[Podcast] Time Machine: 5 Things I'd go back and change about the 2021 Twins season
Baseball is done for the year and now it’s time to fiddle with this fancy time machine...
Congratulations to the Atlanta Braves, to NLCS MVP Eddie Rosario, and to proud parent Ehire Adrianza, for achieving the title that thousands of people set out in February to earn: World Series Champions.
The Bravos got it done in 6 games and got it done in Houston in dominating fashion. It was an improbable and very impressive championship run, through the Brewers, Dodgers and then the Astros. And while I don’t feel any sympathy for the still-unpunished Astros players who cheated their way to a title four years ago, I do feel compelled to point out that the Astros fans who were in attendance to watch their team lose did not do anything to deserve the focus of the ire from the sport’s most recent embarrassing blemish.
I just found this to be a really enjoyable postseason in every round, and the World Series certainly had its twists and turns and subplots. A reminder from Monday’s trivia for anyone who may have missed the tidbit: Atlanta won 88 games this year and were 52-54 at the time of the trade deadline, when they added pieces and went on to win the division.
Those pieces -- Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario and Jorge Soler -- combined to hit 12 home runs and drive in 36 runs this postseason, all coming up in crucial moments to deliver for their new employer. Rosario won NLCS MVP; Soler won World Series MVP; and if anyone would have written this compound sentence in July they would have been laughed off the stage.
We could just as easily find a counter-example, where a team added pieces, ostensibly hurt their future and still did not win the World Series but what I’m saying in so many words is this. Sometimes it pays to try. Who knows!
Today’s column I wanted to introduce a little concept, simple in practical terms but as it turns out, impractically challenging in a real sense. The concept is called Time Travel.
As in, if someone were able to go back to certain point in time and “undo” events that we know to have transpired, how differently might the 2021 Twins season have played out? (I mean, that’s immediately where your head goes, too, when Time Travel gets brought up, right?)
Today, let’s rewind that rigid one-way clock and ask for some mulligans on 2021. This column presents 5 Things I would change with a time machine.
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1. Tell Josh Donaldson to take it easy, just this once.
Donaldson, the elder statesmen of the clubhouse once Nelson Cruz (and J.A. Happ) left town, played an impressive 135 games for the Twins. That’s despite his IL stint to open the year, and the apparent need for at least one more trip to the IL in July, and a past couple-few seasons railroaded by calf injuries.
He finished the season hitting .247/.352/.475 and was one of the Twins’ best hitters (.353 Weighted On-Base Average and the team’s second-best barrel rate, 11.2%, behind only Byron Buxton).
So you might find it greedy or even just a little wasteful for me to use one of my 5 interferences with the past to go back and have Donaldson cool it in his first plate appearance in Milwaukee.
But aside from this little made-up thought experiment, I’m not off my rocker. There are at least two reasons why this would be on my list.
Vibes. Once vibes get going in the wrong direction in a baseball season, it can be hard to correct. I call it Sports Inertia. That idea struck me in 2018, when it turned out that before the season the Twins would be playing without Ervin Santana (middle finger injury and a late surgery) and also a half-year without Jorge Polanco (PED suspension). More bad things happened as the weeks rolled on and the Twins fell flat on their face that season.
He might have been better than the good hitter the Twins got in 2021, if not for that early injury.
“The last month and a half of the season is when I finally started getting my legs underneath me a little bit,” Donaldson said this week on a podcast with Cubs’ player Ian Happ. “I got put behind the 8 ball, first game of the season. First at-bat I hit a double off [Brandon] Woodruff. And I was feeling sexy at the time so I’m like, ‘All right, I’m going to turn it on a little bit. As soon as I went to turn it on, my hammy grabbed -- and I’ve never had hamstring issues my entire career.”
“I couldn’t run the way I needed to or wanted to … 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.”
To my friends who checked out on the season partway through in an attempt to free up time, maintain some level of happiness, or some combination therein, they’ll probably be surprised to hear good things being said about Donaldson. He got hurt to start the year -- after missing crucial time last year -- and by the time he was back the Twins had already started their slide in early April.
Donaldson missed a couple days in mid-August, and his return to the lineup lines up nicely with what he said there, about those final 6 weeks being back. Compare that stretch, from August 13 to the end of the season, with his already good numbers from above. To close his 2021 campaign, The Bringer of Rain hit .256/.348/.494 with 10 homers in 198 plate appearances. While his full-season wOBA tied him for 44th on the productive hitter list this season, this six-week stretch he had a .364 wOBA, which would have tied him with J.D. Martinez and Carlos Correa for 29th on the top hitters list, just behind Marcus Semien and Mookie Betts. If you want to layer in ballpark factors and scale his production based on the rest of the league, we can use Weighted Runs Created-Plus and say that over that stretch his 132 wRC+ was 32% better than the average hitter.
Admittedly, going from 135 games of a good hitters to a handful more trips to the plate of a very good hitter would be a luxury on this Twins team. But this was literally opening day, and Donaldson is one of the core players of this group. And besides, vibes.
2. Ask Álexander Colomé to take his time with the throw.
This one again comes from the “vibes” department. There are many things you might change about Colomé’s season in Minnesota -- some of you might even go back to the day he signed the contract and instead ask Derek Falvey to reconsider. [‘Dude, trust me. This guy is going to blow 3 leads in the first 3 weeks and the picture will not be looking too pretty from there.’ … ‘Who are you and how did you get into my office?’]
I’ll just take the simpler approach.
The Twins were undefeated in their first 8 games of the year, except for three losses in those goofy extra-inning games which placed an automatic ghost runner on second base so we could all go home sooner. Two of those were in painful walk-off fashion against new members of the bullpen, and one of them was on Opening Day to set a bad tone for the year, for those who believe in such things.
The Twins were cruising to a victory on that first day of the regular season against postseason-bound Milwaukee, you’ll remember -- and with apologies to those of you who had chosen to forget. Kenta Maeda got the ball to start the year, and then the Twins counted on relievers Tyler Duffey, Cody Stashak, Taylor Rogers and Hansel Robles to keep the Brewers at bay, allowing just 2 runs combined across 8 innings.
I’ll speed through this part. Colomé enters for the 9th inning with a 3-run lead. He got an out, hit a batter, and then fielded a ground ball and tried to throw to second base for the out. The throw was high, everybody was safe, and the Brewers had life. Then Christian Yelich hit a ball deep to right field that bounced right out of Max Kepler’s glove -- I have no idea why it was ruled a hit -- that scored one run. The next hitter grounded out, which should have ended the inning, if not for the throwing error and the missed catch. With the two extra outs to play with, the Brewers sent Travis Shaw to the plate, who hit a ringing, game-tying double to force extra innings and eventually allow the Brewers to win the opener.
Since I was already stopping by that day in history to help correct some things for the Twins, I thought I might as well let Colomé know before the game that if he gets in the game to close it out, feel free to make a good throw to second base.
Early season bad vibes averted.
3. Undo that one backbreaker in Oakland.
You remember the game, don’t you?
The Twins were fresh off that COVID-caused pause in Anaheim and then lost a doubleheader in Oakland by a combined score of 8-0. It was a Wednesday day game and the teams were trading haymakers. (The Twins, remember, had lost 8 of 9 and things were looking bad, but it was so early that one could not possibly write off the season yet in good faith.)
The Twins put up 3 runs in the 3rd, 5th and 6th innings, and after 6 full innings were leading the A’s, 10-9. The rest of the script is tough to re-read. Colomé took over for Taylor Rogers to start the 9th inning. He hit the first batter, got a deep lineout, then a single, and another lineout, this one for a sacrifice fly to tie the game and force extras.
Byron Buxton continued his heroic stretch with a 2-run shot in the 10th inning that looked like it should wrap things up and finally get the Twins back on the right track after an early-season speed bump.
Colomé remained in the game to pitch the 10th. Pinch runner Travis Blankenhorn took over at second base and Luis Arráez slid from second to third. Colomé got the first two outs and then walked two batters. Then Blankenhorn and Arraez both made pivotal errors, losing the Twins a game that they should have won, including Arraez’s unfortunate throw from third base that may or may not have landed in the San Leandro Bay.
Sometimes I’m harsh on a player for an individual error and other times I prefer to shrug and say, ‘That’s baseball.’ In this case, I don’t remember reacting so harshly to either of the error-committers or Colomé. If Blankenhorn hadn’t pinch run for Donaldson earlier, maybe it’s Arraez and Donaldson in place to make those plays. (Incidentally, the Twins waived Blankenhorn three weeks later.)
Do you blame Blankenhorn? Do you blame Arraez for the bad throw? Do you blame Colomé for being a tightrope walker? Do you blame Rocco Baldelli for pinch-running Blankenhorn to starth the 10th inning? After all, Josh Donaldson on one leg could have walked home on Buxton’s homer.
I’m not pinning any blame retroactively, that’s not the power I choose to take with this new time travel thing. I would just, for the sake of the Twins’ season and their fans’ happiness, go figure out a way to undo that backbreaker in Oakland.
At this point it’s only right to address the elephant in the room.
‘Wetmore,’ you might be thinking, ‘you’re wasting valuable wishes correcting one-off things like a tough loss or 10 days of Josh Donaldson’s bat. Remember the pitching?’
All right, fair enough. Before we do get to the final and rather obvious changes I’m making in this time machine today, here’s a brief rundown of several other things I considered:
I thought about preventing that pulley tendon injury for Taylor Rogers, but as I’ve written in the past, the bullpen actually solidified nicely without its best arm for the final two months.
Or how about Randy Dobnak’s pulley tendon injury? The season after the Twins enthusiastically signed him to an affordable long-term deal, it was basically a complete washout for Dobnak.
I thought about reversing the José Berríos and Nelson Cruz trades, but much like that gut-punch error in Oakland, I think undoing these other events would have reversed those trades with further meddling. (Then again, if you’re going to have a losing season, it is nice to add Joe Ryan and Austin Martin to the young-and-promising ranks.)
Michael Pineda missed time but that’s not exactly fortune-changing stuff.
Eddie Rosario was non-tendered last winter, but that was outside of the range of this time machine for some reason. That he went on to win NLCS MVP this October rubbed salt in the wound for Twins fans. The real stinger was not Rosario himself but more the fact that the left field plan didn’t work at all due to injuries.
The most tempting intervention involved Kenta Maeda, who dealt with groin issues and had an arm scare in the bullpen earlier this summer. If that was a precursor to his eventual Tommy John, I guess I can’t know, but keeping Kenta healthy and effective all year got the strongest consideration here. The reason I would want to do it is because it impacts next year -- and this winter -- so as I returned the microscope to focus, his battle with injuries got too messy to sort through and include on this list. Remember, there was some thought and reports that Maeda’s arm showed irregularities when he came to the U.S. from Japan, so who knows, maybe even my high-tech time machine couldn’t have improved fortunes forever with that one.
Alex Kirilloff hurt his wrist in mid-June, played through it for a while, and then ended his season one month later for wrist surgery. If he’d continued developing along the path it looked like he was on, that would have been a nice re-addition to the lineup.
Miguel Sanó’s early-season nosedive was well-documented. The jackals just couldn’t leave him alone. His anemic hitting the first six weeks cost him his everyday job, as I wrote about in what turned out to be one of the most popular columns of the year: Alex Kirilloff should not have to worry about Miguel Sanó's return.
Maybe you think out of decency I should work to keep Mitch Garver from getting hurt?
Or do something about that team COVID shutdown?
How about keeping LaMonte Wade Jr. and/or Akil Badoo in the Twins organization?
Or, what about signing Marcus Semien instead of Andrelton Simmons?
Listen, I’m a time traveler and influencer, not a miracle worker.
4. Undo Byron Buxton’s early-season hip strain.
Byron Buxton was baseball’s best player in April. He outdid even the greats like Ronald Acuña Jr., Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout. Buxton was named the A.L. Player of the Month, and less than a week later, he was on the Injured List for a strained hip that would keep the team’s superstar out of the lineup for about six weeks, after an apparent snag in his rehab timeline while working his way back to the big leagues.
During a May 6 loss to the Rangers at Target Field, the speedy centerfielder collided with the outfield wall in an attempt to snag a home run. He didn’t run out a ground ball in the middle of the game. And in the 9th inning, he hit the kind of routine ground ball to the left side that he routinely turns into base hits, but by the time he got to the bag this time he was treading gingerly, like he’d just barefoot-stepped on those Legos that got left on the living room floor.
By the next day, an imaging scan revealed a Grade 2 hip strain, and Rocco Baldelli spoke of Buxton’s return to the lineup as “probably more a discussion of weeks than days.”
To be fair, the Twins already had hit their skid when Buxton got hurt. They were 6 games back in the division on May 6. But at the same time, I’ll guess that none of us reading this newsletter are skeptical that a healthy Buxton would have made that gap easier to overcome.
I don’t know exactly how I would solve this one, even with my time-traveling device. I’d probably go to someone he trusts and ask them to relay the message: “Buck, I’ve been impressed with how you’ve handled injury prevention and durability this season -- that wall is not your friend and we need you in the lineup more than we need any one fly ball caught this year. So, good job. Oh, and be extra careful tonight.”
5. Back and gone again in a flash.
The Twins went 16-22 without Buxton in the lineup. Then he returned on June 19. He got three hits including a homer in his first two games back, and in his third game back, Reds pitcher Tyler Mahle came inside with a fastball, and Buxton’s left hand got in the way.
He played another half-inning but was in apparent pain when he got a fly ball, and would leave the game. The diagnosis after X-rays: a boxer’s fracture. This time it was 10 weeks without their MVP candidate.
“We can’t talk about fairness,” is the line I remember most vividly from Baldelli uncharacteristically spilling his guts about the player, the person, and the randomness of the situation. “This isn’t fair.”
While I agree, I didn’t really know how to prevent someone from getting hit by a fastball in a game and having it break a breakable bone in one’s hand. Those things are hard, and they’re coming in fast.
On reflection, I think I might just rewind to that day and try to get a word with Rocco. ‘Hey, why don’t you slow-play Buxton’s return to the lineup? I know it’s exciting and I know you’ve got ground to make up. Why don’t you try two games on, one game off for a little bit? You can trust me; I’m from the future.’
This time they went 24-30 without him. By the time he returned, the Twins were 17 games under .500, 18 games back in the AL Central, and had traded everybody for future value or extra parts.
I’m going to hand the keys to this thing over to you now and ask you to promise to do good with it. What would you change if you could?
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