FORT MYERS, Fla. — Baseball education begins early on the back fields of the Twins minor league complex. The grass still held a trace of dew one morning last week when about 100 minor leaguers split up across two fields — those bound for Class A Cedar Rapids and Fort Myers on Field Two, and those for Class AAA Rochester and AA Chattanooga on Field Three.
For the next 45 minutes, Fort Myers manager Doug Mientkiewicz, the former Twins first baseman, and Rochester manager Mike Quade ran situational defensive drills on each field. First and third, one out, ball hit to the outfield. What are we doing? Players scrambled, one running for the ball, others setting up for a relay or backing up bases.
The drills went on in front of a dozen people, mostly men with backpacks and thick binders — professional autograph hunters hunting down potential major leaguers like reliever Nick Burdi. Quade was easily recognizable by the black sling on his right arm, injured in an auto accident early in camp. And you could tell Mientkiewicz because he talked almost non-stop. (Mientkiewicz taught the A ball guys, who needed more work.)
Instruction goes on daily at minor league camps in Florida and Arizona. Most major-league teams review fundamentals as well, though it usually slows or ends once exhibition games begin. Not here. Later that afternoon, before a night game with Baltimore, the big-league Twins devoted close to an hour on situational defense at a field next to Hammond Stadium.
Infielders took ground balls and threw to bases. Outfielders and infielders ran down popups hit or thrown over the heads by new outfield coach Jeff Pickler. Pitchers bunted and ran the bases. And in the most specific drill, replicating an infield shift against a left-handed hitter, pitchers chased down popups toward the third base line fired from a pitching machine. Manager Paul Molitor, in sunglasses and a dark blue Twins pullover, supervised everything.
Twins fans anticipating Monday’s season opener at Target Field should easily guess what that’s about. Hall of Famer Molitor chafed at the fundamental mistakes and breakdowns that contributed to last year’s 103-loss disaster. The club’s reputation for fundamentals and savvy began slipping late in that run of playoff appearances in the 2000s. But it took last season’s collapse and the firing of general manager Terry Ryan for the rest of baseball to catch on.
New backup catcher Chris Gimenez, formerly with Cleveland and Texas, observed the slippage from the opposing dugout. “Just knowing Mollie now a little bit, I know that probably just ate him alive,” he said.
Cleaning up the mess
Fixing this mess fell to two fresh faces — Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey, a perpetually-smiling 34-year-old who rose through the Cleveland organization, and General Manager Thad Levine, the taller, older (he’s 45), funnier and more experienced of the two. Levine spent the last 11 seasons as assistant general manager in Texas.
Owner Jim Pohlad gave Falvey and Levine license to do whatever they wanted except replace Molitor. What’s interesting is what Falvey and Levine decided not to do. They didn’t purge senior executives and scouts to bring in their own people, or blow up the roster.
Longtime executive Bill Smith was eased out and amateur scouting director Deron Johnson reassigned. But assistant general manager Rob Antony and valued Ryan scouting lieutenants Mike Radcliff and Wayne Krivsky remained. Falvey and Levine avoided major trades or splashy free-agent signings, though they listened to offers for Brian Dozier, their most marketable player.
“We never had any intention of coming in here with a bulldozer, and risk losing great people and great players by making any rash decisions,” Levine said at TwinsFest, a mid-winter event featuring autograph sessions and Q&As with players and team officials at Target Field.
So how do Falvey and Levine restore a once-exemplary organization that fell behind in a changing industry?
Step 1: Clean up the mental and fundamental mistakes. Step 2: Turn a hitting organization into one that develops a lot more pitching than it has, while staying true to its roots.
Molitor made Step 1 his personal task. “It’s more a reemphasis on the defensive side of the game, making good decisions with the ball,” Molitor said. “A handful of days, we had the whole team run through a number of situations defensively. We’re doing things that I think in the long run will help. Anytime you’ve got things that players are communicating about, it’s good.”
Eliminating years of bad habits takes time, as the Twins showed the night of that defensive session. In the first inning, left fielder Eddie Rosario overran Ryan Flaherty’s leadoff bloop, retrieved the ball and threw it past second; Flaherty was credited with a double. Then third baseman Miguel Sano airmailed a throw to Joe Mauer at first, a run scoring on the error. Two innings later Dozier committed another error, mishandling a grounder.
“I know Paul went into camp with a very clear expectation on how guys will make the fundamental plays,” Falvey said. “That’s consistently been the work they’ve focused on through the beginning of every day. I would expect that will happen as we break camp and head north to Minnesota, that we’ll still find time to spend on those fine details of the game.”
Said Gimenez: “Ninety-five percent of the time, you should be able to get a lot of those jobs done. The lackadaisicalness, the sloppiness, it doesn’t look good on the organization, the players, the coaching staff. And it’s not for lack of effort, obviously. Things are going to happen, but I do feel like we should be a little bit better in a lot of those scenarios this year because we have put so much attention to detail into it.”
‘Adapt or fall behind’
Expect a longer process to address pitching, since the Twins lagged behind most organizations in training techniques and use of cutting-edge analytic tools, like pitch-radar technology available on MLB’s Statcast.
Last year the Twins finished 26th in the majors in strikeouts after ranking last five years running, with its starters posting the highest ERA and fewest wins in baseball. The Twins were one of the last teams to recognize the value of taller, harder-throwing starting pitchers. (Think Kyle Gibson, not Alex Wimmers or Brad Radke.) A few years ago, the organization disavowed its “pitch to contact” approach and hired an analytics mind in Jack Goin, but never fully embraced innovation like Houston, St. Louis or the Yankees.
“Jack feels more liberated now that they can try to do some things they hadn’t been able to do in the past, or maybe they did but was under-appreciated,” said reliever Glen Perkins, one of the biggest in-house proponents of analytics. “In that sense, there’s been a lot of conversations about stuff that never got talked about a lot here. Early on here, that’s the biggest change I’ve seen.”
In baseball, analytics combines data analysis and video. One popular analytic is the spin rate of breaking pitches — the faster the ball spins, the more it breaks if thrown with similar velocity. In 2015, before Perkins hurt his shoulder, he studied video with Goin and experimented with different grips to increase spin on his slider. When he fooled Joey Votto into swinging at a slider in the dirt in Cincinnati that June, he knew he had something. Perkins took a 1.21 ERA and 28 saves in 28 chances into the All-Star Game.
“It’s an important component of being successful,” Perkins said. “If a pitch is successful, I think it helps if you know why it is. There was a long while where I knew my four-seam fastball was good into righties, and I thought it was just because it was hard. That’s part of it. But the other part was, it was spinning faster, an above average spin rate. It really jumps put of your hand. If you understand why a pitch is successful, then maybe you can even tweak that to make it more successful.”
Lefty reliever Craig Breslow, unemployed and facing the end of his career, did the same last winter. He studied video of himself, futzed with arm angles and release points, and found enough movement and deception to win a job with the Twins at age 36. Breslow, who is one of baseball’s brightest minds — he’s a Yale grad with degrees in molecular biophysics and biochemistry — called it a combination of “analytics and desperation.”
Breslow is here to help spread the gospel of analytics through the Twins clubhouse. So are catchers Jason Castro, the former Astro, and Gimenez, both products of analytics-reliant organizations. “Derek and Thad have kind of come in with a progressive approach to analytics, and they’re in the process of realizing and implementing that with the players,” Breslow said.
“I think there currently exists a little bit of a disconnect between analytics departments of other organizations and the messaging or implementation of the data with players. They’re looking to find the players that embraced that and carry that message. Players with experience come with a level of credibility that someone sitting upstairs, rightly or wrongly, just doesn’t have.”
Falvey said the Twins will tailor individual training and analytic programs for each pitcher. “I don’t believe in a blanket approach to development, and develop every pitcher exactly the same way,” Falvey said. “I think each guy is going to be approached differently.”
According to Perkins, the analytics staff sent each pitcher a sheet with multiple charts, asking what information they needed or wanted to know more about.
Whether any of this makes the Twins better immediately remains to be seen. Best to expect nothing and be pleasantly surprised if you’re wrong. The Twins still need to develop more pitching, and fix a farm system that promotes players with promising bats but shaky or non-existent fundamentals.
Dozier, watching developments this spring, sees a glimmer of hope. “It’s all about being or staying ahead of the game, in everything,” he said. “I feel like we’re slowly and surely trying to do the things necessary to play catch-up. Some people like the old-school way. Some people like adapting to the new wave of baseball. The ones who adapt keep up, and the ones who don’t fall behind.”