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Twins in the 2000s: The 2017 Season


The Minnesota Twins make history! Yes, you read that correctly.

 

The 2017 Twins became the first MLB team ever to make the playoffs following a 100-loss season. Paul Molitor turned his team around for a playoff run that ended as quickly as it started, at the hands of some familiar foes.We're running a 20-part series in which we look back at each Minnesota Twins season of the 2000s. A rotation of different writers will highlight key moments, unearth forgotten details, and share nostalgic tales from the past two decades leading up to the present. This installment covers the 2017 season.

 

Team Record: 85-77

Finish: 2nd Place in AL Central (Won 2nd Wild Card)

All Star(s): Ervin Santana (P), Brandon Kintzler (P), Miguel Sanó (3B)

Awards: Brian Dozier (Gold Glove, 2B), Byron Buxton (Gold Glove, CF), Paul Molitor (Manager of the Year)

Playoffs: Lost to NYY in A.L. Wild Card Game

 

Season Overview

 

From a 100-loss season to making the playoffs as a wild-card, there was a big shift in just one year for Paul Molitor and the Minnesota Twins. They were mired in a six-year playoff drought heading into 2017, with a lot of young prospects looking for breakout seasons. From 2014 to 2016, we saw many of the key components of the current Twins team make their MLB debuts as a new talent core started to come together.

 

After a detrimental 2016 season, these young prospects saw an increase in their playing time across the board while finding more stability defensively.

  • Center fielder Byron Buxton was one of the top prospects coming into the league when he debuted in 2015. Though he struggled early in his career, he took a big step forward in 2017, especially in a spectacular second half that earned him MVP votes. His power continued to increase as he lowered his strikeout percentage. Meanwhile he fully established himself as an elite center fielder, earning not only the AL Gold Glove in center but also a Platinum Glove as baseball's best overall defender.
  • At 23, shortstop Jorge Polanco was already in his fourth season in MLB (he played just nine games his first two) and finally solidified his spot on the roster. Signs of his budding power were apparent with 46 extra-base hits, and the switch-hitter showed strong contact ability with a 15% strikeout rate.
  • With Miguel Sanó's right field experiment thankfully in the rear-view mirror, he started coming into his own as a third baseman. At the plate he was a prototypical strikeout-prone slugger, hitting 28 homers and striking out 173 times in just 114 games. Now right field belonged to Max Kepler, who showed modest improvement in his sophomore season. He dropped his K-rate a little, but didn’t draw as many walks. Defensively he was outstanding.
  • Left fielder Eddie Rosario had his breakout season in 2017, clubbing 27 home runs and 33 doubles while ranking second on the team with a career-high .290 average. His glove was a mixed bag, as he finished with a -11 for Defensive Runs Saved Above Average.

When talking about this turnaround for the Twins, it’s almost impossible to leave out Joe Mauer, who nostalgically led the team in average (.305). At 34 years of age, he had his best post-catcher season. Mauer hit above .300 for the first time as a first baseman. While he hit only seven home runs, his 36 doubles tied for second-most in his career. Defensively he was impressive and many felt he deserved a Gold Glove (Eric Hosmer won it).

 

In the rotation, Ervin Santana led the way, putting forth a tremendous campaign that harkened back to Twins workhorse starters of the early 2000s. In what would be his last successful major-league season (to date), Santana logged 211 and 1/3 innings with five complete games and three shutouts. At 34 he was an All-Star and finished seventh in AL Cy Young voting.

 

He was joined atop the rotation by José Berríos, who turned the corner after a brutal rookie year. Berríos posted a 3.89 ERA and 1.23 WHIP while winning 14 of his 25 starts. He allowed only 15 home runs in 145 2/3 innings.

 

Fueled by a powerful offense, with 10 players reaching double-digit homers, and a patchwork pitching staff behind Santana and Berríos, with Brandon Kintzler coming out of nowhere as an All-Star closer and the ageless Bartolo Colon contributing as a starter in the second half, the Twins were massively improved from 2016. Still, they found themselves three games under .500 and seven games out of first place when the deadline arrived. Here, a clash between the clubhouse leader and his new bosses emerged.

 

The new front office, led by Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, went into sell mode, trading newly acquired starter Jaime García for to New York for prospects (including right-hander Zack Littell). Clubhouse leader Brian Dozier, sporting a .767 OPS at the end of July in a stark dropoff from 2016's brilliance, voiced his dismay. And he backed it up.

 

Dozier slashed .314/.411/.605 with 17 homers in 56 games after August 1st as the Twins went 34-22 and locked up one of the American League's two wild-card bids. Come October 3rd, they found themselves facing off against the league's other wild-card winner: the New York Yankees. Minnesota had lost nine straight playoff games to the Yankees.

 

In the top of the first, it looked like things might be different this year. Dozier did exactly what he did best: leadoff home run. (He toppled Jacque Jones' team record with his 21st in July.) Soon after, Rosario sent a ball out for a two-run homer and the Twins had an early 3-0 lead. Yankees stud right-hander Luis Severino didn’t even finish the first inning. But Santana – who it later turned out was bothered by a finger issue – fell just like his opponent did, and the game was tied after the first. By the fourth inning the Yankees had a 7-4 lead, and by the time it was over the Twins lost 8-4. Another fun season ended at the hands of New York.

 

Team MVP: Brian Dozier (2B)

 

Other Contenders: Byron Buxton (CF), Ervin Santana (SP), Joe Mauer (1B), Eddie Rosario (LF)

 

Dozier was a menace at the plate and in the field in the 2017 season. He turned 30 in the second month of the season but continued to show improvements on offense. While he didn't match his 42 home runs from 2016, his late surge allowed him to knock out a team-high 34.

 

That wasn’t the only category he led in. Dozier also paced the lineup in RBIs (93), runs scored (106), and walks (78). He finished second behind Buxton with 16 steals. With a strong defensive showing, Dozier won his first Gold Glove award, committing only five errors in 151 starts at second. Alongside Buxton he became the first Twins Gold Glover since Mauer in 2010.

 

Dozier's individual performance in 2017 wasn't quite as amazing as 2016, but it was infinitely more impactful for the team as he – with help from Buxton, Santana, Mauer, Rosario and others of course – willed the Twins to their first postseason berth in seven years.

 

3 Most Pivotal Games

 

July 30th: Lost @ Oakland Athletics, 6-5

 

After resiliently battling through the first four months, the Twins saw their season slipping away as the trade deadline arrived. Ten days earlier, they were a half-game out of first place, and now suddenly that deficit had grown to seven games.

 

On this date, July 30th, the Twins traded Garcia – whom they'd acquired less than a week earlier – to New York in a clear pivot from buy to sell mode. Meanwhile, the team suffered its third walk-off loss in four games, with Yonder Alonso's homer off Tyler Duffey in the 12th sealing Minnesota's 15th loss of July. Dozier, who openly begrudged the García trade, struck out five times.

 

August 6th: Won vs Texas Rangers, 6-5

 

One week later, Minnesota was four games under .500. After Berríos gave up five runs in the first inning courtesy of two home runs, the Twins were on the ropes. Berríos bounced back with four shutout innings while Kepler and Dozier each hit two-run homers to cut the lead. Rosario drew things tied with a solo shot in the third, Robbie Grossman added a go-ahead RBI single in the fifth, and the bullpen shut down Texas to close out the game.

 

This began a season-high six-game win streak for the Twins, during which they moved above .500 for good and cut Cleveland's division lead down to 3 1/2 games.

 

September 17th: Won vs Toronto Blue Jays, 13-7

 

With only 14 games left in the season, and the division out of reach thanks to Cleveland's 22-game win streak, Minnesota sat just one game ahead for the second wild-card spot. In this contest against Toronto, the Twins scored in only two innings but made 'em count, with seven runs in the second and six in the fifth. Rosario homered twice while Mauer drove in five.

 

Though the Twins followed with a sweep in New York (foreshadowing!), they never saw their wild-card lead drop below 1 1/2 games again. They would finish five games ahead of the Angels to secure the second spot.

 

Unforgettable Highlights

 

Mauer’s First Career Walk-off Home Run

 

In his 14th MLB season, the Minnesota legend Mauer was still without a walk-off home run. On May 5th, that all changed. The Twins took a 3-1 lead into the ninth, but Kintzler blew a rare save by giving up two runs to tie the game. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Mauer stepped up to the plate. On a 1-2 count, he belted a high fastball out into the right-field bullpen for his first ever walk off home run in a 4-3 win.

 

Ervin Santana's Shutouts

 

In a career season, the veteran Santana pitched recorded three complete-game shutouts. His first came against the White Sox on April 15th, when he gave up just one hit and walked one batter. On May 23rd, he walked two and gave up two hits against the Baltimore Orioles. His last came on June 9th, against the San Francisco Giants where he gave up four hits and walked just one batter.

 

Byron Bustin' Around the Bases

 

The year prior, Buxton went from home-to-home for an inside-the-park homer in 14.05 seconds for a Statcast record. On August 18th against the Diamondbacks, Buxton broke his own record by racing around the bases in just 13.85 seconds.

 

 

Gold Glove Double Dip

 

As mentioned earlier, Buxton and Dozier both received of Gold Glove Awards, ending a six-year dry spell for the franchise. It was the first time since 2007, when Torii Hunter and Johan Santana earned the honor, that the Twins had two Gold Glove winners in the same season.

 

Paul Molitor's Redemption

 

After one of the worst seasons in Twins history, Molitor turned his team completely around. While working under new baseball ops leadership (which had been mandated to keep him in place), he oversaw a 26-win improvement on his way to winning AL Manager of the Year. The Twins became the first team to ever make the playoffs following a 100-loss season, even if it was short-lived.

 

One Detail You Probably Forgot

 

Though he didn’t do much in this season, and wasn’t called up until the middle of August, a future stud arrived. Mitch Garver made his debut on August 19th when he came in to pinch-hit against the Diamondbacks in a 5-0 win. He totaled only 52 plate appearances with nine hits for slash line of .196/.288/.348. Two years later he would turn in one of the better offensive seasons by a catcher in team (and league) history.

 

Fun Fact

 

The Twins started out the season with a three-game sweep against the Kansas City Royals. It was Minnesota's first time opening with brooms since 2007 when they swept the Orioles.

 

~~~

Previous Installments:

 

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Look at the AL standings that year. It was an unusual season. There were 2 very good teams (Hou and Cle), 2 good teams (Bos and NYY), 2 bad teams (CWS and Det), and 9 mediocre teams. Any of those 9 teams could have been the second Wild Card depending on how the flukes of a long season happened to occur. Of those 9 teams the Twins just happened to be the one that had the least bad luck on their side.

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