Twins Playoff Push A Truly Cohesive Effort
Image courtesy of Brad Rempel, USA TodayGoing from 100 losses to 80-plus wins requires an all-hands-on-deck kind of effort, and that's exactly what the Twins have gotten. As you look up and down the roster, outside of rookie cups of coffee and spare bullpen parts, nearly every player has contributed in some type of positive way.
Let's run through the cast of characters, by order of WAR via Fangraphs:
Brian Dozier (3.7 WAR): Dozier has taken the lead and set the tone for this scrappy club, with his thunderous pop, making life immediately uncomfortable for opposing starters. He won't reach last year's total of 42 home runs but he's still a force to be reckoned with, and he's been a key figure in the team's success since the start of August with an OPS approaching 1.000.
Byron Buxton (3.2 WAR): In the early going he looked hopeless, whiffing at a catastrophic rate and making himself a candidate for another demotion to the minors. But the Twins stuck with him, and they've been richly rewarded by a scorching hot second half that continued Sunday with a double and homer. By many metrics Buxton has been the most valuable defender in all of baseball.
Jose Berrios (2.6 WAR): It's been a bit of an up-and-down year for the 23-year-old but we've definitely seen more good than bad. Berrios arrived with a bang, tossing gems in his first two starts with the Twins in May. He went through a bit of a downswing in the middle months but has heated up during the stretch run with a 2.68 ERA in his past six turns. His past two have been arguably his most impressive, as Berrios has been able to succeed despite lacking his best stuff (7 innings of 2-run ball against KC despite one K and five swinging strikes) or his best control (5.2 innings of one-run ball against Toronto despite four walks).
Ervin Santana (2.5 WAR): He's playing at the highest end of his ability, and has been for most of the season. Santana should surpass 200 innings within his next start or two, and would join Phil Hughes (2014) as the only Twins pitchers to do so since Carl Pavano left town. Big Erv has been a steady, durable stud atop the Twins rotation, and gives Minnesota a legit shot in the event of a one-game Wild Card playoff.
Miguel Sano (2.4 WAR): He carried the offense through much of the first half, with his All-Star output helping to offset slow starts elsewhere. He was on pace for 38 home runs and 104 RBI before going down with a shin injury in mid-August that continues to sideline him. Sano's absence has been felt in the lineup, but the fact that the Twins have been one of baseball's highest-scoring teams without him speaks to the depth and balance of this offense.
Eddie Rosario (2.1 WAR): He has turned a corner at the plate. He launched his 25th bomb on Sunday to spark Minnesota's huge second inning, then later added his 26th. Since Sano went down on August 19th, Rosario has slugged 11 home runs and driven in 26 in 27 games. He has routinely batted cleanup of late and is an imposing threat every time he steps in.
Joe Mauer (2.0 WAR): It's been overshadowed by the huge breakouts of Buxton, Rosario and Jorge Polanco, but Mauer has done his part in the club's late-season surge, batting .350 since the start of August and .380 in last thirty days. As usual, Mauer is taking some of the best at-bats of anyone in the game, and he's also stroking the ball as well as he has in years. It once looked like the days of Mauer being a .300 hitter were over, especially with the feat becoming rarer across baseball, but Joe is currently one of 10 AL hitters in that class. His defense at first has been among the game's best.
Eduardo Escobar (1.3 WAR): Someway, somehow, Escobar has managed to render Sano's absence almost unnoticeable. Since stepping in as everyday third baseman when the big man got hurt, Escobar has launched a Sano-ian eight jacks with 21 RBI in a month. He's also a slick fielder at third, upgrading on the serviceable glove work Sano had been providing.
Jorge Polanco (1.3 WAR): On the one hand, it's kind of crazy Polanco only has 1.3 WAR – he's been hitting like Mike Trout for the past six weeks, as a shortstop! But that speaks to the monstrous rut that plagued him for the first four months. Through the end of July, he was a total drain on the team, yielding a lowly .570 OPS. But Polanco turned it on in a huge way at the start of August and is now validly the No. 3 hitter in arguably baseball's best lineup. What a turnaround.
Kyle Gibson (1.2 WAR): Speaking of turnarounds, who'd have guessed at the All- Star break that by mid-September Gibson would have even a positive WAR, much less the third-highest mark on the staff? Gibson's start against Toronto on Sunday was emblematic of his season as a whole: he struggled early on, giving up five runs in the first two innings, but bounced back and dominated the next four frames after the Twins rallied and gave him a lead. Even with those five runs charged, Gibson has a 3.30 ERA in his past 10 starts. Generating whiffs and grounders in bunches, the right-hander is fulfilling his potential at last, and now would clearly slot into a playoff rotation. Heck, he might start Game 1 of the ALDS.
Jason Castro (1.2 WAR): The new front office's first free agent acquisition is a hit. Castro has once again been one of the league's most effective pitch framers, helping facilitate all-around improvements from the pitching staff. At the plate he's been about average, and the nine homers – most for a Twins catcher since Mauer left the position – have been a nice bonus.
Max Kepler (1.1 WAR): Kepler hasn't had the kind of breakout year we saw hints of last year, but not everyone can do it at once. His immense difficulties against left-handers (.382 OPS) have held him back, both in terms of playing time and overall production, but he's still been a very solid asset with 17 home runs and 63 RBI (the exact numbers he finished with last year) and he rounds out an elite defensive outfield.
Chris Gimenez (0.9 WAR): He's been about everything you could want in a backup catcher, handling the staff well and providing a bit of value at the plate with six homers and an OPS around .700. He even made six pitching appearances, providing an oft-embattled relief corps with some needed relief of its own.
Ehire Adrianza (0.9 WAR): When they grabbed him off waivers this spring, the Twins looked to be getting a no-bat defensive specialist, which has value on its own. But Adrianza has been plenty respectable with the stick, hitting .270 with a .718 OPS. His defense at shortstop has graded out very well as usual, and he's even looked OK during a few appearances in left. Very useful bench piece.
Adalberto Mejia (0.8 WAR): He made the rotation out of camp, looked a bit rocky over three starts, went down to Triple-A, returned in May, and then posted a 3.84 ERA over 13 starts through the end of July. The lefty scuffled in early August and then spent more than a month on the disabled list before returning Saturday. Mejia hasn't really been a factor in Minnesota's emergence over the past six weeks but he helped keep the rotation afloat during the middle months. He needs to clean up his control, but the sharp slider and mid-90s fastball definitely play in the majors. Looks like a nice find from last year's deadline.
Trevor Hildenberger (0.8 WAR): Brandon Kintzler was an all-star closer in the first half, putting up a 2.78 ERA and 28 saves in his four months with the Twins. He rated at 0.7 WAR during that time. Hildenberger has accrued a higher number in less than three months. His 0.84 WPA is the highest of any pitcher presently on the Twins roster other than Santana. With tremendous control and stellar K/GB rates, Hildy looks like a long-term bullpen piece.
Robbie Grossman (0.7 WAR): His .369 on-base percentage is among the best in the league. Grossman hasn't been a great hitter but he's been perfectly adequate as a frequent DH and occasion spell in the corner outfield, where his defense has been far less of a liability than last year.
Tyler Duffey (0.7 WAR): The 4.66 ERA doesn't look so great, but it also doesn't encapsulate what he's done. He has the second-highest WAR among Twins relievers for a reason: Duffey has pitched better than his bloated earned run average suggests. His 64-to-17 K/BB ratio in 66 innings is excellent, and opponents have only hit .266/.310/.395 against him. Keep in mind it's his first time pitching in relief since he switched to starting in 2013.
Matt Belisle (0.5 WAR): Much like Polanco and Gibson, Belisle has redeemed himself in a big way, and at an absolutely crucial time. He looked like a free agent flop for most of the first half, but then went through the entire month of July without allowing a run, and since taking over the closer role after Kintzler's departure, he has a 1.73 ERA with seven saves in nine chances. Incredibly, he has turned into a strikeout pitcher with 30 K's in 26 innings since the start of July. He had a 6.8 career K/9 rate coming into this season
Kennys Vargas (0.4 WAR): I'm sure some would argue that Vargas is dead weight, but he's been an average MLB hitter (100 OPS+) and has delivered some huge home runs – both figuratively and literally. There are plenty worse guys you could be forced to plug in at DH or first.
Dillon Gee (0.4 WAR): His venture as a starter fizzled, but of his seven relief appearances for the Twins six have been scoreless. And he almost always goes multiple innings. Having a quality arm you can call on to keep you in the game following a short start is hugely important, and this is a guy they signed off the street in June. Speaking of which...
Bartolo Colon (0.3 WAR): What a get. Colon was bad enough for the Braves that they ate millions and cut him in June, and the Twins brought him in for the veteran minimum. He opted for Minnesota over the familiar Mets, and it turned out to be a great call because now the 44-year-old finds himself pitching huge games in a race, and mostly pitching quite well. He has a 4.80 ERA in 12 starts as a Twin, although if you take out last weekend's clunker against KC that drops to 4.12. He has completed at least six innings in all but two of his starts. and consistently gives the team a decent chance to win while also being extremely entertaining to watch.
Taylor Rogers (0.3 WAR): For some time he was the Twins' most reliable reliever, period. At the All-Star break he had a 2.14 ERA and ranked among the league leaders in WPA. He ran into some trouble during the rest of July and August, perhaps owing in some way to his heavy first-half usage, but Paul Molitor backed off a bit and Rogers has settled back into a groove here in September with eight scoreless appearances. He continues to be almost automatic against lefties.
Alan Busenitz (0.2 WAR): His WAR understates how effective he has been. In 23 appearances the rookie has a 1.65 ERA and 0.99 WHIP. His 95.7 MPH fastball hasn't produced the strikeouts one might expect but hitters haven't been able to do much against Busenitz. Another good find from the 2016 deadline paying quick dividends.
Ryan Pressly (0.1 WAR): It's just been an odd, unlucky, cursed season for Pressly. His premium heat has produced plenty of strikeouts – one per inning, on average – and his control has mostly been good with only 16 walks in 56 frames. And yet he's been hard to trust, allowing crooked numbers 10 times. But Pressly has come around since the Kintzler trade, with a 2.18 ERA and .471 opponents' OPS in August and September.
Buddy Boshers (-0.2 WAR): He's the one significant contributor currently on the roster who you can argue hasn't had any real positive impact for the Twins. Boshers has a 5.18 ERA in 33 innings, but that mostly ties to overuse against right-handers. In same-sided matchups the southpaw has held opponents to a .216/.255/.412 line. He's fine as a second bullpen lefty.
There you have it. Those are the 27 present Twins players who have played a consequential role for the Twins this year (100+ PA or 20+ IP). All but one have a positive WAR, and each has a narrative reinforcing his role in getting the club to where it is.
That's pretty amazing, and not at all common. Even great teams usually have a few clear anchors slowing them down. For reference, the 2010 Twins had five players meet the aforementioned playing time criteria with negative WAR. The 2009 team had six. And those were playoff squads.
Now these Twins are trying to get back. They stand two games clear in the Wild Card standings with two weeks and 13 games remaining. They'll be going to war with a group that is, almost to a man, worthy of trust. They've earned it.
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