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Front Page: Can the Twins Become the New Astros? Part 1

rocco baldelli wes johnson thad levine ryan pressly
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#1 Patrick Wozniak

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Posted 17 October 2019 - 05:34 AM

After recently reading both Ben Reiter’s Astroball and The MVP Machine by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Shawchik, both highly recommended, I found many similarities between the Houston Astros and our Minnesota Twins. In order to get a better idea of how the Twins plan mirrors the Astros’, let’s look at several areas in which the teams exhibit similarities. This is the first of a three-part series.Embracing Analytics and Technology

After Jeff Luhnow became the top dog in Houston prior to the 2012 season, Houston infamously tanked for the 2012-14 seasons, while not even pretending to try. Although it was undoubtably an unenjoyable experience for Astros fans, the organization was able to rebuild by gaining top draft pics and completely overhauling the organization. Luhnow and his hand-picked staffers like Sag Mejdal were famous in baseball circles for their success in drafting by using and developing advanced analytic tools while working in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. They continued to be very analytically minded in Houston, also getting a leg up on the competition by being one of the first organizations to heavily invest in using new technology for player development.

The MVP Machine goes into detail about how the Astros immediately took pitchers like Justin Verlander and Ryan Pressly (and more recently Aaron Sanchez) whom they acquired through trades, and met with them, presenting a plan as to how they could best use their pitches. It basically boils down to having the pitchers throw their best pitches. Pressly talked about how having seen how a future Hall of Famer like Verlander succeed with Houston made him more open to a new approach. The authors went to explain how Pressly’s pitch use evolved with his new team:

“With the Twins from 2017 to 2018, Pressly had thrown his sinker 13 percent of the time against lefties. Only once in that span had a southpaw swung at it and missed. With the Astros, he threw the sinker to lefties less than 1 percent of the time. With the Twins in 2018, Pressly had thrown the curve 24 percent of the time. As an Astro, he threw it 39 percent of the time. With Houston, he also elevated his four-seamer and threw his slider slightly more often.”

To be fair, Minnesota’s new front office was already in place starting in 2017, so if they had similar revelations as the Astros, the message did not get to Pressly. Thad Levine acknowledged that the Twins had an opportunity to learn from the Pressly situation in an article from the Washington Post:

“We had uncovered some of what Houston implemented,” Levine said. “I think the biggest difference was their execution of a plan. … Certainly, that was something we reflected upon. Not unlike any other move we make, we try to assess what transpired, good, bad and indifferent, from every move. There was a lot to be learned from that one.”

Prior to the 2019 season the Twins made a big change in their pitching philosophy by going down to the college level to hire pitching coach Wes Johnson out of the University of Arkansas. Johnson champions biomechanics and the use of Trackman data to improve pitchers. No other MLB team had hired directly from the college ranks and the results have been great so far, with an emphasis on increased velocity and strikeouts.

Anyone who has followed the Twins can see just how much the Twins have changed since the Terry Ryan regime. “Small ball” and “pitch to contact” have been replaced by bombas and strikeouts. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine have greatly expanded the analytics department and the Twins are incorporating technology like Trackman, Rapsodo, and Blast motion sensors throughout the minor leagues and in spring training as was documented by Twins Daily’s Parker Hageman here. They have also revamped the minor league coaching staffs and implemented better communication throughout the system to ensure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to player development.

Communication

Enhancing communication throughout the system was important to Falvey and Levine, and not only through the minor league levels. Strong communication and a shared vision between the front office and the manager also seems to be a commonality between Houston and Minnesota. After coming to Houston Luhnow initially hired Bo Porter to lead the team, but after not seeing eye-to-eye, Porter was fired and A.J. Hinch took over, leading the Astros to the postseason in his first season with the team and a 2017 World Series title. Houston wanted a manager who would match their vision and they found him in Hinch. Hinch is a new-school style manger, who is a former player and had experience both coaching and working in a front office. His openness to analytics and more unconventional game tactics fit perfectly with Luhnow and the Astros, and Hinch was instrumental in getting the players to buy in.

Sound familiar? Twins first year manager, Rocco Baldelli is another former player who is young and had front office experience before coming over from Tampa Bay. Baldelli seems to be in line with Falvey and Levine and has been praised for his open communication with his players. This year’s team seems to gel together really well, and while it is never completely clear whether winning leads to better team chemistry or vice versa, Baldelli has done an admirable job of keeping the team loose and it’s hard to argue with the results. Paul Molitor wasn’t hand-picked by the current FO, and similar to Porter in Houston, he never really felt like a good fit for the direction in which Minnesota was moving. Baldelli, on the other hand, fits perfectly with the Twins more modern and analytic style of operation.

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#2 JW24

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Posted 17 October 2019 - 07:04 AM

The MVP Machine was a great read! I think it is pretty obvious Houston is ahead of everyone else in MLB in using data for player development, but the Twins have done a really nice job incorporating it recently.

 

Houston spent about $44M more than the Twins this season, and the fact Houston is a considerably bigger market than Minneapolis is what I see as the biggest reason the Twins can't copy the Astros plan.

 

Circling back to The MVP Machine, the Twins emphasis on player development will become increasingly important, and that is how they will narrow the gap between themselves and teams like Houston.

 

Really enjoyed your article.

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#3 Riverbrian

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Posted 17 October 2019 - 07:22 AM

One by one... the old school operations are falling by the wayside.

But here’s the thing. It’ll be a short window for the Twins who were somewhat late to the party but not as late as others. We will enjoy the fruits of these efforts for a little while as the dinosaurs die off.

Eventually everybody will be in the same place in the future and a new thing will have to arrive to separate a brand new future new breed from the pack.

The Orioles new GM is from the Astros and they will follow the Astros path. The Giants have hired from the Dodgers.
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#4 brvama

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Posted 17 October 2019 - 07:47 AM

I enjoyed this and am excited for the next two parts.

 

Patrick, regarding the analytical side of MLB teams, do you have any info on where teams stand? Is MN middle of the pack, top ten or late to the dance? Seems I read often that we are way behind MLB. My guess is we aren’t as late as has been suggested.

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#5 nicksaviking

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Posted 17 October 2019 - 08:19 AM

 

One by one... the old school operations are falling by the wayside.

But here’s the thing. It’ll be a short window for the Twins who were somewhat late to the party but not as late as others. We will enjoy the fruits of these efforts for a little while as the dinosaurs die off.

 

This always bothered me, though to be fair, with most innovation there seems to be some bumpy spots and false starts where some theories and procedures show up to not be effective only to be weeded out by trial and error. The delay may have let the Twins bypass those spots directly to a more efficient model.

 

Not that I'd let them off the hook, if any of that occurred it was clearly unintentional.

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#6 PDX Twin

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Posted 17 October 2019 - 08:39 AM

 

One by one... the old school operations are falling by the wayside.

But here’s the thing. It’ll be a short window for the Twins who were somewhat late to the party but not as late as others. We will enjoy the fruits of these efforts for a little while as the dinosaurs die off.

Eventually everybody will be in the same place in the future and a new thing will have to arrive to separate a brand new future new breed from the pack.

The Orioles new GM is from the Astros and they will follow the Astros path. The Giants have hired from the Dodgers.

 

I think this is exactly correct. There is currently a transition when some teams have and use better information than others. That won't last long. It's a lot like financial markets in which a new analytical strategy works until everyone else jumps in.

 

Once we reach the new equilibrium, success will be based on getting the unmeasurables right. Examples: (1) finding the guys like Arraez who play way above their projections, (2) getting the clubhouse chemistry right so that each personality makes everyone else work harder and play better, and (3) getting the field chemistry right so that each player is asked to do what he does best (no Sano in RF).

 

It seems like the Twins have had good success this season with the unmeasurables. We'll find out over the next few years if this is good luck or repeatable good judgment.

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It's great to get out of the cellar ... as long as you bring something with you.


#7 Mike Sixel

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Posted 17 October 2019 - 09:16 AM

Houston traded for expensive players, and signed at least one to an extension. They also dealt highly regarded prospects for another. This team has done neither. Until that changes, no, they aren't the next Houston.

The window is open. If it doesn't change this off season....
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It's been a fun year so far, GO Twins. 


#8 Hosken Bombo Disco

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Posted 17 October 2019 - 10:38 AM

Houston traded for expensive players, and signed at least one to an extension. They also dealt highly regarded prospects for another. This team has done neither. Until that changes, no, they aren't the next Houston.
The window is open. If it doesn't change this off season....

I’m still not sure why the Twins didn’t trade for a starter at the deadline, as the Astros have done. Even if it meant offering Larnach or Kirilloff. Maybe something will change this offseason?
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#9 Hosken Bombo Disco

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Posted 17 October 2019 - 10:40 AM

Glad to see that Levine quote. Probably should not have traded Pressly, but reflecting back on past actions is a good habit to be in.
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#10 Vanimal46

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Posted 17 October 2019 - 11:15 AM

Glad to see that Levine quote. Probably should not have traded Pressly, but reflecting back on past actions is a good habit to be in.


Yes. I hope they learn not to give up too early during the season, and the struggles trading from weakness instead of surplus.

Edited by Vanimal46, 17 October 2019 - 11:15 AM.

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#11 BBAM

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Posted 17 October 2019 - 11:51 AM

What I saw as a difference maker this year is it didn't matter the name on the jersey they played the best possible players where in the past 4-5 people were in the line-up that maybe needed a week on the bench just for motivation.They also have brought in the staff and players like Cruz to set the tone. Each and every guy in their line-up knows there is someone right behind them waiting to get their spot.

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#12 birdwatcher

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Posted 17 October 2019 - 11:58 AM

 

I think this is exactly correct. There is currently a transition when some teams have and use better information than others. That won't last long. It's a lot like financial markets in which a new analytical strategy works until everyone else jumps in.

 

Once we reach the new equilibrium, success will be based on getting the unmeasurables right. Examples: (1) finding the guys like Arraez who play way above their projections, (2) getting the clubhouse chemistry right so that each personality makes everyone else work harder and play better, and (3) getting the field chemistry right so that each player is asked to do what he does best (no Sano in RF).

 

It seems like the Twins have had good success this season with the unmeasurables. We'll find out over the next few years if this is good luck or repeatable good judgment.

 

I think THIS is exactly correct too.

 

Certainly, every team is going to pony up for the observation technology that has transformed the skill development landscape: Trackman, Rapsodo, Blast, etc. With that, teams will eventually follow suit by employing field and development staff more capable of making this new information comprehensible for the athletes. The Twins may now be ahead of the game already on this front, but we know this is an unsustainable advantage.

 

I like that this group is clearly initiating changes related to unmeasurables. The comments we heard throughout the season gave us plenty of evidence that "culture" and "chemistry" were important to players and management alike.

 

Houston has not missed on draft choices, to their credit, but it should be acknowledged that there was a bit of serendipity involved too, when Bregman, Correa, and Springer were pretty much there for the taking. I don't think they are any better than the Twins and many other clubs at this aspect of the job, nor are they way ahead of peers when it comes to IFA or FA. They've executed well in free agency with pickups like Chirinos, Brantley and Reddick. Falvey and his team have executed on the same level IMO.

 

Where Houston has separated itself from all other teams is in the execution of trades. Verlander, Cole, Alverez, Pressly, and Gurriel to name a few.

 

It's important to note that Houston has not traded away prospects that fit in the category of Royce Lewis and Kirilloff to acquire these pieces, as some seem to think.The price for Verlander was Daz Cameron, a fading first rounder who was in the second half of BA's Top 100, as was Franklin Perez, an IFA pitcher ranked at about #75 or so, and a third round catcher who really can't catch. Our equivalents might be Rortvedt, Duran, and Baddoo. So kudos to Houston for being proactive and active traders and for executing beautifully, but now that the Twins have the prospect quality and quantity from which to trade (ranked about ten slots above Houston now BTW), they should be able to close the gap here. 

 

They can't match Houston's revenues, and while this limits them to an extent, it can be overcome with the help of avoiding mistakes and with some of the same serendipity that Houston has enjoyed. 

Edited by birdwatcher, 17 October 2019 - 12:02 PM.

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#13 birdwatcher

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Posted 17 October 2019 - 12:43 PM

 

Houston traded for expensive players, and signed at least one to an extension. They also dealt highly regarded prospects for another. This team has done neither. Until that changes, no, they aren't the next Houston.

The window is open. If it doesn't change this off season....

 

Houston is the gold standard, we know that.

 

Let's define "highly regarded" though. Verlander (who wasn't coming to Minneapolis) cost them Cameron, Perez, and Rogers. Our equivalents might be Baddoo, Duran, and Jeffers, maybe less, and not more. Pittsburgh unloaded Cole for Moran, Musgrove, Martin, and Feliz. Our equivalents might be Blankenhorn, Dobnak, Wade, and Stashak, not much more.

 

Altuve was a transforming IFA signing. He's on the books for $20M per season for the next few years. Sure beats paying $22M to Joe Mauer, right? 

 

If the Twins have a player worthy of $20M, Falvey will sign them. 

 

No one's the next Houston. Houston is probably not the next Houston.

Edited by birdwatcher, 17 October 2019 - 12:54 PM.

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#14 Riverbrian

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Posted 17 October 2019 - 01:07 PM

 

This always bothered me, though to be fair, with most innovation there seems to be some bumpy spots and false starts where some theories and procedures show up to not be effective only to be weeded out by trial and error. The delay may have let the Twins bypass those spots directly to a more efficient model.

 

Not that I'd let them off the hook, if any of that occurred it was clearly unintentional.

 

There are times when waiting for others to break through walls makes sense but once they do... you are behind. 

 

Personally, I have no ability to judge what went on inside the walls. I have never been in the room and have no right to make accusations. They are unfounded at best.  

 

However... By all reports the Twins went decades with one analyst and that was Jack Goin. I'm sure Jack was very talented but the amount of data that was being filtered through by other clubs requires a larger department. 

 

Intentional? Unintentional? Who knows but it does suggest "Blinders" were on as they trudged the same path they had always traveled. 

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#15 Mike Sixel

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Posted 17 October 2019 - 01:18 PM

 

Houston is the gold standard, we know that.

 

Let's define "highly regarded" though. Verlander (who wasn't coming to Minneapolis) cost them Cameron, Perez, and Rogers. Our equivalents might be Baddoo, Duran, and Jeffers, maybe less, and not more. Pittsburgh unloaded Cole for Moran, Musgrove, Martin, and Feliz. Our equivalents might be Blankenhorn, Dobnak, Wade, and Stashak, not much more.

 

Altuve was a transforming IFA signing. He's on the books for $20M per season for the next few years. Sure beats paying $22M to Joe Mauer, right? 

 

If the Twins have a player worthy of $20M, Falvey will sign them. 

 

No one's the next Houston. Houston is probably not the next Houston.

 

this thread is literally asking if the Twins will be the next houston......

It's been a fun year so far, GO Twins. 


#16 h2oface

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Posted 17 October 2019 - 01:27 PM

 

Houston traded for expensive players, and signed at least one to an extension. They also dealt highly regarded prospects for another. This team has done neither. Until that changes, no, they aren't the next Houston.

The window is open. If it doesn't change this off season....

 It looks like Houston is going to let one of the very best pitchers in MLB take his leave when this season ends for them. That is very Twins-like.;)

Edited by h2oface, 17 October 2019 - 01:27 PM.

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#17 Mike Sixel

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Posted 17 October 2019 - 01:36 PM

 

 It looks like Houston is going to let one of the very best pitchers in MLB take his leave when this season ends for them. That is very Twins-like.;)

 

I'm not sure I understand.....no team can keep every player they have ever acquired. 

It's been a fun year so far, GO Twins. 


#18 Badsmerf

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Posted 17 October 2019 - 01:48 PM

Houston made savvy moves, and now they're the best team in mlb. Hard to be "the next" Houston, when Houston is still doing Houston things. The rise of Houston has as much to do with the cards falling in their favor as their approach.

Long have some of us on this forum, including Jack Goin, championed for an analytics approach. Terry Ryan was cemented in old school baseball. I think the entire league is changing as big data has become a huge narrative.

In order to be the next up and coming team, Twins need more top end talent. Houston is a great example: they have top 10 players in mlb at multiple positions, some arguably the best. That doesn't happen overnight. Hopefully they Twins can identify their own Cole and Verlander acquisitions this off-season. Add Royce Lewis and Alex Kirilloff the mix, and this team is positioned to compete again.
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#19 jkcarew

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Posted 17 October 2019 - 01:56 PM

I understand the part article has a couple more parts, so I'll reserve judgement on the body when it is completed.

 

In the meantime, this part deals with stuff on the margins. Smart philosophies and use of technology can't make average talent great...can't make 85-win talent beat (with any consistency) 95-win talent. Houston is Houston because they have better players. This, primarily because of how well they drafted (also great international signings) during the tanking years, and secondarily, because of their willingness to make trades. The stuff in this article, while it has value, is a relatively small factor in terms of impact on how good Houston is currently.

Edited by jkcarew, 17 October 2019 - 01:59 PM.

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#20 birdwatcher

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Posted 17 October 2019 - 02:44 PM

 

this thread is literally asking if the Twins will be the next houston......

 

 

We've talked past each other, Mike. My fault, I apologize for that. Since not even Houston can replicate Houston's past success, let's focus on the author's real question. That question is whether the Twins can emulate the things that allowed Houston to become the gold standard du jour.

 

Houston began its journey from the depths to the pinnacle by doing two things. One, they got new and better leadership. Two, they took advantage of their draft order. I argue that Houston had some luck, in that area, but they executed, and that's what matters. You probably disagree, but I believe our new leadership and our talent evaluators are as good.

 

Houston's technology advantage has dwindled. Other teams including and maybe especially the Twins, have emulated the Astros.

 

I'd be skeptical of any argument that the Twins are taking a back seat to the Astros or anyone else regarding the use of technology, data, coaching, development, and talent evaluation. In fact, I'd be more inclined to think they've been early adopters in a few areas now.

 

I don't know anything about Houston's philosophical underpinnings so I wouldn't make a comparison. That said, I think we're seeing some really great signs from our own organization with respect to the treatment and handling of players at every level. The impressive facilities in the DR and in Ft. Myers are symbolic, and Baldelli seems to run a very happy clubhouse. This organization seems to be really vibrant and healthy.

 

In my opinion, Houston's success with trades is unique because they executed beautifully, not because, as you seem to believe, they are willing to trade "top prospects" while the Twins are not.

 

Not one (Colin Moran may be an exception, I'm not sure) of the top prospects Houston has traded for the likes of Verlander, Cole. Greinke, Alvarez, Gurriel, Pressly, Marisnak, or anyone else, was ranked among Houston's top 6 prospects at the time of the trades. So you can't make an argument that the Astros have done something that a reasonable person would say the Twins would avoid. Houston did not trade top 6 prospects like Kyle Tucker or Derek Fisher to fetch Greinke, for example. Bukauskas is a lesser prospect than Duran. Seth Beer is a lesser prospect than Larnach.

 

I suggested the Twins can, and probably will emulate Houston's trading behavior, now that they have the quality and quantity. My hope is that they do the same thing Houston has done and trade from surplus of really good prospects like Javier, Rooker, Gordon, Baddoo, and others. 

 

All Houston or Minnesota can do is emulate what Houston has done in the past. Neither team can replicate it. Houston gets to reap the rewards of its past and recent success and good fortune. The Twins closed the gap considerably in 2019, but there's still a big gap when it comes to the 26-man roster.

 

Let's hope that the Twins are eventually the "new Houston" and Houston or Chicago isn't. Let's hope that some day soon Houston feels a need to examine a couple of things Falvey is doing and emulate it.

 

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