Tag: Minnesota Twins

Playing for Keeps: Twins reap reward of strong winter as Indians fade

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Eddie Rosario has absolutely mashed for the Twins this season.

The Minnesota Twins have the second largest run differential in baseball, a sparkling +106. Didn’t see that coming? Same.

They currently have a stranglehold on the pitiful AL Central, up 11.5 games on both the Chicago White Sox and 10.5 on the Cleveland Indians. Chicago had no realistic hope of contention, made all the more certain after yet another young pitcher got hurt. Bye, Carlos Rodon. We’ll get to the Indians in a bit.

The Twins actually tried to win this offseason and are being rewarded for it. They added Marwin Gonzalez, Nelson Cruz, Jonathan Schoop and Martin Perez, among others. Perez, in particular, has been a neat surprise; Schoop is outplaying expectations, Cruz has been hurt and Marwin has started a bit slow.

Overall, Minnesota is just flat-out mashing the ball. They’re tied for tops in the sport in team wRC+ with the incredible Houston Astros. Much of the attention has gone to Eddie Rosario, who has blasted 18 homers, some of them truly prodigious shots. But to focus on Rosario would be a mistake; he’s the kind of semi-random dude who has a great year when teams find themselves riding a wave.

The Twins are truly led by shortstop Jorge Polanco — I covered him earlier this year, and he’s probably surpassed the pace he was already on — and center fielder Byron Buxton. Buxton is a pet favorite of mine, as frequent readers know. He’s the kind of player baseball needs, a slick athlete who brings more to the table than just the Three True Outcomes. So far, he’s managed enough with the bat to make his slick glove and baserunning viable: .320 OBP, .508 SLG. That’s more than enough, and as of right now Buxton ranks 5th among big league center fielders in Fangraphs version of Wins Above Replacement. The pitching has been good too, led by Jake Odorizzi and Jose Berrios. Berrios is a pet favorite of mine; that curveball should be bottled and sold.

It’s hard to say if Minnesota will be able to compete all season with the American League juggernauts, but they appear to be the clear class of the Central. The Indians, meanwhile, are getting their just rewards for such a weak offseason. The problem with having only seven or eight good players is that you have only seven or eight good players. If they leave in free agency (Michael Brantley, gone to a team that effortlessly swept the Indians out of the ALDS last year) or get hurt (Mike Clevinger, Corey Kluber) or just aren’t quite right (Jose Ramirez, Trevor Bauer), suddenly you’ve got problems. Big problems.

Great organizations don’t just acquire stars, they acquire depth. They work to have players ready in case of an emergency because you can’t predict baseball. Stuff happens. The Indians have learned this the hard way.

The offense ranks 26th in wRC+, a year removed from finishing 7th. The pitching, viewed by many (including me) as a strength, has been the saving grace: 7th best by xFIP. But it’s not enough, not when the Twins are mashing and the Indians aren’t. Letting Brantley go was a terrible, pitiful decision for a team with roughly two really good position players and none of them outfielders.

Quick: who has been the best hitting Indians outfielder in 2019? Go get a coffee, add a little cream and just think about it for a minute. I’ll be here.

OK, feeling caffeinated? Good. Did you guess … *double checks notes* … Jordan Luplow? No? You’ve never even heard of Jordan Luplow? The Indians have, let me tell you, and they’re immensely thankful for his sub .300 on-base percentage and his .516 slugging percentage. I’m sure that’s sustainable.

I don’t mean to pick on Luplow or any of the Indians outfielders. Heck, even the roster itself. Many of the Indians regulars are being asked to carry more water than they can bear; a nominal contender is asking a lot of “Quad-A” guys to be major contributors. (Would it be rude to bring up Indians castoff Gio Urshela right now? Urshela is hitting .329/.377/.466 … so yes, it would be rude. Very rude.)

The Indians aren’t a big budget club. The TV market isn’t good and the surrounding metropolitan area certainly isn’t what you might call lucrative. Ownership did run higher than normal payrolls during the team’s window of contention, but in retrospect letting Brantley waltz off to a competitor feels a bit like a white flag. (Don’t get me started on Indians owner Paul Dolan crying poor in regard to shortstop Francisco Lindor‘s future. These guys are a lot of things, but living in a poor house ain’t it.)

So what now for the Indians? Can’t imagine they’ll be trying to add much of anything at the trade deadline; can’t really foresee them pursuing Dallas Keuchel or Craig Kimbrel, either. The Twins might slow down, that’s reasonable, but a collapse isn’t likely. They have real talent, and quite a bit more depth. The Wild Card is absolutely not an option.

If you’re an Indians fan, you know where this is going. If the ownership has decided to no longer invest in the roster, then naturally the time has come to rebuild. Trevor Bauer would have trade value; Carlos Carrasco, on his frugal new deal, would too. Corey Kluber did before taking a line drive to the arm. It’s probably a little soon to trade Lindor, but the haul might be pretty incredible if the Indians played their cards right.

Hard to blame an Indians fan for thinking back to two disappointing recent playoff games: 2016 World Series Game 7 and 2017 ALDS Game 5. As strong as those Indians clubs were, the object is to win, and both short. The World Series loss was pure agony; that team fought and fought and fought against a squad carried by destiny. The following ALDS loss was brutal too, blowing a 2-0 series lead to a frisky Yankees team.

Baseball isn’t easy. It’s not always fun. Players, coaches, executives, and fans pour their hearts into a team. It was easy to love those Indians club, easy to believe they would bring Cleveland its second World Championship in a matter of months after decades of heartache. But it wasn’t to be, and the game marches on.

Improving Jorge Polanco leads the charge for surprising Twins

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Twins shortstop Jorge Polanco has burst out of the gates in 2019.

Quick. By wRC+, who has been the best hitting shortstop in baseball this year? I’ll give you a minute.

And stop. Let’s hear it.

Carlos Correa? 4th – 154.

Javier Baez? Closer … 3rd – 155.

The answer is Twins shortstop Jorge Polanco — who was 2019’s first batter to hit for the cycle — with a robust 165 wRC+ to start the year, first among shortstops and 8th in all of baseball. Pretty slick. Polanco’s never produced a wRC+ above 110 in a full season (he’s hit that number twice, in 2015 and 2018) and further, never hit more than 13 bombs. Through 38 games, he’s already at 8.

Something fun is cooking with Polanco and the Twins overall, who sit in first place in the AL Central and third in run differential in the AL, buoyed in part by an exceptional offensive start.

A couple things stick out for the young shortstop:

  • He’s striking out a lot less than last year: 18.6% in 2018, 14.0% in 2019
  • He’s walking more than last year: 7.5% in 2018, 9.9% in 2019
  • He’s hitting the ball a lot harder: 83.9 MPH exit velocity in 2018, 88.4 MPH exit velocity in 2019
  • He’s hitting the ball in the air: 15.5% launch angle in 2018, 21.7% launch angle in 2019
  • He’s putting the barrel on the ball far, far more: 3.7% in 2018, 9.4% in 2019

You tell me, guys. Is it better to strike out less, walk more and hit the ball harder and with a higher launch angle? Yes. Yes it is. Check out his 2019 heat map (note that the numbers are his slugging percentage per pitch):

Polanco heatmap

Throw the ball over the heart of the plate at your own peril against 2019 Jorge Polanco. He’s especially mashing fastballs, slugging an incredible .700 off heaters. That, kiddos, is good.

Obviously, it’s fun to marvel at the heatmaps and the Statcast metrics, but I’m more impressed with the improvement to his walk and strikeout numbers. A young player who learns to walk more is a young player I like, and Polanco’s still only 25. These sorts of developments can and do happen. Polanco always profiled as a high-contact player — more on this in a moment — so him adding patience and power are quite encouraging signs.

It should be noted that he’s carrying a somewhat-high .345 BABIP, but as long as it stays somewhere above .300, he’ll be fine. Given his pedigree, he might be able to maintain that — through the 77 games he played last season, his BABIP was that same .345.

This slow-motion video of Polanco’s swing shows us just compact and quick to the ball he is. No wasted effort.

I’m not saying he’s going to maintain his 2019 pace, but I do think he’s an above-average hitter now.  Even if he ends up around 120-130 wRC+, for a shortstop that’s a heck of a number. For example: last year, Francisco Lindor hit a 130 wRC+, Javier Baez 131 wRC+ and Xander Bogaerts 133 wRC+. That would be some great company to maintain.

It’s still early enough that Polanco could regress. Maybe pitchers probe around enough and find an opening; maybe that leads to more strikeouts, which subsequently drags down the overall production. It’s early and this is baseball, where nothing can be fully believed as Gospel. Things happen.

But this feels real. We’re seeing things that tell us this isn’t a fluke — much like Luke Voit bashing the cover off the ball indicated his early success wasn’t temporary. We can see tangible things from Polanco that suggest he’s taken a serious step forward.

Given that the Indians rolled the dice on health and came up snake eyes — Corey Kluber and Mike Clevinger are hurt, Jose Ramirez seemingly can’t hit anymore — Polanco’s emergence comes at a great time. The AL Central is wide open.

Why not the Twins? Byron Buxton is healthy and running his way into a slugging percentage north of .400; Eddie Rosario is tied for second in the AL in homers; Jose Berrios‘ curveball is so gorgeous I want to buy it dinner and try my luck; Mitch Garver probably hasn’t become Ted Williams, but hey, it’s something. (I really, really want Buxton to maintain his current production with the bat; baseball needs players like him.)

Look, some of what has lifted the Twins to their strong start will fade. I doubt Rosario hits more than 40 homers and I seriously doubt Garver maintains his surge in isolated power (especially after last night, yikes). But with the Indians reeling, the Twins have a great opening.