From Big Fish to Bottom Feeders: The Real Trouble with the Twins
by, 02-02-2013 at 04:21 PM (1159 Views)
Hello Folks. This is my first blog post on TD, and, as such, it's probably got some holes. Thanks anyway for reading:
It’s been a tough time for Twins fans. Back to back near 100-loss seasons has soured much of the joy of a new outdoor park, and familiar, fan favorite players have made their exits via free agency or trade. Rightfully, the Twins are trying to ready themselves for the coming season, and not dwell on the mountain of on-the-field and front-office failures. Terry Ryan recently cut off talk of the 2011 and 2012 seasons in an ESPN 1500 interview, saying curtly, “We’re past that now -- that’s behind us.” Quickly, he tried to steer conversation to the ways the team is trying to get back on track.
It fairly easy to get the sense that the Twins top brass feel that they’ve only recently come into a streak of some poor play bad luck – that they’re a championship-caliber, successful franchise that is merely going through a short “down cycle.” The problem with this line of thinking is that it keeps the team and its fans in a kind of insular bubble. Focusing on Ron Gardenhire’s winning percentage or the number of AL Central Division Championship flags flapping above right field obscures an uglier reality – one the organization should be facing openly, and should have been dealing with for the last half-decade: The Twins are not a competitive organization, and haven’t been one for quite some time.
Before you run to your closet to pull out your collections of 2000’s era ALDS souvenirs to prove me wrong, consider this: in the last ten years, only four teams in all of Major League Baseball have won fewer playoff games than the Twins: Toronto, Kansas City, Seattle and Pittsburgh. For all of the fanfare over our Twin Titles in ’87 and ’91, the Twins will soon be entering their longest league title drought in franchise history, and that includes their time in Washington DC. To make matters worse, the closest Twins fans have gotten to cheering on their hometown boys in the last twenty years has been watching cast-offs like David Ortiz, Matt Garza, and even (gulp) Delmon Young put up MVP-caliber performances in championship situations.
To be fair, the Twins were within striking distance of a league championship season in 2006 and 2010, but the front office did virtually nothing to address their greatest needs: putting another high-profile strikeout pitcher on the mound and/or another big bopper in the lineup. The actions they did take during this period, however, (see: trading away talented young players like Garza, Bartett, Ramos, and Hardy while replacing them with an assortment of recently DFA’d players, bargain-bin veterans and poorly-scouted international signings) weakened an already-weak system, and treated fans to some of the most poorly played baseball games this side of Midway Stadium. And despite the recent rallying cry that “things are changing” within the organization, the recent signings of Mike Pelfrey and Kevin Correia and the non-signings of Edwin Jackson and Torii Hunter proves that, well, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
So why? Why the continued belief that the Twins are a winning organization? It’s a hard question to answer as an outsider. I don’t have access to the communication patterns in the clubhouse, or the conversations that take place in Ryan’s office. I can only make educated guesses, based on my degree in organizational communication and the countless hours I’ve spent reading and listening to preseason and post-game interviews. But based on what I’ve got, here’s what I think: there are three main problems with this organization, and they have nothing to do with individual failings or character flaws but rather they are rooted in the team’s culture: the “Twins Way” as they often call it.
Problem #1) The Gardy/Andy Formula
A few years back, I read a Sports Illustrated article that laid out the history that Ron Gardenhire and Rick Anderson shared, and how each of these men, during their stints in the bigs, saw an angle in the game that they thought few others had seen. Indeed, as they became the top coaches for the Twins, their rigid insistence on low-profile, pitch-to-contact pitchers and scrappy, slap-hitting batters has been made the modus operandi for the last decade. And this formula was consistent with the Twins’ 2000-era franchise identity: a low-profile, small market team that might beat you, even if you don’t know how they did it. For awhile, this practice actually enjoyed modest success. The problem, as we all know now, is that it cannot win championships and, like all formulas, it ceases to be effective when others teams know exactly what you’re planning and doing.
Problem #2) Only “Good Teammates” and Nice Guys Need Apply
In 2009, during a heated pennant race, reliever Jose Mijares made a questionable decision in retaliating against the Tigers. However, the pitch Mijares made was a statement pitch, and never hit its target Adam Everett. Delmon Young, however, got plunked in a following frame. This kind of tit-for-tat baseball isn’t uncommon during pennant runs, but the Twins’ reaction was: Gardenhire and Young couldn’t spend enough time pinning the blame on Mijares, calling his pitch a “selfish act,” and throwing Mijares under the team’s proverbial bus. Despite being an effective and affordable reliever today, one the Twins could have used in place of jettisoning a prospect in favor of Matt Capps, Mijares was quickly dropped from the team.
On it’s own it’s nothing more than a personnel move, one of thousands made by all the big league clubs. But it fits a pattern of behavior for the team, one that reinforces either an implicit or explicit rule: no fight, no trouble, play nice.
Listening to Orlando Cabrera’s interview after the 2009 Game 163 against the Tigers, I get chills. Here was a player absolutely thrilled by the prospect of beating a tough team in a close situation. Cabrera was tough, he seemed chatty, he was a competitor and had playoff experience to back up his talk. To no one’s surprise, he did not fit into the team’s plans for the following year, not even as a back-up or mentor to the middle infielders the Twins were grooming for the future. I can’t think of a single interview with a current Twins player that reveals a similar intensity. And their play on the field reflects this rule; the Twins do not and will not protect their own when they get intimidation pitches by the opposition (with the notable exception of Scott Diamond last year, and it may explain why a guy with such a low ceiling gets such support for his spot in the rotation with the fans). The Twins are not vocal or verbal about their territory or their skills, and they are fairly quick to grind down any such “rough edges” on their young players. A low-key, quiet clubhouse would perhaps be understandable on a team with trophies under its belt and little to prove, but its surprising that, even when being robbed of an extra-inning double during a playoff game in New York, Twins players can scarcely be seen mustering a shrug when faced with adversity and challenge from other teams. And that behavior stands in stark contrast to the style of play of the championship teams of ’87 and ’91, when players like Hrbek took every opportunity to irritate baserunners, players like Gaetti celebrated playoff wins with declarations that they would “trash the field” of the opponents and players like Puckett invited teammates to climb aboard their broad shoulders on their way to a pennant or trophy.
Problem #3) Making Them All Fit the Mold
When Livan Hernandez arrived with the club in 2006, Gardy quickly spotted a serious problem with his delivery: his earring. Hernandez broke two team rules during his first warm-up and Gardy was worried about the damaging presence of “bling-blings” on the field. “We’re going to have to mold him into our kind of guy” was Gardenhire’s comment to the press.
Clearly, within the last decade, there has emerged a Twins prototypical player: he’s more likely than not white, he’s fairly thin, he’s “scrappy” but quiet, he stays out of the news, he trusts his coaching staff. Whether he’s a batter or a pitcher, he should avoid strikeouts and keep the bat on the ball. And he should be seen by the team as motivated to play. It’s that simple. The problem is that people are not that simple, and teams are made up of people from different experiences, with different values and modes of expression. This truth has typically made the Twins uncomfortable, and it’s no surprise that, failing to develop Latino/Hispanic talent on par with their rivals (because that would require them to, among other things, work more closely with translators and to understand the way a player’s culture can shape and even contribute to a player’s success), the Twins invested scouting resources in regions of the world more in line with their way of being: Europe and Australia. It’s also no surprise that the Twins have avoided African-American or Latino/Hispanic players in free agency.
I want to make this clear: this is not an accusation of racism; it is natural for organizations to fall into a groupthink mentality, and to seek similarity while expelling difference. And while this process almost always limits an organization’s chances for success, the Twins have been fully convinced that they are already successful, and that this fit-the mold approach has been the reason for their success. Local media figures have even helped this delusion along, often parroting the team’s talking points that their playoff failures and regular season disasters have been brought about by bum luck, big-money competition or natural baseball cycles, rather than abject mismanagement and rigid adherence to a faulty philosophy. All the while, potentially successful players or outstanding prospects have been passed by or pushed out of the system, all because they didn’t fit the mold.
That’s my thinking, anyway. But is it really all bad at 1 Twins Way? The Twins front-office staff often note how much other teams admire and respect the Twins. And I believe them. Not only do members of the Twins organization routinely avoid controversy and criminal proceedings, players and staff alike genuinely seem like nice people. But, and it almost pains me to say this because I’m from the Midwest and I like people who are nice, but I’m not sure that having others like you is a sure sign of your success. Similarly, people like Gardy because, although he’s from the south, he exudes Midwest values and clichés. “Keep your head down and your mouth shut,” “don’t take nothin’ for granted,” “be scrappy,” “get after it,” -- he’s a walking advertisement for a region’s work ethic. But, during this year’s coming postseason, watch carefully. Is this the way you’d describe the management and play of the top teams? No, I suspect you’ll find that some of the players are quiet, some are brash, some are scrappy, and some can’t get enough of the spotlight. The manager of these teams will hold them all together because he keeps his focus on winning ballgames with the players he’s got. The GM of these teams will have brought these players together because he sought the greatest talent and the greatest indications of success from each of them, regardless of reports about whether they’d be “good teammates.” When you watch teams in the 2013 or 2014 postseason, I can guarantee you two things: 1) you’ll notice quite a different style of play than you see in the hometown team and 2) you won’t be watching the Twins.
There is faint hope in the future. The Twins have brought in Brunansky and Cuellar, each of whom represents a dimension the Twins have been missing: a player from the championship years with guts who will now have direct access to player’s approach at the plate and a bullpen coach whose personality and culture may help him connect more closely to the organization’s outsiders. If these men are given a chance to impact the talent on the field, those players then might just impact the organization’s culture. This might allow the highly-touted prospects to develop with a little swagger in their steps and fire in their eyes, all while they learn plate discipline and self-control. And, if the shift takes hold, Ryan can finally step away from his obligations (it’s clear that Ryan is currently staying in the position out of a sense of duty, not because he enjoys being GM, and that’s a bad thing long-term for any organization) and turn the reigns over to a predecessor – perhaps even someone from the Rays or A’s organization, who is willing to place a bit more stock in intelligent player evaluation than in personality scouting reports. And if that happens, the Twins might actually look a lot more like they did in ’87 and ’91 – a raw team of potential champions, and a team most rivals wouldn’t dare to call an “EZ-Pass” in the playoffs. That’s the hope, anyway.