First-place Minnesota Twins. How do we explain that phrase in the third week of May, as they return to Target Field on Tuesday to open up a three-game series against the equally surprising Rockies?Well, there's Miguel Sano pounding baseballs, and Byron Buxton catching everything in sight. The Twins have a
First-place Minnesota Twins. How do we explain that phrase in the third week of May, as they return to Target Field on Tuesday to open up a three-game series against the equally surprising Rockies?
Well, there's Miguel Sano pounding baseballs, and Byron Buxton catching everything in sight. The Twins have a burgeoning young core of 25-and-under talent to support James Dozier and Joe Mauer.
But if you've watched Minnesota at all in the 2010s, you know that pitching has been the problem that has produced five seasons of 92 losses or more. And in an early 2017 upswing, the improvement of the pitching has been the backbone of the early, encouraging play. The club's overall staff ERA has been shaved down from 5.08 in '16 to 4.23 and the starters' ERA has gone from 5.39 (by far the worst in baseball) to 3.96.
• Cast your Esurance All-Star ballot for Sano and other #ASGWorthy players
The Twins have achieved this not with major personnel changes to their pitching staff, but to their catching, coaching and front-office staffs. Minnesota's modernization is something that probably won't bear postseason fruit here in 2017, but it does have this club better-armed and simply better-positioned in a game that evolved drastically while this franchise stayed strangely stagnant.
"It's been a whole different avenue," said pitching coach Neil Allen, "for us to go down."
As recently as last season, the advanced scouting reports handed down by the front office were rudimentary, at best. Allen would get a print-out of what the upcoming opponents' hitters had done the previous week to 10 days. The rest all came down to memory.
But when the Twins overhauled their front office this offseason -- bringing aboard chief baseball officer Derek Falvey from the Indians and general manager Thad Levine from the Rangers -- they set about drastically updating the information they compile and the way they present it to the pitchers.
"The key," Falvey said, "is getting actionable information to the players."
Former Mets pitcher Jeremy Hefner was hired as an advance scout, doing video and statistical analysis of upcoming opponents. His work is supported by other analysts in the Twins' front office who build reports and heat maps. That work is then translated to the coaching staff, with Jeff Pickler -- a newly added member of manager Paul Molitor's group -- serving as the key point man. Minnesota brought in veteran catchers Jason Castro and Chris Gimenez not simply because of Castro's well-regarded reputation for pitch-framing or Gimenez's past ties to Falvey and Levine in Cleveland and Texas, but because they knew both men have the ability to embrace the information and implement it in their game-calling.
Let's be clear: The pitchers are the ones pitching -- and Ervin Santana, in particular -- deserves a ton of credit for what has so far been one of the best starts in the bigs (a 1.50 ERA through eight outings).
But the importance of analytics -- the way the information can be used not just to draw up a game plan but to influence in-game bullpen maneuvering -- in today's game is well-established. For the Twins, going from their previous reports to the kind of data being disseminated by the Falvey-led front office is a leap from Stone Age to Internet Era.
"It's helpful information that we get," said Allen, "about the strike zone, the uses of pitches, why this specific pitch works against this specific individual and not that one, why this guy's breaking ball might not be like the other guys' breaking balls."
This is the kind of information Falvey used to produce for the Indians' coaches, and the credit he received as an instrumental figure in the Tribe's pitching-rich rise in prominence is what compelled Minnesota to hand the keys to its baseball operations to a 34-year-old.
"He made it an easy connection between the front office and the clubhouse, just because of his personality," Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. "He's just a really compassionate, understanding guy who knows what a grind it is and doesn't push things on you. He suggests things to make you better."
Falvey and Levine have been regular presences in the Twins' clubhouse, not to be nosy or overbearing, but to establish a culture of coordination. And it leads to an improved level of trust when the reports arrive. The pitcher-catcher relationship is heavily emphasized and is influenced by the data.
"My first year in Anaheim, we had hour-long meetings," starter Hector Santiago said. "It was way too much. Here, it's, 'Pitch to your strengths.' The report shows you the spots where you can be effective against certain hitters. So it's, 'Let's throw here, this is where we need to go.'"
Again, if the arms don't execute, the reports don't matter. But the Twins are seeing better execution of a better plan, and, early on, it's put them in a better position in the standings.
"We're seeing results," Allen said. "If I didn't see the results, I'd be saying, 'I don't know about this.' But I can honestly say I'm seeing the results."
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.