Introducing 5 Thoughts, a baseball newsletter
The scoop on my new project and 5 thoughts to preview the 2020 Twins season
The Twins and Major League Baseball are set to return and yes, thank you, I’ll continue working that simple fact into leads for as long as it remains invigorating. This is a post in which I’ll introduce a new member-funded newsletter about the Twins. If you came for the 5 Thoughts column, you are in the right place.
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Thank you! Now let’s get to the fun stuff.
5 Thoughts: The 5 factors that will define the 2020 Minnesota Twins season
Plenty of factors will have an impact, for sure. You can quibble with the list. But there is no way you can convince me that these 5 will not go a long way to determine outcomes in this strange virus-shortened MLB season. So, for these purposes, consider this the non-exhaustive, hyper-critical list.
This column presents the 5 major factors that will define the 2020 season for the Minnesota Twins.
1. Byron Buxton
Well, you knew that we needed to start with Buxton, didn’t you? Since 2017, we’ve all nodded along in agreement, sharing non-controversial opinions like, ‘Injuries aside, no player seems to have a wider range of possible outcomes than Byron Buxton.’ Each year, the “injuries aside” part stung Twins fans a little bit more.
In both 2018 and 2019, if I had arrived in Fort Myers straight from the future to tell you that Buxton will stay healthy, put it together at the plate for 6 months, and put his name on the map with a 7-win season (7.0 Wins Above Replacement, probably some MVP votes), you might have said, “Sweet! I knew he could do it! Thanks, Future Boy.”
If on the other hand I showed up from the future every spring and you’d asked me excitedly how his real 2018 season would unfold, I might have just looked at my shoes and shook my head. We’ll jump ahead, spring 2019, surely this time must be different.
“I’ll tell you that 2019 will be a magical year for the Twins as a whole, enjoy it”
“Great, and how about Buxton?”
“You really want to keep doing this?”
All right, let’s ditch all the time travel and get to the relevant facts.
a) Buxton might always deal with injuries. Shoulder surgery ended his season late last year, he was expected to be ready to roll, according to the Twins, and last Monday, he was carted off the field with an ankle injury suffered during a scrimmage. The Twins again said he’d avoided the worst, and is considered day-to-day. I don’t need to revisit his extensive injury history for you, astute reader, so suffice it to say that the biggest ‘if’ surrounding Buxton continues to be his daily availability.
b) I firmly believe that although he’s not a perfect baseball-catching robot standing in centerfield, very few players in the world can make his level of impact in the field. He’s incredibly fast with surprising acceleration, he has a strong, accurate throwing arm, he’s seemingly fearless, and one day he will also learn the wall-crashing injury tradeoff is not always worth it. Your eyes tell you this. Statcast data confirms that Buxton sits at the top of the class for sprint speed, and dang-near it in turning batted balls into outs.
c) The baseball cliché about “pressure” or “distraction” for a pitcher with a runner on first base, might be overstated, I don’t know. But as I pointed out in last week’s newsletter, it’s also very clear to me that many of Buxton’s base hits are worth more than their peers, on average. What I mean by that is best illustrated by an example: Tie game, Twins are batting in the 7th inning with two outs, Nelson Cruz comes up and hits a double. Let’s assume you’re not going to pinch-run for him in this spot. What are his chances of scoring the go-ahead run?
Now look at the same situation: Tie game, Twins are batting in the 7th inning with two outs, and Buxton doubles. You’re not going to pinch-run for him in this spot. What are his chances of scoring the go-ahead run? You don’t have to know the rest of the variables or even have a vague notion of the answer to conclude that, yeah, it’s probably better odds of scoring and winning with Buxton.
d) Buxton posted his best batting line in 2019, when he hit .262/.314/.513 (career-high .340 Weighted On-Base Average), with 10 home runs in basically half a season’s worth of plate appearances. He chopped his strikeout rate from nearly 30% down to 23.1%, drew a few walks, stole 14 bases on a team that almost never ran, and had his best-ever marks in some advanced batting categories like barrel rate, quality of batted-ball contact, and hard-hit rate. (Yes, also average exit velocity and average launch angle.) Those are all very good signs from a guy who has had some questions about his bat, his ability to make consistent hard contact, and his growth as a Major League hitter with all that missed development time.
Since I expect that he’ll continue to be an all-world centerfielder, you wouldn’t necessarily need Buxton to be a star with the bat to be a star overall. If he’s also a star with the bat…
Well, let’s see how many times he goes to the plate in 2020.
2. Health of pitchers – specifically starters
The Twins’ offseason plan and the ensuing backup plan that they ended up pursuing are pretty fascinating. The pursuit of free-agent starter Zack Wheeler didn’t work out, as you might have heard. But while you might have to bank on José Berríos continued development if you want that Ace with a capital ‘A’ on this roster, their pitching plans actually made a lot of sense.
Kenta Maeda (trade) is a good pitcher with a great slider. Rich Hill (free agent) is a stud. Sure, an older and fresh-from-injury stud, but a stud no less. Jake Odorizzi (qualifying offer) continues to get overlooked despite a great year in 2019. Those three at the top of the rotation are pretty good. Homer Bailey is accomplished, and I can see what they’re trying to do by betting on the exploitation of an evolving splitter [the latest pitcher in the Aníbal Sánchez, Martín Pérez line?] We’ll see what the Twins get in the few weeks of eligibility from Michael Pineda, a good pitcher with a good slider who was suspended when he was caught breaking baseball rules.
The bullpen boasts several monsters and should be a great asset to the 2020 Twins and their starting rotation. Much more on that another time.
Now, the question of starting pitcher health comes into focus. Both general health in the baseball sense of the word – shoulders, ligaments and muscles, etc. -- and with a nod of acknowledgment that we’re going to play this season in the throes of a global pandemic.
I think a certain type of pitcher will perform better in a year like this, relative to his peers, than he would over a 7-month grind. I’m curious to see if it plays out that way, and which pitchers rise more than we’d expected. Hard to say who that will be at this date but suffice it to say the Twins didn’t plan it this way.
Sports are random, did you know?
Actually, let’s amend that a little to say that sports have an element of randomness built in. The best teams don’t always win, the best hitters record outs 60% of their trips to the plate and all that.
There’s one subtle point that I want to underline here, in beginning with two Thoughts leaning the oft-used crutch by saying that “it will come down to health.” I am not using that as a lazy wave of the wand to quickly get a column churned out. I am using that as a gateway into saying something so obvious that you don’t need me to tell you:
The Twins are good! They’re, like, really good. When it comes to stacking talent on paper and comparing one club to the rest of the league, the Twins are way the heck up there. Post-Josh Donaldson signing, pre-virus shutdown, the Twins were set to gain steam as a popular World Series pick. Not a sleeper team or darkhorse team. By July 1 in a standard season timeline, there were going to be national media outlets picking the Twins as their A.L. representative in the World Series. Then suddenly over a couple of days in mid-March, the sports world changed dramatically, and as we’ve said and written before, what rotten luck for the Twins. Bigger problems in the world, I know. But as a subscribing member of this community wrote to me in an email recently, what a tragically expected outcome for a high-powered Minnesota sports team. Alas.
I do think that on the baseball scale, this is set to be a very fun season for Twins fans. I also think that if you gave the Twins, a relatively high-powered and deep club, a choice between playing 60 games and playing 600 games, they’d choose the latter. Better teams rise to the top over long sample sizes. And we certainly won’t have that this year. Bad teams can be good for a bit, but I wouldn’t be too worried about that. It’s the middling teams that can pop up and lean on their top-end talent over a short stretch that could be a danger in this shorter season. In a vacuum or strictly in a mathematical framework, good teams want a longer season.
The Twins are a Good Team, and I think that their odds of winning it all go down when you play 60 instead of 162.
4. Holding serve with the bats
Try to pick one bat in the lineup and make a convincing argument that the Twins won’t be good without his contributions. This isn’t to say that these guys aren’t good. It’s that they’re so good top-to-bottom, relative to other lineups, that if you jolted awake in the early hours of the morning without one of your big boppers, you could calmly drift back to sleep knowing that someone else would pick up the run-scoring slack.
Nelson Cruz? You can find some DH bats in that group. Josh Donaldson? Yeah, it would sting but you could manage. Jorge Polanco? Again, uncomfortable, but I have an idea.
Last season the Twins were so good offensively in such a new and unique run-scoring environment that they set a new Major League record for home runs in a single season, with 307. Your 2019 Twins, the home-run-hittingest team of all-time. And that record will stand for at least another season.
The Twins as a lineup posted the second-highest slugging percentage in MLB history (.494) during the 2019 season. They lost Jonathan Schoop and C.J. Cron to free agency and signed Donaldson, whose .521 slugging percentage would have ranked fourth on the Twins last year.
That’s a lot of slug, and a lot of bombas. And that leads to a lot of runs.
The Twins scored a whopping 939 runs over the year, an average of 5.796 runs per game. And if you’re wondering why I took that to the third decimal point, it’s because I wanted to establish that the club set a new franchise record for runs per game. They bested the previous record-holders, owned by that memorable group with the 1930 Washington Senators, who followed Hall of Famers Joe Cronin, Sam Rice and Heinie Manush to score 892 runs in their 154-game season (5.792 runs per game).
I sincerely hope that they fly that flag at Target Field.
5. Trade Deadline position and outcome
There will be a temptation to sit back. Undoubtedly. No matter your place in the division come the end of August, teams will need to calculate the risk vs. reward of dealing value for a player two weeks ahead of the ‘postseason eligibility’ deadline, Sept. 15.
We’ve seen several times over how frustratingly patient Derek Falvey and Thad Levine. I’ve defended them at many stops, criticized them at others. There’s a willingness there to play a 10-year game, just for example, while the rest of us kinda just want things done at one trade deadline or winter meetings. Toss that patience into a simmering pot with the fact that many front office groups this summer could justify the position that, Hey, there will be so much randomness and our businesses could be hurting for another year or more beyond this point. Why don’t we roll the dice with the squad we’ve got, see who stays healthy and wins it all? Then we’ve got our prospects and spending flexibility going into next year, which should be a little more normal, we hope.
I get it. And I can almost guarantee that it will be the internal position of some clubs. (I’ll be shocked if it’s mentioned publicly, of course; you’re not supposed to say the quiet part out loud.)
Do not fall for this temptation. Randomness will be more apparent than in any year of my baseball-following life, I’ll grant you that. But to all of the Twins decision makers who are subscribed to this newsletter, some advice: Do not shrug your shoulders at the exact moment in time that you should be readying your chips for the all-in bet.
If you don’t do that now, we all would be left wondering: What exactly are you waiting for?