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Paul Molitor's Opening Day Redemption

In the week or so leading up to Opening Day, Paul Molitor's lineups became a central topic of conversation among Twins fans and media.

This was, in part, borne out of desperation; after an especially long spring training, we had all basically run out of things to talk about.

But there was also something about those final tuneup experiments that felt depictive of deeper and much more important narratives. Particularly that of the manager, who enjoyed a vindicating afternoon on Monday.
Image courtesy of Kim Klement, USA Today
Many eyebrows were raised last summer when Minnesota's GM vacancy opened up along with an immediate, non-negotiable stipulation that Molitor would stay on. His team was on its way to an historically awful finish, and given his complete lack of managerial experience prior to 2015, the sophomore skipper didn't have much to fall back on other than a revered status within the organization.

Ultimately, this wasn't a dealbreaker for Derek Falvey or Thad Levine, who are from all appearances fostering a healthy rapport with Molitor despite an inherent conflict of interest.

The new top execs are expressing a big-picture view while downplaying the importance of quick answers and short-term thinking. Molitor, on the hot seat and under the microscope, can't afford such a mindset.

He doesn't set the roster. The Twins skipper would probably rather not be tethered to a Rule 5 pick he needs to hide in the bullpen, nor deprived of ByungHo Park after watching the slugger check all the boxes over five weeks in Florida. All Molitor can do is work with what he's got, and in that respect, there have been some interesting storylines and they came into play on Monday.

Throughout the Grapefruit League, Molitor was constantly toying with his lineups, telling reporters he was open to anything. But only in the final weekend, with the Twins running through their final rehearsals, did it become clear that his willingness to get weird was legit.

The unorthodox lineup on Opening Day caught a lot of people off-guard, but it was the culmination of considerable tweaking and experimentation on Molitor's part. Robbie Grossman batting second? Byron Buxton in the three-hole? Joe Mauer hitting cleanup for the first time in 11 years?? (Go ahead and re-read that last one for dramatic effect.)

It was sequencing that defied convention. But it's not like Molitor, chomping at the bit to start on a good note and put 2016 behind him, gave this any shortage of thought. And when you squint, you can envision how the gears were turning.

Brian Dozier likes leading off, and feels comfortable there. Last year when he was most comfortable he was smashing like three homers a week. OK, not much thinking required there.

But then, you plug in Grossman who led the team in on-base percentage last year, and had a .418 clip against lefties. OBP near the top of the order – how sabermetrical!

Buxton third is unexpected but he was a monster last September and displayed equal confidence and aggressiveness this spring. Clearly Molitor believes the kid is ready to arrive, and made a statement to that effect on Opening Day.

Mauer batting fourth certainly caused the most bewilderment. His lack of power production makes him an ill fit for the traditional cleanup mold, no doubt.

But what does Molitor care about established practices? He's got nothing to lose. I suspect that the cerebral side of him sees a smart veteran player that can consistently keep rallies rolling even if he doesn't deliver the knockout punch. A selective hitter who can take pitches and handle the bat, optimal for orchestrating steals and hit-and-runs with Buxton aboard. An OBP specialist who can continually get on base ahead of Miguel Sano.

On Opening Day, Molitor's quirky lineup was immediately put to the test. In the pivotal seventh inning of a 1-1 game, the Twins mounted a threat. With two runners in scoring position and one out, the Royals intentionally walked Brian Dozier, and here came Molitor's custom made run-scoring configuration with bases loaded.

They scored runs.

Grossman did what he does – drew a walk, and it gave the Twins a lead. Next up Buxton, with a chance to do serious damage. He struck out, one of three on the day, but I'll still take him in that spot right now.

Mauer and Sano both followed with run-scoring walks of their own to build the lead before hits from Jason Castro and Jorge Polanco blew it open.

It certainly wasn't Molitor's lineup construction that won the game. We can credit Ervin Santana and some very good, disciplined Twins at-bats (aided by a bit of wildness) for that. But there were those little moments that validated the manager's creative thinking, and it all added up to one big reward: Minnesota's first season-opening win in almost a decade, and the quickest possible disassociation from last years disastrous start.

The satisfaction for Molitor and the Twins is fleeting – they've got a lot of work to do. But at least, with the schedule's customary open second day, they get a little extra time to soak it in.


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40 Comments

I like the overall construction of the order yesterday, except for Buxton in the 3 hole. A good September is nice and all, but we all know September stats aren't overly telling due to roster expansion. Buxton looked confident and aggressive in spring, but didn't exactly light the world on fire. Hicks looked confident and aggressive a few years back in spring and we learned awfully quick that that doesn't mean much. Buxton is the future of your franchise and putting him in a spot with excessive pressure when he's had no real success in the bigs outside of 1 September surge doesn't make sense. "He struck out, one of three on the day, but I'll still take him in that spot right now" suggests you'll accept him in the 3 hole until he continues to strike out in big situations at which point you'd like to see him dropped in the order. If that's what happens it's an absolute failure on Mollies part. Buxton has the talent to make Mollie look like a genius by ripping off a .330 10 hr 30 RBI month and we all hope he does. But his track record shows he's more likely to have a .220 1 hr 4 RBI month and force Mollie to lower him in the lineup and crush his confidence. I don't understand the logic of putting so much more pressure on the kid instead of just letting him hit in the bottom 3rd and find some success before moving him to the heart of the order. This very well could have been an outlier since Mollie wanted his lefties in the lineup yesterday and there was a nasty lefty on the mound, but even in that case Polanco, who has shown he can hit big league pitching already, would have been a better choice. Flip Polanco and Buxton and I love the lineup. Buxton's speed on in front of Dozier as the lineup turns over sure would be nice too.

    • Blackjack, Jham and hybridbear like this

I would still like to see Dozier in the 3-hole with Polanco and Buxton ahead of him. Mauer at clean-up? Perhaps at 5th behind Sano (Sano between Dozier and Mauer might actually get good pitches to hit). Kepler at sixth. The rest up for grabs. Grossman is the 4th outfielder.

 

    • jud6312 likes this
Let's not get carried away.
Outside of Sano's home run, they didn't hit the ball very hard.
In fact, their bats were pretty pathetic yesterday.
KC just suddenly decided to stop throwing the ball anywhere close to the strike zone.
The Twins don't have to apologize for that, but it had nothing to do with the batting order, or the Twins hitting well.
    • Thrylos, Mike Sixel, Willihammer and 8 others like this

Is this an article or a press release?

    • Mike Sixel, TheLeviathan, Willihammer and 5 others like this
Molitor's most difficult and impactful decision wasn't the lineup, it was leaving Santana in to finish the top of the 7th. Not sure I like it, but it worked, and I cut him some slack given his bullpen.
    • Nick Nelson, Jerr, blindeke and 1 other like this
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Deduno Abides
Apr 04 2017 10:00 PM

Let's not get carried away.
Outside of Sano's home run, they didn't hit the ball very hard.
In fact, their bats were pretty pathetic yesterday.
KC just suddenly decided to stop throwing the ball anywhere close to the strike zone.
The Twins don't have to apologize for that, but it had nothing to do with the batting order, or the Twins hitting well.


Hitters two through four went 0 for 11, with 7 strikeouts. You'll probably lose the vast majority of games when that happens. Winning one game like that is more of a gift than a sign of brilliant strategy.

Even Tim Tebow won a playoff game. That didn't distract most people from recognizing his weaknesses.
    • Mike Sixel, Willihammer, adorduan and 2 others like this
I admire the he'll out of Molitor as a ballplayer. I admired him as a milb instructor, from all reports, which juxtaposes somewhat to what I have seen from him as a manager. But I have to say, while I am still confused and disappointed in the initial roster construction of 13 pitchers and no Park, I am enticed by his lineup creativity and experimentation.

Again, as I posted elsewhere, this reminds me of a milb manager from a different organization some years ago, who constructed a roster of 1-3, 1-3, 1-3 hitters as he looked at his roster. I still think this idea works better with a successful Park and Grossman/Mauer as a quasi platoon, but the approach is interesting and sound, if a bit experimental.
    • Han Joelo likes this
I don't necessarily hate the idea of them being ordered 1-9 by highest to least OBP, if they were to try that, and just hope for the sequencing.

Is this an article or a press release?

Wow, was that the "happy" leaving the room? Nick, for my part I really appreciate the consistent and regular good work you produce on here.
    • Nick Nelson, USAFChief, Han Joelo and 2 others like this
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Nick Nelson
Apr 04 2017 11:35 PM

 

Let's not get carried away.
Outside of Sano's home run, they didn't hit the ball very hard.

And they scored 7 runs. That's, um, kind of the point?

 

Clustering your more patient, OBP-centric guys at the top of the order can help manufacture rallies when bats don't. It did in this game. You can claim that Kansas City's pitchers "decided to stop throwing the ball anywhere close to the strike zone" (huh?) all you want, but that point remains. 

I think your points about Mauer being a good guy to have at the plate when Buxton is on base make sense on paper, but I don't know about in practice. I feel like he has a tendency to "protect" the runner by swinging whenever someone tries stealing while he's at the plate. I think Gladdon has even pointed this out on the radio. He should be the most comfortable person on the team taking some pitches, but for some reason doesn't in that situation.
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The Wise One
Apr 05 2017 01:17 AM

The team scores 7 runs and people here complain. Wow.Statics would say you put your highest obp at the top of the order, which they did. Somewhere the brilliant forgets that in the game there are days you are a failure, days you are not. . The game of baseball is a game of trends that are not to be judged by one game.

And they scored 7 runs. That's, um, kind of the point?

Clustering your more patient, OBP-centric guys at the top of the order can help manufacture rallies when bats don't. It did in this game. You can claim that Kansas City's pitchers "decided to stop throwing the ball anywhere close to the strike zone" (huh?) all you want, but that point remains.


I like the lineup, I'm just not sure this is the game to start pimping it.

Obviously saying that KC decided to stop throwing strikes was hyperbole. I'm sure they were trying. But it doesn't take much "patience" for a professional baseball player to lay off pitches that are 15 inches out of the strike zone.
Getting a gift like that KC meltdown isn't a sustainable thing.
I'd feel better about their long term potential if they had been hitting the ball hard all day with worse results.
    • USAFChief, chpettit19 and KirbyDome89 like this
Molitor' 25 man roster is set up for failure. Park certainly would have been batting cleanup if he was here. Let's string together a week or two of competent starting pitching so that we can make this 13 man staff look silly
Molitor' 25 man roster is set up for failure. Park certainly would have been batting cleanup if he was here. Let's string together a week or two of competent starting pitching so that we can make this 13 man staff look silly
The article when based on one game is fine, but left out of the equation was the fact Molitors history is this will be one of about 125 different lineups he sends out. And if one is going to use metrics when admiring the on base guys high in the order, one has to use metrics to question the incessant bunting also. As an aside, plate discipline had little to do with taking walks in this particular game. Some of the fans in the first row were more in danger than the strike zone was.,
    • USAFChief, Mike Sixel, rghrbek and 1 other like this
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killertwinfan
Apr 05 2017 06:23 AM

I didn't think much of the batting order but I did appreciate the gift the Royals' pitching staff graced us with. I wonder how many times teams have walked in 3 runs in one inning.  What is Molitor going to do? Bring in Escobar, Santana or Gimenez on Opening Day? Early in spring training they talked about protecting Mauer against tough lefties.  So opening day they throw him in clean up, because they have no options That should have been Park in the 4 slot, but he is not available right now.  I suspect we have very little flexibility and you won't see much of Santana or Gimenez until somebody needs a day off.  Escobar may get more chances to give Sano a day off in the field and move him to DH.  I can't wait until they figure out the rotation. I expect to see Duffy starting by May. 

    • USAFChief likes this

Thanks for the article, Nick.  As is often the case, you eloquently put in writing much of what I was thinking.

 

I keep thinking that if Park had been batting cleanup, he would have struck out, and then Sano would have struck out, too.

 

 

    • hybridbear likes this

 

Statics would say you put your highest obp at the top of the order, which they did.

 

No they did not.

 

Opening day Twins' batting order and 2016 OBP (rank in parenthesis)

 

 

Dozier .340 (3)
Grossman .386 (1)
Buxton .284 (9)
Mauer .363 (2)
Sano .319 (5)
Castro .307 (7)
Polanco .332 (4)
Kepler .309 (6)
Rosario .295 (8)

 

You cannot bat the guy with the worst OBP third.  He struck out 3 times.  About time they flip Polanco towards the top of the order as well... Buxton should be batting 8th or 9th

 

    • LA VIkes Fan and chpettit19 like this

The team scores 7 runs and people here complain. Wow.

...

The game of baseball is a game of trends that are not to be judged by one game.


Wow.
    • TheLeviathan and Deduno Abides like this
I loved the starting pitching...wish Santana could start 3 of every 5 games. 😊

I don't love the lineup (based mostly on who is in it, rather than where in it), and think they need to dump a pitcher, dump DanSan, add both Vargas and Park, and start utilizing platoon advantages where possible, including Mauer.
    • KirbyDome89 likes this
I believe Falvey places a great deal of credence in wOBA.
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terrydactyls1947
Apr 05 2017 08:24 AM
The Twins won, didn't they? Judging from many of the comments, it seems like they got their butts kicked again. I'll have to look at the box score again to confirm whether or not they are undefeated and in first place. :)

I like bunching his best OBP guys up. I don't have an issue putting Buxton in the three spot, and challenging him. At some point, Byron hits, or this team is "meh" anyway. You can have a strategy, and go slightly off it, and still have a plan. It may also be a sign, though I'd be surprised, that Paul is thinking long term and not just this year.

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LA VIkes Fan
Apr 05 2017 08:48 AM

It was good to see Molitor trying something new rather than the same old thing, even if batting Buxton third doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense. It will be even more interesting to see what happens today against a RH starter. I would expect to see Buxton down the order a bit (7th?), with Kepler maybe 3rd, or maybe Polanco 2, Mauer 3, Sano 4, Kepler 5, and on down.   


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