Week in Review: Winning and Wondering
Weekly Snapshot: Mon, 7/27 through Sun, 8/2
Record Last Week: 5-1 (Overall: 7-2)
Run Differential Last Week: +12 (Overall: +22)
Standing: 1st Place in AL Central
Bomba Counter: 16 (Pace: 107)
The Twins got a scare when news of multiple positive COVID tests for St. Louis players surfaced, shortly after the Cardinals were swept out of Minnesota. Thursday's series opener against Cleveland was in doubt as personnel went through rapid testing all afternoon, but ultimately the Twins were able to avoid postponement all week.
And they made hay.
A 5-1 week against quality teams at home puts the Twins in excellent position moving forward. They won both games against the reigning NL Central champs, and then took three of four from their top challengers in the AL Central. We'll dive into the highlights and lowlights shortly, but first, a quick look at some roster moves made over the weekend:
- Before Saturday's game, Zack Littell was placed on the Injured List with a left hamstring strain, and replaced on the active roster by right-hander Jorge Alcala. The injury might help explain why Littell looked so rough in early action (3 IP, 6 H, 4 ER, 3 HR, 3 BB, 1 K) following his stellar 2019 campaign.
- After Saturday's game, we learned that Homer Bailey's scheduled start for Sunday was being pushed back, and on Sunday, Bailey went on IL due to right biceps tendinitis. Righty Sean Poppen took his place and the Twins ran a bullpen game on Sunday, with Tyler Clippard stepping in as the opener. Unlike Littell, there was no evidence of anything being physically wrong with Bailey.
Last year, as a largely unknown rookie named Randy Dobnak tore through his first tour of the big leagues, finishing with a 1.59 ERA in 28 innings and earning himself a Game 2 ALDS start, we all wondered: Is this for real?
Early on in this 2020 season, he's backing up the initial success, and then some.
In a relatively big spot on Friday night, with Minnesota looking to bounce back from a series-opening loss against Cleveland, Dobnak spun five scoreless frames against the team's top division rival. He allowed only three hits and two walks while striking out four. This comes on the heels of a strong season debut, where Dobnak held the White Sox to one run over four innings in Chicago.
Through 37 1/3 total MLB innings, the undrafted 25-year-old owns a 1.45 ERA with just one home run allowed. His sinker continues to be a tremendous asset, and he's mixing it with his curve and change in the lower regions of the zone to lethal effect. Dobnak has induced a 68% grounder rate this year – only Milwaukee's Brandon Woodruff (72%) is higher.
Dobnak is an out-of-nowhere sensation who's beginning to really make his name on the major-league scene. On the other end of the spectrum we have Rich Hill, the 40-year-old ageless wonder who is well known in the game, but taking us by surprise nonetheless.
Maybe we shouldn't have been caught off guard by Hill's brilliance against St. Louis on Wednesday night, when he stymied the Cards over five shutout innings, allowing just two singles and a walk. Business as usual I suppose for a guy who's gone 41-20 with a 2.91 ERA in 86 starts since 2016, but still it's pretty remarkable to see from someone his age coming off experimental elbow surgery.
Hill said after the game that his repaired elbow "feels like it's 18 again."
Hey, speaking of 18, the Twins also received a gem on Saturday from No. 18 in their rotation. Newcomer Kenta Maeda managed to top both Dobnak and Hill by delivering the best performance yet from a Twins starter: 6 IP, 0 R, 1 H, 1 BB, 6 K.
In this impressive outing, Maeda was everything the Twins hoped for when they acquired him from Los Angeles to bolster their rotation. He attacked the zone relentlessly with a heavy dose of sliders and changeups, mixing in the fastball and – less frequently – the curve and sinker. It all kept Cleveland's lineup completely off-balance, as they managed just one infield single (on a debatable close call, at that) while inducing 15 whiffs on 83 pitches (18%).
Not to be left out, Bailey and Jose Berríos both turned in quality efforts of their own, with each allowing two runs over five innings of work.
There were a few hitters who enjoyed nice weeks – Eddie Rosario launching his first two home runs and driving in four; Miguel Sanó breaking out with a pair of bombs on Saturday; Marwin Gonzalez looking tremendously sharp at the plate and in the field – but pitching was the star of the show for Minnesota over the past week – and really, all season so far.
If we add Clippard's perfect two-inning "opener" appearance on Sunday to the sample above, that's now seven earned runs allowed over 47 innings for Twins starters since the season's second game – a 1.34 ERA.
Meanwhile, the bullpen has been lights-out: Over the past six games, Twins relievers (sans Clippard) allowed three earned runs over 26 innings (1.04 ERA). I won't even bother to name names because literally every relief pitcher was outstanding.
Wes Johnson has been working some wizardry with this group and so far every offseason move made by the front office – trading for Maeda, gambling on Hill and Bailey, signing Clippard, re-signing Sergio Romo, claiming Matt Wisler off waivers – is paying off handsomely. Those six collectively have a 1.31 ERA through 34 1/3 innings.
Not every offseason acquisition has been an immediate hit.
There were troubling signs from the get-go for Josh Donaldson. He's been struggling at the plate, slashing just .182/.296/.318 through his first 27 plate appearances while missing on some very crushable pitches. During the opening series in Chicago, he conspicuously failed to leg out a grounder to short, when it turned out he easily could've reached on an error.
In other words, it's been an inauspicious start for the biggest free-agent signing in franchise history. The former MVP has come out totally flat and on Friday we might've gotten a hint why. Donaldson exited midway through the win over Cleveland due to "right calf tightness." This is concerning given his lengthy history with calf issues, which more or less wiped out his 2018 season, but the team insists it's a minor setback and has not (as of yet) placed him on IL.
Hopefully a bit of time off will help him find a groove. As you can see from his Statcast metrics compared to last year, Donaldson's still been hitting the ball fairly hard, but not at the elite level we've come to expect. Other measures are sagging badly.
The good news is the Twins have proven they can win without getting much from Donaldson. And in fact, they proved over the past week they can win without getting much from their vaunted offense at all.
Minnesota averaged just 3.2 runs per game and still went 5-1. That would seem to bode well. They've gotten through one of the three scariest stretches on their 2020 schedule with a 7-2 record, even though their offense hasn't clicked since the opening weekend.
It's encouraging to see the Twins exercise a great deal of caution with their starting pitchers, given the proliferation of arm injuries around the league. They gave Hill a few extra days before making his first start of the season, seemingly for no other reason than to play it extra safe. They've been taking things very slowly with Jake Odorizzi and his minor back injury. They opted to put Bailey on IL rather than simply push his start back with what also appears to be a fairly minor injury.
I think this is the right approach. Given the expanded playoff format, regular-season games are lessened in importance, and the Twins have given themselves a solid early buffer anyway. The top priority is ensuring their best arms are available to them down the stretch and into the postseason. But, it does give Rocco Baldelli some extra spinning plates to juggle here in the early going. At this moment he's down two starters, with Bailey and Odorizzi both on the shelf. Who will fill the extra slots? On Monday it'll be Lewis Thorpe. Who else might be called upon? Devin Smeltzer? More bullpen games?
One thing to keep in mind is that MLB rosters must be trimmed down from 30 to 28 this coming Thursday, so Baldelli figures to lose a bit of his abundant pitching depth.
The Twins now coast into a soft patch in the schedule, with all seven games in the week ahead coming against low-grade opponents.
First, they wrap up the homestand with two games against the Pirates, who finished last in the NL Central last year with 93 losses, and are in all-out rebuilding mode. Then, it's off to Pittsburgh for the second half of an interleague home-and-home, which reunites Baldelli and his former bench coach Derek Shelton, now leading the Bucs.
From there, the Twins head to Kauffman Stadium for three games against Kansas City. The Royals are of course another rebuilding team and one the Twins should theoretically be able to further fatten up on.
MONDAY, 8/3: PIRATES @ TWINS
TUESDAY, 8/4: PIRATES @ TWINS
WEDNESDAY, 8/5: TWINS @ PIRATES
THURSDAY, 8/6: TWINS @ PIRATES
FRIDAY, 8/7: TWINS @ ROYALS
SATURDAY, 8/8: TWINS @ ROYALS
SUNDAY, 8/9: TWINS @ ROYALS
Catch Up On Twins Daily Game Recaps
- Game 4 | MIN 6, STL 3: Donaldson Breaks Out, Early Offense Leads to Another Twins Win
- Game 5 | MIN 3, STL 0: Hill Pitches 5 Shutout Innings in Twins Debut
- Game 6 | CLE 2, MIN 0: Shane Bieber is a Cheat Code
- Game 7 | MIN 4, CLE 1: Dobnak Delivers 5 Shutout Innings
- Game 8 | MIN 3, CLE 0: Miguel Sanó Hits Pair of Bombas, Kenta Maeda Pitches 6 Shutout Innings
- Game 9 | MIN 3, CLE 1: Bullpen Dominates as Twins Take Series
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