Where Are The Twins Getting It Wrong?
No one made much of the Rays or Athletics this spring – ostensible rebuilders in extremely tough divisions. As we enter mid-September, though, Oakland is nipping at Houston's heels in the AL West, while Tampa remains relevant in the wild-card standings, 14 games above .500.
Meanwhile, the Twins are hopelessly out of contention, potentially headed toward another 90-loss finish. Despite being tailored largely to the new front office's specifications, this team never really mustered a threat in an historically bad division. Highly favorable circumstances and a record payroll couldn't save Minnesota from almost front-to-back irrelevance.
Once again, we Twins fans are left to look longingly at the Tampas and Oaklands of the world, and wonder why their success continues to elude us.
It's not like those teams have been without setbacks. The Rays lost top prospect Brent Honeywell, verging on MLB-readiness, to Tommy John surgery in spring training. Jose De Leon, too. The A's rotation has gone through the wringer this year – they're rattling off wins these days behind a patchwork group that includes a resurrected Edwin Jackson.
These scrappy, savvily constructed teams are simply rolling with the punches, getting it done, hitting all the notes Minnesota seems to miss.
The Twins are trying their best to imitate some of the rising trends being championed by these innovative franchises.
We've seen them follow in Tampa's footstops with the "Opener" strategy a few times, albeit with dismal results. A noted pitching guru, Falvey has implemented new methods and helped lift Minnesota's strikeout proficiency from the deepest dregs, but the overall results have been customarily mediocre.
Like the A's, we've seen the Twins eagerly embrace the launch angle revolution – they hit the second-highest fly ball percentage of any team in baseball behind Oakland – but like its pitching staff, Minnesota's offense has been lackluster, paling in comparison to the contending units they are supposed to be challenging.
The inferiority of this club was thoroughly evident last week when they were dismantled by the Astros. The same has been true frequently when Minnesota has faced off against top-tier teams.
Diagnosing the Problem
In general, I think it's tough to knock the strategies deployed by Falvey and Levine since taking over the Twins. They've been opportunistic with player acquisition, making a number of smart future-focused additions, and they've undeniably killed it with both their first two drafts. The new top execs have also populated the ranks of Minnesota's front office with plenty of sharp, respected pros.
But something isn't clicking. Why does Ryan Pressly only fully unleash his curveball and reach his potential upon departing Minnesota for Houston? Why do Twins pitchers and hitters continue to struggle with adjustments, experiencing endemic regressions? Why are this team's weaknesses being exploited so much more often than the reverse?
There are several theories. One is that the shift to an analytical focus has been too extreme.
Terry Ryan was the ultimate people person, and that has underlying value. Falvey and Levine are friendly and engaging guys, to be sure, but their style of management could only be described as cold and calculated.
They shuttle players in and out from the minors with total abandon. They took Kyle Gibson to arbitration – a step the Twins haven't taken with a player in more than a decade – in their first full offseason at the helm, almost as if to make a statement.
And most strikingly, they left Byron Buxton off the September roster, in a move transparently motivated by service time preservation.
These intangible, relationship-based factors are almost impossible to analyze, but it's foolish to ignore them. The 2018 Twins felt in many ways like a mercenary gang – heavy on one-year contracts, light on long-term commitments – and the Buxton decision seems to epitomize this "all business" mindset.
The human element does matter. TR's teams in the early 2000s were consistently greater than the sum of their parts. This year's club never seemed to gel.
Maybe there's a disconnect somewhere. As much as Falvey talks about fostering a collaborative culture, he has radically shaken up a firmly entrenched organizational structure. He is also channeling his agenda into the clubhouse through a manager he inherited, and whose merits have hardly been proven on the field.
All the data and analytics and research in the world don't matter if they aren't fully absorbed and applied. I thought this tweet from Parker last week framed it pretty well:
This all brings us to what is in my mind the most likely, and least concerning, scenario: it's all still coalescing. October 3rd will mark the two-year anniversary of Falvey's hiring. And his ranks as a lengthy tenure in a franchise that's seen unprecedented churn.
I believe in him, and Levine, and what they're building. I do believe that the first two problem areas discussed here – misalignments at both the human and organizational levels – have substance, and need improvement. But I also think both are natural byproducts of the circumstances before us: a cerebral 35-year-old thrust to the top of a major-league baseball franchise for the first time, with a second-year GM still acclimating to the head role.
Some might disagree, and I'd be curious to hear your thoughts in the comments, but from my view, the front office shortcomings of 2018 can be chalked up mostly to growing pains. As we head into Year 3, it's time to regroup, look inward, and get these issues ironed out.
A critical offseason lies ahead.
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