Minnesota Twins Turn Around Ship in This Week’s Ups & Downs

Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports /

Minnesota Twins won on the road with their usual cast of characters leading the way to a 4-1 record for April’s final week.

After starting the 2017 season by sweeping the Royals, the Minnesota Twins gave immediate hope to fans that the horrid 2016 season was truly in the disappearing horizon behind them.

After last week’s poor showing at home, many feared that Minnesota had turned backwards, with poor pitching, lack of clutch hitting, and sloppy defense. But what a difference a week makes!

Hitting the road hasn’t been kind in recent history to the Twins, especially facing offensive juggernaut Texas, and the Kansas City Royals. The Royals have dominated the Twins in recent years, handing out beatdowns – whether at Target Field or Kauffman Stadium.

But these are not those same teams that have made multiple World Series appearances since 2010 – at least not yet. Texas is not the same offensive team, despite their blowout victory in Thursday’s finale.

And the Royals are but a shell of their former selves. A bullpen ERA over five, with starters putting up an ERA just over three? The problem with the Royals isn’t their starting pitching, nor the back end of their bullpen. It’s that they can’t get a lead to turn over to their best relief pitchers.

After yesterday’s game, the Royals are last in runs scored in Major League Baseball by a WIDE margin: 63 runs compared to 29th-ranked San Francisco’s 87. They’ve scored just 72% as many runs as the second-to-last team.

The average American League team has scored 104 runs. K.C. has managed to score 61% as many as the league average. The stress on the starting rotation is immense, and it showed during the two games against the Twins (Saturday’s game was rained out).

They “jumped” out to a lead over Kyle Gibson, 3-0, with their last run scoring on three singles in the third inning. That was the only inning they got more than one hit. Their other three runs came on home runs. Two, after a walk, and a solo shot in the seventh.

Any mistakes by a pitcher on the Royals are magnified by their own inability to come back from a deficit. The Twins’ own depth throughout their lineup put runners on base in front of their hottest hitter, Miguel Sano, with terrific results all week.

UP: Sano. The Twins’ young third baseman looks to have arrived. Putting together solid, patient at-bats, with stellar defense at the hot corner. His nightly lasers to first base show off the strongest arm for his position.

But, he’s also getting to the batted balls. Deep in the hole, cutting across the shortstop to make the play, even running in on bunts to make the bare-handed throw to first in time. Oh, and those once-troublesome popups.

At the plate, he’s still striking out 33% of the time (compared to 36% last year), but when he makes contact he’s driving the ball, hard. In fact, according to Statcast, Sano leads all of baseball in exit velocity – the speed at which the ball leaves hit bat – at 99.3 mph. The next three batters are bunched together within decimal points of each other in the 95 mph range.

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Take out groundouts, and Sano is driving the ball at 103.4 mph…he’s crushing it. Which is why it is no mystery that he’s become the Twins most important at-bat every time he comes to the plate, especially with men on base.

And for fans, it’s must see baseball. Even his foul tips are majestic, knocking home plate umpire C.B. Bucknor from Friday night’s game. Sano currently is hitting .316 after the first month of the season, leading the American League in RBI with 25.

Two numbers jump out after digging in: BABIP and OBP. His average after putting the ball into play last year was .329. This year, he’s sitting at .450! By getting the barrel of the bat on the ball more often, as shown by his exit velocity, he’s getting more line drives and ground balls to find open spaces.

While his K rate is only slightly better than last year, he walked only 54 times last year versus those 178 strikeouts (30% BB/K). This year, his 18 walks against his 32 strikeouts works out to 56% – another big reason why his on-base percentage is 124 points higher this year.

UP: Byron Buxton. After ignoring pleas by baseball experts and fans to send Buxton to AAA Rochester to work on his hitting, the Twins knew the young center fielder needed to work on his approach in the big leagues.

So while he languished with a batting average below .100 for much of the first three weeks, the Twins kept him in the lineup. Yes, they dropped him from third, to fifth, to seventh, and finally to ninth in the order – but they kept him in the lineup.

And yes, he struggled, striking out in nearly 60% of his at-bats, with no RBI and worse yet – only scoring once during the first three weeks. But, he continued to play Gold Glove-caliber defense at one of the most important positions on the field.

In fact, he leads all center fielders with 5.2 runs saved already this year, two runs more than second place Lorenzo Cain. But that’s not limited to just his position. Compared to every player, regardless of position, his 5.2 is leading over catcher Yasmani Grandal‘s 4.5.

Those runs are important to a team seemingly in close ballgames, night in and night out. Especially for a pitching staff that is ranked 29th in K/9 (6.75) – a full three strikeouts lower than the top teams per game. If you have a pitch-to-contact staff, you need players in the field to make plays, and Buxton does that better than anyone.

That’s what make this past week so encouraging. He started hitting (4). And walking (7). His getting on base led to stolen bases (2) and runs (5). And he even picked up his first RBI of 2017.

He’s credited the extra time Torii Hunter spent with him last Sunday morning before that day’s game. He sat that game out – the only time all season he hasn’t appeared in a game. But, Hunter’s instructional has paid off.

Next: Twins' Jose Berrios Won't Be Waiting Much Longer

STRANGE, BUT TRUE, STAT OF THE WEEK: Last season, the Minnesota Twins catchers threw out two batters at third base trying to steal all season. In Wednesday loss to Texas, Twins catcher, Chris Gimenez, threw out two runners trying to steal third base in one game.