During the previous decade, as Minnesota piled up division titles as a spunky overachiever, the organization’s ability to produce fundamentally solid players and competitive teams without expensive power hitters or starting pitchers became known around baseball as the ”Twins Way.”
They’ve become the wayward Twins these days. They’re on pace at the All-Star break to pass the club record of 102 losses.
”Like a lot of people, I don’t look at the record too much anymore. It’s kind of counterproductive for me,” manager Paul Molitor said after historic, horrific first half of the schedule during which the Twins went 27-54.
”I try not to go down that road. Obviously I hope we have a better half,” said Molitor, who in his first year running the team oversaw an 83-79 record that had the Twins in postseason contention until the second-to-last day on the 2015 slate.
Having averaged 96 losses over the four years prior to Molitor’s debut, the 0-9 start this season that didn’t get much better throughout April and May looked more like the trend. The optimism-fueling 2015 finish looked more like the outlier.
”Not where we want to be,” said first baseman Joe Mauer, in his usual understated manner.
What can’t be overstated is the organization’s persistent problem procuring and maintaining adequate starting pitching. Twins starters are 19-38 with a 5.26 ERA this season, ahead of only Cincinnati.
The backbone of the ”Twins Way” was durable starting pitchers who didn’t walk many batters, trusting stout defense behind them to minimize potential damage from pitches to contact. The philosophy was formed around the time manager Tom Kelly took over in 1987, leading the Twins to their first of two World Series titles. There were lean years in the 1990s, but the club was in contention in Kelly’s last season, 2001, and kept it up under his replacement, Ron Gardenhire. The Twins won the American League Central division six times from 2002 through 2010.
Since then, quality starters have simply stopped coming through the farm system.
Kyle Gibson, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2009, has settled in as a capable middle-of-the-rotation right-hander. Tyler Duffey has shown potential in 24 major league starts. Jose Berrios is waiting in Triple-A. But the dearth of starting pitching has prompted general manager Terry Ryan to dole out close to $200 million in free agent contracts since he returned to his post nearly five years ago.
Ervin Santana has been the best of a mediocre-at-best bunch, a group of five veterans who’ve combined for 78 victories over the last 4 1/2 seasons.
”Hopefully we’ve drafted and are starting to develop some people who are going to emerge in the near future and give us an opportunity to start building a staff where you’d say, `All right, they’re going to be around here for a while,”’ Ryan said.
This is the sixth straight year that Twins starters have ranked in the bottom five in the majors in strikeouts. The overall struggles have triggered a shift toward development, Ryan said, from innings limits to drafting harder throwers.
Less-than-desirable defense hasn’t helped the starting pitchers, either, but sometimes they’ve been at fault, too. Molitor ordered an early round of pitchers’ fielding practice before a recent game, the type of fundamental drills rarely seen during a season after spring training.
”There’s a lot of our game, our Twins baseball, this year that needs cleaning up,” Molitor said that night. ”You can talk about base running and our defense at times. But the plays that are on the mound, our guys make good pitches and we get balls hit in the infield and we’re having mental lapses about covering bases or where to go backing up bases. It was just kind of my desire to get these guys focusing a little bit more and realize that they have more responsibility than just throwing a pitch. You let your guard down, and it’s easy to come back and bite you.”
The Twins have gone 7-3 in July while outscoring opponents a whopping 78-37, including seven games against league-leading Texas. They’re likely to make some trades this month and next, clearly out of contention for 2016, but Molitor has expressed at least a mild satisfaction in recent progress shown by some of the young players who struggled so badly at the beginning of the season.
Questions have been raised about Ryan’s future, given the ugly record. A new general manager could always make a change on the bench, too, so Molitor’s return isn’t exactly guaranteed. For now, a recalibration toward development has given him a fresh perspective on the second half.
”It’s a great opportunity to teach,” Molitor said.