The 5 Biggest Twins Surprises at the All-Star Break
Image courtesy of Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports1. Twins catchers lead the American League in OPS... by a mile.
Minnesota's backstop position, fueled primarily by the production of Mitch Garver and Jason Castro, has yielded a .913 OPS through 89 games. That's 41 points higher than second-place Seattle, and 111 higher than the third-place White Sox. Twins catchers lead all counterparts with 24 home runs.
This, to me, is the runaway winner for most surprising twist of the 2019 campaign. Back in the spring we were viewing this unit as a relative question mark, with Garver trying to back up a solid (concussion-punctuated) rookie campaign, and Castro coming off major knee surgery at 31. It's almost unfortunate that Castro's remarkably resurgent season – his current .860 OPS exceeds his previous career-best of .835, set when he was a 26-year-old All-Star back in 2013 – has been overshadowed by the theatrics of Garver, who's already almost doubled his rookie home run total in just 44 games. Not only has Garver been an all-around beast, rocking a .984 OPS that ranks 10th among MLB hitters with 150+ PA, but he's been incredibly clutch, slashing .417/.475/.778 with RISP, and his defensive improvements have been staggering.
2. Jake Odorizzi has allowed only 10 home runs.
He hasn't been the best in the rotation at limiting the long ball; Martin Perez has given up only seven. But that's always been a strength for the groundballing left-hander. Odorizzi has always been an extreme fly ball pitcher and, by the time Minnesota acquired him, it appeared his susceptibility to the home run might derail his career. In 2016, he gave up 29 homers in 188 2/3 innings (1.4 HR/9) and in 2017 he surrendered 30 in 143 1/3 innings (1.9 HR/9).
This year, Odorizzi has given up just 10 home runs in 88 2/3 innings, good for a 1.0 HR/9 rate. And that's AFTER allowing six in his past four starts. That Odorizzi has managed an above-average HR rate while giving up the most fly balls of any starter in the league (50.9%), in an era where balls are flying out of the park like never before, is completely bonkers. Consider that Justin Verlander, who will start Tuesday night's All-Star Game for the AL, has already given up 26 bombs at the break. His previous career high is 30. (He's uh... none too happy about this.)
Odorizzi's proclivity for keeping it in the yard seems plainly unsustainable from a statistical standpoint, and maybe it is. Perhaps his recent flare-up is a sign of what's to come in the second half. But I will point out two things: 1) He's been dealing with a blister lately, and 2) His stinginess extends back beyond this year, to the bulk of 2018. Odorizzi allowed only six homers in 20 starts after June 1st last year. Add those innings to this year's sample and he's surrendered just 16 bombs in his last 190 innings, all while yielding a constant stream of fly balls in the most homer-happy era in MLB history. Nuts.
3. Ryne. Freaking. Harper.
I can't believe it's taken me this long to get to him, but that just speaks to the ridiculous nature of the two accomplishments above. Harper has been nothing short of a godsend and, all things considered, one of the best Twins signings in memory. At a time where the team desperately needed right-handed relief help (especially because, unbeknownst to them, they'd be getting almost nothing collectively from Addison Reed, Trevor Hildenberger and Fernando Romero), the front office landed an absolute stud in the form of a 30-year-old minor-league signing, with zero major-league experience.
Harper has been fantastic from any perspective. His 2.92 ERA and 1.05 WHIP are pristine, as is the 38-to-8 K/BB ratio in 37 innings. Major-league batters are slashing just .223/.267/.353 against him, and this is all with his numbers being negatively skewed by a June outing where he gave up three runs in the 18th inning because Rocco Baldelli was forced to call on him for a third straight day.
This is an instance of self-scouting more than anything, as the Twins had Harper all last year in the minors. But they deserve plenty of credit for bringing him back, giving him a spring training invite, and believing in the validity of his stellar Grapefruit League results. His final appearance before the break, in which he notched a career-high four strikeouts with seven swings-and-misses on 15 pitches, looked to be an emphatic statement that his amazing first half was no flash in the pan.
4. Luis Arraez has all but locked up the second base job for 2020.
Coming into this season, Arraez was more of a fun novelty than legitimate prospect. He didn't make our preseason Top 20 Prospects list, appearing instead as an honorable mention, because the general sentiment was that – despite his undeniably amazing contact skills and lovable scrappiness – he lacked the power and athleticism to be an impact guy at the next level. Arraez has spent his entire season proving us all wrong.
In 54 games between Double-A and Triple-A, he hit .344/.409/.401. And it's a little tough to envision him going back down, given his .393/.453/.524 line in 95 plate appearances with the Twins. Despite having turned 22 in April, he looks mature beyond his years at the plate, swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone than any Minnesota batter other than Garver, with a lower whiff rate than even Willians Astudillo. As a result, he's drawn more walks than strikeouts, and he sprays liners all over the field.
In other words, there's been nothing artificial about Arraez's instant success, although obviously he's not gonna be a .400 hitter. And the sudden emergence of a hinting power – he has two home runs with the Twins, after totaling six in 367 minor-league games – suggests that further upside may be lurking. As a point of comparison, the previous tenant at second base, Brian Dozier, was hitting zero home runs in 58 games at rookie ball when he was the same age as Arraez is now. As we've seen time and time again, pop tends to come on late. It wouldn't take much to turn Arraez – who was on basically no one's radar four months ago – into a young MLB star.
With Jonathan Schoop due for a free agency after the season, I'm thinking Minnesota's plans are all but set for next year at second.
5. Byron Buxton is striking out at lower rate than the MLB average.
For years, we all dreamed about how fun it would be if Buxton – someway, somehow – could turn himself into a contact hitter, fully weaponizing that elite speed by putting the ball in play at a high clip. Sadly, the notion seemed to be just that: a dream, of the pipy variety. In parts of four previous MLB seasons, Buxton had posted the following strikeout percentages: 31.9%, 35.6%, 29.4%, 30.0%. From 2015 through 2018, his K-rate was seventh-highest out of 287 hitters to make 1,000+ PA in the majors.
It seemed the best realistic hope was a modest decrease, into the solidly higher-than-average range. This still could've easily made Buxton a star (he gained MVP votes with a 29.4% K-rate in 2017). Instead, he has completely remade himself at the plate, cutting down on whiffs to a drastic degree with only 59 strikeouts in 260 plate appearances. That's a 22.7% rate – fractionally lower than the big-league average of 22.8%.
As a guy who lifts the ball at a higher rate than anyone else on the team, and has otherworldly speed, I'd expect a higher BABIP for Buxton than his current .302. Which is to say I think there's more in the tank, even though he's been tremendous as is, with an .816 OPS and 24 doubles at the break. As long as he can stay healthy, I believe Buxton will be the team's top MVP contender without question by year's end.
I've obviously left plenty of other surprises on the table. Jorge Polanco is an All-Star. Max Kepler has already set a career high in home runs (this one wasn't THAT surprising to me). Ehire Adrianza has raked. Eddie Rosario is on pace for 36 homers and 109 RBIs. Eight different players are on pace for more than 3.4 fWAR, which was Rosario's final mark last year when we named him team MVP.
What positive developments have caught you off-guard in the first half? Sound off in the comments.
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