Amid the recent kerfuffle over Hanley Ramirez’s lack of hustle, much was made about a general lack of respect for the game among young players and their unwillingness to commit to the fundamentals and all the little things that win games. However, there is one organization where this attitude seems to have been completely eradicated.
It’s no secret that the Minnesota Twins have been among baseball’s most consistent teams over the last decade. They have yet to return to the World Series since their glory days of the early 90s, and yet they’ve persevered and excelled on a yearly basis. It doesn’t hurt to have two of the best left-handed hitters–both MVPs–back-to-back in the middle of the lineup, but their success and consistency goes far beyond the imposing presence of the new-age M&M boys.
They’ve won despite the Commissioner’s attempts to contract them, a terrible ballpark (until this year), a “small market” home, and miserly ownership that has just recently started to loosen the purse strings. They let go of a Cy Young, and lost a potential future Cy Young for essentially two years and kept on winning.
Last year they won 16 of their last 20 games to force a one-game playoff with Detroit, which they won in 12 innings. This year, they lost their All-Star closer before the season, the savingest (if winningest is a word, so is savingest) closer of the decade and yet they’ve not missed a beat and currently lead the AL Central by 1.5 games.
How has this organization fostered such a winning tradition and battled through so many obstacles? I submit that their organizational attention to detail and focus on fundamentals puts them at an advantage every time they take the field. Of course, talent trumps all and that’s where Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau come in, but the success of the team is rooted in its ability to avoid mistakes and capitalize on those of its opponents in all three phases of the game; pitching, hitting, and defense.
Let’s start with pitching. The Twins once again are getting good results and winning more than they lose with a staff of improving youngsters and a suddenly rejuvenated Francisco Liriano. The Twins preach one principle to their pitchers from draft day all they way to the clubhouse at Target Field and that’s throw strikes, period. Velocity and “stuff” are tertiary to the ability to pitch ahead and avoid walks, the free bases that turn solo homers into 3-run jobs and a single run into a crooked number.
As they have for seemingly since the game began, the Twins lead all of baseball with the fewest walks allowed (106), 15 ahead of the second place staff. The Twins refuse to allow free passes (they’re also tied for 4th with only 10 hit batters), and force teams to beat them by swinging the bat. Not only does this keep runners off base, but the focus on strike-throwing allows Twins pitchers to be more efficient and work deeper into games. The Twins lead MLB in fewest pitches per inning at just 15.29.
Of course, all those strikes come at the expense of big strikeout numbers as they rank 24th with 301. However, their control is so overwhelming that they still manage to lead MLB in K/BB at 2.87. The Cubs are second at 2.50 despite having struckout 76 more hitters. Also, the Twins still rank 5th in MLB with a 1.28 WHIP, so even though they’re pounding the zone relentlessly, they aren’t allowing hitters to tee off on them. They’re throwing quality strikes and letting their defense do its job. Any big innings put together against this staff must be earned, as they’re handing out just over two walks per game (2.26 BB/9IP, best in MLB). However, a staff that forces so much contact and racks up so few strikeouts must rely on its defense more than others. For the Twins, though, fundamentals and discipline extend to the entire team.
Modern day statisticians, er sabrematricians, have found many ways to quantify defense, and they’ve devised some profoundly useful numbers that put real meaning into defensive ability. However, for the purposes of this discussion I’m not looking for UZR or anything beyond the oldest and simplest of defensive stats. The Twins just simply never makes errors, ever. Their one miscue in yesterday’s game brings their season error total as a team to 10. That’s the same number that Nationals’ infielder Ian Desmond has committed by himself! They’ve played 46 games, which means they boot a ball about once every other series. The second best team in MLB has 19 errors! The Twins pick up the ball at a .995 fielding percentage clip.
They are not likely to lead Baseball Tonight’s Web Gem awards balloting, but that’s not their style anyway. They demand focus and expect every simple play to be made. There are numerous players throughout baseball that thrive on making the spectacular play and yet will drop a routine grounder from time to time. The Twins tell their pitchers to let the ball be hit and they tell their fielders to make routine plays look routine. They have a history of exciting players like Kirby Puckett and Torii Hunter, but they’re much more concerned with converting routine plays into outs.
This goes hand in hand with their pitching philosophy; make the opposition earn every base. They don’t allow free bases on errors, and they don’t let runners move up extra bases with stupid mistakes. Compare the Twins “free base” totals with the MLB average and you’ll see how their fundamental superiority adds up over time. League average totals for walks, hit batters, and errors are 166, 15, and 30, respectively. Let’s just say each is worth one base for simplicity. That’s 211 free bases. The Twins numbers are 106, 10, and 10, a total of 126, 85 fewer free bases, the equivalent of just over 21 free trips around the diamond. This is a simplistic comparison, but it clearly shows the edge that a focus on fundamentals has given the Twins. In business, we call these things core strengths. The Twins core strength is that they absolutely give nothing away and dare you to take it from them.
But the Twins don’t stop there. They take the same principles of discipline and focus up to the plate with them as well. While their pitchers abhor walks, their hitters couldn’t be happier, or better, at earning them. They’ve strolled to first 204 times, 2nd in MLB, while striking out only 268 times, 28th most in MLB (or 3rd best). Their differential between walks taken and walks allowed is 98, more than two extra free passes every single night. That advantage over the course of 162 games cannot be overstated. And just as they don’t give free outs to teams defensively, they similarly loathe to surrender them on the basepaths.
While their stolen base numbers (25 steals, 4 CS) are nothing exciting, that success rate is tops in MLB (86.2%). So while they certainly aren’t the Running Rays, putting pressure on opposing batteries and causing mayhem, what they are is intelligent and opportunistic baserunners who will swipe bags when they see them available, but otherwise will allow their patient and potent teammates to move them along. With the 3rd best batting average and 2nd best OBP in MLB, they have little reason to force the issue and run themselves out of innings.
With their fundamental edge in all three categories, the Twins routinely put themselves in position to win games and force their opponents to make plays to beat them. They rarely give away games and their ability to execute at each position and their willingness to rely on every single member of the roster is what has been the foundation for their tremendous success and consistency.
All teams have peaks and valleys and both hot and cold streaks thr
oughout a season, but Minnesota’s consistent dominance of the fundamental areas of the game make it easier for them to pull out tough victories and allow them a competitive advantage every single night of the season. This keeps them from the extended losing streaks that can kill a team’s season. Rarely do they take themselves out of a game with mental mistakes, impatient at-bats, or lack of command on the mound. It’s that day in day out focus that keeps them on a steady path to success.
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So Friday is officially the day the Next Big Thing arrives
in Baltimore. Matt Wieters, Baseball America’s
top prospect officially arrives in the Show against Detroit
on Friday. We’ll see whether that’s the
day he actually makes his debut, but I wouldn’t bet against it with Andy
MacPhail saying the team is not bringing Wieters up to sit and watch. He’ll likely quickly be inserted as the
regular starting catcher and the team is going to let him see what he can do at
the top level. He’s been great at each
stop along the Minor League ladder and now the Orioles are ready to introduce him
to the world. Through May 27 he’s
hitting .305 with 5 HR and 30 RBI at Triple-A Norfolk. Clearly this kid looks like everything he’s
cracked up to be.
He dominated two levels of Minor League baseball last year
and with a 4-for-4, 4 RBI Tuesday night he showed that the imminent call up
hasn’t fazed him yet. He’ll spend the
next few days staying healthy while the clubbies with the Big Club get
everything ready for what everyone hopes will be a permanent stop at Camden.
As someone who personally picked Wieters as the AL Rookie of
the Year, I’m expecting big things from him.
However, I think Wieters is similar to Stephen Strasburg in that even a successful
rookie campaign may not live up to the gargantuan expectations. A scout was quoted earlier this spring saying
that Wieters is “Joe Mauer with power.”
(This was before Joe Mauer returned to lay claim to the title of “Joe
Mauer With Power”)
Never mind that Joe Mauer has already won two batting
titles, two Silver Sluggers, a Gold Glove, and is a two-time All-Star. Mauer is currently hitting .429 with 11 HR, 31
RBI, .881 SLG, and 1.400 OPS. He could
be on his way to a first MVP and his best season ever. Wieters is being compared to, perhaps, the
best catcher in the last 25 years, a guy who is both an offensive and defensive
prodigy. Even if Wieters plays
reasonably well and is a contributor some will think he’s a bust if he doesn’t
start earning hardware immediately.
Think of the enormous task in front of this kid who,
remember, just turned 23 six days ago.
Not only is he going to be dealing with the pressure and nerves of his
first Major League action, but he’s expected to step in as a regular starter at
the most demanding position in baseball.
He’ll be trying to learn the pitches, tendencies, and demeanor of an
entire staff, many of whom he’s never caught, while simultaneously learning the
scouting reports of every hitter on every team he faces and figuring out how to
get them out. While that’s happening he’s
expected to continue hitting at the torrid pace he’s set in the Minor Leagues,
even though he’ll be facing better pitchers who he’s never seen before and
trying to learn the scouting reports on them as well. Oh, and also he’s expected to be the savior
of a franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since he was playing Little
Wieters has enjoyed almost immediate success his entire
life, but even if he gets off to a quick start, he’ll still have to prove
himself everyday. A young catcher in the
National League is struggling mightily this year and he’s already been in the
league for a full season. Last year’s NL
Rookie of the Year, Geovany Soto of the Cubs, is currently hitting just .214
with 1 HR thus far after last year’s incredible season in which he hit .285
with 86 RBI and 23 HR. Soto has failed
to make adjustments early on and has been put into a semi-platoon with Koyie
Hill after starting the season with a terrible April. Soto’s success came as a big surprise last
year, but now the league is on to him and he’ll have to show that he can stay
one step ahead and find the stroke that made him so valuable last year. Wieters notoriety as a top prospect and the
media buzz that will surround him won’t give him the chance to surprise anyone.
Opposing pitchers will know about him
and will have detailed scouting reports immediately available.
Being a Major League catcher is a demanding enough position
physically, what with crouching a couple hundred times each day, taking foul
tips off the mask, shins, and chest, blocking pitches, throwing out runners, and
toss in an occasional collision at home plate.
When you add the mental strain that Wieters will be under as he tries to
acclimate himself to his teammates, coaching staff, the media, fans, and
opposition, it’s almost impossible to imagine him being able to maintain
anything close to what he’s done so far.
The fact that the Orioles are bringing him up shows their tremendous
belief in his abilities both on the field and between his ears. Wieters will have several things in his favor
that may ease the transition.
First, he’s clearly a unique talent. Not just anyone can be compared favorably to
Joe Mauer and obviously Wieters has shown that he can dominate at any level he’s
seen. Also, the Orioles are still bad enough
that his performance won’t affect their season either way, so there’s no
additional pressure of playoff contention.
It will be at least next year before Baltimore
can look at moving into the top three in their own division, let alone contend
for bigger things. Another big help will
be all the young stars surrounding Wieters in the Baltimore
clubhouse that I wrote about last week.
He should find it easy to fit in with guys who’ve come up not much more
recently than himself and their ability to immediately contribute may rub off
on him. Comfort can play a big role in a
young player’s ability to adapt. Wieters
should find a welcoming atmosphere as his teammates are as eager to see him
(with the possible exceptions of Gregg Zaun and Chad Moeller) as the fans
Once Wieters gets settled and finds some normalcy in his new
routine people around baseball will expect big things from him. I hope we’ve got another bright young talent
to watch, but I expect it will be some time before we see just what this kid
can do on the big stage. If the reports
are true, the other teams in the AL East might want to savor whatever length of
time it takes him to get comfortable.
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Saying that Joe Mauer is an important part of the Twins both
offensively and defensively and that his injury will have a dramatic affect on
their season is perhaps the easiest and most obvious statement to make going
into the 2009 season. He’s won two batting titles (2006 and 2008) in just
four full seasons, something no American League catcher had ever done before
even once and yet he only finished only 6th and 4th, respectively, in MVP
voting in those years.
The year he won his first batting title, the first in history by an AL catcher, his own
teammate Justin Morneau won the award. He was widely considered the
second best player on his own team even though he accomplished a feat no other
AL catcher in history had and HE WAS ONLY 23 YEARS OLD AND IN HIS SECOND FULL
Even casual fans recognize his name and perhaps the trademark sideburns, but it
still seems he’s somehow underappreciated despite the fact that he’s one of the
most gifted natural hitters to ever play the game, let alone the catcher
position. Perhaps his lack of home run totals is what keeps him off the
front page. That is the only offensive statistical category in which he
ranks outside the Top 5 catchers and he is in the Top 3 in 10 of 12 categories
Rank among catchers with at least 800 AB from
Games: 4th behind A.J. Pierzynski, Jason Varitek, and Yadier Molina (2nd
in innings played)
Runs: 1st with 41 more than 2nd place
Doubles: 3rd behind Brian McCann and Victor Martinez
Triples: 2nd behind Ivan Rodriguez
RBI: 3rd behind McCann and Martinez
Total Bases: 2nd behind Martinez
Walks: 1st with 50 more than 2nd place (over that period he has 281 BB
with only 219 K)
SB: 2nd behind Russell Martin (but Mauer’s success rate is 83% while Russell’s
OBP: 1st (.401)
SLG: 5th (.451)
AVG: 1st (.318)
Even though he lacks home run power, he still produces runs, reaches base, and
slugs at an elite level. Add to this the fact that he’s a solid defensive
catcher who handles one of the best young staffs in baseball and it’s clear
that not only is he irreplaceable on the Twins, but he would be vital to any
team in baseball. We’ll find out just how valuable he is on the open
market when he becomes a free agent after 2010, but it’s apparent now that he
is one of the elite catchers in baseball today and could become one of the
greats all time.
His mysterious injury continues to heal slowly and it appears he’ll miss at
least several more weeks as he rehabs, but if he can continue to play at his
customary level when he returns it will become more obvious just what a
superstar he is. His quiet demeanor and the fact that he plays for the
Twins don’t help his Q rating, but that calm confidence leads to success in key
moments and the ability to stay even keeled over a long season. Maybe if Boston, LA, or a New York team is able to buy him away from Minnesota he’ll receive
the attention he deserves, but until then he’ll continue to play and hit nearly
Fans and media need to focus even more on this incredibly talented young star
as he could one day be among the greatest backstops ever to play the game and
it would be a shame if continued to be considered only great, rather than
historically phenomenal as he has proven so far.
So in eight days, when Joe turns only 26, remember that he still has eight or
maybe ten years of prime production left in what could one day be called the
greatest catching career ever seen. The Twins and their fans aren’t the
only ones missing out while he’s hurt. Any fan of the game and especially
of its storied history is missing another chance to watch a true prodigy play
the game with talent and grit and character the way it should be played and at
a level that few players have ever played.