5 Thoughts: Austin Martin arrives, catchers raking, and Jorge Polanco appreciation

It was a big week in reflecting and looking toward the future for the Minnesota Twins. Topics today include Austin Martin, Ryan Jeffers, Mitch Garver, Jorge Polanco and Joe Ryan.

Three times in four tries the Twins beat the Astros this week in Houston, capping a good road trip with a series win against a good team. If your first thought is that I haven’t written many sentences like that this season, your first thought would be correct. In a One Series At a Time kind of world, the Twins have won 9 series in 35 tries – a 26% success rate.

Their win-loss record distracts from the points we’ll try to make and the painful, necessary lessons they should be learning this summer. But even so, it should be OK to feel good about a return home after a better road trip, and winning a series against a good team for the first time since the first series of the year. (Their other series wins: the Brewers, which I’m counting, then the Rangers, Orioles, Future Guardians twice, Royals, Tigers twice, and now the Astros.)

This column presents 5 Thoughts on the Twins with 50 games to go.

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1. Jorge Polanco is leading the charge.

In a season where you’re just hoping to see some positive signs before it’s all over, how about the spotlight-through-the-darkness bright spot that is Jorge Polanco? He’s had his adventures with the position change to second base to accommodate Andrelton Simmons, but Polanco has really come alive lately offensively.

A bad April at the plate dragged down his stats for a while. He’s been a monster since then. Starting May 1, the switch-hitter is cleaning up to the tune of .290/.352/.538, and his 19 home runs since that date are 16th most in the Majors. Of the players ahead of Polanco on that list, only four of them – Marcus Semien, Vlad Guerrero Jr., José Altuve and Austin Riley – have more hits than Polanco in that time frame.

What’s incredible is that Polanco’s name seems to come up even more than those gaudy stats would suggest, and that’s probably because he’s hitting a robust .341/.396/.659 with runners in scoring position. Oddly enough, Polanco has gotten better this season as the pressure has ratcheted up, contributing his best plate appearances in the highest leverage situations.

“Been good. I’ve been working on my approach at the plate with my hitting coaches, you know? It’s been fun, these last few months I feel really good,” Polanco said.

Some people would say that’s remarkable given the terrible year the Twins are having, they’d assume that Polanco is the only good thing going. But what’s actually remarkable is that the offense has been good. Even after losing Byron Buxton for most of the year and then trading Nelson Cruz – and for all the complaints about specific individual hitters that you read online – the fact remains that the Twins can score runs.

This Twins team ranks 2nd in the American League in home runs, they have the fourth-best strikeout rate, the fifth-best Weighted On-Base Average and currently sit 6th in runs scored.

If you’ve ever questioned how bad the pitching has gotten in 2021, that high-powered offense has won about 43% of its games and is 18 games out of first place, currently last in the AL Central.

Anyway, Polanco has been a big part of that engine lately. After multiple ankle surgeries and a couple seasons of apparently playing through pain, Polanco says he’s feeling better now.

He’s 28, swinging well, and has two more seasons under contract with the Twins, plus two more option years after that. A player in his athletic prime hitting the way Polanco has this season should give the Twins confidence that he’ll be part of the solution starting next season.

2. Speaking of Jorge Polanco, can you name the team’s best hitter since Nelson Cruz was traded?

There are three ways to answer this question. You might think to yourself, well, self, I think Byron Buxton is their best hitter overall, and so even though he’s missed every game since Cruz left, technically by the wording of the question we can say Buxton and in a way be correct.

Ignoring your semantical argument, another way to answer that question is to get at the hitter who has offered the most value as a hitter in sum. To use an extreme example, you’d say that a hitter who hit 2 homers and struck out 98 times in his 100 plate appearances was more valuable than the hitter who got just one at-bat and knocked it out of the park.

But I’m taking door No. 3 here. Given enough regular chances to be a legitimate contributor since the Cruz trade, which hitter has performed the best when his name is called? If you guessed Polanco, like I had, you would be wrong – like I was.

It’s Ryan Jeffers.

Since Mitch Garver’s return to the lineup and counting backwards to day after Cruz was allowed to leave, the two top catchers have basically split playing time right down the middle. In his 9 games over that span, Jeffers has really shed the early season offensive struggles that had landed him back in St. Paul to work on his game. To be clear, we’re pulling a small sample here with an obviously arbitrary endpoint, but just to illustrate: Jeffers is 9-for-23 with 3 doubles, 3 homers, 11 RBI and 3 walks. That batting line is best on the Twins in our sample here: .391/.462/.913.

Massive on-base and Cruz-ian slugging percentage, driven in large part by a 2-game stretch in which Jeffers hit all three of his bombs, including two in that crazy game in which the Twins fell behind 10-0 and almost came back to win a marathon at the finish line.

Though it’s a short stretch, my formerly high perception of Jeffers had admittedly started to flag a bit with his bad start to the year. This stretch makes him look more like the two-way catcher that was supposed to be a big part of a Twins 2021 three-peat in the AL Central.

We’ve given praise to Polanco and now Jeffers. While we’re here I just need to say quickly that Luis Arraez has returned with aplomb. Despite missing time, he has just 3 fewer plate appearances than Jeffers in this sample we’re working with. And the home-run pop from Jeffers is the only thing keeping Arraez off the top spot on this list. Everyone’s favorite Strikezone Control Artist is hitting .458/.517/.583 since Cruz got traded. For the batting average crowd: .458! For the on-base crowd: opposing managers would rather flip a coin right now to put him on base, rather than let him face an MLB pitcher for his chance to reach. He’s been incredible lately.

3. Don’t forget about Mitch Garver.

Two years ago we called him Babe Ruth in Catcher’s Gear. Nowadays the big compliment might be to point out that he has basically the same slugging percentage as Nelson Cruz. He’s slugging .605 since he returned from the Injured List after his unfortunate injury behind the plate. In that relatively short span, he’s got 9 hits in his 10 starts: 2 singles, 2 doubles and 5 home runs.

Between Garver’s time on the IL and Jeffers’ time in St. Paul, they’ve had a similar amount of playing time. And they’re looking right now anyway like the force that some of us expected following the COVID-shortened season.

“Our catchers are a strength of our team,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “They’re both coming alive in their own way offensively. Garver in particular, he’s just been raking. He’s been on fire since he came off the IL.”

In terms of the mashing, they’re doing it. Twins catchers rank first in the AL in offensive production since July 1 (as measured by wOBA) and they rank 2nd in the league since May 1.

How about their defensive skills? In terms of framing, Baseball Prospectus considers all three Twins catchers – Garver, Jeffers and Ben Rortvedt – as top-25 players at adding extra strikes around the edges of the strike zone. The stat Called Strikes Above Average tracks the rate at which you get those borderline calls, and attempts to neutralize outside factors to reflect a catcher’s skill at “framing.” And both Jeffers and Garver are just outside the top-20 in terms of the number of runs they’ve saved their team from just framing alone.

And if you watch enough games and spend enough time strictly paying attention to the catcher-pitcher relationship, it looks clear that the Twins have continued to emphasize getting those borderline strikes above perhaps all other visible forms of catcher contribution*.

You can tell that they rate the importance of preserving strikes very highly based on how they ask their catchers to set up. Runners on base? Don’t care. Stick a leg out, get low, and hang onto the fastball on the outer edge of the strike zone.

*Except maybe homers.

4. Welcome to the Twins organization, Austin Martin!

In 6 games since joining the Double-A Wichita Wind Surge in the José Berríos trade, your new favorite prospect is hitting .400 with on on-base percentage that would make Luis Arraez blush (.571). He’s also slugging .500 for good measure on the strength of all those hits. Austin Martin has two doubles, six singles, six RBI and 6 walks against just one strikeout in his first week in the Twins organization. This is also Martin’s first season of pro baseball – he was drafted fifth overall last year during the ‘COVID season’ that wiped out the minor leagues – and in this first-year pro jumped right to Double-A and has not looked overmatched.

Oh, and in his second game in Wichita he came to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the 9th inning of a tie game. He fell down 0-2 and one pitch later did this:

A walk-off winner for the Wind Surge. Not bad for a first week in your new digs.

Last week I heard from JJ Cooper of Baseball that only two questions remain about Austin Martin’s already elite bat. One is where he’ll play defensively. He rotated between shortstop and center field while in the Blue Jays organization, and I’ve heard that the Twins intend for now to do the same thing. Toronto would play him 3 games in center then 3 games at short in each 6-game series. The other question that remains is whether his excellent bat control will eventually lead to more than just singles and doubles.

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I had a chance to catch up with Martin this week and I found him to be engaging and friendly. Since it’s not every day that you chat with a top prospect — and because I hadn’t seen him get a chance to defend himself anywhere else — I asked Martin why he thinks he hasn’t hit more homers.

“Because for me personally, I’m not a home run hitter,” Martin told me. “I’m a hitter first – that can hit home runs. So I get up to the plate, I have a job to do and I try to do my job. Like I’ve said, I didn’t get paid to hit home runs. But at the same time, I know that it’s going to happen. As long as you put the barrel to the ball, that ball’s gonna fly. Especially with these big-league cue balls, the balls fly, man.

“Right now I’m just working on barreling balls to the gaps, and eventually the older I get — the more mature I get, the stronger I get — the ball’s going to go farther. So that’s been the least of my worries since this season has begun,” Martin said.

He does have two triples and two homers this year for Double-A New Hampshire. And I’ve heard there are people in the Twins organization who believe that it’s almost a natural evolution for guys with Martin’s level of barrel control to just add power down the line. So while a guy like Arraez has been plenty valuable without showing much power, some believe that there’s more in the tank for Martin – and importantly, it sounds like he believes that, too.

As for the question of where he’ll play defensively?

“I honestly don’t care. I just want to be in the lineup,” Martin said. “I just want to play ball, man. I mean, short is fun, center field is fun. Baseball is fun,” he answered with a laugh.

5. The Twins now boast two more silver medalists than they had a week ago.

Joe Ryan and Simeon Woods Richardson – pitchers acquired in the Cruz trade and the Berríos trade, respectively – were part of the Team USA baseball team that won the silver medal this weekend in the Tokyo Olympics. Ryan was featured in the run-up to the medal game, though Woods Richardson never got off the warm-up mound and into a game.

Ryan, who will probably head to St. Paul when he returns home, pitched 10 1/3 innings with a 1.74 ERA and 8 strikeouts vs. just one walk during the Olympics. Host Japan won the gold medal. As for Ryan, you might see him in a Twins uniform before the season is out, given how he pitched with Triple-A Durham and more recently for Team USA.

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