Five Takeaways From A Fun First Week
Image courtesy of Bruce Kluckhohn, USA TodayIt's important not to blow small-sample trends and observations out of proportion at this time of year, even if there's a natural inclination to do so. Still, these five storylines loom large with two series victories in the books.
1. The outfield defense is an enormous difference-maker.
"Nothing falls but raindrops." Byron Buxton said that's the motto of Minnesota's athletic young outfield trio, and his unit has lived up to the billing. Buck has combined with Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler to take away several hits already in a handful of games, some of which would have surely yielded extra bases.
The commitment to outfield defense for Paul Molitor has been obvious in the way he's configured his lineups. Robbie Grossman appears to be more of a true DH and hasn't yet played an inning in the field. The advantage has been unmistakable.
A pivotal moment came early in Sunday's game when Yolmer Sanchez stepped in for the White Sox with two on and one out in the second. He launched one to deep left, inches short of the wall, but Rosario fought through the swirling wind and ranged back to catch it. Ervin Santana escaped the inning unscathed, en route to six scoreless. If Grossman is in left, that ball almost surely drops and it's a big inning. Those swings are monumental.
2. The rotation is bouncing back in a huge way.
Through six games, Twins starters have yet to allow more than three runs in an outing. Granted, they weren't always great, or in Adalberto Mejia's case even up to par. But the bottom line is that the starters have left every game winnable.
It's not worth reading into all that deeply, especially in light of the competition. In my Central Intelligence preview pieces on the Royals and White Sox, I explained why I expected both clubs to be down this year. It's a big reason we feel the Twins have an easy path to a bunch more wins in 2017.
Still, there weren't too many stretches of six consecutive games last year where a starter didn't put a game out of reach. In fact, the Twins have already – in the first week – doubled their starting pitcher win total from last April (2). We can look at this for what it is: a major statement from an embattled rotation that appears very capable of competing.
The bullpen has been nearly flawless thus far, deserving much praise in its own right, but I'll need to see that carry forward more before I buy in.
3. Byron Buxton is bewildered. Again.
There are many reasons that Buxton's immense struggles at the plate have been so conspicuous amidst an otherwise very successful start for the team. In part, it's the contrast of his approach, swinging wildly in quick at-bats while the rest of the lineup piles up walks and wears out opposing pitchers. There's also the fact that Molitor placed him in the spotlight by batting him third and sticking with it through four games.
But above all, Buxton draws attention because most fans recognize that he is vitally integral to this franchise taking the next step. It's nice things have shaken out favorably through one week, but ultimately, sustainable winning is largely contingent on the 23-year-old realizing some semblance of his potential at the plate.
The ugly numbers (2-for-26, 14 K, 1 BB) would not be so troubling if not for a history that includes a 35 percent strikeout rate in the majors and a perpetual need for Triple-A resets. Of course, Buxton has dominated that level, and every other one in the minors. He did the same last September with the Twins, and did enough this spring to convince Molitor he was ready for prime time.
Ability is not the issue here. It's evident the young outfielder is out of sorts – illustrated by the whiffs on hittable pitches in the zone as much as the chasing outside. What he probably (hopefully) needs is a continuing stream of steady at-bats, until he runs into a hot streak, gains confidence and takes off.
Fortunately, with the tremendous value he's providing on the other side (see item No. 1), it's pretty easy to live with him scuffling at the bottom of the order.
4. Jason Castro was just what this team needed.
No, he's not going to continue to walk in a third of his plate appearances or get on base at a .500 clip. But Castro is showing exactly the skills and strengths the Twins paid for. The steady vet is taking professional at-bats and has been a noticeable presence behind the plate.
The numbers will tell you that he's already getting his pitchers extra strikes, and at times it has been visibly apparent he's providing an edge. Plus, with the fast start, an optimist's mind cannot help but see a possible parallel with Castro's predecessor.
Kurt Suzuki was a solid hitter early in his career but went through several years of unexceptional production at the plate. He experienced an offensive reawakening in Minnesota, with two of his better seasons by OPS+.
Castro has a similar history, but tantalizes with greater upside. The former 10th overall pick and highly regarded prospect was a .269/.344/.454 hitter in 2012 and 2013 with Houston. The three years since have seen his performance tail off, but there's a very capable batsman in there.
5. The lineup should cause headaches all summer long.
Castro is just one Twin who is thriving in the batter's box early on, contributing to a deep lineup that has been able to apply pressure from top to bottom. They've faced some erratic hurlers early on, true, but Minnesota hitters are taking advantage with exceptional patience. This has enabled them to put up crooked numbers even without bats making much noise, and it certainly bodes well for a time when guys like Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer start connecting with more authority.
What has caught your eye most in the opening week of action?
- Oldgoat_MN and BuxtonBandwagon like this