Finally: the 2019 Recap

Congratulations to the Minnesota Twins on winning the American League Central Division. Congrats in particular to Rocco Baldelli, who wins Manager of the Year award in his rookie season. When was that last done? And when was the last time the Twins had the Manager of the Year? (As if we didn’t know.)

The Twins finish the regular season with an respectable 101-61 record. (And congratulations Sid Hartman on having the closest prediction this year!) How did the Twins do it? How did they wildly out-perform all expectations? How is this remotely possible?? Have we slipped into Bizzaro World somehow?

No, it’s not Bizarro World. This is real life. And here they are:

The Top 10 Reasons why the Twins Totally Rocked in 2019

  1. Obviously, they (The Front Office) got extremely lucky. Or — and this must be fairly considered — just maybe they know what they are doing? The free agent pickups of last off-season all produced, and I would be very tempted to label the Brain Trust as geniuses, were it not for their 2018 off-season acquisitions, which were largely terrible. (LogMor? All those pitchers?) And so, for me, the jury is out, still, on whether the Front Office is made of Brainiacs or whether they had a lucky roll of the dice.
  2. La Bomba. With the totally magnificent Nelson Cruz leading the way, the twins launched more rockets than the North Koreans. It was an impressive display. AND we even managed to out-homer los yanquis malditos, 307-306. Kepler hitting 36 was a pleasant surprise. Garver hitting 31 and Polanco hitting 22 were bigger surprises. I wasn’t expecting 32 from Rosario. And Cron and Schoop popped for 25 and 23. Pretty nice line-up.
  3. Latin America! Shades of Calvin Griffith! The Twins looked off shore for baseball talent, and Latin America answered the call. (Okay, Germany also contributed.) Cruz, Sano, Arraez, Astudillo, Adrianza (TripleA), Gonzalez, Polanco, Schoop. And Max Kepler.
  4. Rocco Baldelli. His calm demeanor steadied the club through the rough spots, and his juggling of the pitching staff was worthy of the Flying Karamazov Brothers. Here’s a surprise: Baldelli was ejected twice this season. It’s kind of hard to imagine. How did I miss those games? I imagine the ejections must have been on some obscure technicalities, too many bats in the bat rack, perhaps, or submitting the lineup card in pencil, or wearing illegal socks. That’s it, Baldelli! You’re Outta Here!

It’s hard for me to judge the value of managers. Probably Molitor (Manager of the Year, 2017) would have done just as well as Baldelli, with a club hitting 300 homers. It’s kind of like how the President gets the credit or the blame for the economy, when they don’t have that much to do with it. Maybe the same with managers. I’m sure it’s a hard job, working with 25 guys who want to play and win and all. Not a job I would want. I’d want to email in the lineup card each day, and then watch the game on my computer. My substitutions would appear flashing brightly on a screen in the dugout.

  1. The Bullpen. Our starting rotation was, to be frank, largely unimpressive, and so a good bullpen was a necessity. The Twins were criticized in the off-season for not bolstering their bullpen, but it turned out pretty okay, as they made do pretty much with in-house arms. In fact, an argument could be made that the Twins had one of the better bullpens in MLB in 2019. Possibly. Depends on what numbers you want to look at. But no matter how you look at it, they were better than expected, and that made a huge difference. Was it coaching? Maturity? Health? Magic? Whatever.
  2. Nelson Cruz. Reminded me a bit of… who? Puckett? Killebrew? Nelson had fun out there and set an example of how to play the game. He helped keep the club on an even keel throughout the season, and he pounded the ball in a businesslike fashion. Probably the most important free agent pick up in the club history. Or, I should probably say, one of the most important, with a nod to… Joe Niekro? Chili Davis? Black Jack Morris?
  3. Pitching coach Wes Johnson gets a tip of the cap. Hard to judge his efforts. Team ERA went down from 4.5 to 4.18. I compared the team pitching stats from 2018 and 2019, and I see slight general improvement. What stood out was 452 walks given up in 2019, compared to 573 in 2018. There were 10 intentional walks in 2019, compared to 34 in 2018. Five balks in 2019, none in 2018. Hmmm. Hmmmm. Well, less guys on base = less guys who can score. Maybe Wes told the guys, throw strikes, and that was all it took.
  4. Jake Odorizzi – There were disappointments in the pitching department, but Jake Odorizzi was not one of them. On the contrary. The 29-year-old slab artist dropped his ERA from 4.49 to 3.51 in 2019, and made the all-star team. He had a few health problems later in the season, as pitchers will, but he was a solid dependable starter, and those are in short supply. Definitely the Twins Pitcher of the Year, in my book.
  5. Mad Max Kepler in right field. Stepped up his game in a major league way, from OPS of .727 in 2018 to .855 in 2019. Thirty-six homers, 90 rbis, and a solid outfielder. Is there more to come?
  6. Mitch Garver claimed the catcher spot with another giant step forward in his game, raising his OPS from .745 to (gulp) .995! Yowza. Seven homers in 2018, 31 in 2019. Mitch Garver had a monster season. They say his pitch-framing improved as well. Which is also very important.

There are, of course, numerous Other Factors that could be mentioned. But how much time does one have to go on and on about last season? Times moves on, and there’s plenty to worry about in 2020. For instance, and maybe you better sit down for this… there are rumors that Steady Eddie Rosario might be trade bait? Eddie Rosario? Well, that’s food for thought. I guess there are a lot of young guys in the minors that can swing the bat. They need a chance. But… Eddie? For what? Pitching?

Let me consider that. I’ll get back to you. But how about those Senators? I mean the Nationals. How about them? Congrats to the DC club. Not actually a division winner, but still, by the grace of God, Champions of all Major League Baseball. Dozier gets a ring! Happy to see that. And Kurt Suzuki too!

Let the Hot Stove League Commence!

—> 9 <—

Could it get any bigger than this?

The Twins go to Cleveland with a tenuous 3.5 game lead. It’s a three game series, and the first game is rained out. So: double-header time. There’s still a good number of games left, so everything doesn’t actually ride on this series. But it kind of feels like it does. The Twins have taken some blows lately, losing Pineda and Buxton. They’ve lost a few games, and the Spiders are breathing down their necks now, and here we are, playing in the Clevelander’s home park, the Spider Web. Play-off baseball. A doubleheader with the top two teams.

There is great potential for disaster.

But the boys come out and take the first one, 2-0, with shut-down pitching from the law firm of  Smeltzer, Littell, Duffy, Romo, and Rogers. Polanco gets a two-run homer to win the game. And then the Twins actually sweep the doubleheader, coming back from a 5-2 deficit in game two. They tie it up in the 8th, 5-5, and with the bases loaded and one out Sano crushes the first pitch into the left field stands.

Twins win, 9-5.

They are up by 5.5 games. And the radio broadcast crew say the words: “magic number.”

And the Magic Number is

9.

the race

I was going to call this “breathing space,” with the Twins 5 and a half ahead of the Spiders today, but thought better of it. Breathing space can disappear in the space of four or five games, and there are plenty of games yet to play. Every game is playoff baseball now, everything counts, and everybody feels post-season drawing closer, and closer, and closer. (Cue: music from Jaws.)

Looking over to the National League, I see the Braves, Cards, and Dodgers all on top in their respective divisions. Coincidentally, the three teams that the Twins have already played in the World Series. So: rematch time?

Credit goes to the NY Times for this lovely representation of the Yanquis.

But first, of course, the Twins will need to overcome los Yanquis de Nuevo York.

Which is a tall task for anybody, but particularly for the Twins, who seem to be allergic to all New York teams, past, present, and probably future. Perhaps if we refer to them as the Phillies or the [insert Florida’s NL team name here] or the Diamondbacks… perhaps then we will do better.

With pennant fever raging, the Twins have gotten a few bits of bad news:

First, they lose one of their key starters, Michael Pineda, for the rest of the season, due to PED rule violation. This hurts, as Berrios and Gibson have been struggling of late, while Pinada has been getting stronger. Apparently Pinada took some over-the-counter medication, given to him by a friend, to help control weight issues? I guess that could happen. This must be awful for Pineda. After all, post-season is THE BIG SHOW, everyone plays all year trying to get into post season, and here’s his shot and suddenly, no, he’s out. How many chances do you get to go to the playoffs?

Which makes me wonder what players have gone a lot, and I suppose there are players out there who rarely get the chance. Who are the active players with fewest post-season games in their career? Are there any players out there who have played a long time and never gone to the playoffs? Which baseball team has the longest post-season drought?

Mariners fans; how do you stand it? It’s been 17 seasons since the Mariners have seen playoff ball. Seventeen long seasons. There are young Seattle baseball fans who have no memory of Seattle in the playoffs, and may not even know that playoffs exist. Perhaps they see the Mariners as the baseball equivalent of the Washington Generals? I think that’s the team that goes around the world losing to the Harlem Globetrotters. Anyway. Seventeen seasons. And the Seattle record so far, in 2019: 58-85. And yesterday they lost to the Astronats by the score of, uh… looks like…  21 – 1.

It may be some time before those Mariners get back to the big show.

Ernie Banks, sad to say, holds the record for most games played without seeing the post season: 2528 games, 19 seasons. Ouch. I have not yet found a source that tracks active players in this regard. I might examine the Mariner roster, for starters.

Anyway, besides Pineda, the Twins also may have to do without Byron Buxton, who’s injured his shoulder. There’s some talk of surgery. Byron has been a tough luck player.

And then, finally, the Twins also may have to do without Max Kepler, who also seems to be injured. That would be another tough loss, if he can’t come back. He’s having a heckuva year.

Oh, well. I suppose the Mariners would love to have these problems. There’s lot’s of baseball left to play, let’s just try to win the next one, tomorrow, in Washington. (Almost like a home game!) And let’s try to stay healthy too.

A New York State of Mind?

Hey, I just noticed something funny about this table from April of 2018, showing the Twins head-to-head record against all the other teams since 1961:

Yankees. Dodgers. Giants. Mets. Put the Twins on the field with any team that was ever connected with New York City, and the Twins play like a bunch of 5th graders.

What’s that about?

We is just a bunch of country bumpkins, intimidated by the big city slickers?

Just thought that was odd.

Pretty sick of the Yanquis.

Pennant Fever!

Pennant races are a lot of fun.

Gone are the days when the Twins were winning every game and building a 12-game lead in the Division. Looking at the sports pages this morning, what do we find? Those scuttling Spiders from Cleveland have come back up from the depths. With the Twins loss yesterday (5-1 vs the Pale Hose) and the Spider’s win (9-1 over the Royals. Do the Royals have a nick-name? Do they have the worst club name in baseball?) we find the home town boys at 63-41, and those Spiders at 62-42, just a game back. A single game. And August beckons. While the Twins have meandered to a 5-5 record over the last ten, the Spiders have gone 8-2. And over July, while the Twins compiled a lackadaisical 10-11 mark, the Spiders went, uh… 17-4. That’s right. 17-4.

Ouch.

That’s some good ball they’ve been playing over there in Cleveland. And some falling-out-of-first-place ball by the home town boys.

Pennant races are slow motion excitement. (Reminds me of the guy who said that baseball was 3 minutes of excitement crammed into 2 and a half hours.) Pennant races are methodical, clockwork, tumblers falling into place, day after day after day, incremental changes, subtle shifts. Home games vs. road games, off days, double headers, head-to-head play. Injuries and juggling rotations. Prospects up from the minors. Pitchers who are tired and laboring. Maybe a bit of a sore arm here and there. The late summer nights can be steamy. The darkness is approaching. The fans are growing surly and argumentative. Trades are made of promising youth, the organization’s future, for aging mercenaries of the bullpen who will maybe be able to help you today. Desperation is in the air. The pennant race is early playoff baseball. Every day is must win, and you can’t be lulled into thinking that there’s always tomorrow. That’s the peculiar danger of the pennant race. “Still plenty of time.” There’s only time if you win. Every loss kills you a bit. Every win by the other guys is a stab in the back. Tick tick tick tick tick. Time is suddenly gone. Time is ephemeral, fleeting, an illusion. Suddenly, there, the finish line! It’s right in front of you! Watch out!

That’s right. Welcome to the Twilight Zone of the baseball season.

Pennant races can be a little nerve-wracking.

Especially when your team has just gone 10-11, and the other guys don’t ever seem to lose.

Yesterday the Twins traded a promising young first baseman for some aging bullpen help, along with some prospects. Generally, fans here are considering this a win, though there is a lot of doubt expressed on the street about how much bullpen help Sergio Romo will provide. Which seems odd, given that he has 17 saves in 18 save attempts this season for the Marlins, and our bullpen has an ERA of about 4.41, which leaves a good deal of room for improvement. (Our bullpen has somehow created the illusion that it is better than 4.41. Maybe all the guys with 8 and 9 run ERAs have been sent down, and only guys with 2.72 ERAs are left?) I heard a few people say that Romo’s a “soft-thrower” who may very well have prospered over there in the Senior Circuit, where apparently the hitters can be fooled by that soft-throwing shit. That’s not gonna fly here in the American League, they say.

Well, we shall see, we shall see.

To acquire Mr. Romo, 36, and young pitching prospect Chris Vallimont, and a player to be named later, the Twins parted with young first baseman Lewin Diaz, who’s been pounding the ball in 90 games of A and AA ball: .294, 19 home runs, 27 doubles and 62 rbis. The story on him is that he’s having a “bounce-back” season this year, and the Twins would probably not protect him in the off-season by giving him a roster spot, given the Twin’s depth at first base. Given that detail, maybe this was an okay trade. Vallimont, 22, has speed and control and a 3.16 era in 22 starts in A ball.

Still, I hate to see Diaz leave. He’s having a heckuva season, and I have a feeling we’ll miss him in the future, when he’s pounding those soft-throwers over in the National League.

I wouldn’t be a very good baseball GM. I kind of hate trades. In my major leagues, you sign the best guys you can and then you develop them and then you play the game. Would I ever pull the trigger? Well, you can bet I would not trade Brunansky for Herr. That’s for sure.

Today:

Twins 11, White Sox 1
Royals 9, Spiders 6.

Good ol’ Royals.

They should have stuck with the Katz name. What were they thinking?

Kansas City Katz? Kansas City Royals?

You make the call.

 

 

Best in Baseball, (continued…)

The logical course of events:

  • Twins go to Tampa Bay to play “a big series” with a certain amount of media hype
  • Twins lose the first game by 14-3
  • Twins lose the next three games
  • and slink back home with tail between legs
  • and a new element of doubt planted in their psyche
  • and in the psyche of their fans

Instead, the Twins have upset the narrative. (This almost never happens.) They win game two of the series, come back from a 3-1 deficit to take the game 5-3, with strong pitching by Berrios and a two run single by Rosario in the top of the 9th. And then they take game 3, 6-2, with Kyle Gibson’s solid pitching, and home runs by Marvelous Marwin Gonzalez and also by Mr. Buxton.

And then yesterday they take game four, with Mr. Odorizzi as the slab artist. Jake goes 6 innings, gives up 3 hits, strikes out 9, and his ERA sinks to 1.96 on the season. The Twins jump out to a 7-0 lead, but the bullpen gets into some trouble, giving up 5 in the 7th. Schoop-dog hits a two run homer in the 8th to make it 9-5, and the Rays come back with 2 in their half of the 8th, 9-7. which is where it ends, with Taylor Rogers pitching a door-slammer of a 9th, striking out three for the save. Case closed. See you later.

Twins get a day off before visiting Cleveland for what will doubtlessly be a hotly contested series.

And life is good in Twins Country. And new narratives arise.