That’s one word to describe the Minnesota Twins success so far in 2017. They are in first place, two games a head of Cleveland in the American League Central Division Standings and still going strong. Much of the success can be attributed to the hiring of a familiar name in face from the Indians front office.
They had to wait until after the World Series concluded to make it official, but they ushered in a new era when they named Derek Falvey the Chief Baseball Officer, a title that is equivalent to the functions of a general manager.
Falvey, the former assistant general manager to Chris Antontetti, represents major change for the Twins organization, going from the 62-year-old, old school, highly experienced Ryan to the 33-year-old, new school, inexperienced Falvey. The organization needed it, though, following the worst season in team history and a fifth season with 90-plus losses in the past six years.
The Twins unsuccessful attempts to interview ex-general managers Alex Anthopoulos and Ben Cherington made headlines and Falvey was rarely portrayed as the front-runner throughout a process aided by the Korn Ferry search firm. In the end he beat out, among others, Rays vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom, Cubs vice president of player development and amateur scouting Jason McLeod, and Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo.
Falvey became baseball’s second-youngest “general manager” behind only David Stearns, whom the Brewers hired as general manager last offseason. Stearns, ironically enough, also spent time in the Indians front office in 2011 and part of ’12. Falvey’s rise has been rapid, going from Indians intern to Twins boss in just eight seasons, and Falvey held the assistant general manager title in Cleveland for less than one year. His youth and lack of experience running an organization will no doubt be second-guessed and certainly present risks, but there’s a very similar story in Twins history that turned out pretty well.
Carl Pohlad bought the Twins from Calvin Griffith in 1984, at a time when the franchise was in dire straits. Two years later Pohlad shook up the front office by naming Andy MacPhail as general manager. MacPhail had been the assistant GM in Houston for a short time, and both his father Lee MacPhail and grandfather Larry MacPhail are Hall of Fame executives, but Andy was 32 years old with no real experience running an organization. The local media nicknamed him “Boy Wonder” and it was hardly meant as a compliment in that era.
Falvey shouldn’t be compared to MacPhail simply by virtue of age and inexperience. However, the task in front of him is similar to the one MacPhail faced and eventually won the World Series (1991). Jim Pohlad hired Falvey for many of the same reasons his father hired MacPhail; after two decades of limited success and increasingly out-of-touch leadership at every level, the stale organization desperately needed “a new, fresh, young look, and somebody who wouldn’t get caught up in old thinking.”
MacPhail took over a team that had plenty of young building blocks in place, including Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Frank Viola, Gary Gaetti, Tom Brunansky, and Greg Gagne. He made a few veteran pickups that proved crucial in 1987, but they were relatively low-wattage moves. For the most part, MacPhail let the talent already on hand develop, aiding the process by hand-picking 36-year-old Tom Kelly as the new manager and overhauling the coaching staff, scouting department, minor-league instructors, and front office.
Falvey also has plenty of young building blocks in place, including Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, Eddie Rosario, and Jose Berrios. There’s precious little MLB-ready pitching talent thanks to a decade of poor drafting and the inability to develop bat-missing starters, but there’s essentially already an above-average lineup set and Falvey’s resume with the Indians was built on acquiring and developing arms. Plus, in June the Twins can add a high-upside starter with the no. 1 pick in the draft.
Falvey’s task is a difficult and complicated one, but there are three key points. First and foremost, he must bring the organization into the modern era of analytics, scouting, and any number of other areas in which they’ve fallen behind in resources, brain power, and sheer number of staffers. Beyond that, he has to find a way to fix a pitching staff that has been the worst in the league for six years without showing any real sign of progress. And once he does that, he has to construct a sustainable contender despite payroll limitations.
Accomplishing those tasks is hard enough and will become even steeper hills to climb if ownership can’t keep their hands off, so hopefully Pohlad follows in his father’s footsteps by allowing the organizational leader he hired to do his thing, full stop. Falvey’s title will likely be president of baseball operations, as the Twins felt restructuring their front office hierarchy was a must after relying so thoroughly on Ryan as traditional GM. That means Falvey will be—or at least should be—able to hire a GM and other key assistants to work under him.
Falvey’s leadership ability remains to be seen, but his baseball mind is sound, modern, and skilled as he learned from the best. Along those same lines, Indians manager Terry Francona, who has worked with Falvey since 2013, was effusive in his praise when asked by the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
“If you’re asking me what Derek does, it would probably be better to say what he doesn’t do. He does everything. When I first came here, he was helping me interview pitching and hitting coaches. … We kind of got to know each other that way. I found out quickly that he had his stuff together. Over the course of time, because he’s a hard-working kid, he made it his passion to understand pitching and the delivery. We go to him a lot with questions. If he doesn’t have the answer, he’ll go find it. He’s a great resource for the coaches. … He’s a rising star in my opinion. I don’t think you’re going to talk to anyone around here who’d say he isn’t.”
For a 57-year-old baseball lifer and two-time World Series-winning manager to say that about a 33-year-old “boy wonder” shows why the Twins were impressed by Falvey and why, for the first time in a long time, Twins fans have reason to be optimistic about the future of the team for reasons related to the organization’s talent on the field and in the front office.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Twins had six position players from 2016 returning (Joe Mauer/Brian Dozier/Miguel Sano/Byron Buxton/Max Kepler/Robbie Grossman), only one of whom has been productive. While Eddie Rosario has a respective batting average (.273) his OBP is a pathetic .294. Despite Robbie Grossman’s .400 OBP, he has no power and has been a lousy defender. Outside of Sano, no other position player has more than five home runs, and only Sano has an fWAR above 0.6.
If we look at the pitching, the story is similar. Minnesota is 27th in the league in pitcher fWAR, with only one player having posted an fWAR higher than 0.3. Over their 35 games, the Twins have mostly relied on three starters, two of whom have been mediocre. Hector Santiago has more or less kept the Twins in games, having given up three or fewer runs in all but one start, but he rarely makes it out of the sixth inning. With a bullpen that is third-worst in the majors in strikeout rate, it’s hardly a given the team can get out of a mid-inning jam or keep a lead.
Phil Hughes more often than not gives up four or more runs (he’s done this in five of his eight starts), and the back of the rotation (consisting of Kyle Gibson and “other”) has unsurprisingly been inconsistent. The only bright spot in the rotation is Ervin Santana, who has a sparkling ERA of 1.50 through nine starts. He is the anti-Sano, in that his BABIP currently sits at a minuscule .128. If we expect Santana’s success to continue, we might want to think again. He is posting the lowest strikeout rate of the last five years, the highest walk rate of his 12-year career, and a completely unsustainable strand rate of 98.4 percent. When a player pitches to contact, and that contact generates outs 88 percent of the time, it’s a good combination. Unfortunately, it’s entirely a mirage. The Twins have benefitted from some good luck, some good sequencing, and two players who look like they’re playing far better than they actually are. It won’t be long before the Indians overtake them for the divisional lead. But there’s nothing wrong with some optimism generated by early season luck.
The Twins are third in the Majors in UZR and second in FanGraph’s DEF metric. Defensive metrics, especially in small samples, don’t necessarily correlate with team success, as evidenced by the fact that the Reds and Royals are one and two in UZR and the Reds are number one in DEF.