By David Weinshilboum
In 2013, the Golden State Warriors basketball team seemed on the verge. A franchise that had been a laughingstock for decades had been to the playoffs two years in a row. Led by coach Mark Jackson and a young injury-prone sharpshooter by the name of Stephen Curry, the steam had suddenly thrust itself into relevancy.
Yet, just three days after a playoff loss in 2013, the Warriors fired Jackson (who had a year left on his contract). He was a good coach who had many positive attributes. The team was headed in the right direction. Why fire him?
The Warriors hired Steve Kerr who implemented a new offense that maximized Curry’s long-range shooting abilities. The team went on to win Championships in three of the next four seasons. As the tired sports cliché goes, the rest is history.
The Minnesota Twins – until this train-wreck of a year—were a team and organization on the rise. Then rookie manager Rocco Baldelli led the Twins to a 100-win season in 2019 and another division championship in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
Today the Twins are mired in a disaster season that simply isn’t going to get better. Their best player is injured and half a dozen others are playing well below expectations (Sano, Maeda, Kepler, Polanco and, sorry to put this in print, Colome). When the Twins 2021 season comes to a close, they will be a failure: no playoffs and well below expectations of 90-plus wins.
In October, the Twins will have to ask themselves an important question: is Baldelli the leader who can take this team and franchise to the next level? I would argue that, for some very rational, logical reasons, the answer is no.
The Twins Twitterverse wants Rocco’s head now, and a few days ago, during a television broadcast, a fan wandered behind home plate and held a sign calling for a managerial change. There’s a lot of emotion going into the Fire Rocco movement. Baldelli has NEVER been a good in-game manager, oftentimes making fans scratch their heads or, at times, yank tufts of hair from scalp. His choice of defensive substitutions, pinch hitters and pinch runners feels arbitrary at best. The most obvious example was a couple weeks ago in Oakland when, in extra innings, Baldelli pinch ran Travis Blankenhorn for Josh Donaldson. The move compromised defense in a big way. And Baldelli made matters worse when he put second-baseman Luis Arraez at third and Blankenhorn at second – eroding the leather at TWO positions instead of just one. The game ended when Blankenhorn booted one grounder and Arraez air-mailed a routine throw to first.
Another reason fans might dislike him is his press conference demeanor: he is dullard diplomat who makes former Vikings Coach/statue Bud Grant look emotional. Worse, he never calls out terrible plays – both physical or mental – and seems to dismiss garbage baseball as “part of the game.”
Neither of these negative attributes are fireable offenses, though.
Baldelli is a good manager. Players love him. They want to play for him. He is flexible and allows them to select preparation that fits their needs. He maximized player abilities in 2019, getting the most out of Miguel Sano, Mitch Garver and Max Kepler.
All good things must come to an end, though. And Baldelli’s millennial approach to players might not be as conducive to good baseball as it once was. This year, many players aren’t properly prepared for games. Too often, players seem to be using their first at-bat to “learn” about a pitcher’s repertoire instead of reviewing the scouting reports. Players appear ok with early-inning strikeouts since they’ve seen the stuff. It’s not a stretch to assume many Twins are taking advantage of Rocco’s laissez faire approach to being game ready.
Also, Rocco’s concern for injured players seems incredibly detrimental to the team, particularly given how the roster has been assembled. The Front Office has routinely preferred more pitchers and a short bench. But Red-Cross Rocco sits players if they report a hangnail. Worse, he won’t even consider them for pinch hitting or late-inning defense. There have been over a dozen instances this season when Baldelli has chosen to pinch hit a weaker bat instead of a resting star who is at 90 percent. All for the sake of future health. In a year where rosters are 26 players deep, the Twins have been playing with 22 or 23 players.
Is Baldelli having a bad year? Absolutely. When the leader of the team forgets how many mound visits have been made, it’s a bad, bad look. The Twins in many ways have played the way Baldelli has managed this year: haphazardly, unevenly and obliviously. Baldelli certainly has the ability to manage better than he has. But when his contract ends, the Twins must decide whether he is the best fit for the club. Their decision will be huge because this team is on the precipice of irrelevancy.
David Weinshilboum lives in California and bemoans this year’s Twins ineptitude from afar. Follow @weinshie on Twitter.