It's Now or Never for Rocco Baldelli
Rocco Baldelli has been a polarizing figure in Twins Territory since his 2019 managerial debut. His new-school, analytics-forward approach led the Twins to back-to-back AL Central crowns in Baldelli’s first two seasons at the helm. Since then, the Twins have disappointed with consecutive sub-.500 seasons, including a last place finish in the 2021 AL Central.
Entering his fifth season as manager, Baldelli needs to demonstrate that he is a source of success, not an obstacle that Twins players need to overcome.
Why is the jury still out on Rocco? Let’s argue both sides of his case.
(Rah-Rah Rocco) Supporters might say…
Baldelli debuted in 2019 by taking over a team that went 78-84 a year earlier and immediately winning 101 games, overseeing the franchise’s first 100-win season since 1965. This feat won him AL Manager of the Year. For his second act, Rocco skillfully handled the extreme roster flux of the Covid-shortened 2020 season to repeat as AL Central champs.
Modern baseball favors data-savvy franchises, and Baldelli is the quintessential modern manager. He began his coaching career with the Tampa Bay Rays, getting an inside look at the small-market franchise best at using analytics to squeeze extra wins out of every dollar they spend. The Twins’ payroll will always be middling; they need a manager who knows how to leverage the troves of data at their disposal. Baldelli embraces data and uses analytics to optimize his players’ probabilities of success, even if that sometimes means pulling his starting pitcher after four or five effective innings.
Next point: Twins players like playing for Rocco. He’s a relatable 41-year-old former player who keeps things light in the clubhouse. Manager-player chemistry isn’t insignificant. Last year’s White Sox showed how a rift between manager and players can create an on-field disaster. Byron Buxton has blossomed under Rocco, who lets Buck swing freely and tap into his extraordinary athleticism. Meanwhile, after one year under Baldelli, Carlos Correa re-signed with the club knowing Baldelli would be leading the team going forward.
During his two losing seasons, Baldelli was tormented by injuries. In 2021, Twins players missed more games due to injury than any other team in the AL Central (see the data here). And last season, the Twins were the most injury-plagued team in MLB, missing out on 10.06 wins due to injury, according to this analysis. Rocco was forced to regularly trot out lineups featuring the likes of Rob Refsnyder, Jake Cave, Gilberto Celestino, and other backups while his team sputtered. It’s not the manager’s fault when they don’t have any good buttons to press.
Rocco Baldelli ranks 10th in managerial wins in Twins/Senators franchise history. If he wins 91 games this season, Baldelli would vault himself up to 6th place all time.
(Boo Baldelli) Haters might say…
Ah yes, 2019, the glorious year of the hyperbouncy baseball and the Bomba Squad. If you hired a squirrel to be an MLB manager and its team set an MLB record by hitting 307 homeruns in 162 games, the squirrel would probably have a division championship on its managerial resume. Baldelli deserves little credit for the Twins’ 2019 AL Central crown. Sure, Rocco followed up 2019 with another division title in 2020, but are we certain that a 60-game MLB season packed with Covid-list absences means anything in the big picture? And Baldelli is 0-5 in the playoffs, after all!
In the post-2020 world, Baldelli’s teams have consistently underperformed. Twins ownership is spending more money than ever before, only to be rewarded with two losing seasons.
Baldelli’s offenses never bunt or steal to stimulate run-scoring, despite mediocre offensive numbers. The Twins ranked 14th and 17th in runs scored in 2021 and 2022, respectively. And Baldelli’s knack for prematurely pulling starting pitchers hasn’t paid off either, with his pitching staffs finishing 26th and 19th in ERA during those two seasons. His overreliance on underperforming veteran relievers has cost the team wins. It’s impossible to forget Alex Colomé blowing save after save to start the 2021 season. More recently, Emilio Pagán has filled the role of overused bullpen punching bag.
Baldelli’s in-game pitching management clearly rubs some players the wrong way. Earlier this week Sonny Gray effectively called out Baldelli, saying this year’s starting staff won’t take kindly to being yanked early.
An MLB manager should subtly complement their roster like a fine wine accents a good meal. Instead, Baldelli is a pungent sauce that smothers everything on its plate.
It’s time for a verdict.
Personally, I’m conflicted about Baldelli. I support using analytics to supplement decision making and I value his management style. He’s data-savvy with good vibes, but his in-game tactics seem to consistently backfire.
Barring a World Series title, Baldelli will continue to have his detractors; however, a successful 2023 season would do a lot to lend him legitimacy as Twins manager. If the Twins instead miss the playoffs for a third straight season, Baldelli’s tenure in Minnesota will probably come to an end.
Bottom line, Baldelli is out of excuses. The Twins have two bona fide stars in Buxton and Correa. The front office built a pitching rotation that is at least six deep, and the Twins’ bench is full of starting-caliber position players. Heading into the 2023 season, Baldelli’s control panel has more buttons, levers, and switches than ever before. If he is indeed the man for the job, Baldelli needs to prove that he can press the buttons, pull the levers, and flip the switches that spur his team to a postseason berth (and a freaking playoff win!!).
It’s go time, Rocco.