The Minnesota Twins are headed to the 2023 Major League Baseball Playoffs. This phrase should excite and inspire Twins fans of all generations, but the reality is that as the playoffs approach a Twins fan who knows history can't help but feel some fear and trembling. Nobody wants to face the potential for another year of failure, losses, records in futility, and missed opportunities.
For those bold enough to ask new questions, however, the 2023 Twins present an exciting team with a real shot at making a run towards the World Series. The answers that Twins fans want to give this winter depend upon the Twins finding a way to tackle three key “new” questions during this postseason run.
New Question #1: What will the Twins do to adjust their lineups for success when the lights aren't on?
It would be easy to focus upon the pressure of full stadiums and bright lights when we get to playoff time, but the odds are that most of the Twins early rounds of playoff games will take place in the afternoon. Due to the fact that the Twins' fan base pales in comparison on a national scale, the prime time spots will probably go to other teams. Therefore, the Twins would do well to consider how to put their best mid-day roster forward as they seek to break the playoff losing streak.
The Twins played 64 day games in the 2023 campaign before last week’s action, and the day/night splits provide considerable data worth reckoning with. In the day time, Matt Wallner rakes to a 1.004 OPS, while dropping to .753 when night falls. In another case of reverse-dracula splits, Alex Kirilloff achieved a .924 OPS during the sunlit hours while shrinking to .693 in the night time hours. The hero of our hearts, Royce Lewis, also is not immune to the hours of the day. Lewis slugged his way to an impressive 1.027 OPS at night, while only scrapping .749 during the day. Max Kepler rounds out our vampire statistics by hitting .945 OPS in the evening, while melting to .565 during afternoon play.
Ryan Jeffers, Jorge Polanco, Carlos Correa, and Michael A. Taylor all prefer the night when it comes to providing consistent offense. Will this keep them out of the playoff lineup during day game heavy series? No, but perhaps it should influence pinch hitting. Edouard Julien, Byron Buxton, and Joey Gallo are the only Twins batters to show consistent performance as clearly in the night as they do during the day. We can argue about whether or not Buxton’s or Gallo’s current consistency is the kind we want in the playoffs. Julien is the only Twins guaranteed to be available at the moment, and has earned the right to be penciled in regardless of scheduled first pitch time.
Pitchers are not immune to the sands in the hour glass either. In fact, the results bare out even starker splits. Those who show reverse-dracula splits (performing better in the daytime) are Brent Headrick (2.25 ERA in daytime/11.70 at night), Dylan Floro (2.57 ERA in daytime/9.39 at night), and Dallas Keuchel (2.21 ERA in daytime/11.70 at night)! While all three of those hurlers might not even be on the Twins pitching staff in the playoffs, maybe they should be if the Twins see multiple daytime games in the schedule. Emilio Pagan (6.12 ERA at night, 1.41 during the day), Kenta Maeda (5.40 ERA at night, 3.38 during the day), Sonny Gray (3.47 ERA at night, 2.02 during the day), and Pablo Lopez (4.25 ERA at night, 3.20 during the day) definitely will be on the roster, and their splits bode well for the Twins in the early rounds of the playoffs.
The vampires of the Twins pitching staff are Caleb Theilbar (2.40 ERA during the day/ 1.46 at night) and Brock Stewart (1.74 ERA during the day/ 0.00 at night!), but their results are awesome any way you split it, and that bodes well for breaking the playoff curse as well!
New Question #2: What "earns" a Twins player the right to be in the lineup for the 2023 playoffs?
Even the casual Twins fan has noted that rookies are driving the offense in 2023, but will they still be in the lineup when Game 1 of the postseason finally rolls around?
Lewis, Julien, Wallner, and even Kirilloff to a certain mathematical extent fit the rookie bill. Playoffs tend to tighten up the roster, and drive the opportunities towards the veterans who have paid their dues over the course of many seasons. For every Jeremy Pena, Randy Arozarena, and Kyle Schwarber there are hundreds of mid-level journeymen and all-star level veterans that take up the majority of playoff at-bats.
The last time the Twins had a shot at winning a game in the postseason, Kirilloff surprisingly got the nod and sent Eddie Rosario to the pine. Kirilloff responded with a bases loaded pop up, and Rosario responded with an NL Championship MVP and World Series ring with the Braves. The trivia answer "the first player to make his major league debut in the postseason" was a neat story at the time for Kirilloff in 2020, but its not the narrative that is playing out in 2023. The main four Twins rookies this season have combined for 1,078 plate appearances (Lewis 227, Wallner 213, Julien 354, Kirilloff 284). Add in Trevor Larnach's 188 from early in the season when he was the one carrying the offense, and the Twins find themselves with rookie bats that have experienced an unusual amount of seasoning and responsibility come playoff time. One need look no further than the weeping and gnashing of teeth that ensued when rookie Lewis had to leave the game due to injury Tuesday night in order to determine just how important the young talent has been to the Twins success both now and into any potential playoff matchup.
Manager Rocco Baldelli loves to pinch hit for these rookies based on pitching splits and game situations, but their success while in the lineup will be the necessary answer to the question "How did the Twins manage to start winning again in the playoffs in 2023?"
Which brings us to the most vital new question facing the Twins in the coming weeks...
New Question #3: Did the Twins win the season-long game of "injured list roulette"?
Buxton, Maeda, Stewart, Gordon, Taylor, Kirilloff, Lewis, Polanco, Farmer, Alcala, Paddock, Gallo, Correa...
In previous years, the focus might have been about who wasn't available for the playoff run. New Twins head trainer Nick Paparesta was brought in to change the question, and thereby change the Twins playoff answers. This hire didn't lead to less injuries, but it did lead to a shift in seasonal perspective. Time after time, a player's injury was discussed with the playoff timeline in mind regardless of how the club was doing at the time.
How does this impact the 2023 playoff roster? Twins fans will have to wait for a few more weeks to tell for sure. We know that Buxton will get thrown into center field at some point in the next week, but we don't know if he will be healthy enough to stay there. For now, a DH turn on Thursday night became the first step. We know Stewart is coming back to the bullpen, but we don't know if he will be able to regain his crucial role there. Chris Paddock is pitching with explosive energy, but we don't know where in the roster he will fit and if his arm will be able to hold on for a few more weeks. Is Maeda trending up or down? Will Nick Gordon find a place in the field or on the base paths? Will Lewis, Correa, Polanco, and Kirilloff's respective bodies hold up to the challenge of extra weeks of baseball around the infield? Can Jorge Alcala find the strike zone when he returns, and will Joey Gallo keep pitches from beating him in the zone?
Tyler Mahle and Jose Miranda won’t be helping the Twins break the curse. That much we know. Carlos Correa found his way to the injured list after his plantar fasciitis "popped" in Cincinnati, but as his teammates continue to point out: Carlos will not miss the playoffs even if he needs a wheelchair. Royce Lewis didn't find his way onto the IL in Cincinnati, but his presence for round one of the playoffs isn't a certainty. Again, the plan in place appears to be "get healthy for postseason" even with an outside chance of the second seed in front of the team.
Even amidst all of this uncertainty, one thing is clear. The Twins hope to be the healthiest on paper that they have been all season long when the first pitch of Game 1 of the 2023 playoffs is thrown. That was their plan all along, and it looks like it worked to the best that it could have given the circumstances and the fact that baseball is 162 games of constant sprints, stops, throws and lunges.
What do you think the answers will be as the Twins enter the 2023 playoffs? What questions did I miss?
Now its your turn Twins Territory, let us know what your answers to these three bold new questions would be. What did I overstate? Anything I missed? What questions keep you up at night, and what potential answers help you to wake up in the morning?
Ready or not, the 2023 playoffs are coming to Target Field. Here's to hoping that the Twins have what it takes to be ready to answer the bell whether it be day or night, rookie or veteran, full strength or walking wounded.