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Tenure Runs Out – Twins 2012 Season Retrospective


The Minnesota Twins have started firing people – what this means for baseball’s most loyal club

@BreakTheHuddle

Chippewa Falls’ own Joe Vavra was one of many Twins coaches to receive disappointing news last Thursday.

The seven coaches in the Minnesota dugout during the 2012 season boasted 168 seasons of collective experience in the Twins organization. Last Thursday, all that stability was brought to an ignominious end.

Let’s start with the fortunate (or, unfortunate?) guys that get to stick around: manager Ron Gardenhire has been a Twins employee since 1988, first as a minor league manager, and then as the team’s third base coach, before being named Tom Kelly’s successor in 2002. After he was hired, Gardenhire was quick to bring his former minor league teammate, Rick Anderson, into the fold as pitching coach. Joe Vavra (pictured above) also joined the organization in 2002 before being named hitting coach in 2006. Bench coach Scott Ullger became a minor league manager and major league assistant for the Twins beginning in 1988 – after his playing career with the team had come to an end. Vavra will now coach the organization’s infielders, Ullger the outfielders, but one thing is clear: it was demotion for both men.

Minnesota’s bullpen coach in 2012, Rick Stelmaszek, was hired by the team in 1978 and has been with the ballclub, in some capacity, ever since.  Steve Liddle, third base coach, was hired in 1987. Jerry White, first base coach, was also hired in 1987 as a minor league instructor and joined the major league staff in 1998. All of them were dismissed.

The developments were especially shocking considering the organization’s track record of loyalty, even to a fault; after all, even Bill Smith, whose 2007-11 reign as GM opened with a terrible trade (Bartlett and Garza for Delmon Young) and closed with an embarrassing signing (Tsuyoshi Nishioka), got to stay on the Twins’ front office payroll, reassigned as an assistant to executive Dave St. Peter.

It is difficult for the casual fan to diagnose whether a bullpen coach or base coaches deserved to get the axe. Therefore, it’s hard to judge the moves to fire White, Liddle and Stelmaszek – one supposes the players may have grown weary of the message. It is not so difficult to understand why head athletic trainer Rick McWane got the boot. The Twins’ medical staff has become something of a running joke around the big leagues in recent years.[i] Ullger’s reassignment is also ho-hum; at one point, he was considered a managerial candidate and is, by all accounts, a bright baseball mind.

What’s really intriguing is what happened with Joe Vavra versus Rick Anderson. First of all, take a look at Vavra’s track record with the Twins – here is a sample of some important offensive statistics during his time as the team’s hitting coach (2006-2012):

YEAR

OPS (MLB Rank)

RUNS (Rank)

HR (Rank)

2006

.771 (13th)

801 (13th)

143 (28th)

2007

.721 (27th)

718 (25th)

118 (29th)

2008

.748 (17th)

829 (4th)

111 (29th)

2009

.774 (7th)

817 (5th)

172 (13th)

2010

.762 (5th)

781 (6th)

142 (19th)

2011

.666 (28th)

619 (25th)

103 (28th)

2012

.715 (18th)

701 (16th)

131 (26th)

While Vavra’s offenses no doubt benefitted from playing in the hitters’ ballpark known as the Metrodome, he still helped generate three top-6 offenses in the entire sport during his tenure as hitting coach. This season, despite the fact that Joe Mauer and Josh Willingham were his only regulars who played more than 140 games, and the black holes also called Alexi Casilla and Brian Dozier each received more than 300 plate appearances, Vavra still coaxed a near- league average effort from his hitters. Justin Morneau said after Vavra’s demotion became public:

“I think he’s one of the only coaches in the big leagues with multiple MVPs, batting titles, and we won team batting titles under him. We’ve had some great offensive teams, and he’s meant a lot to me — second to none.”

Anderson, on the other hand, hasn’t had nearly the statistical success Vavra did during the same timeframe (2006-2012):

YEAR

STAFF ERA

K/9 IP

STARTERS’ IP

STARTERS’ ERA

2006

3.95 (3rd)

7.28 (2nd)

941.1 (16th)

4.50 (9th)

2007

4.15 (8th)

6.85 (10th)

967.1 (7th)

4.33 (10th)

2008

4.16 (13th)

6.14 (26th)

959 (11th)

4.32 (15th)

2009

4.50 (23rd)

6.52 (23rd)

934.2 (20th)

4.84 (26th)

2010

3.95 (11th)

6.49 (26th)

995.2 (8th)

4.17 (16th)

2011

4.58 (29th)

5.95 (30th)

961 (21st)

4.64 (26th)

2012

4.77 (28th)

5.90 (30th)

880 (29th)

5.40 (29th)

While it’s fair to say that Anderson hasn’t had nearly as many stars to work with as Vavra (Johan Santana, the team’s last true ace, left the Twins after the 2007 campaign), the results are still disappointing.Three of the past four seasons, his pitching staff has been in the bottom quarter of the league. The move outside to spacious Target Field hasn’t seemed to help Anderson as much as it supposedly hindered Vavra.[ii]

Granted, the collection of misfits on the starting staff in 2012 wasn’t going to enjoy much success no matter where they pitched, or who coached them. But even in 2009, with healthy seasons from Baker, Blackburn and Liriano, and 2011, when Pavano, Duensing, Blackburn, Baker and Liriano all made more than 20 starts, the staff was still over-matched. Even when Anderson has had healthy people, they haven’t produced.

I’m not calling for Anderson’s head – but I guess I don’t understand why Vavra deserved the boot and Anderson is immune, if the tenure program is really up. My guess is that Gardenhire accepted the rest of the firings, which undoubtedly came from on high, but drew the line at Rick Anderson, his oldest, most trusted friend on the staff.

Now, on to the rest of the 2012 summary:

In April, I closed my season preview of the Twins with the following four predictions:

“(Season record of) 75-87, good enough for 4th place above the Chicago White Sox. Mauer hits .315-.320ish with minimal power, Liriano gets dealt at the trade deadline, and Morneau guts out 140 games.”

I’ll expand on each, gloat a little bit, and then I won’t bother anyone about the Twins until February, when pitchers and catchers report. Deal? Deal.

1.. Prediction: 75-87. Result: 66-96.

I guess I thought I was being somewhat of a pessimist with that prediction – it turns out I was an optimist! The Twins actually wound up 66-96, good for dead last in the American League Central, the 4th worst record in baseball. The Twins finished 22 back of Detroit for the division lead and 19 games behind the team I felt would be worse than them, the Chicago White Sox.

The team allowed 131 more runs than they scored, the biggest differential since… well, last year, when they were minus-185 in the runs column. 25 different pitchers appeared in a game for the Twins, a franchise record. 47 batters went to the plate for the Twins, also a franchise record. The only month the team posted a winning record was June… and they were 14-13. During Inter-League Play Minnesota was a .500 ballclub – 9-9 for the year! The Twins went 35-37 against the AL Central, a very competitive record! Unfortunately, the team went 22-50 against the AL West and AL East. Have I painted a clear enough picture for you, yet?

2.. Prediction: Mauer hits .315-.320ish with minimal power. Result: .319, 10 HRs, 85 RBIs, 31 Doubles

Since I nailed this prediction, I’m going to try my best to write a positive paragraph about Joe Mauer. He’s not a power hitter, he’ll never be a power hitter, but holy crap is he good at getting on base and grounding into double plays. He gave cynical fans something to pay attention to when he made a run at the league lead in double plays batting crown, but was narrowly edged out by that fatty Miguel Cabrera for both. He drew 90 walks this season, proving that he’s adept at staring at first pitch, belt high fastballs 94% of the time working counts. In all seriousness, he had a great season, finishing with an OBP of .861, good for 22nd in baseball behind guys named Chase Headley, Dexter Fowler and Yadier F***ING Molina. He also appeared in 147 games, proving he could stay healthy for once in his G**damn life an entire season.

3.. Prediction: Liriano gets dealt at the trade deadline: Result: Yes, to the White Sox, for two cups of coffee, a box of donuts and a sack of old catchers’ equipment to be named later.

2012 saw the end of the Liriano era in Minnesota, a time marked by jaw-dropping ability, devastating injury, and several years of head games, unmatched potential and finally, exasperation. He’ll be a free agent at the end of the season, and while he was his usual, erratic self down the stretch for the Sox – 3-2 with a 5.40 ERA in 12 appearances – someone will end up giving him $6-$7 million this winter. Here’s a fun fact – in his last 60 appearances over the past two seasons, he’s walking 5 guys per 9 innings – with a 5.23 ERA and a 15-22 record. I repeat – someone WILL give him $6-$7 million during the offseason. Ain’t baseball great?

4.. Prediction: Justin Morneau guts out 140 games. Result: Close, so close – 134.

So, this is what it’s like to watch your favorite baseball player slowly, painfully decline. Well, it’s sort of painful. The former A.L. MVP hit .267/.333/.440 with 19 HRs, 77 RBIs and 26 doubles in more than 500 at bats this season. In July and August, he showed flashes of his old self, hitting .314 with 7 home runs in 49 ballgames. On August 6th, he hit his 200th career home run. Throughout his ten years in the big leagues, he’s been both transcendent and average, fluctuated between reliable and injury-prone, a slick-fielding first baseman with pop and a creaky designated hitter who can barely get onto the field.

If this was the end of Morneau in a Minnesota uniform – and with all the changes likely coming down the chute, there’s reason to believe it was – I fear he will be remembered more for The Concussion and other injury issues than his demeanor, his sweet swing, and his play around first base.

On a personal note, I feel as though baseball can be too numbers-oriented; I’m guilty of falling into that trap, too. But baseball should really be about the stories, about how it feels to watch a guy or a group of guys play the game. For me, the first half of the 2010 season – in which Morneau was hitting .345 with 18 bombs in exactly half a season (there I go with numbers again) – was some of the most fun I’ve ever had watching baseball. He was locked in. His hands seemed to stay back on every two-strike offspeed pitch, driving the ball into the gap. There were days he came to the park and the pitchers had no chance – none – to get him out.

And despite the economics of the game, and the fact that it’s probably best for the team to jettison Morneau and his $16 million salary in an effort to acquire pitching, it’s going to be rough to see him go. Players like Justin Morneau don’t come around every year – or every decade.

Change is coming to Target Field – despite the fact that Twins lifer Terry Ryan is still calling the shots, this time around, it feels different. Firing coaches is just the start – and given the fact that Gardenhire will be working during the last season of his current contract in 2013, the whispers of a managerial change will dominate the early season chatter… especially if the Twins start slow again.

Can Terry Ryan work his magic again? Can he turn the Twins into a winner? Time will tell. For now, they’re the 5th most popular team in town, an afterthought. Seems the franchise’s tenure as the main focus of Minneapolis has run out, too.

BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!


[ii] Target Field ranked as a hitter’s ballpark in 2012, 10th in the big leagues in that category. The two previous seasons, it ranked as slightly more of a pitcher’s park.

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