Max Kepler's regression is greatest Twins mystery of all

Max Kepler's regression is greatest Twins mystery of all

Max Kepler will lead the 2018 Twins in games played, plate appearances and walks. Entering the final two games, he had 56 RBI and a .400 slugging percentage, compared to 69 and .425 when he ended 2017.

And there’s a number that is unfathomable: Kepler’s batting average sat at .222 after the doubleheader sweep of the Chicago White Sox on Friday.

Miguel Sano allowed himself to get in horrible physical condition, became injury-prone and will finish a lost, 25-year-old season batting .199. Byron Buxton doesn’t have hitter’s hands (like Eddie Rosario), compensates by being a guess hitter, has remained injury-prone, and his 24-year-old season was a waste.

Gibson makes final start of season as Twins host White Sox

Gibson makes final start of season as Twins host White Sox

MINNEAPOLIS — Victories have been hard to come by at times this season for Minnesota so after notching a pair Friday in a double-header against the Chicago White Sox, it’s understandable if the Twins were in a good mood.

Perhaps nobody in the Twins’ clubhouse felt better Friday than Mitch Garver, who returned to action for the first time since suffering a concussion back on Sept. 12. The rookie matched a career high with four hits and set a personal best with six RBIs in the second game of the twinbill.

The big night was a relief for Garver, who had established himself as the Twins’ catcher of the future with a strong start to the season. He was batting .260 with seven home runs, 39 RBIs and a .734 OPS when he took a foul ball to the face mask in a game against the Yankees. He passed the concussion protocol at first but started to develop symptoms in the days following the incident, leading to a two-week break from action.

“I think he settled in on both sides with his offense and his catching,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “We just saw a steady growth of Mitch as a hitter. There’s been a lot of times particularly in the second half where he’s taken pitches to the opposite field in run-scoring situations to cash in some people. We always talked that the bat played and the more at-bats he’s gotten, the more confidence and results.”

He was finally cleared this week by Major League Baseball and got his first taste of action Wednesday night in a pinch-hitting appearance against the Tigers.

Garver admitted he wasn’t sure if he would play again this season.

“That was definitely in the conversation, that we’re not going to come back at all, and just shut it down and take it into the offseason and get better but I wanted to end on the right foot,” Garver said. “I wanted to come back and get into the offseason knowing that I’m healthy and I can really shoot for 2019 really feeling great. Now I’m back, and it’s nice to be on the field again.”

Molitor didn’t say whether or not Garver would be back in the lineup when the series continues Saturday at Target Field. It’s also not known if Joe Mauer will play as he continues what might be his last weekend of baseball.

Mauer went a combined 4-for-8 with a walk in Friday’s two games and with the Twins leading big in the sixth inning of Game 2, Molitor pulled the 15-year veteran, who tipped his helmet to a standing ovation.

“It worked out with the lead and an opportunity to get that last hit of the day,” Molitor said. “It was a nice moment for the crowd to recognize.”

Saturday will mark the final start of the season for Twins right-hander Kyle Gibson. Gibson has a 3.04 ERA in four September outings and held the A’s to a run over 7 1/3 in his last outing.

He goes up against White Sox lefty Carlos Rodon, whose September hasn’t been nearly as impressive. Rodon has a 6.84 ERA this month after allowing a season-high six runs to the Cubs in his last start.

“We’ve been really happy with how he has progressed,” White Sox manager Rick Renteria said. “I think he’s trying to make pitches, get contact, get outs and help us.”

Rodon last faced the Twins back on Aug. 22, when he allowed just two runs over six innings of work.

Daily preparation keys Joe Mauer's prolonged success

Daily preparation keys Joe Mauer's prolonged success

If this is indeed Joe Mauer’s final season, he’ll go out strong.

The first baseman is hitting .277, and .410 with runners in scoring position. Not bad for a 35-year-old. Many hours have gone into Mauer’s prolonged success.

Asked Friday what time Mauer gets to the park for a 7 p.m. game, the veteran responded, “Early.”

Like, say, 2 p.m.?

“Earlier than that,” Mauer said.

The Twins stretch a couple of hours before the first pitch. Mauer arrives at the park about three hours before that. He joked that he’s “getting ready for stretching.”

Media members are allowed in the clubhouse hours before opening pitch, yet Mauer is rarely seen.

“You guys don’t see me for a reason,” Mauer said. “I’m doing something, trying to make your body feel better and recover from the night before and get ready for that night. It’s a total body thing. Massage, stretching, lifting, exercise, things to try to get ready for the game.”

Mauer did some of that when he was younger, but his list of of body maintaining methods grows with each passing season.

“As you get older, you have to allot yourself a certain amount of more time to get yourself ready,” Mauer said.

Particularly if you’re going to maintain his level of play. If Mauer didn’t put in his level of pregame prep, he’s confident he wouldn’t be able to compete at the level he wants to.

“I always try to give myself the best chance,” Mauer said. “There’s things that I need to do to give myself the best chance. That’s what I do for those.”

GROSSMAN’S GROOVE

Eddie Rosario hasn’t played since Sept. 17, when he aggravated a quad injury, leaving the Twins without their best bat down the stretch.

No matter, Robbie Grossman has filled in admirably. Playing every day, the outfielder has been red hot. Grossman went 2 for 2 with two line drives and two walks in the Twins’ 2-1 win over the White Sox in Game 1 of Friday’s doubleheader.

“Fantastic day,” Molitor said. “Putting him in there every day since we lost Rosie and just continues to find ways to help us win games.”

Since Sept. 17, Grossman is hitting .343 with nine walks. Molitor even lauded the way Grossman has tried to approve defensively, saying the outfielder has “held his own” out there in September.

“For him to play as well as he has, it’s going to help him moving forward,” Molitor said. “I enjoy having a player like that, because when he plays, he’s ready. And when he doesn’t play, he’s ready. What he’s done this month, it’s caught a lot of people’s attention.”

Disappointing Twins should have another busy offseason ahead as they look to regain contender status

Disappointing Twins should have another busy offseason ahead as they look to regain contender status

Here’s how far left the 2018 season went for the Minnesota Twins: they can’t even claim to be among the top three most disappointing second-place teams in baseball.

The Twins entered the season with postseason aspirations. Following a loss to the New York Yankees in last fall’s Wild Card Game, the Twins spent the offseason making seemingly smart additions. They signed Fernando Rodney and Addison Reed for the bullpen, grabbed Lance Lynn and Lance Morrison when no one else wanted them, and traded for Jake Odorizzi. Adding those helpers to a still-young roster should have enabled the Twins to push for a wild card spot.

Yet the Twins never stood a chance. They held the division lead for all of a day and topped out at three games over .500. They last held a winning record on April 18, and they didn’t record a winning month until July — they won exactly one more game than they lost. Depending on what happens this weekend, it could be their only one of the season.

Where did things go wrong for the 2018 Twins?

You can start with those nifty additions. Odorizzi bounced back, and Rodney did his job well enough to interest a contender. Beyond that? Morrison couldn’t match last season’s production as he dealt with hip woes, Reed gave up a ton of home runs for a high-leverage reliever, and Lynn didn’t pitch like either his St. Louis Cardinals or New York Yankees self.

There were other issues at play, too. The Twins gave at least one start to 16 pitchers, tied for the second-most in the majors. Odorizzi combined with Jose Berrios and Kyle Gibson to give them a solid foundation. But they found it difficult to round out their starting five. Their bullpen also suffered from inconsistency, and is set to finish the year with the majors’ seventh-worst ERA.

Minnesota’s lineup was also below-average. Byron Buxton had a lost season. Max Kepler improved his underlying measures but not his overall production. And while the Twins had a number of players assert themselves as worth hanging onto — Jorge Polanco, Eddie Rosario, and Jake Cave; you can throw Tyler Austin and Willians Astudillo in as well, although their work came in smaller samples — this is a group that needs another impact talent or two.

The bright side for the Twins is they should be able to once again play around on the free-agent market. Three of their highest-four compensated players are free agents, and they stand to free up more than $35 million from the departures of Joe Mauer and Ervin Santana alone. Arbitration costs and the like will eat into the savings, but there’s ample reason for Minnesota to go for it. With the exception of the Cleveland Indians, the rest of the division is rebuilding. Why join the others at the back of the line when there’s the makings of another decent team in place?

Squint and the Twins have at least three parts of next year’s rotation, in Gibson, Berrios, and Odorizzi. Michael Pineda could be the fourth, should his body allow. The Twins have a number of young, largely unproven options to throw out for the fifth spot, but could decide to add another veteran as a Plan A. They seem likely to add some experienced help in the bullpen, too — although that applies to most every team, especially those with competitive aspirations.

As for the lineup, the Twins are probably looking at adding at least two or three new starters. Even if they re-sign Mauer for another season, they’ll need a second baseman (Nick Gordon struggled in Triple-A, delaying his arrival) and potentially a third baseman, depending on what they do with Miguel Sano. Those are just the obvious holes, too — it’s possible the Twins decide to get creative and aggressive with their roster. Maybe that entails moving a piece or two from the core, or landing a marquee free agent,or maybe it’s some combination thereof.

Whatever the Twins do, here’s hoping it works out better for them in 2019 than it did in 2018. Otherwise, things are going to get testy in Minnesota as they wait on their new young core — led by Royce Lewis and Alex Kirilloff — to save them from their old one. 

The $23 Million Question: Why Do Some Twins Fans Despise Hometown Hero Joe Mauer?

The $23 Million Question: Why Do Some Twins Fans Despise Hometown Hero Joe Mauer?

Gaze at the Minnesota Twins’ all-time leaders, and Joe Mauer will be in 27 different categories. Nestled among franchise icons like Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew and Kirby Puckett, Mauer sits near the top of the the traditional categories (hits, on-base percentage, runs), the favored sabermetric stats (total WAR, weighted runs created, win probability added) and the ignominious distinctions (strikeouts, double plays grounded into, outs made). All of which is to say that Mauer is a lifelong Minnesota Twin, and his No. 7 will likely be retired sometime in the next decade. Mauer announced earlier this month that he will consider retirement in the offseason after 15 seasons in the big leagues

Add his records to his status as hometown hero—the St. Paul-raised three-sport prep star drafted first overall by the Twins—and you’d think his reputation would be pristine in a city fiercely defensive of its own.

That was all true until he made $23 million per year.

A vocal subset of Twins fans want Mauer out, arguing that he is undeserving of the eight-year, $184 million contract he signed in 2010. They cite statistics (he hasn’t hit more than 11 homers since signing the contract after hitting 28 in 2009), his effort level (many questioned why he missed almost half the season with bilateral leg weakness in ’11) and his personality (rote and stilted to many). Some think it’s restricted to the darker corners of Twins internet. Others think it’s more than a vocal minority.

Regardless, there is a group that holds Mauer in contempt despite his otherwise immense popularity in his hometown. One fan went as far to customize a t-shirt with $23 MILLION rainbowing over Mauer’s No. 7.

“Some of us started to call him ‘Baby Jesus,’” says Andy Rennecke, a former sportswriter and Twins lifer who is a proud Mauer cynic. “It felt like you couldn’t be critical of Joe because everybody felt like he walked on water. He was one of us. How dare anyone be critical of him.”

To the outsider, it’s hard to fathom why any fan would begrudge Mauer. His 2009 MVP campaign was one of the most astonishing seasons of any hitter over the last two decades (.365/.444/.587 with a 171 OPS+), and he’s a six-time All-Star who has finished top-10 in the MVP voting four times. Last season, he .305/.384/.417 in 141 games to help the Twins to their first playoff appearance since 2010. He’s remained with the Twins throughout several losing stretches instead of clamoring for a chance to compete for a World Series ring.

He might be most notable for fulfilling every positive stereotype of Minnesotans. When he was maybe the most sought-after athlete in the entire country as a five-star quarterback prospect committed to play at Florida State, Mauer maintained a slow-spoken and humble demeanor hardly befitting of a 6’4” superstar. During his career with the Twins, he’s remained his assiduous self and used his social media presence mostly to be a doting dad. He used the same at-bat music—T.I.’s “What You Know”—for 13 consecutive seasons.

“Had [Mauer] left for the Red Sox or Yankees in 2010, those same fans who are calling for his head now would have burned down Target Field,” says Aaron Gleeman, Editor-in-Chief of Baseball Prospectus and host of the Twins podcast Gleeman and the Geek. “There are all sorts of these inferiority complexes at play and there are some fans where no amount of context matters, they just like to get mad.”

His laconic disposition doesn’t endear himself to everyone, and those critics are further emboldened by the team’s disappointing 2018 campaign. After reaching the AL Wild-Card Game last year against the Yankees, Minnesota is 72–83 as the season nears its conclusion. Mauer’s fine if unremarkable season sits at .276/.344/.374 with six homers, his lowest total in a season which he’s played over 100 games. Rennecke says the fan base didn’t really sour on Mauer until 2011, when the $23 million man played only 82 games because of bilateral leg weakness—an injury indecipherable and thus unacceptable to a lot of the fan base.

“Joe’s personality lends itself to a lot of ridicule. He shows no emotions, he’s always the same guy. He’s almost like a robot,” Rennecke says. “So, when he was suffering from a mysterious injury like “bilateral leg weakness” in 2011 and getting $23 million per season while the team was tanking, fans started to rebel against him.

“In Minnesota, we’re hardworking people and don’t like it if you’re being paid and you’re not out there performing.”

The calculus of fans like Rennecke is common and understandable on-face: The handsomely paid players should be stars on the field. Mauer was the team’s best hitter, so he should have routinely hit over .300 with 20-plus homers and bundle of runs driven in. The simple view (or simplistic one, depending on your perspective) was that being a run creator was more important than being a patient hitter; swing at a pitch outside the zone if it means you could drive a run in. Emboldening to some fans and heretical to the sabermetric community, this view bears striking resemblance to the local criticism of Cincinnati’s Joey Votto—another former MVP derided by some local fans, columnists and radio hosts for being too smart at the plate.

Mauer’s average rarely dipped after the contract, but his only great power season came in 2009, and it sapped even further after he suffered a concussion in ’11. This is what seems to miff Gleeman the most: He doesn’t think Mauer’s critics account for the severity of the season-ending concussion that the catcher sustained in August 2013. Mauer concluded the season hitting .324/.404/.476 with a 142 OPS+, almost perfectly in line with his career line of .323/.405/.468 and a 135 OPS+. Since the injury and subsequent move to first base in ’14, though, Mauer’s production dipped to .277/.358/.387 and a 104 OPS+.

“There was a perception that he tricked the Twins after the MVP season,” Gleeman says. “But he stopped being a .320 hitter and became a .275 hitter after the concussion.”

The Twins were also terrible after Mauer got paid. From 2011 to ’18, the Twins endured four consecutive 90-plus loss seasons and a 103-loss year in ’16, while compiling just two winning seasons and appearing in one playoff game. The Twins didn’t surround Mauer with much talent, and the perception was that Mauer was hogging the money.

“Let’s look at the real thing, and that’s the W-L record. He’s a great player, a Twins Hall of Famer, but he’s also one of most overrated players of his generation,” Rennecke says. “He’s a singles hitter that turned one big year into a huge contract. He’s Minnesota’s Ryan Howard.”

Gleeman exudes an unabashed love for baseball and infectious friendliness, but the argument that Mauer’s bloated contract precluded the Twins from signing better players triggers an anxious calm. Part of me expected the Kill Bill Ironside Siren to begin playing before his answer.

“I think this is true of all sports and all fans in that they will very often side with the billionaires over the millionaires,” Gleeman says. “In Minnesota every dollar is treated as not another player, perception that $23 million has kept them from signing others when the team has not filled their payroll base. The family that owns the Twins are multi-billionaires who own huge businesses around Minnesota. I don’t want them to go nuts, I just want them to spend 51% of their revenue. They don’t do that.”

Now that Mauer is a pending free agent, the question will be resolved soon. He might retire or he might sign with a team to be a DH or bench bat to try to make a deep run in the playoffs.

What’s clear, however, is that Mauer, once considered the franchise savior will likely finish his vaunted Twins career 0–10 in the playoffs. The question is whether that’s a fair basis to judge his 15 years as a member of the hometown team.

“The front office’s ineptitude is mainly the reason that the franchise has been in disarray since the beginning of 2011,” Rennecke says. “But, there’s Joe. He’s still here. And he’s the scapegoat … like it or not.”

For most Twins fans, the end of the 2018 season might be the end for one of the city’s most beloved players. For Rennecke and the cynics, that annual $23 million price tag will finally be off the books.

Twins' Trevor May gets his own birthday gift — his first career save

Twins' Trevor May gets his own birthday gift — his first career save

– The champagne was on ice, ready for the Athletics to pour it all over each other after Sunday’s game. But in the end, it was Trevor May who felt like celebrating.

May pumped his fist in satisfaction after striking out Ramon Laureano to extricate the Twins from an eighth-inning jam, then held the A’s scoreless in the ninth to preserve the Twins’ 5-1 victory. In doing so, the hard-throwing righthander also earned his first career save — and on his 29th birthday.

“It was cool. To be honest, it was more meaningful because it feels like playoff baseball here,” May said of playing before large, energized crowds over the weekend. “With the bleacher creatures, and everybody pumped up here, and them wanting to clinch today at home, it was great to be able to put that off. That’s what we were going for [Sunday], and it made it feel like a big game.”