unreasonable, but Cain’s not being paid via arbitration.
Bryce Harper is making $13.625 million in what would have been his second season of arbitration eligibility, which is also a problematic comparison since the Nationals bought out his remaining arbitration years. Still, if Buxton is better than Cain (and he is), it’s not unfeasible that in his third season of arbitration eligibility, Buxton could get what Harper got in his second year. Add it all up and it’s nearly $26 million to buyout Buxton’s arbitration years. He would be 27 years old -- right in the middle of his prime -- with another one or two years of peak performance left. So what would Buxton’s prime years cost the Twins?
To give you an idea of how much contracts for baseball players have increased in just the last 15 years or so (and how little the dollar’s value has increased), Torii Hunter signed his four-year, $32 million contract with the Twins after the 2002 season. He had just won his second Gold Glove and finished sixth in the MVP voting. That’s not out of Buxton’s realm of potential. In 2017 dollars, Hunter’s contract is worth just just over $37 million over four years. So despite Hunter being the most obvious Buxton comparison, the massive increase in MLB revenues via television and live streaming deals makes a more contemporary example necessary.
Christian Yelich got seven years and nearly $50 million from Miami before the 2015 season. Buxton will get more.
Enter Trout -- arguably the best all-around player of all time, so far. In no way am I implying that Buxton is the next best all-around player of all time, but Trout is the best example of a player who shares Buxton’s diverse skill set playing a position of scarcity, and the average salary from Trout’s six-year, $144.5 million deal signed in 2014 is probably close to what Buxton can expect over his prime given inflation. That’s roughly $24 million annually, or $1 million more per year than Mauer makes -- at least through next year.
Falvey and Levine have all or part of Mauer’s contract coming off the books after next season, and they’ll need at least half of it to pay Buxton. A potential six-year deal for Buxton comes to $74 million, or $12.33 million per year. Adding another year or option likely lifts the contract over $100 million in total. Falvey and Levine will likely load most of the money on the back end of the contract to allow more flexibility in free agency the next few seasons.
There will be plenty of money left over for Sano with Ervin Santana’s contract expiring after next season (assuming the Twins don’t pick up his 2019 club option), and Glen Perkins likely entering free agency or retirement after this season. Brian Dozier could even free up a few million dollars for Falvey and Levine, which they’ll likely need to retain Max Kepler and Eddie Rosario.
Despite being rushed to the majors, and despite starting his career 2-for-22, and despite the changes to his swing, the demotions and the injuries, Buxton’s weathered the storm rather impressively for being just 23 years old. While Buxton didn’t take to the big leagues like Trout, Harper or even Mauer, he’ll be even better for it. All the failures of his young career culminated in the superstar we saw born on Sunday. Those three swings wouldn’t have been possible without the many failures experienced along the way.
When Buxton was truly struggling to make contact at the plate, I never saw a look of despair in him, and that’s what it takes to be a superstar in the big leagues. All the tools in the world can’t help the player who’s discouraged by a seemingly endless streak of failure. Buxton deserves to be paid because he’s paid the price to become his team’s best player and proven his dedication to his craft.
The way Buxton has dealt with failure should earn him the respect of his teammates and better allow him to lead his team. He’s shown the ability to lift his team with his speed, his glove, his emotion and now his bat. He has become the new face of the Twins and should be paid like the new face of the Twins.
During Saturday’s wild game between the Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers, Fox Sports North color commentator Torii Hunter revealed that if he got three hits in a game he’d wear the same dirty underwear in the following game. That probably doesn’t surprise most baseball fans given the long-standing superstitions associated with the game and its players.
This was originally published at FoulPlaybyPlay.com, a community for foul-mouthed, sports broadcasters and bloggers.
Buster Olney discovered that former Minnesota Twin Justin Morneau visited the same Jimmy John’s restaurant on Grand Avenue in Saint Paul, Minn. and ordered the Turkey Tom with no sprouts before every home game, washing it down with a red or orange slurpee mixed in equal parts with Mountain Dew. Pregame meal rituals hardly scratch the surface of superstition in baseball, though.
Some baseball superstitions are practiced by just about every player of the game, whether it be in little league or the Major Leagues, for no reason and with no reasonable explanation offered. Why baseball players avoid stepping on the baselines when taking the field is inexplicable. There’s no story of its origination. It’s such an old superstition it’s prehistoric in baseball years.
A reasonable explanation for not stepping on the baselines would be so you can see them, so there are no questions as to whether a ball is fair or foul, or whether a runner is inside the baseline. Preservation of the game’s playing field and its beauty is a logical reason for avoiding the baselines, much like replacing divots and raking sand traps on a golf course. But there’s no reason required for superstition to arise, except that acknowledging and engaging in the superstition resulted in a desired outcome.
A more likely explanation for the baseline avoidance superstition is that a player used it to explain his uncharacteristic or sudden success to his teammates, either jokingly or seriously. The player might not have known why he was hitting. If he hasn’t made any adjustments, the failures of opposing pitchers could be entirely responsible for his success. But you can’t tell your teammates the reason you’re hitting is because opposing pitchers -- those same opposing pitchers your teammates see -- aren’t any good. So you say, “I haven’t been stepping on the baselines when I take the field. Maybe that’s it.”
Eventually, a desperate teammate sinking into a slump will think, “It can’t hurt, right? Hell, it’s not even going out of my way. It’s not like I have to bunny hop over the baseline. Nobody has to know.” Since all baseball players go through periods of desperation, other teammates adopt the superstition in the same way, having told no one until their fortunes improve, and they’re asked to explain their success. Before the game is over everyone on the team is hopping over the baseline in unison as they take the field.
Superstitions provide an illusion of certainty in a most uncertain game. How uncertain? There are 18 symbols used to describe the outcome of a plate appearance when keeping score of a baseball game. Even without considering the nearly 300 pitches thrown in a nine-inning, Major League Baseball game and the possible outcomes of each pitch, the number of possible outcomes for every plate appearance is indicative of the immense uncertainty of baseball and why so many of its players adopt superstitions.
The average number of plate appearances per baseball game ranges from three to five per player, so if nine players from each team get four plate appearances each, that’s 72 opportunities for any one of 18 things to happen. So the total number of possible outcomes for every plate appearance in a nine-inning baseball game is somewhere between octovigintillion and novemvigintillion -- or 2.397 with the decimal point moved 90 digits to the right.
Thinking of sports as video games further explains baseball’s uncertainty and the penchant for players to adopt superstitions. If we were to consider the code used to write a basketball video game, the user’s input to pass to a teammate would trigger a question or series of questions the computer answers with either true or false. That question might simply be, “Is teammate X open to receive a pass?” If the teammate is open, the answer is true, and the pass is completed. On a shot, if the user doesn’t execute the input properly, the answer from the computer to whether the shot is true or false will be false, and the shot missed.
A baseball video game is also dependent on the user’s ability to amass “true” answers, but the degree to which those answers are true determines which of the 18 possible outcomes occurs during each plate appearance. The questions answered by the computer that would result in a home run, for instance, might be: “Swing timing? Truest. Swing location? Truest? Point of contact? Truest. Swing result? Home run.” For a ground ball to the second baseman by a left handed hitter, the questions and answers might read: “Swing timing? Early. Swing location? High. Point of contact? Out in front. Swing result? 4-3.
You can make or miss a pass or shot in basketball, soccer and hockey. You can swing and miss in baseball, or swing and hit the ball in or out of play, for an out or a hit, or an extra-base hit, or a home run. Or you can do nothing at all and still end up on first base. And that’s just considering what you can do when you’re at-bat. There are even more opportunities for inexplicable outcomes while in the field.
Pitchers are the most susceptible to inexplicable outcomes, though, which is why they tend to be the most superstitious of all athletes. Mark “The Bird” Fidrych had to throw to the same catcher every time he pitched -- a superstition that’s now a common tactic taken by MLB teams. Turk Wendell is probably the most superstitious athlete of all time. He ate black licorice during games, performed a kangaroo hop when he completed an inning, brushed his teeth between innings, wore number 99 in honor of Charlie Sheen’s Major League character Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn, and demanded his salary ended in 99. A contemporary example would be Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Ervin Santana, who smells the baseball deeply before towing the rubber.
Pitchers are more likely to adopt superstitions because having an unreasonable explanation for inexplicable outcomes can be healthier than searching for a reasonable explanation. Flares, seeing-eye singles and the dreaded broken-bat blooper can turn a well-executed pitch into an inexplicable outcome. There’s likely nothing more frustrating for players and fans than a pitcher making a good pitch and getting the desired result only to see the ball land softly between three defenders for a hit. You and he are probably thinking the same thing: “Shake it off. That’s just dumb luck. Throw another one just like that.”
But there’s rarely just one inexplicable outcome with which a pitcher has to deal per game. So when the pitcher breaks another bat that results in another hit, and then soft contact results in another hit, and another, he’ll eventually attempt to explain the inexplicable outcomes in an effort to stop them -- unless he already knows the reason for the outcomes -- however ridiculous that reason might be.
“If you believe you're playing well because you're getting laid, or because you're not getting laid, or because you wear women's underwear, then you are!” -- Crash Davis, Bull Durham
Likely the most famous, fictitious instance of baseball superstition, Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh starts wearing garters and begins pitching like a big leaguer. In his first start sporting the lingerie, he’s more worried about whether he’s queer for enjoying the “sexy” feel of the underwear than he is about his pitching. It’s a perfect example of how superstition plays a pivotal role in getting a player’s mind off the game so he can resort to more basic instincts and the athletic ability that got him to the big leagues in the first place. “Don’t think, just throw.”
Athletes aren’t the only ones looking for answers to explain inexplicable outcomes. Fans want answers, too, and generally go looking for them in the same manner as athletes who don’t subscribe to superstition. They blame themselves.
It’s all rather vain. We sports fans want to feel important. We want to feel like we’re part of the game and play a role in its outcome, even from the couch in our living room. So when the team loses it’s because we did something wrong as spectators. We wore the wrong clothes, sat in the wrong seat, ate the wrong food, drank the wrong drink or watched with the wrong crowd. The same superstitions players employ in an effort to get through the game are the same ones adopted by fans to do the same. If fans didn’t take sports so seriously, there’d be less superstition. But fans are fanatical.
As a fan, I subscribe to multiple superstitions. If my team wins, I wear the same hat until they lose, and then I change it. When football season starts, I’ll pull out my Minnesota Vikings Randy Moss jersey and wear it during the game. If the Vikings win, the jersey remains unwashed, hanging in the closet awaiting the next game when it will be donned again. The jersey doesn’t get washed until a Vikings loss occurs, which also requires me to don the Daunte Culpepper jersey. A losing streak forces me to break out my favorite Warren Moon t-shirt, and if the Vikings lose three in a row, the oversized, reversible Cris Carter jersey gets some air. Another loss and I flip the jersey inside out for next week. During March Madness, I wear the same jersey/t-shirt combination for every Duke game and don’t wash either until the Blue Devils are eliminated. So in 2015 and 2010 the ensemble was worn for six games before seeing the washing machine. I do make a point of taking off those clothes as soon after the game as possible to preserve some semblance of cleanliness.
There’s a new superstition I’m considering. On Sunday, Aug. 6 (published Monday), I pitched five trades my Minnesota Twins could have made in June to save their July. The Twins didn’t lose again until Saturday, Aug. 12, when I made the mistake of tweeting that watching the Twins was like watching that montage of the winning streak in Little Big League. They had erased a 5-0 first-inning deficit only to lose 12-11 via a walkoff home run by Justin Upton. Naturally, I blamed myself.
Minnesota Twins General Manager Thad Levine joined Baseball Prospectus prior to Saturday’s game at Target Field against the Texas Rangers for a special press conference exclusively for fans. While Levine said he discovered he’d be the keynote speaker rather unexpectedly, he had a good answer for every question asked -- except mine.
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Levine won over the crowd in a heartbeat at the Sid Hartman Press Room, opening with a joke about deadline deals being negotiated via Tinder and how too much emphasis is placed on a profile pic. He even alerted the hundred or so fans that he would answer a different question than Baseball Prospectus editor-in-chief Aaron Gleeman asked, so it didn’t seem like he was dodging a question even when he was.
Gleeman also seemed enamored with Levine, calling the GM “a tad too good looking” after he left the conference room. But decades of Terry Ryan and the Bill Smith years from which the Twins are still recovering are reason enough to understand love at first sight.
I too was susceptible to Levine’s charm. While this was hardly a high-leverage situation, Levine’s charisma and confidence didn’t take long to fill the room. He’s comfortable in front of a crowd and could sell mudflaps to someone with no car. He would make a fine politician someday. At present, he’s a fine general manager.
Levine didn’t have to search for answers or words. Everything he needed was ingrained in his brain. Even as Gleeman grilled Levine about the lack of relief pitching pursued in the offseason, Levine reminded everyone of the arms the Twins lost to injury whom he and new president of baseball operations Derek Falvey expected to contribute this season. He wasn’t just talking about Glen Perkins, Trevor May and Ryan O’Rourke. Nick Burdi, J.T. Chargois and Tyler Jay were also mentioned. That’s a very good reason why Matt Belisle’s was the only Major League contract offered to a reliever in the offseason. You don’t want to clog up roster spots when up-and-comers are banging down the door to the big leagues.
But I wanted to know why action wasn’t taken in response to those injuries earlier in the season. I opened by saying there are fans who might think trades could have been made earlier to improve the team and asked how the market forces differ from June to July and how that affected the moves they ended up making.
I imagined Levine would go on at length about how they tried to make moves while the team was still in first place, but the cost in prospects to fill the team’s needs was prohibitively expensive. Instead I got the only answer I didn’t want to hear about how the second Wild Card keeps teams in the hunt longer and makes them unwilling to sell in June. It was the longest answer he gave to a question asked by a fan. Even Gleeman chimed in to defend him by saying just eight to 10 teams would have been selling at the time.
I would have loved to follow-up with, “Well, you acquired Jaime Garcia and the $4 million or so he was owed on July 24th, and you were able to flip that rental to the Yankees within a week because you were willing to pay most of his contract. What stopped you from doing the same with Pat Neshek while the Twins were still in first place on June 25th? Or any other rental reliever on one of the eight to 10 teams clearly selling at the time?”
I urged the Twins to acquire bullpen arms back on June 7, with Neshek right at the top of the list. At the time, Neshek was owed $4 million or so, and while Levine and Falvey were understandably focused on acquiring young, controllable pitching, they were also hoping to “vanquish the foes,” as Levine put it. He even acknowledged the Twins’ negative run differential and how it didn’t affect their decision to buy because, well, they were in first place for 50 days.
“As much as you want to dismiss the fact that there were some underlying metrics which would suggest that maybe we were overachieving, the facts were we overachieved for three months, and we weren’t going to take that lightly,” he said.
So where were the reinforcements for baseball’s worst bullpen at the time? If money’s not an issue, was Philadelphia asking too much in return for Neshek? Well, we know Colorado gave up 20-year old, A-ball shortstop Jose Gomez (think Jermaine Palacios), 22-year-old, high-A, right-handed reliever and strikeout machine J.D. Hammer (think Lewis Thorpe but right-handed and better at missing bats; the newly acquired Gabriel Moya is probably more comparable but wasn’t a Twin on June 25th) and 20-year-old, A-ball, right-handed starter Alejandro Requena (newly acquired lefty Tyler Watson is the only 20-year-old pitcher on the Twins’ A-ball roster, but if you go up a level, lefty Lachian Wells would be comparable, and he’s also the only 20-year-old pitcher on the Twins’ high-A roster).
You can see how Falvey and Levine have already improved the pitching depth throughout the Twins’ minor league affiliates. But what about the big league club that was contending despite a glaring weakness? Even if the price for Neshek is higher on June 25th than July 25th, there are still no top prospects in the conversation. Besides Palacios there’s no one you’d likely miss dearly, and the Twins have enough shortstop depth to help get over the sting if trading Palacios burns them. And if the Twins still fell out of contention, they could have flipped Neshek as they did Garcia before the deadline.
Instead, from June 26 through the July 31st trade deadline, the Twins went 11-19, with relievers taking the loss in six of those games. The glaring weakness of the Twins bullpen was exploited by the league’s best, and it didn’t have to be. Here are four more trades the Twins could have made in June that might have saved July.
Levine said his job is to work with all 29 teams in order to improve his team, so dealing within the division wouldn’t have stopped this one from happening. The White Sox were sellers before the season started, and they managed to turn a surprising season from Swarzak on a one-year deal into Ryan Cordell, a 25-year-old utility bat tearing up AAA (.855 OPS). The Twins’ AAA utility man Niko Goodrum would be the closest comparison, but the Sox would likely demand another piece or a different piece altogether given his .720 OPS in AAA this year. None of those pieces would be Zack Granite or Mitch Garver, however.
While it’s probably more than Falvey and Levine would like to offer to get a guy they could have signed in the offseason, Swarzak’s .525 win-loss percentage with an average team this season would be best in the Twins’ bullpen, even if Brandon Kintzler was still with the team.
The Cincinnati Reds were 31-43 on June 25th. They didn’t trade Storen despite his cheap, expiring contract ($3 million), and it might have to do with his FIP being almost one and a half runs worse than his ERA. Still, Storen’s win-loss percentage with an average team of .508 is better than the Twins’ Taylor Rogers (.503) and Tyler Duffey (.494). He would have at least pushed each of them into lower-leverage situations. Of the six losses by the bullpen over the 30 games entering the deadline, Rogers and Duffey were responsible for two each.
Since the Reds couldn’t find a taker on Storen, he likely could have been acquired for a low-level prospect with a relatively low ceiling.
The Mets were seven games under .500 and 11 games back in the National League East on June 25th. They were even further out of the NL Wild Card standings. Boston scored Reed by sending the Mets three, 22-year-old relievers.
High-A, right-handed reliever Gerson Bautista might not have the ceiling of Twins’ A-ball lefty Andrew Vasquez. High-A righty Stephen Nogosek could be comparable to the Twins’ 24-year-old, high-A lefty Michael Theofanopoulos. And righty Jamie Callahan was promoted to AAA this season, much like the Twins’ Ryan Eades.
As far as rental relievers go, Reed probably would have demanded the best return of those available at the end of June, but he would have had the most trade value amongst rental relievers come the end of July, too. The 15 runs above a replacement player he amassed with the Mets is just two runs less than Twins’ starter Jose Berrios and four runs better than Kintzler.
I still would have liked the new Twins front office to make a splash and land Hand. I wrote en masse about Hand and was willing to part with one of the Twins’ shortstop prospects -- but not Nick Gordon. I can understand why this deal didn’t happen, but it would have been most helpful. Again, Hand could demand a ton at the end of July, but probably not as much as he would in June. He’s a keeper anyways given his arbitration eligibility until 2020.
It might be more difficult and more expensive to trade in June rather than July, but Falvey and Levine could have done something crazy like trade a top prospect and two others for Brad Hand on June 25th because: 1) they’re rookies and have more leeway than they ever will with ownership and fans, 2) Twins fans are fed up with the status quo, and 3) those newly acquired assets could still be traded a month later. But Levine didn’t know taking on Garcia’s salary would be valuable to other teams.
“The deal we did there was a testament to Jim Pohlad and his support of our decision-making because he allowed for us to take Jaime Garcia’s salary, which, come to find out, we didn’t know this in the onset of the negotiation, the other teams who were competing for his services weren’t prepared to do that,” Levine explained. “So this is an area we weren’t aware of, once again, but we learned as we went through the trade negotiation that this was going to be a competitive advantage for us.”
That was the most disturbing thing I heard from Levine. It makes the collective genius thought necessary to turn A-ball pitching prospect Huascar Ynoa into AAA pitching prospect Dietrich Enns and AA pitching prospect Zack Littell sound like dumb luck. Both the Dodgers and Yankees made it a priority to cut into their luxury tax bill this season, so you can assume at least they have an interest in cutting salary. I think you have to assume the Nationals (seventh highest MLB payroll) and Cubs (ninth highest MLB payroll) would have an interest in saving money.
So if Pohlad was willing to pay Garcia $4 million to play elsewhere, why wouldn’t he be willing to pay Neshek $4 million to play for the Twins, assuming they can’t move him at the Trade Deadline? What about the roughly $4 million it would have cost to pay both Swarzak and Storen? Was there a $5 million cap on the amount he was willing to spend?
As you can see, Levine left us with more questions than answers thanks to his ability to woo a crowd of Twins fans, most of whom have never experienced anything but the curmudgeons Ryan and Smith. As a journalist, it was refreshing to witness an interviewee who was not only honest but entertaining. Not much was left to be desired except a trade in June that might have saved July.
I suspect Falvey and Levine entered this season hoping to be sellers at the deadline, and I would have asked that if I thought I’d get an honest answer. That’s not something a rookie GM will admit willingly.
Levine is a dealmaker who understands what it takes to build a contender. I have no doubts that he’s the right man for the job, but had Gleeman himself been hired as the Twins’ GM, I still would have left that conference room optimistic and a little weak in the knees.
Former Minnesota Twins general manager Terry Ryan always had money to work with but rarely used that money as effectively as new president of baseball operations Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine did prior to Major League Baseball’s non-waiver trade deadline.
While it has been said by me that Falvey and Levine waited too long to make a move to improve their team, they appear to have fleeced the Atlanta Braves when trading for Jaime Garcia. The Twins flipped rookie-ball pitching prospect Huascar Ynoa to Atlanta in exchange for Garcia and the entirety of his remaining contract -- a little more than $4 million.
Garcia made one start as a Twin and was traded to the Yankees on Sunday. Falvey and Levine were again willing to take on most of Garcia’s remaining contract with the hopes of landing better prospects. That willingness to spend paid off, as the Twins landed AA right-hander Zack Littell and AAA lefty Dietrich Enns.
Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press pointed out that Littell’s xFIP is first amongst Eastern League pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched. Parker Hageman says Littell’s curveball is a plus pitch, and the move toward devastating curveballs rather than overwhelming velocity has become commonplace for analytical baseball minds. Littell would have been a huge score for the Twins without Enns. He’s is averaging 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings, and 6.5 strikeouts per walk with AA Trenton. ESPN analyst Dan Szymborski thought the Braves should be annoyed with the Twins for scoring such a nice prospect with their former player.
Enns is just a big bonus for a team that’s closer to competing than expected. Enns boasts a four-pitch mix and has been fantastic at every minor league level. His WHIP has never been higher than 1.214, and his K/9 has never been lower than 6.9. He was striking out almost one batter per inning with AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and could get a cup of coffee with the Twins when rosters expand. Hell, he could take Kyle Gibson’s spot this year.
The 2018 Twins rotation returns just Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios -- so far. Santana could very well be traded by the time I finish writing this. It’s safe to say Hector Santiago and Kyle Gibson are done, and we don’t know if Phil Hughes will ever pitch again. This pair of moves by the Twins pair of rookies in the front office gives the Twins some pieces to create competition for rotation spots in Spring Training next year.
So a team in desperate need of young, controllable starting pitching traded for a rental, and then traded that rental for exactly what it needs. Both Littell and Enns could be big parts of the Twins rotation in a couple years, along with Jose Berrios and Adalberto Mejia, and perhaps, AA Chattanooga's Fernando Romero and Stephen Gonsalves.
With the addition of Littell, the Southern League’s best Lookouts have a pitching staff worth seeing. That includes recent relief addition Gabriel Moya via the trade of AAA catcher John Ryan Murphy, who was once Aaron Hicks until Terry Ryan…
I digress. If Falvey and Levine keep this up, they will have turned around the Twins in short order. If Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton improve upon their already impressive performances this season, Minnesota will be in the playoff conversation for a long time given the pitching Falvey and Levine have and will continue to acquire.
Closer Brandon Kintzler is going to be traded before the deadline, probably for another pitching prospect. But the Twins could sign Kintzler and a whole lot more in free agency this offseason. Minnesota is a pitcher’s paradise as long as Buxton roams center field (18 runs above average fielding), Max Kepler gallops through right (5 RAA fielding), and, now, wherever Zack Granite is (20 BIS runs saved above average per year in center). Granite has forced his way into the lineup by playing a premiere position really well in the absence of the best player at that position. He’ll keep getting plenty of at-bats.
Who can the Twins target in 2018 free agency, and who would actually consider it? Jake Arrieta might consider putting his increased flyball percentage in front of a go-get-it outfield. It’s up five percent from last season, and his groundball rate is down seven percent. Hell, Jaime Garcia could return in free agency if he enjoyed his first and last day at work with the Twins. I don’t see any reason why Yu Darvish wouldn’t want to pitch in Minnesota, either. Given Levine’s Rangers roots and the aggressive approach Falvey and Levine have taken in their first year with the Twins, I expect it to continue. These aren’t your father’s Twins.
The Minnesota Twins contending this season despite sporting the American League’s fourth-worst run differential is astonishing. While the Twins are scoring 68 fewer runs than their opponents after a 6-4 loss to the Dodgers, Monday night, the Twins sit just two games out of the playoff picture and 3.5 games back in the AL Central. And the run differential is just the tip of the iceberg.
This was originally published at FoulPlaybyPlay.com, a community of foul-mouthed, sports broadcasters and analysts providing coverage of select games.
The combined WAA (wins above average) between Twins batters and pitchers is -4.3 wins, meaning the team (excluding coaching factors) should be at least four games worse than average.
Given the games played as of this writing, the MLB average for wins would be 49.4, but the median is 48. The Twins have 49 wins, which means they have outperformed their WAA by almost four games using the average and five games using the median. All this while allowing 68 more runs than they’ve scored. It all screams regression, doesn’t it? In fact, I’d venture to bet there’s never been an MLB team that has overachieved more than the 2017 Twins thus far, and if there is one, it’s also a team from Twins history.
It’s fitting the Twins just celebrated the 30th anniversary of the 1987 World Series Championship team at Target Field this weekend, because the 2017 Twins are a lot like that team. The Twins organization established a reputation as underdog overachievers immediately upon finding the ultimate success in 1987 and have continued that tradition to a fault at times.
Most of the ‘90s were tough on the Twins and their fans. The pitch-to-contact approach started resulting in harder contact, and payrolls plummeted along with Metrodome attendance, as a slew of youngsters like 21-year-old shortstop Christian Guzman and 23-year-old center fielder Torii Hunter played almost everyday. I remember people joking about how the Twins wouldn’t beat most AAA teams, but everything came together just in time to quiet discussions of contracting the team.
A surprising second-place finish in the AL Central in 2001 that saw Matt Lawton grace the cover of Sports Illustrated blew new life into the Metrodome. And in 2002, the pesky piranhas were AL Central champions, fielding the youngest and fourth-cheapest roster in baseball. While the 2002 Twins entered the playoffs with the lowest run differential that year, they still scored 56 more runs than they allowed. But that squad had a combined WAA of +6.3 and finished 94-67, outperforming that WAA by a ridiculous seven wins over the average and 8 wins over the median MLB record in 2002.
Despite it all ending in the ALCS, that’s still my favorite Twins team. I feel like they did the most with the least, and the numbers seem to substantiate that feeling. It just feels better to win as an underdog overachiever, even if you don’t win it all.
The 1987 Twins did win it all, though, and did so despite entering the playoffs having posted a run differential of -20 during the regular season and outperforming their -.8 WAA. Those Twins went 85-77 in 1987, which would be outperforming their WAA by almost five wins based on the MLB average and median for wins that season.
The 1984 Royals are the only other team besides the ‘87 Twins to win the World Series despite a negative regular season run differential since 1960 (and likely ever). They had a -13 run differential and finished the regular season 84-78, outperforming their .1 WAA by almost three games on average and four games taking the median MLB record.
The team with the lowest run differential entering the playoffs was the 2005 San Diego Padres at -42, in a year when every team in the NL West had a negative run differential, and only the Padres had a winning record (82-80). They outperformed their -3.2 WAA by four games on average but just three games on the median MLB record.
Again, the 2017 Twins are outperforming their WAA by four games on average and five games given the median record -- with a run differential 62 percent lower than that of the 2005 Padres, 70 percent lower than the 1987 Twins and 182 percent less than the 2002 Twins!
The Twins making the playoffs isn’t just improbable. It would challenge everything we think we know about what makes a playoff baseball team, just as the Twins did in 1987. The 1987 Twins might have hit a lot of home runs, but they won games with defense. The only regulars with negative total zone defensive runs saved averages over the course of 135 games were Kirby Puckett and Tim Laudner (each at -8). And while three players had RARs (runs above a replacement player) above 40 (Puckett, Kent Hrbeck and Greg Gagne), most of the pitching staff had lower strikeout rates than the current Twins’ staff. Frank Viola averaged just seven strikeouts per nine innings and was the only starter with an ERA below three, so the ball was being put in play, and the Twins were picking it.
The Twins have improved their run differential from last season by 98 runs thus far, and it’s still the fourth-worst differential in baseball. That’s how bad the Twins were last season, and the roster has hardly changed, so there are some things working in the Twins favor.
If you think a weak AL Central is the reason for the Twins’ contention, then you also have to blame most of the American League given the Wild Card standings. While a drop in relative competitiveness allows more teams to hang in the race longer, it does little to explain the 98-run improvement.
Actually, the Twins’ schedule thus far has probably contributed more to their seemingly unsustainable success than a lack of competitive teams in their league. The Twins remain the second best road team in the AL behind Houston, but they’ve played nine fewer road games than home games going into Tuesday. And as of Monday, they had played 10 fewer road games than the Red Sox, Yankees and Rangers, who are all still in the hunt. Translation: the Twins’ schedule is about to get tougher, as they saw first-hand on Monday when the L.A. Goliath finally knocked out the pesky David of the Midwest in the eighth. But instead of simply marveling at the Twins’ improbable season, let me attempt to explain the extent of its improbability.
There are some easy answers with regards to runs contributed this year that weren’t there last year, like Miguel Sano improving his RAA (runs above average) 19 points after a 2016 season spent lost in right field so Paul Molitor could accommodate Trevor Plouffe. Sano has arguably become the Twins’ best player at 24 years old -- three years younger than Kent Hrbek was when he was second on the 1987 squad with 21 RAA. Sano is also second on his team in RAA, which is why I say he’s arguably the Twins’ best player..
Enter Byron Buxton, the player for whom statistics like range factor and runs added from baserunning were invented. If Buxton was playing anytime before these statistics came around, I feel he’d have a much harder time sticking in the bigs. Buxton’s .604 OPS is last among center fielders with 250 plate appearances, and he’s 14 runs worse than the average hitter so far this season. He’s no ‘87 Puckett at the plate, but his ability to play center field and run the bases make that all matter a whole lot less -- a ton less, in fact.
Buxton is four runs better than average on the bases, and 18 runs better than average in center field, which is eerily similar to Greg Gagne’s defensive contribution for the ‘87 Twins (19). Gagne finished the year leading his team with 23 RAA despite negative contributions at-bat and on the bases. Buxton is on pace to lead his team in RAA this season, too
So despite his 62 OPS+, Buxton is worth 11 runs more than a replacement player because he can catch balls no one else can and score from first base on a single. Puckett couldn’t do that, and if Buxton comes back from his groin injury on Tuesday and hits, he could chase down Puckett’s incredible 44 RAR in 1987. Buxton’s RAR sits at 22, tied with Sano for the team lead amongst batters despite playing seven fewer games.
One of the Twins best pitchers has been Jose Berrios, who was living a nightmare on the mound in 2016 and has improved his RAA from -25 to 6. While his win-loss percentage with an average team (.551) is more comparable to the Bert Blyleven’s (.558) from 1987 than 27-year-old Frank Viola’s (.664), he’s four years younger than Viola, and hasn’t had to perform like him thanks to Ervin Santana.
Despite his inconsistencies, Santana has been the Viola for the 2017 Twins. While his .612 win-loss percentage with an average team is not vintage Viola, it has been 21 runs better than average, which leads the team.
It all up and that’s 54 runs of improvement between three players all under 25, and another two from Santana so far. So the kids are growing up just fine, and Papi Santana has set a great example for Berrios, in his good starts and bad.
Speaking of bad, there are plenty of Twins who have been worse than last year, too. Kyle Gibson’s RAA is 10 runs worse than last season (-17), Jorge Polanco’s RAA is down seven runs, and Ryan Pressly has been nine runs worse than average after posting a +3 last season. Our 56 runs of improvement is now 17.
The 1987 Twins were not without their Gibsons, Polancos and Presslys, either. The Gibson was probably Mike Smithson (-15 RAA in 20 starts). The Polanco of the 1987 Twins was likely Gene Larkin, who was in his rookie season, so he has an excuse for his -11 RAA in 262 plate appearances. As for the Ryan Pressly of ‘87, George Frazier was seven runs worse than average in 81.1 innings.
But who’s the Bartolo Colon of the ‘87 Twins? Easy: 42-year-old Joe Niekro was 20 runs below average in 96.1 innings pitched.
One of the biggest reasons for the Twins turnaround is the first move new president of baseball operations Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine made -- signing free agent catcher Jason Castro. I loved the move then, and still love it, despite having to watch Castro swing and miss so much.
Castro doesn’t hit well -- even for a catcher. His OPS is 17th out of 18 catchers who have at least 250 plate appearances when they wear the gear. If you lower the required plate appearances to 150, he’s well behind the Twins’ former catcher Kurt Suzuki, who is ninth amongst catchers with an .816 OPS.
Suzuki’s defensive contribution this season is also his best since 2012. The uptick could very well be that he has his legs under him (he’s caught just 345.1 innings), but even if Suzuki finishes the season having contributed 14 runs on defense, he still falls short of Castro’s contribution.
Like Buxton, Castro makes up for his woes at the plate on defense. Castro is worth 22 defensive runs above average over the course of 135 games. Suzuki checks in at 14 defensive runs above average this season, but is 12 runs below average per season for his career as a catcher. Again, even assuming Suzuki’s improved defense is not inflated due to sample size (it is), Castro, with the second-worst OPS at his position, is worth 14 RAR, and Suzuki, with the ninth-best OPS at his position, is worth just 11 RAR.
Furthermore, if we consider the performance of Twins’ catchers last year compared to this year, the net gain for the Twins is 28 fielding runs above average. That would account for almost a third of the Twins’ improvement, bringing our rough total to 45 runs of improvement.
There’s really no comparison for Castro from the 1987 Twins’ catching corps. The ‘87 backstops were a combined 39 runs worse than average. When it comes to win-loss percentage with an average team over 162 games, Tom Brunansky was fourth (.503) on the ‘87 Twins just as Castro is with the 2017 Twins (.502).
Eduardo Escobar is the ultimate utility man, not because he can play just about anywhere, including catcher apparently, but because he provides the energy and attitude the Twins need to make a push for the playoffs. His smile and charisma are infectious, and he’s an essential leader in the clubhouse. I thought Falvey and Levine might consider trading him given his value to a contender, but I’m glad the Twins have forced the front office to chase history so Escobar can stick around.
While Escobar’s runs above average numbers are mostly negative (except running the bases), all have improved substantially from last season. His RAR has improved by 12 compared to last year, which brings our total runs of improvement to 57.
Escobar is the Dan Gladden of this Twins team. Gladden managed to be 12 runs better than a replacement despite costing the 1987 Twins 15 runs swinging the bat.
Brandon Kintzler has been nine runs above average in the closer role this season. That’s four runs better than last season already, which makes 61 runs of improvement.
Reliver Juan Berenguer was nine runs above average over 112 innings for the 1987 Twins, but he wasn’t the closer, and I don’t think Kintzler should be, either. The bullpen is the area where the Twins could stand to improve the most (read: acquire Brad Hand).
While the 1987 Twins relievers posted a RAA of -49, current Twins relievers (excluding the catcher Gimenez, who has been just one run below average in five innings) are sporting an RAA of -87 already. Adding Hand’s 12 RAA would allow the 2017 Twins to act a lot more like the 1987 Twins.
Taylor Rogers has been fantastic until recently. His RAA was eight entering Monday’s game, and after allowing the go-ahead, three-run home run in the eighth inning on Monday, it is now six. That’s still second amongst Twins relievers, and he’s a big reason the Twins have managed to hang in games despite a drop in his strikeout rate from last year (9.4 to 6.5 K/9).
I kept waiting for the regression given his 4.05 FIP, 2.15 ERA and 71 percent balls-in-play percentage, and I think we’re starting to see that regression with his blown hold in Los Angeles, Monday night. Ideally, he would be pitching the seventh inning if the Twins could acquire bullpen help before the Trade Deadline. He’s contributed five more runs than last year so far, though, bringing us to 66 runs of improvement.
When it comes to pace of play, Adalberto Mejia is the sloth of Major League Baseball. In his start Sunday the Twins set the record for the longest regulation game in franchise history: 4 hours and 23 minutes, I believe. As you fall in and out of sleep while watching Mejia, you’ll dream of comparisons like Les Straker. But Mejia’s 4 RAA better this year than last (70) and is just 24.
Robbie Grossman got my MLB All-Star vote at designated hitter because he had the highest on-base percentage amongst his peers, and walks are as good as hits. While he’s a liability in the outfield, his approach at the plate is straight out of the moneyball era. And in an era of home run or nothing at all, having a guy who can work counts and get on base before the free swingers is a nice piece to have available.
Grossman has 50 walks in 317 plate appearances and leads the Twins in that category. His .373 OBP is also best on the team, and while Grossman’s OPS+ is just 103, it’s better than Joe Mauer’s 101. His RAR of three doesn’t quite touch Mauer’s, though, and is the same as 2016’s, so no runs of improvement available here. But without Grossman, Twins fans would be forced to watch the struggles of Kennys Vargas, whose RAR is down three from last year.
Grossman also cost the Twins 21 runs playing defense last year. Molitor has managed to limit that damage to just four runs this season by keeping Grossman in the dugout more often. It adds up to a six-run increase in RAA for Grossman since last season (76 runs of improvement).
Joe Mauer is going to win the AL Gold Glove for his performance at first base this season, and it will have little to do with the fact he hasn’t committed an error as of this writing. His defensive runs saved (8) and total zone runs saved per year (6) is better than the defending Gold Glove winner, Mitch Moreland (7 and 1, respectively). Mauer’s range factor and his OPS+, which does matter despite it being a fielding award, are also higher than Moreland’s, and his 1.3 WAR just trails All-Star first baseman Yonder Alonso’s 1.5. Mauer’s basically been Roy Smalley, which isn’t bad.
Twins hitters are a collective one run above average in 2017 but 58 runs better than last season. Twins pitchers are 62 runs below average this season but also 58 runs better than last season. That’s 116 runs of improvement, and given the 98 runs of improvement at which they currently stand as a team, the Twins’ run differential is likely to get worse barring any trades that might occur.
Jaime Garcia should help delay the inevitable. His RAA of three is 20 runs better than Gibson’s, who was demoted despite having his best start of the season on Saturday against Detroit. Falvey and Levine are going to stick with Colon for at least another start, which is fine. Gibson has been far from consistent, and you have to give the veteran a chance to see a lineup that’s not the Dodgers or Yankees before you ask him to gracefully retire. He kept the Twins in that game in Los Angeles, Monday, even contributing a sacrifice bunt to the delight of his teammates. His butt also puts butts in the seats.
While adding Garcia is like adding another Les Straker, the Twins don’t even have enough Les Straker’s let alone Frank Viola’s to make a playoff push right now. If they add an arm to the bullpen, though, the Twins could make history, and I think they should go ahead and chase history. Sure, if they make the playoffs they’d go down as the absolute worst team ever to do so based on run differential. But that would likely make them one of the biggest underdogs of all time, and if they continue to outperform their WAA at the same rate, they’d be right up there with the 1987 and 2002 Twins as the biggest overachievers in baseball history.