Three-Bagger: Heroic Hildy, Golden Buck & Molitor's Last Stand
Image courtesy of Jay Biggerstaff, USA Today* Michael Tonkin. Pat Light. J.T. Chargois. Neil Ramirez. Alex Wimmers. These are all right-handed relievers that the Twins tried to bring along last year, with little-to-no success. Minnesota's whiff rate on bullpen reinforcements (and the lack of significant offseason moves on this front) is a primary reason the unit developed into such a frustrating liability – one that went unaddressed at both the July and August trade deadlines.
But in Trevor Hildenberger, the Twins have found a rare internal solution, and a player whose impact exceeds anything they could've hoped to acquire in a deadline deal.
When the team shipped out Brandon Kintzler, it looked like a move that could cripple an already vulnerable unit. His departure left behind a group of righties who were all either extremely inexperienced or extremely difficult to trust.
Some members of that latter category – namely, Matt Belisle and Ryan Pressly – deserve plenty of credit for stepping up, as does another rookie newcomer, Alan Busenitz. But no one has been quite as impressive as Hildenberger, the side-arming slinger who hit the ground running in late June and hasn't slowed his pace since.
Hildy's overall numbers are stellar: 35.1 IP, 2.29 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 58.5 GB%, 36-to-4 K/BB. But what has really stood out are the moments. The 26-year-old rookie has been used in numerous high-leverage spots, where many green arms would wilt, and he has consistently delivered. Friday night may have been his most dazzling performance yet: he entered in the seventh inning with the bases loaded and no outs, and somehow escaped unscathed. Then he cruised through a clean eighth, the sixth time this year he's given Minnesota two full innings out of the pen.
According to Win Probability Added, Hildenberger has been the third-most impactful Twins pitcher behind Ervin Santana and Kintzler. Hard to argue if you've been watching him put out fires over the past few months.
His delivery might be deceptive (especially with his quirky tendency to switch it up on occasion) but his numbers are not. The young right-hander has a strong recipe for sustainable success, with outstanding control, a feel for missing bats, and the ability to get grounders on command. Whether he's a future closer or setup man, the Twins are extremely lucky to have him. Hildenberger single-handedly changes the outlook of the bullpen going forward dramatically.
* For a long time, Twins players were regular fixtures on the Gold Glove ballots. Thanks mostly to Joe Mauer and Torii Hunter, Minnesota was represented in the awards for a decade straight, from 2001 through 2010.
No Twin has taken one home since, and while we can certainly criticize the voting system that elects winners, it's hard to deny that this is an apt reflection of the team's plight over the past six years – bad defenses making poor pitching staffs look even worse.
The Gold Glove drought is almost certain to end at the conclusion of this 2017 season, because Byron Buxton is essentially a shoe-in for what will likely be his first of many.
We all know that GG voters are creatures of habit, but Tampa Bay's Kevin Kiermaier, the AL's center field honoree in each of the past two seasons, missed 10 weeks this summer with a wrist fracture, which should take him out of the running. (Though this is not a guarantee; Hunter won in 2005 despite playing only 98 games.)
Buxton would be the deserving recipient anyway. He's been all over the highlight reels, he dominates defensive metrics, and his contribution to Minnesota's stunning improvement this year is well known nationally. He further solidified his case on Friday night with a game-changing grab at the warning track to end the fifth inning and preserve a slim lead.
This recent tweet from Aaron Gleeman puts some context behind what Buxton's glove has meant to the Twins this year:
The Twins could easily have multiple players earn hardware. Joe Mauer should be at the top of the list for first basemen, and there's a decent argument to be made for Brian Dozier. But I'd rate each of their chances at less than 50/50.
Buxton, though? He's got this thing wrapped up. Now let's just hope his hand starts feeling better soon.
* Lame duck. It's a term no manager wants attached to his name, but Paul Molitor wore it openly and candidly coming into 2017. He has never shied away from the stakes of this season for him personally, with 2016's scars still fresh and a new front office group likely eager to install its own preferred choice for the gig.
The year started on a redeeming note for Molitor and the Twins, but as the trade deadline came and went, the skipper's outlook began to take an ominous turn. The team was sinking out of contention, and while he was still on track for a big step forward, it wasn't necessarily the type that would save his job.
But Molitor's role in the turnaround we've seen over the past six weeks should not be downplayed. Sure, there are some things to take issue with from a tactical standpoint – the propensity for bunting and some occasionally head-scratching bullpen decisions come to mind – but to the extent that a manager functions as captain of the ship and motivator of men, there is really no knocking the work he has done.
This Twins team has proven incredibly resilient, rebounding from setbacks time and time again. Even when things have looked grim, the players haven't gotten down and fallen into a funk the way they did in 2016. His club's response to the deadline sell, a 20-win August, was quite the statement.
We know ownership likes Molitor. And his players have been going to battle for him in a big way. With both those things being the case, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine may be hard-pressed to go another direction, especially if this strong late-season run culminates in a postseason berth.
If the team re-ups with Molitor, I do hope that Falvey and Levine have a long sit-down with him during the offseason to go over run-scoring matrixes, statistical probabilities and sacrifice bunting.
- brvama, Cory Engelhardt, dbminn and 1 other like this