We’re now over 30 games into the season and Rocco Baldelli’s club is nearly double-digit games out of first place in the division. The story this offseason was one of winning a playoff game, but at this point getting there looks like a herculean feat. A week ago, I wrote about where blame should fall for this debacle. Taking that a step further, which players have regressed the most, and should we have seen it coming?
Back in 2019 the Twins inked Kepler to a five-year contract extension. They had a corner outfielder that had done just enough but was looking to breakthrough. They gambled right and that season the German-native posted an .855 OPS. Since that season he’s played in 72 games and posted just a .720 OPS. Although the .760 OPS in 2020 was still a step forward from where he’d been previously, Minnesota was going to need more in the year ahead. He’s responded but hitting below the Mendoza Line with an OPS of .642. He’s got just two homers in 99 plate appearances and the power potential has been all but sapped.
Kepler has struggled at times against lefties in his career, even to the point of being platooned for a period. He’s become an advanced defender, but he’s stretched a bit in centerfield, and it has put his body in more of a demanding scenario as well. It’s one thing when he’s hitting at the bottom of the lineup, but this is a guy the Twins groomed to hit leadoff or for power in the middle, and he’s become anything but. At 28 there’s still time, but it’s getting late early on the 2021 campaign.
Arguably one of the most frustrating players in recent Twins memory, there is no one more of a lightning rod for criticism than Sano is. Despite a .923 OPS across 105 games two years ago, the guy has never been given grace. He’s allowed laziness and character issues to creep in off the field, and even after turning a corner there, performance took a step backwards.
Getting off to a late start due to Covid in 2020, Sano has doubled down in 2021. He’s got an unacceptable .496 OPS and looks completely overmatched at the plate. No longer is he able to catch up to fastballs, and while the season started with a strong walk inducing plate discipline, he now looks to be up there flailing. This is a guy that went from Nelson Cruz protégé to someone that could wind up being a lost cause for the organization. Like Kepler, he too is just 28, but at bats are now no longer guaranteed for the first basemen and it’s on him to re-earn any semblance of trust.
This is arguably the most surprising. Over 81.2 innings the past two seasons Duffey transformed himself into one of baseball’s best relievers. He owned a 2.31 ERA bolstered by a 12.5 K/9 and a 2.2 BB/9. The stuff was electric, he had strong command of it, and hitters found themselves looking like something close to an automatic out when he was on the bump.
A 5.25 ERA isn’t overtly concerning across just 12.0 IP, but the lack of command and dominance is certainly a problem. Duffey has just a 10/9 K/BB this season and is seemingly not able to get batters to miss the ball. His 9.0 H/9 simply won’t play, and for a guy that was counted on to be a key back-end bullpen piece, Baldelli has been left searching for even more answers with one of his key cogs becoming completely unreliable.
I’m not certain that regression is entirely fair here for Garver as it depends on what the expectation was. I think it’s fair to suggest that his .995 OPS in 2019 wasn’t indicative of the player he is, just as the .511 mark battling through a core injury wasn’t a season ago. He’s since turned it on a bit and now owns a .733 OPS, but the 32/7 K/BB just isn’t reflective of the hitter we once saw.
For Garver it doesn’t seem the problem is so much that he’s struggled with what to attack, but instead has been unable to attack the same pitches he once could. Previously hunting and crushing fastballs, he’s sat on that pitch in 2021 but been able to do little with it. Having dealt with a couple of bumps and bruises, it hasn’t been a fluid start to the year, but he could certainly ride some momentum back towards an acceptable output.
Looking at the names above, I think they’re probably listed in order of impact and surprise. Kepler hasn’t been good for going on two years now, but he’s also been asked to do substantially more defensively and the level of consistency when getting to the ballpark hasn’t been there. Sano’s ceiling has long been established, and when the bottom falls out of a player like that it crashes hard. For Duffey there has to be a tweak that allows something better the rest of the way, and Garver isn’t far off from what should’ve been expected from him.
All in all, the Minnesota Twins are where they are because the core players in their lineup and on the roster have fallen flat. Steps back should always be expected, but by virtually everyone at the same time, that’s pretty difficult to overcome.