What The Hell Just Happened?
Image courtesy of © David Richard-USA TODAY SportsIn mid-April, the Twins lost six of seven games in a week to division foes. In May, they lost five of six to Cleveland and Houston, which included one gut-wrenching loss and several drubbings. At the end of July they lost seven of eight and traded away a starting pitcher and their closer. Finally, just last week, they lost five of six in the midst of the Wild Card race.
In each case they persevered. In each case they bounced back, most recently with a five-game winning streak. Also, to be fair, in each case their rivals kind of blew it. The Royals struggled badly out of the gate. Several Wild Card contenders stumbled shortly after the trade deadline. The Angels were getting swept themselves when the Twins were swept by the Yankees.
But focusing on rivals’ problems need not be disparaging. The Twins did what the others could not – they persevered. It’s easy in today’s society to overlook Grit in the search for The Shiny. That is our failing. Grit is a differentiator.
“My turn shall also come:
I sense the spreading of a wing.”
- Osip Mendelstam
The Twins overall philosophy as a smallish market club has not changed. One can also find it with other teams and with families. The family grows with the kids. It invests in them, probably to its short-term detriment. And it does this in the hope that one day The Growth happens and raises everyone up.
Baseball prospects get more early attention than ever before, and so the clock starts ticking earlier on them in the minds of the media and fans. It’s not surprising that we grow impatient. Eventually, we even grow impatient with the impatience.
It took a while, but all those investments were paid back in full this August. When the season was on the brink, they Twins were led back from the ledge by the kids. The Twins went 20-10 in August, and the engine was their offense, which outscored the rest of the American League. A couple of veterans, Brian Dozier (1.023 OPS) & Joe Mauer (.863 OPS) paced the team, but the surge was driven by three guys under the age of 26: Jorge Polanco (1.099 OPS), Byron Buxton (.973 OPS) & Eddie Rosario (.944 OPS).
None of them are going to keep up that pace for their careers, but none of them have fallen off a cliff in September, either. We’re sensing the spreading of wings.
“The oak fought the wind and was broken, the willow bent when it must and survived.”
– Robert Jordan
I was not optimistic about this bullpen, and neither was Twins manager Paul Molitor. There have been times, like that terrible Houston series, where they have been more embarrassing than I could have imagined. There have been times where they were ranked dead last in ERA. In fact, by that metric, they’re still not … good. Their 4.45 ERA ranks 12th in the American League.
But there is a better advanced stat for measuring bullpen efficacy: WPA. It measures the ability of the bullpen to turn a game into a win – or a loss. The Twins bullpen ranks 9th in the AL and has a value of .31, which means they’re about 1/3 of a win better than bullpens have historically been. That isn’t especially impressive, but ….
This team traded away its closer, Brandon Kintxler, at the trade deadline. Their best reliever in the second half, Trevor Hildenberger, spent part of last year in High-A Fort Myers. Their current shutdown closer, Matt Belisle, was a late-season, low-cost free agent pickup who had a 5.82 ERA in the first half of the season. They are a collection of no-names who have kept it together to survive and protect the games they needed to protect. If a handful would have slipped away, the Twins are also-rans.
They bent – a lot – but they did not break, and the team survived.
“The lotus is the most beautiful flower, whose petals open one by one. But it will only grow in the mud.”
– Goldie Hawn
The Twins were supposed to have a thin starting rotation – and then they lost three arms: Trevor May, Hector Santiago, and Phil Hughes. That put a large burden on Ervin Santana, who served both as staff ace (especially early) and workhorse. However, the year was saved when the other 80% of the starts were taken by youngsters or pitchers who bloomed despite dealing with their share of mud.
Jose Berrios has been a dependable #2 starter; his ERA was 8.02 last year. Adalberto Mejia, to quote the movie Clerks, wasn’t even supposed to be here. Neither was 44-year-old Bartolo Colon, who injected hope mid-season after posting an 8.14 ERA with Atlanta. And finally, Kyle Gibson, who had a 6.05 ERA and looked like he had pitched himself out of a baseball career in mid-August, posted a 2.56 ERA in his last seven starts, all of which the Twins won. The rotation hasn’t thrived, but it survived, and we’re seeing a couple of the petals open one by one.
“Change may not always bring growth, but there is no growth without change.”
― Roy T. Bennett
We may look back on the 2017 Twins the way we look back on the 1984 season or the 2002 season as a year of breakthroughs, a sign of things to come. Twins fans (and the Twins organization) have traveled a similar road, but that doesn’t make it any easier when one is lost and wondering if this path will go anywhere. This time, it did, but it took a lot of resilience and growth to get there.
"We will either find a way, or make one."
- Anibal Barca
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