The Twins reached a new high-water mark over the weekend against the Seattle Mariners, when Saturday’s laugher of a victory put the team 15 games above .500. They’re showing no signs of settling for an average record this season.
How did this happen?
Who gets the credit?
That’s what we’ll be asking on the outside. It could go on for quite some time, given how this team is assuring us it will be relevant when the leaves turn colors.
The question that the Twins ought to be asking themselves internally is simpler.
“Who cares? Let’s keep a good thing going!”
This column presents 5 thoughts from the weekend the Twins played in Seattle.
It’s an age-old question in baseball. Probably because it’s an unknowable truth. Rocco deserves credit. The way he’s handled this group of Major Leaguers and coaches and support staff will get its due praise in time, as the Twins continue to thrust themselves to the center of the national baseball conversation. And it’s also fair to say that if you gave Paul Molitor this group of players, he would have had a good record, too. This isn’t a column about Molitor but just remember that point.
How is Rocco doing with the Twins? Most would agree he’s been a positive addition, and some would go as far as to argue that this blistering start wouldn’t have happened without his leadership. The truth lies somewhere in between, and from my chair one of his biggest real attributes to this point is his ability and willingness to hear the input from a diverse group of voices – coaches, players and front office alike – and somehow rest at the center of a group currently pulling in the same direction. It sounds basic and it’s not. That sentence is relatively easy to write and incredibly difficult to pull off in real life.
How does Baldelli compare with first-year manager Brandon Hyde in Baltimore? Or his good friend Charlie Montoyo in Toronto? Different situations, so it’s difficult to compare. Mickey Callaway in New York? David Bell in Cincinnati? The two things that we can say after roughly 7 weeks of Baldelli’s rookie season is that he appears to be a good fit for this group, and his club has been the most successful of any that were looking for a new skipper over the winter. Obviously that makes him a candidate for A.L. Manager of the Year in this way-too-early, just-for-fun thought exercise.
It was evident in spring training that Derek Shelton is a critical and respected member of the coaching staff. (One of the beauties of Baldelli as a leader is that he’d use those two adjectives to explain every one of his coaches.)
Would the Twins be one of the best offensive clubs in baseball without the tireless work of hitting coaches James Rowson and Rudy Hernandez?
Again, it’s difficult to parse out and separate the involvement from the success. (Example: Did Nelson Cruz need to be told how to hit?) But this is one of those baseball clichés that I don’t believe should be dismissed out of hand. When a group like this has pulled together and is almost without exception bruising baseballs, hitting home runs and very often finding the sweet spot of the bat, I think we can go beyond saying, “The Twins just hired a bunch of good hitters.”
I think we can say a few things. The Twins hired a bunch of good hitters; Most of them are within that range of MLB experience when you’ve either figured out that you’re a good player or you’re doing something else with your life; and the Twins also have hired a support staff around those hitters to help them try to express the best version of themselves. The ones that deserve credit are probably too numerous to name for the purposes of this column, but that will be a fun story to write one day.
If I was the Twins I might hope that people like Rowson and Shelton don’t become hot managerial candidates this winter. But I’d understand if that came to pass.
Actually, the story of this team is multifold. It’s home runs, it’s general offensive production; it’s bounceback candidates fulfilling their promise; it’s young-ish players coming together; it’s pitching; it’s clutch performances; it’s analytics being put to practice better than at any other point in Twins history. So, the story is layered. And yet, the story is home runs.
The Twins already have hit 87 homers, second in baseball behind only the Mariners’ 90. Seeing as Seattle has played more games, it’s fair to point out that Minnesota actually is first in home run rate on a per-game basis. Their current trajectory of 1.89 bombs per contest has the club on pace to slug 306 home runs over a full season. Some have even begun referring to this group as the Bomb Squad. There’s a rumor floating around the clubhouse that some people are calling them Baldelli’s Bombers, a name the manager surely detests for his inclusion in it.
According to Baseball Almanac, the franchise record for home runs in a season was 225, set in 1963. We hope the Twins are ready to tip their cap this summer to the crew that involved great players like Bob Allison, Tony Oliva, Zoilo Versalles, Earl Battey and Harmon Killebrew. Because this summer’s team is cruising past that mark.
Some will cry foul that this is a different era. Yeah, well baseball is always changing. And the Twins didn’t get a say in the specs of the ball coming into the season. Even if this version of the standardized baseball is juiced, as many have alleged, Twins fans ought to be in for a fun summer.
Gotta hand it to the Twins: They picked a great time to build a club that can leave the park at will. And developing the swings and approaches to get it done.
Twins fans are in for a fun summer of juicy, flying baseballs.
— Derek Wetmore (@DerekWetmore) May 19, 2019
Buxton, the long-awaited star at the center of things for years for the Twins, has arrived. He’s experiencing the most prolonged breakout of his career. And it feels like every time someone redoubles their skepticism that this is for real this time, Buxton shrugs and redoubles his efforts.
The exclamation mark just might have been that 4-run four-bagger hit in Seattle. Earlier in the week he’d homered to center-right-center to stretch a Twins lead into Officially Out of Reach territory. That felt like a big moment, after he’d spent the first six weeks acting like the best centerfielder in baseball and pulling doubles to the vacant areas of left field. So then Buxton goes into a plate appearances with the bases full of teammates to a spot in the order that historically has represented a soft underbelly of even the powerful lineups. This Twins team is an exception. Because the Twins’ No. 9 hitter is Byron Buxton. And Buxton himself seems like an exception.
The Twins were up 1-0 and had Wade LeBlanc on the ropes with the bases full of Twins, when the lefty left a spinny slider in the middle of the plate and Buxton walloped it. 5-0.
It might get forgotten to an extent because the Twins broke out for one of their biggest offensive nights in recent memory. It’s just that later this season we might look back on that grand slam in the middle of May as an important moment for this club.
Not since 2013 has Castro put together a great season with the bat. He’d become known as a cerebral veteran with a defensive presence and a top-flight ability to work with pitchers to get the best results out of their arsenal.
Since Garver got cut down at the plate and Shohei Ohtani’s slide sprained his ankle, Twins catchers have combined to hit .263/.348/.789. Look past the batting average, if you would, and observe that on-base threat and eye-catching power. It’s not a big sample, but within the 5-for-23 with 3 home runs, 8 runs driven in and 7 runs scored, Castro and backup Willians Astudillo have help mitigate the loss of one of the best hitters in baseball, Mitch Garver.
In fact, depending on how you keep score, Castro himself is one of the best hitters in baseball.
A lot of front offices use a stat called “wOBA” to measure offensive production. It’s short for Weighted On-Base Average and it’s fun to say out loud. In short, it combines on-base and slugging percentage and gives more credit to the things that are more important for creating runs, since that’s the ultimate measurement of offense in baseball. Think of it like a better version of OPS, which simply tries to force a combination (with addition) of two stats that are not alike.
Garver leads the American League with his .475 wOBA, and you’d likely recognize the rest of the names in the top-10.
The year he made the all-star team with the Astros, Castro hit .276/.350/.485 in addition to his trademark work with a catcher’s mitt. This year he’s even better at getting on base and substantially better at hitting balls that result in extra bases. The Twins’ primary catcher is currently batting .246/.370/.656, and the injury to Garver will force him into a more regular role with added playing time.
What’s the tradeoff? Will higher demands (and less rest) mean diminished returns? Will Castro continue to hit like prime Mike Piazza? Is any of his production a function of the baseball? The new way of playing baseball? A product of hitting 8th in a remarkably deep and powerful lineup?
All I know right now is that Castro has been exceptional for the Twins. And that in any other season he might be the story. What’s made this season special to date is that the incredible Castro breakout is just one of a couple dozen storylines.