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The six Twins to watch in the second half of the season

Miguel Sano and Torii Hunter
Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports
Minnesota Twins designated hitter Miguel Sano, left, celebrates his two run homer with right fielder Torii Hunter on Sunday.

The sentiment may be different behind closed clubhouse doors. But the public message the Twins put out in the final days of a surprisingly good first half carried an equally surprising air of humility.

Except for Torii Hunter, no one trotted the “we’re proving people wrong” line of clichés that so many teams, even championship ones, spout so often.

There’s a reason. Players take their leads from manager Paul Molitor and general manager Terry Ryan, two low-key Midwesterners who have been around long enough to know nobody wins anything in July, especially by crowing about it.

“We’ve put ourselves in position to make the second half somewhat interesting” is the way Molitor put it last Sunday, an even more measured analysis than Ryan offered two days earlier. “We’ve had a nice start and we’re in a good spot, but it matters more what’s going on in September and October,” Ryan said. “We can pretty much decide our own fate.”

That’s right. Not even the players themselves reasonably expected a 49-40 record at the All-Star Break, second-best in the American League behind Kansas City, the defending league champion and present Central Division leader. That the Twins overcame an inept 1-6 start; Ervin Santana’s 80-game drug suspension; an ankle injury to Ricky Nolasco that endangers his season; and subpar first halves from last year’s promising rookies Danny Santana and Kennys Vargas suggests actual talent and learning at work. It hasn’t all been smoke machine and mirrors.  

The influence of first-year manager Molitor on baserunning and defense is easy to see. Former manager Ron Gardenhire and his staff harped on the same things, but sometimes it takes a different voice and tone for the message to get through. (If you’re a parent with a son or daughter in athletics, you may have seen this yourself.) And Molitor’s trust in his players — giving Mike Pelfrey an extra batter one day, letting .215-hitting Danny Santana bat in a tight spot in another – boosted  confidence all around.

The biggest difference? Ryan’s three-year quest to improve the starting pitching finally took hold; the rotation’s 3.86 ERA ranks 12th in the majors after finishing dead last in 2014 and ’13, 29th in 2012, and 26th in 2011.

“Nobody’s satisfied,” said Hunter, who’s playing remarkably well for someone who turns 40 this Saturday. “I refuse to let that happen. Guys like (Joe) Mauer and myself, who have been through the playoffs and been on winning teams, will not allow that to happen. We’ve go to come back stronger in the second half.”

As the Twins open the second half Friday night in Oakland, a few players who made modest or limited contributions in the first half bear watching these final months:

Joe Mauer               

Anyone else notice Mauer twice bunted for hits last week? It’s been five years since a failed Mauer bunt attempt set off a tsumani of criticism from people who questioned Mauer’s judgment

Here’s what folks missed at the time: Historically, Mauer will bunt when he’s not seeing the ball well, usually against lefthanders with sharp breaking down-and-away stuff. And he used to be really good at it, dropping 19 bunt singles from 2005-09, according to FanGraphs.com.

In 2008, a rare Mauer bunt against a righty, Arizona’s Micah Owens (who had struck him out twice), started a six-run seventh-inning rally in an eventual 6-1 victory. Mauer also bunted that September in the divisional tiebreaker loss in Chicago under similar circumstances, after lefty John Danks fanned him his first two times up. (Mauer was thrown out.)

The 2010 bunt against Cleveland, in the seventh inning of a tie game with two on and one out, fit that pattern. Lefty Rafael Perez was pitching, with third baseman Jhonny Peralta playing back. Mauer, struggling at the plate, saw an opportunity and took it rather than risk an inning-ending double play. Yet fans and various ex-Twins ripped Mauer, insisting middle-of-the-order guys hack away no matter what.

But the game had changed. The late 1990s championship Yankees as a whole, and Albert Pujols in particular, worked counts and maintained plate discipline instead of making foolish outs to prove one’s manhood. Mauer did nothing wrong, except to people rooted in the 1950s.

Yet the outcry scrubbed the bunt from his game for years. For the next four-plus seasons, through the end of 2014, Mauer bunt only twice, with one hit — April 2014 off Kansas City lefty Bruce Chen.

“I talked to him about it this winter, not to forget to use it as a part of his game,” Molitor said. “He’s a really good bunter. He stays in there a long time, and when he’s gotten it in play he gets it in the right spot more times than not.”

Mauer’s three bunt singles, out of the Twins’ 15, are his most since 2008.

The bunts last week against Baltimore’s Wei-Yin Chen and Detroit’s David Price, both lefties, were meant to counter defensive shifts. Both teams rotated the shortstop behind second base to take away the middle, where Mauer likes to hit. As Mauer explained it, a third baseman fearing bunt must hold his ground, forcing the shortstop to play more normally. 

“The other day when I bunted (against Baltimore), I came back, (Molitor) told me how much he liked it, taking advantage of situations like that,” Mauer said. “I’ve always prided myself on taking what the defense and pitcher gives you. At that moment, they gave me that hit right there.

“The situation came up with David Price on the mound. He’s throwing power cutters the other way, they’re giving it to me, so I figured it was a good time to do it too.”

Look for Mauer, also a savvy baserunner, to do more in the second half. Mauer took a .271 average into break, which isn’t optimal for a three-time batting champion. But it’s not like he hasn’t been productive. Over his last 23 starts Mauer batted .326, with four of his five home runs. And his 42 RBI at the break are the second-most of his career, behind 45 in 2006.

Phil Hughes

Hughes’s fastball velocity and command are off from his outstanding debut season with the Twins, when he won 16 games and set a major-league record with an 11.63 strikeout-to-walk ratio. By FanGraphs charts, Hughes fastball averages 90.8 miles per hour, down from 92.1 last year and 92.4 the year before with the Yankees. That doesn’t seem like much unless you’re a hitter sitting on a fastball, and the 22 homers Hughes allowed leads the A.L.

So how is Hughes 4-0 with a 3.37 ERA in six starts since June 14, despite nine homers? First, every homer has been a solo. And Hughes, with help from pitching coach Neil Allen, learned to trust whatever he has working on a particular day, instead of fretting about what isn’t. He throws strikes regardless. If runners get on, he thinks his way out of trouble. 

This is what a mature pitcher does. Hughes listed Jamie Moyer, Kenny Rogers and Andy Pettitte — all lefthanders, unlike the right-handed Hughes — as role models who crafted long careers pitching that way.  

“It’s something I wasn’t comfortable doing in the past,” Hughes said. “The last five or six starts, I’ve gotten good results with stuff I’m not very proud of. It says a lot about Neil’s faith in me.”

Aaron Hicks

One day in early 2013, a scout came to Target Field, saw Hicks taking batting practice and blurted out, “What the hell is Aaron Hicks doing here?” The gist: Hicks hadn’t worked hard enough to earn it, even after a big spring training. Teammates who like Hicks still question his drive to succeed. How badly does he want to be good?

Some players find drive and passion later than others, and Hicks, 25, needs to show his. He’s got remarkable range in center field, evidenced again by that Willie Mays-style catch last week, and a terrific arm (six assists in 38 games). Byron Buxton’s sprained left thumb bought Hicks time to prove he can be a productive everyday player.

The second half means more to Hicks than perhaps any other player on the roster.

One encouraging sign: Hicks’s .264 average from the left side, up from .178 last year when he scrapped switch-hitting for awhile, for an overall .266 mark. 

Trevor May

Ervin Santana’s return bumped May, the rookie righthander, to the bullpen. He won’t be there long. Someone will get hurt, or struggle, and May (6-7, 4.16 ERA) will slide back in with incentive to secure a starting spot next spring.

He’s had a pretty good last couple of weeks, picking up victories in his first two relief outings, throwing the final two innings Sunday to spare an overworked setup crew, then getting engaged over the All-Star Break.

Miguel Sano

Scouts say it’s tough for hitters to jump to the majors without time in Class AAA, facing veteran pitchers with major-league quality off-speed pitches. Buxton, as talented as he is, struggled coming straight from Class AA Chattanooga, striking out 15 times in 37 at-bats. And Sano, even in a .378 start with two homers, is going through it too; he fanned nine times in four games before the break. 

Sano, though, has shown better plate discipline than Buxton (eight walks). That’s the only way to force pitchers to throw you something to hit. The Twins lineup is a wasteland below the fifth spot most nights, and a productive Sano allows Ryan to address other needs.

A player to be named

Traditionally, the Twins approach the July 31 deadline and beyond with an eye to dump salary or add a marginal veteran like Shannon Stewart (2003), Orlando Cabrera or Carl Pavano (both 2009). Don’t expect any blockbusters – that’s not Ryan’s way – but adding a bullpen arm or veteran infielder makes some sense. For the first time in five years, the Twins own enough second-tier prospects that Ryan may deal without giving away Sano, Buxton or Jose Berrios.

One name to keep in mind: Colorado’s LaTroy Hawkins, 42, the former Twin who plans to retire at season’s end. The Twins probably need a lefty more than a righty. But Hawkins, with a light innings load (19 1/3) and a little liveliness left (18 strikeouts), could be an intriguing addition in August or September. Hawkins has allowed one earned run and nine hits in 13 1/3 innings since his June 11 return from a right biceps strain.

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Comments (4)

huh?

Nice article, but you write, "the influence of first-year manager Molitor on baserunning and defense is easy to see. "

For some reason, the Twins have been terrible on the basepaths, running into outs left and right, getting caught stealing a bunch. Time to actually check the easy narrative.

Disagree, William

No team has a 100 percent success rate on the bases, and you're partially right -- some nights haven't been great. But on the whole, this year the Twins are taking more bases and taking advantage of more defensive lapses that they have it at least five years. Watch closer. Did you see what Eddie Rosario did in the 4th inning last Sunday? With the Twins up 2-1, he drove a ball to left-center that the center-fielder pursued timidly. Rosario ran hard out of the box, kept motoring past second and legged out a triple. The Tigers played the infield in to cut off the run, allowing Aaron Hicks to bang an RBI single through the right side, the first run in a 4-run inning that decided the game. Rosario's smarts and hustle set up a big inning. THAT's what I'm talking about. It's been years since I've seen anybody in a Twins uniform do anything like that.

anecdotes are easy

I am not smart enough to know if there is data on this...

My impression

I think it's correct that monitor has them thinking about and trying to be more aggressive on the bases. The results are mixed, but Molly seems to be encouraging guys to take some chances and learn from their mistakes.