Twins second baseman Brian Dozier leads all major-league middle infielders in homers this season with 30. He also led all major-league middle infielders in homers last season with 28. And dating back to 2013—his first full year in the big leagues—Dozier leads all major-league middle infielders in homers with 99, ahead of Robinson Cano (90) and Troy Tulowitzki (84). Dozier is baseball’s premier slugging middle infielder. How the hell did that happen?
The Twins finally change course, firing longtime GM Terry Ryan and perhaps setting the club up for its first real philosophical change in decades.
In a move that’s somehow simultaneously a long time coming and shocking, the Twins fired Terry Ryan after two stints and 18 total years as general manager. Ryan’s teams won four division titles in five years from 2002-2006, but that success was limited to the regular season and bookended by ineptitude. Overall with Ryan as GM the Twins had a .474 winning percentage and were 149 games below .500, including a 318-421 (.430) record in his second stint. Their lone postseason series win under Ryan was 15 years ago and they haven’t won a playoff game in 13 years.
Hold fast to dreams,
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird,
That cannot fly.
By the end of the season my Out-Of-Nowhere All-Stars may look more like Small-Sample-Size All-Stars or Impending-Regression All-Stars, but such is life evaluating players based on the first half. My goal here is pretty simple: Identify the players at each position with the best first halves and the lowest expectations. That’s admittedly subjective and leaves out some actual All-Stars who surprised, but my focus is on role players, waiver claims, journeymen, non-prospects, trade throw-ins, and after-thoughts doing great work for the first time.
The Cubs' pitchers are on a historical DRA-beating pace. Are there some factors that explain why some teams do this?
I’m certainly not the first person, and maybe not even the first person whom you’ve read today, to point out that the Cubs are having an incredible season. As of the moment this sentence is being written, their third-order winning percentage is an insane 0.750, and they sit in first place on both the batting and overall WARP leaderboard (and in fourth on the pitching one). As was pointed out by Rob Arthur and Ben Lindbergh at FiveThirtyEight last week, their pitching staff’s BABIP allowed is historically low. They also are among the best all-time in outperforming their DRA, the best pitching skills estimator currently available.
It was even more extreme a few days ago, but as of Friday evening the Cubs’ RA9-DRA was -0.95—almost a full run difference over nine innings. That’s the 12th-biggest difference in the entirety of what you might call the “DRA era,” which begins in the early 1950s. Also of note, both their DRA and RA9 are lower than any team above them on that list.
In April, Joe Mauer (and his sunglasses) looked as good as ever. In May, he fell back. Each month promises a very different legacy for the lifelong Twin.
On Sunday, here at Baseball Prospectus, Meg Rowley wrote a terrific piece about what it's like to be a Mariners fan—specifically a Felix fan—in the later stages of the King's career. Speaking of aging superstars, she wrote “Every franchise has one, because every franchise is peopled by players who age,” and of course she’s right. As a lifelong Twins fan who was 6 years old when they won the ’91 Series (and who could recite the entire 25-man roster of the ’87 team by number as a 2-year-old, according to my dad), I first went through this special kind of grief with Kirby Puckett. Of course, that wasn’t exactly the same situation, as Puckett’s career was derailed by acute and unexpected/bizarre injuries rather than a slow decline, but the hope—hope of recovery from the broken jaw, hope that the vision problems weren’t serious—is the same, I think.
Now the next generation of Twins fans is going through this process with Joe Mauer, and it falls somewhere between the Felix decline and the Puckett abrupt end. Although it may have begun to some degree in 2011, when he hit the 60-day disabled list for now-infamous-among-Twins-fans “bilateral leg weakness,” the defining late-career moment for Mauer is of course the concussion he experienced on August 20th, 2013, which ended his season and forced a move away from catching much earlier in his career than expected.
In a lost season, getting Byron Buxton settled in and ready to be a long-term asset is the most important goal for the next four months.
Twins general manager Terry Ryan admitted to calling up Byron Buxton too early last season, saying he regretted promoting the 21-year-old top prospect in June when injuries left Minnesota short-handed in the outfield. Buxton was overmatched in his first taste of the big leagues, hitting .209/.250/.326 with a 44/6 K/BB ratio in 46 games after arriving with the most hype of any Twins prospect since Joe Mauer in 2004.
Because of his poor debut and Ryan’s comments, most Minnesotans went into the offseason assuming Buxton would begin 2016 in the minors. Instead the Twins traded their best in-house center-field option, Aaron Hicks, and brought in no outside alternatives. Buxton arrived at spring training with essentially zero competition and won the starting job by default. He was the Opening Day center fielder at age 22, but three weeks and 17 games later the Twins demoted him back to Triple-A.
Nothing about Buxton’s performance suggested he was ready to thrive in the big leagues, and in fact, aside from flashing excellent range defensively he was pretty much a mess. However, the Twins calling him up “too early” in 2015 only to hand him the 2016 job without any competition and then change their minds 49 plate appearances later showed that Ryan and company are capable of being equally messy. Buxton has struggled and struggled mightily through his first 63 games, but the Twins also didn’t help much and that’s become a player development pattern.
Don't forget how great Joe Nathan was. And as he prepares for a comeback, don't forget what he's still working toward.
The last big-league pitch Joe Nathan threw was an 86 mph, 1-2 slider to Torii Hunter on Opening Day of last season. Hunter checked his swing, got rung up by umpire Joe West for a game-ending strikeout, and argued his way into a meaningless ejection (followed by several days of the usual “Joe West is the worst” headlines). Detroit beat Minnesota, Nathan got his 377th career save, and two days later he was placed on the disabled list with an elbow injury that eventually required Tommy John surgery.
It was the second Tommy John surgery and third major arm surgery of Nathan’s career and at age 41 it seemed like the end of the line for the six-time All-Star closer, with a headline-grabbing one-out save against his former team and former teammate serving as a memorable final act. Instead, he rested and rehabbed, and last week Nathan signed a major-league contract with the Cubs that includes a spot on the 60-day disabled list until he’s ready to pitch again. As of now he’s aiming for early July.
Nathan wasn’t great for the Tigers before blowing out his elbow—posting a 4.78 ERA and 55/29 K/BB ratio in 58 innings—but having closely watched his entire Twins career it’s my duty to remind everyone of how great he was for a long time in Minnesota and later in Texas. Nathan at his best was as dominant as nearly any reliever in baseball history, and Nathan was at his best a lot. For instance, here’s a list of the pitchers since 1920 with the most seasons in which they threw at least 50 innings and posted an ERA below 2.00: