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:
One challenge of replacing a GM is unwinding an entire front office during the permanent campaign of modern baseball.
Let’s say, for just a moment, that the Twins decided to fire Terry Ryan sometime this month. That’s a reasonable suspicion, at the very least. Truthfully, if the team hasn’t arrived at the conclusion that it’s time to fire Ryan and clear out a front office populated by many of the same people who were there 20 years ago, they’re never getting there. Nothing more can be done. They’re 11-31, as I type this, and there is absolutely no sign that things will turn around. Even if there were, it would be too late for this season. Twins fans must wait at least one more season to see the team truly pull out of their rebuild, a project they undertook only after a catastrophic season forced them in that direction, and one the team tried to declare a success much too soon. John Schuerholz probably thinks Ryan’s leash has been surprisingly long. The makers of Grey’s Anatomy think it’s time for the front office to step aside and make room for a new project. Franklin D. Roosevelt thinks there’s value in more leadership turnover than this. So let’s just assume the Twins see that, too.
If that’s true, obviously, you shouldn’t be surprised that the decision hasn’t been translated into action. This is a good time of year for managerial firings, but an untenable one for front-office shuffling. First of all, there’s the draft, coming up in just a few weeks. It’s way, way too late to displace anyone ahead of that. The scouts have largely made their reports, and there wouldn’t be time to go in a different direction. It would be a very bad idea to bring in someone new at the leadership level to make decisions based on their predecessor’s gathered intelligence.
Putting the Twins' top pitching prospect's disaster start in perspective.
Monday night I tuned into the Twins-Tigers game, in part because I'm a glutton for punishment with a Pavlovian need to watch Twins games no matter how bad things get, but also because top prospect Jose Berrios was making his fourth career start. I was excited, or at least as excited as baseball fans in Minnesota get these days. Berrios' first three starts weren't great, but his previous outing was encouraging enough to make me think perhaps the 21-year-old former first-round pick was ready to become a full-time member of the rotation for the next decade or so.
He wasn't. Actually, whatever the opposite of that is, he was ready to do that and only that. Berrios failed to make it out of the first inning, recording two outs while allowing seven runs. First-inning knockouts have always fascinated me. It’s like showing up to your office, spilling coffee down the front of your shirt, slipping and falling on the wet floor beneath you, knocking over a filing cabinet in the process, and then being asked to go home by your boss. Not only did you embarrass yourself in front of co-workers, now they’re all watching you exit in shame. It’s made even worse by knowing that everyone else has to keep working for the rest of the day.
Twins manager Paul Molitor came out to remove Berrios following a bases-loaded double by light-hitting shortstop Jose Iglesias, and their limited interaction had a "put him out of his misery" vibe. Shortly after the game--which the Twins came back to tie at 8-8 before losing, thus providing their fans with the maximum possible pain--Berrios was demoted to Triple-A. There he joins fellow top prospect Byron Buxton, who began the season as the Twins' starting center fielder before being demoted to Triple-A three weeks later after hitting .156 in 17 games.
Buxton ranked No. 2 overall on our top-101 prospect list and Berrios was No. 17, so in addition to all the losing happening in Minnesota it's getting increasingly difficult to convince people here that prospects are worth believing in. I'm still a big believer in Berrios (and Buxton too), but his disastrous start Monday did give me some pause, in that it got me wondering how often a prospect as young and as highly touted as Berrios has ever been that helpless on a mound. My hope was that it actually happens quite a bit, and better yet happens quite a bit to prospects who go on to become amazing pitchers. But... well, it doesn't.
Here's the complete list of pitchers since 1995 who've been knocked out of a start in the first inning while allowing seven or more runs before turning 22 years old:
It was a disaster for the Twins pitcher, just like down the road it was a disaster for the Blue Jays pitcher, J.A. Happ.
The Monday Takeaway
There were eight major-league games played yesterday, and half of them featured a team scoring double-digit runs. Only one of them chased the opposing starter in the first inning, though, and that same team’s skipper was gone by the fourth. That’s ample reason to begin this recap in Detroit, where there was a whole lot offense accompanied by a whole lot of ugly on Monday night.
Jose Berrios took the hill in the last of the first and figured, “Ah, I’ll just groove a fastball for strike one.” Little did he know that Ian Kinsler was locked, loaded, and ready to fire:
Can anybody in 2016 identify what the Twins are good at?
Twins general manager Terry Ryan is a Well-Respected Baseball Man™.
He was drafted by the Twins in 1972 and pitched four seasons in their farm system. From there he became a scout and, eventually, the Twins' scouting director. In the fall of 1994, when two-time World Series-winning general manager Andy MacPhail left the Twins to take the same job with the Cubs, the team chose Ryan as his replacement. He's been the Twins' general manager for 18 total seasons split between two stints, separated by a self-imposed four-season hiatus. Terry Ryan is the Minnesota Twins.
That cliché about someone who has forgotten more about something than most people will ever know is absolutely true of Ryan, a 62-year-old baseball lifer who has earned universal respect from his peers in baseball and from the media covering baseball. All of that is undeniable. However, also undeniable is that Ryan's overall winning percentage as Twins general manager is just .474; the team has won a grand total of one playoff series since 1995. They haven't won a playoff game since 2004, and the Twins have the second-worst record in baseball during Ryan's second stint, with a fifth 90-loss season in the past six years currently looking likely following a disastrous 10-27 start.
When the Twins were winning six AL Central titles in nine years from 2002-2010 they were known for remaining old school as MLB front offices increasingly went new school. Basically they were known for being Terry Ryan, continuing to rely on their scouting chops and well-established organizational approach as waves of analytics and innovation swirled around them. All of that remains true now, except the Twins have fallen even further behind in the various new-school categories while failing to dominate on the old-school side like they used to. In short, it's not obvious what they're even good at relative to the other 29 teams anymore.
It's been quite a while since Ryan's actual moves and the Twins' actual record matched his sterling reputation. There aren't many teams that would stick with a GM for two decades of .474 baseball and zero playoff success. There aren't many markets in which that GM and his longtime front office assistants would receive little criticism and tons of praise for producing 11 losing seasons in 18 years. But the Twins and Minnesota are that rare combination, which is why this preamble seems somehow necessary just to get to a point where it feels comfortable to say ... well, it's no longer clear that Terry Ryan should be the Twins' general manager.
Ryan is extraordinarily conservative, which has shown itself in his aversion to spending big money on outside free agents and in several seasons deciding to flat-out leave $10 million or more in projected, ownership-approved payroll unspent. He's targeted mid-level, low-upside veterans in free agency rather than going after bigger fish, most recently spending $200 million on the meh-worthy pitching quintet of Ricky Nolasco, Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, Mike Pelfrey, and Kevin Correia. Those five free agent additions have combined to give the Twins a 4.60 ERA in 1,435 innings; three of the contracts stretch beyond this season.
If you’re a long-time reader, a follower on Twitter, or otherwise know me in any substantial way, this won’t be news, but in case none of that is true, here’s the piece of information you most need in order to understand this article: My eldest son, Emerson, died on March 28th. We held his funeral and buried him a week later, on Opening Day.
I don’t tell you this so that you’ll feel sorry for me. Nothing in this broken world is perfect, not even the tragedy of my son’s death. He was diagnosed with hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS) when my wife was 20 weeks pregnant. Somewhere just past 30 weeks, we also found out that he had at least some hydrocephalus—fluid buildup in his brain, the extent and clinical impact of which would be impossible to know for a while. He had open-heart surgeries when he was four days old and five months old, and a kidney surgery tucked neatly in between. We found out when he was a little over a month old (from doctors conferring during rounds, not knowing we were able to hear them) that there was only a 50 percent chance of Emerson surviving that first surgery and the period immediately afterward. He needed a tracheostomy tube and ventilator support for two years, had the trach for another six months. He never ate, except via feeding tube and pump, directly to his stomach. He never learned to walk or talk. He needed glasses and hearing aids. At two and a half, he was finally diagnosed with Kabuki Syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects multiple systems within the body, and which finally helped his doctors paint a complete picture of his myriad issues.