Is Paul Molitor the Right Man to Lead the Twins?
Image courtesy of Doug DeFelice, USA TodayMolitor was still getting accustomed to his new office when we chatted in it that January afternoon. I don't think he'd done many media interviews yet, and his burgeoning excitement was easily detected.
The hardball lifer genuinely enjoyed being asked thoughtful questions, and answering them thoroughly. I noticed – especially upon transcribing – that his responses were eloquent, intelligent, and enlightening.
This would become a recurring trend in my experience with him.
Molitor's intellect is undeniable. The term "baseball IQ" gets bandied around a lot but this Hall of Famer embodies it. In my first interaction, and many others I've had with him during spring training scrums since, he has always exuded a deep knowledge of the game. With no disrespect to his affable predecessor, I gain actual insight from talking to Molitor, in a way I never did before.
As someone who coaches young kids during the summer, I'm beyond impressed with Molitor's ability to articulate concepts and break down strategic intricacies in a way that makes total sense. These are, seemingly, the hallmarks of an impactful coach.
But unfortunately there is little evidence of Molitor being able to move the needle effectively while at the helm
THAT FAMILIAR FEELING
We all understood that Minnesota was taking a gamble when Molitor got the nod to replace Ron Gardenhire. The finalist he beat out for the job, Torey Lovullo, was a seasoned MLB coach who'd been serving as bench coach for John Farrell's Red Sox, one year removed from a championship.
Molitor, on the other hand, offered little substantive experience. He briefly served on the coaching staffs for Minnesota and Seattle after retiring as a player, and he was in Gardy's dugout during the 92-loss 2014 season, but Molitor had never managed at any level.
The Twins opted for their guy, a known favorite of the Pohlads. Hiring Molitor made sense in that, as a longtime roving minor-league instructor, he was very familiar to the organization's rising young core. But his lack of a track record was conspicuous.
Lovullo ended up joining the Diamondbacks as manager two years later. From all appearances it's been a great move for Arizona. They made the playoffs as a wild-card last year, improving by 24 wins in Lovullo's first season, and are currently in first place.
Molitor's tenure with the Twins thus far has been much more of a mixed bag.
UP, DOWN, UP, DOWN
This section is not an advertisement for one of my favorite spots in my Uptown (though I highly recommend Up-Down to fellow enjoyers of beer and video games).
It is instead an apt description of this team under Paul Molitor the manager.
So it goes, right? As Ernie Halwell put it so well: "Baseball is a lot like life. It's a day-to-day existence, full of ups and downs."
The problem is that, under Molitor, Minnesota's "ups" haven't risen all that impressively high. And the "downs" have been harrowingly low.
In 2015, Molitor led the Twins to their first winning season in five years. Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton debuted. Brian Dozier made his first All-Star team. The future was very bright.
Then: Total. System. Failure.
That 2016 campaign was an unmitigated disaster. A team that was expected to – at the very least – hang on the fringe of contention instead spiraled uncontrollably, losing 103 games in the franchise's worst season since transplanting from Washington.
There's really no need to rehash it. We all remember.
Because of that catastrophe, Minnesota's jump to 85 wins in 2017 looked like a momentous achievement, rather than a modest improvement from their 83 wins in 2015. And that drastic turnaround, punctuated by a brief postseason run, earned Molitor the distinction of AL Manager of the Year. (Naturally, Lovullo won it in the National League.) Then came the three-year contract extension, almost a formality at that point.
And this context makes it strange to be discussing the possibility of Molitor's dismissal.
A reigning Manager of the Year? Less than three months into a new deal? With forceful support from ownership?
In many ways, the notion of firing Molitor seems absurd. But frankly, it would be more absurd not to seriously assess it as an option.
The fact is that, as much as I may sympathize with the Pohlad family's affinity for Molitor, he just doesn't have much of a leg to stand on when it comes to managerial chops.
IGNITING A FIRE
Without question, Paul Molitor was one of the greatest baserunners in MLB history. Despite lacking elite speed he pilfered 504 bases with a 79% success rate in his playing career, and he stole home 10 times.
I think anyone who's watched this 2018 team regularly would agree they run the bases as sloppily as any in memory. They've been thrown out, picked off, and caught adrift countless times.
Molitor was a sharp and versatile fielder prior to becoming primarily a DH in his 30s.
Miscues are all too common for this year's defensive unit, as they were in 2016.
At the plate, Molitor's discipline was legendary, his power surprising, his bat relentless. He was known as "The Ignitor."
This offense has most often failed to launch, with astoundingly mediocre numbers across the board. The Twins have hit fewer home runs than all but three AL teams, which seems unfathomable after the way they finished 2017.
Suffice to say, knowledge and expertise don't transfer directly. We knew that.
But if Molitor isn't – in some way – passing along his strengths, then what are we doing here?
The jury is out on him as a tactician. Molitor's designed plays – steals, hit-and-runs, going on contact – haven't worked out very often. His bullpen, while capable, hasn't performed in leverage, as evidenced by mop-up longman Matt Magill leading the relief corps in WPA.
Ryan Pressly has appeared in 36 of the team's first 68 games and has seen his performance decline. Meanwhile Magill works once a week, while looking perfectly capable of taking on more. The bullpen decisions have sometimes been baffling.
I hesitate to attribute these things entirely to Molitor. He's not making decisions on an island. He receives input from his coaches, specialized pitching analyst Josh Kalk, and the players themselves. From my understanding, it is a more sophisticated system than one might assume. "Collaborative," as its mastermind Derek Falvey would undoubtedly say.
And that's sorta the trouble with trying to gauge Molitor's culpability. He's only one piece in a very complex puzzle. Would making a change really be worthwhile?
I do know this: It takes some contorting not to see him as part of the problem. In 2016 a reasonably talented team tanked to the dregs of franchise precedent. And right now a more talented team – built to win, with a record payroll – is sputtering along, incapable of capturing any kind of sustained momentum despite an incredible window of opportunity.
There's no question that Molitor understands and – most endearingly, I think – continually studies the game to an obsessive degree. I trust his judgment on baseball decisions and could never really doubt his acumen. Few rightfully could.
But given what we saw in 2016, and now are seeing in 2018, one must question his ability to rally the troops and become a uniting force.
I'll be honest: typing that last sentence felt nauseatingly cliché. What does it even mean? These vague and intangible leadership platitudes in sports have always driven me crazy, but there's simply no denying their reality. Managers matter.
Players aren't "quitting" on Molitor, as I've seen a few people ludicrously suggest. His bullpen management, if occasionally odd, isn't a fireable offense. And it'd be tough to make the case that Molitor has wrongfully alienated certain players, or the clubhouse at large.
But something is out of whack with this team's engine, which simply hasn't been able to ignite. And while I fully believe the players bear the brunt of that burden... you can't fire the players.
Speaking of fire, and ignition, maybe these words hint at what is amiss.
As I pondered this subject, I went back and listened through that first interview I conducted with Molitor, still filed away in my phone's audio log.
I had asked him to explain, from his view, what differentiated him from his predecessor and friend Ron Gardenhire.
Naturally, Molitor opened with a complimentary remark about his general sameness with Gardy, but then addressed the question head-on:
"If there's a difference that pops into my head, it would be that he wears his emotions on his sleeves. Whether it's protecting his players, going out on the field and dealing with umpires and things. And I have a tendency to be a little bit different in my demeanor in that regard.
"Not to say one is better than the other, but again, you can't try to be someone you're not."
A part of me wonders whether pushing this team to the next level requires something that Molitor – by his own earnest admission – is not.
Another part of me thinks that's all a bunch of hooey.
Needless to say, I'm conflicted. But I'm curious to hear what others think.
- h2oface, PDX Twin, nclahammer and 1 other like this