The non-injury injuries: why the Twins might have trouble against Houston
The Minnesota Twins completed the whirlwind COVID season atop their division. They are a different team than the one that won over 100 games last year, and probably much more likely to make an October run, thanks to improved starting pitching. On paper the Twins are a better team than the Houston Astros this year. From starting pitching to bullpen to lineup, Minnesota is just superior.*
But one significant issue could end the Twins’ march into October before it begins: Performance Compromising Injuries, or PCIs.
The Twins know all too well how injuries can impact a player’s on-field performance. When Joe Mauer returned to the field after a concussion, he admitted that he didn’t really see the ball as well as before. His K rate escalated; his hitting abilities went from elite to very good. While Mauer’s injury persisted to the end of his career, other maladies are far less debilitating long-term. Still, some short-term injuries can destroy quality performance on the field.
Just ask Max Kepler.
Last year, he suffered a shoulder issue in September. He “healed” and played all three postseason games against the Yankees. Chances are the lingering issues impacted his playoff at-bats. He ended up hitting 0.00.
This year, several Twins look out of sorts in the batter's box, perhaps due to the dreaded PCI. Ball-killer Nelson Cruz has been unable to barrel up pitches over the past month, a month that he’s battled hip pain. Pitches down and away – ones that previously found the right-center field gap or beyond – are now nestling into catchers’ mitts for strikes.
If Josh Donaldson plays through calf problems, one can only wonder how much it will affect his swing. Kepler rejoins the list of PCI concerns. Since his groin strain, he has had games where he simply misses inside fastballs.
The most significant player who might have a PCI is someone who hasn’t even visited the IR this year: Jorge Polanco. With the exception of a few games, Polanco’s hitting has been off. His power is completely gone this year. Some fans might have forgotten that he underwent ankle surgery in the offseason, a surgery that has led manager Rocco Baldelli to give the shortstop several days off, even during the homestretch. Even when in the lineup, Polanco’s swing looks broken this year. Down and away pitches that in previous years would be rocketed hard to the opposite field are now soft popups. Fastballs down the pipe are high fly balls. And nasty breaking pitches that Polanco would foul off when healthy are missed completely.
So, while many fans discuss pitching depth, defensive alignment when analyzing postseason odds, the Twins just need starters to feel comfortable, pain free. Because when the Minnesota baseball team’s PCI is zero, its lineup is lethal.
*I will let other pundits comb through the numbers and data on this.