With Byron Buxton in the middle, flanked by Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler, the Minnesota Twins boast one of the most dynamic young outfields in baseball.
Their average age is 25. They combined to hit 62 home runs last season. Their defense is superb, judged by both basic measurements and advanced metrics.
These are Jeff Pickler’s protegees.
”We don’t feel too pressured, or feel scared to make that mistake. We’ve got room to improve, and he understands that,” Buxton said, reflecting on his first year under Pickler’s supervision. ”It allows us to go out there and play free, play aggressively.”
Soon after Derek Falvey took over as the organization’s chief baseball officer, the Twins hired Pickler as the eighth coach under manager Paul Molitor, without a defined role like the rest of the staff. Though his background was at second base, in an eight-year minor league career that topped out at Triple-A and ended in 2005, Pickler was quickly identified as the right person to work with the outfield and try to further tap into the immense potential of this homegrown trio.
”The concept in the infield is the margin for error is really small and they’re expected to catch every ball and they’re expected to put every throw within three inches, and in the outfield our focus is so much more big picture that maybe we lose sight of the details that the infielders focus on,” Pickler said. ”So we tried to bring some of those details to the outfield and say, `Hey, if infielders can focus on some of these things and help them make plays more consistently and throw the ball more accurately, can we bring those concepts to the outfield?”’
The son of a longtime college baseball coach, Pickler came to Minnesota with experience in three major league organizations, either as a scout or in player development. He also brought a mind for analytics, baseball’s data-driven revolution, with an ability to mesh them with human preference and process.
”He loves the defensive side of the game. But he also roots himself in finding ways to try to help the players by using whatever information is useful to them, not just whatever information that’s out there,” Falvey said. ”There’s a lot out there. It can be overwhelming.”
After the Twins played their first exhibition this spring on Feb. 22, Molitor raved about Pickler’s meticulous drills, singling out an exercise he put the outfielders through during full-squad workouts to practice tracking line drives that slice toward the corners. That night in the game against the University of Minnesota, the Twins faced ”about six of them,” Molitor remarked.
”It’s progressive. It’s understanding what guys do well and what guys don’t and how to create drills that address those things that we need to get better on,” Molitor said, ”and those guys buy in across the board. I think they all felt like they got better under his tutelage last year.”
Buxton, the 24-year-old Gold Glove award winner and the second overall pick in the 2012 draft, is the prize of the bunch with the best range among all major league outfielders as defined by multiple metrics. That doesn’t mean he’s immune to coaching, of course. He fondly recalled a drill Pickler ordered last year for the outfielders to practice knocking a football down while up against the fence. Then they switched to baseballs, and Buxton’s skepticism about the usefulness of the activity quickly subsided when he realized the improved feel in his hand and wrist.
”It was like him building trust, I would say, and we kind of latched onto it,” Buxton said.
Buxton pointed at Pickler for devising the group motto ”Nothing falls but raindrops,” an attempt to instill in the players an aggressive mindset with which to pursue airborne balls that enter their territory. The slogan was even co-opted by the marketing department, accompanying a bobblehead giveaway this summer for each of the three regulars. Pickler brushed aside credit for the creativity and shook his head slightly with a smile when asked about the promotion.
He’s more concerned about the process of helping Buxton, Rosario, Kepler and current backups Robbie Grossman and Zack Granite improve, even if he’s fully on board with the audaciousness of the mantra.
”We can do anything that we put our mind to. He just tells us every day, `Don’t put limits on what y’all can do,”’ Buxton said.
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