What if I told you a year ago that 2021 would be a weird year for the Twins, knowing full well that you’d just been through what most likely was the weirdest year of your life? I promise this isn’t another column about time travel.
What if, in December of 2020, I showed up in your inbox to tell you that: Cy Young runner up Kenta Maeda would not repeat his brilliance, injuries would ravage any pitching depth the Twins had, the club would finish 5th of 5 AL Central teams, Byron Buxton would sign on for the long term in Minnesota, José Berríos would sign on for the long term in Toronto, and MLB dot com’s Twins beat writer Do-Hyoung Park would be a contestant on the TV gameshow Jeopardy?
Such a strange sequence of predictions…
Well, that’s what we’ve got, and if you’ll excuse my recency bias with the last one, I still am a little dumbstruck that my friend and colleague, Do-Hyoung Park, will fulfill his dream and compete on Jeopardy.
(Do went to Stanford and is very bright. Perhaps more on that in future columns if my current predictions comes true that he’s bound to rattle off a little winning streak.)
In light of all that, I got to thinking about things that surprised me about the Twins this year.
Of course I was surprised by a 5th place finish. I thought they’d win the division. I was surprised by the pitching meltdown, not the least of which was Kenta Maeda struggling so, right after pitching brilliantly in the shortened 2020 season. I was surprised to watch a team that once appeared so veteran and secure instead make mistake after mistake in the field on the bases. Having said all of that, I was perhaps most surprised that there were no apparent and obvious reasons as to why any of that had happened.
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This column presents 5 Thoughts on the biggest surprises – to me – from the 2021 Twins.
1. Do-Hyoung Park will be a contestant on Jeopardy!
Sorry, I know we’ve been over this. I still can’t quite wrap my head around that one.
2. Josh Donaldson finished the season healthy and crushing it.
If this sounds like an attempt to damn with faint praise, it isn’t. I really was impressed with Donaldson’s season, and I think it’s worth pointing out because of how much flak he gets as the team’s highest-paid player.
JD smoked a double in his first plate appearance of the season off of Brandon Woodruff. Rounding first base, his hamstring grabbed. Injury prone? Impacts on muscles of the weird 2020 season? A sign of age-related decline because the mind is willing but the body is no longer as able as it once was?
Longtime readers can back me up on this one. When the Twins signed Donaldson after the 2019 season, I thought it was a good move. Of course, along with the rest of you, I thought they’d have been better off with a big-money pitcher, but we know how that played out. Of the remaining available options, I thought the Twins were better off with Donaldson than without him. I also remember being vocal about the risks of a contract like that for a player like Donaldson in his mid-30’s. I even asked Donaldson about it in his introductory press conference. ‘Most guys are shutting it down in their mid-30’s, what makes you confident in your ability to perform beyond that age on this 4-year deal?’ I didn’t mean it disrespectfully, I was just trying to get to the point in a limited time. And he gave a very thoughtful answer about the sacrifices he’s made in his life to get to this stage, including his diet and overall physical care, suggesting that he wasn’t chapped by the line of the question.
A cynic might suggest that a 4-year deal like that is signed by a team expecting two good seasons on the front end, and the club would be willing to pay for the two following years of decline for the opportunity. That cynic, then, would be disappointed that the first year of this deal – his age-34 season – was dented in part by a global pandemic and partly by injury. So when that hamstring grabbed on opening day, that cynic may have just given up on Donaldson.
This Thought #2 is aimed at that cynic.
I still think the contract was a risk for the Twins, and I still wonder what the future holds. But at this checkpoint we need to acknowledge that Donaldson just had a relatively healthy and productive season at the plate. The former American League MVP hit .247/.352/.475, good for a .353 Weighted On-Base Average, which was third best in the A.L. among third baseman. And note, too, that only nine third baseman had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title; Donaldson was one of them, with 543 plate appearances. His wOBA was tied for 23rd among all A.L. hitters, narrowly edging out teammate and team MVP, Jorge Polanco (.349).
Clearly he was one of the Twins’ best hitters, and we’ll just reinforce that point here that he earned that good batting line with Minnesota’s second-best barrel rate, 11.2%, behind only Byron Buxton.
The “surprise” here isn’t that Donaldson can be a good hitter. He’s shown that over and over. The point here is that Donaldson, 35, has still got it, and that he showed that while playing 135 games – a total he’s topped just twice since he won that MVP award in 2015.
To do that, he overcame that early hamstring injury, dodged a more extended absence for injuries in July and August, and leaned heavily on the DH vacancy after Nelson Cruz was traded to the Rays. He was held out of the lineup immediately before and after the trade deadline because of a sore hamstring. He was in-and-out in early August, and he returned as a fixture on Aug. 13. From that mid-August point on, he started 46 of the team’s final 47 games – his lone miss was the first game of a doubleheader Sept. 14. Donaldson was the team’s DH for 26 of the final 47 games.
“I couldn’t run the way I needed to or wanted to,” Donaldson said on The Compound podcast earlier this winter, “… but I could still drive the ball, and if I could hit a homer or a for-sure double without hurting myself, I felt like I was OK [to play the rest of the season]. That’s going to be my emphasis [this winter] because I still feel like I have a lot left in the tank, it’s just about keeping my legs healthy.”
In that 6-week stretch to close his 2021 campaign, The 35-Year-Old Bringer of Rain hit .256/.348/.494 with 10 homers in 198 plate appearances, a .364 wOBA, which would have tied him with J.D. Martinez and Carlos Correa for 29th in the Majors, just behind Marcus Semien and Mookie Betts.
So anyway, respect.