The Yankees are in first place and are 12-4 in July. They have set themselves up so that if they were to play .500 baseball the rest of the way and go 34-34 in their final 68 games they would finish the season 86-76. If that happened, here’s what the rest of the AL East would need to do tie them:
Tampa Bay, 39-26
With the Yankees and Twins meeting in Minnesota for a three-game series, Jesse Lund of Twinkie Town joined me to talk about Phil Hughes’ second season with the Twins, the return of Torii Hunter to Minnesota and the differences between Ron Gardenhire and Paul Molitor as manager.
Keefe: The Yankees will see Phil Hughes on Friday night and I want nothing more than for them to open the game with like nine straight hits and have him pulled in the first inning without recording an out for the frustration he put me through from 2007 to 2013. After he beat the Yankees last season at Yankee Stadium (thanks to a David Robertson meltdown), my dislike for Hughes only increased.
Last year, Hughes only walked 16 hitters and he’s doing a similar job with 12 walks this year, which is the complete opposite type of pitcher he was in New York. But after winning 16 games with a 3.52 ERA in 2014, we’re seeing the real Phil Hughes this year as he leads the league in hits and home runs allowed.
What are your thoughts on Hughes now in his second year with the Twins?
Lund: He’s continued to throw that cutter like he did in 2014 and for the most part it’s been fine, but his straight four-seamer seems to have taken a step backward. Almost as it to mitigate that fact he’s been throwing two-seamers this year too, but what you’re seeing is that he’s not getting the spin he did last year. As you know he doesn’t throw with enough velocity to simply overpower hitters, and with his off-speed stuff losing a little bit of that break it’s meant he hasn’t been as effective.
Hughes was also brilliant last year at getting hitters to chase the high fastball. He’s still trying it but at times he doesn’t get the pitch up quite enough and 23 home runs in 123 2/3 innings is the result.
He’s still pitching competitively, though. His ERA is 2.85 over his last six starts, which include a .248 opponent average. But the home runs still haunt (eight bombs in that span) and he’s not getting the swinging strikes to help him really be the dominant guy he was last summer.
Right now I still like the new contract the Twins gave him and I still have confidence in him in any given start, but there’s no doubt that he isn’t the ace he was in 2014.
Keefe: Torii Hunter was a Twin from 1997 to 2007 before leaving for five seasons with the Angels and then two with the Tigers. Now he’s back in Minnesota at age 39 and continuing to hit for power.
I always enjoy when a former Yankee returns for a second tenure whether it be Tino Martinez or Alfonso Soriano (not so much Sidney Ponson or Nick Johnson) and have always welcomed the return of a fan favorite to the Bronx, so what’s it been like to have Hunter back?
Lund: I didn’t want Hunter back. In my view the Twins were still one season away from competing, and adding to Minnesota’s problematic outfield defense was about the last thing on my radar. There was no doubt that his bat would probably help the team out and that nostalgia would sell some jerseys and put butts in seats in the early going, but based off of 2014 Minnesota’s offense was going to be just fine and we didn’t have pitching that was good enough to help the team get better if both corner outfield spots were occupied by a concrete-footed 24-year old and a rapidly declining 39-year old.
I was wrong, which is great. When it comes to the Twins being better I’m happy to be wrong. Hunter has hit a cold stretch in July where he’s popping the ball up way too often and he’s not hitting the ball hard like he did the first three months of the year, but from April through June he was one of the Twins’ best hitters and even carried the team for a week in May. The fans love him again, the players feed off of his energy and confidence, and our young outfielders (Aaron Hicks, Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario, and Oswaldo Arcia) all listen to him.
My biggest concern is that Hunter wears down as the season goes along, the beginning of which could be happening right now, and he’ll be relegated to a bench bat/designated hitter which really limits how Paul Molitor can use him. He’s not good enough to be a defensive replacement or fast enough to pinch run, and with Trevor Plouffe having another good year it means Miguel Sano is getting — and deserves — plate appearances as designated hitter.
Overall, I’m glad Hunter is here and I’m happy to have been wrong in my criticism of his signing, but I do still question the process that brought him here. Just because things turn out well doesn’t mean those results came from the best decision making. And I do trust Terry Ryan and the Twins’ brain trust – but this isn’t the first time I’ve questioned their logic.
Keefe: Usually former superstars don’t become managers with the rare exception like Don Mattingly or Ryne Sandberg. It’s rare to see an all-time great player become a manager because of their status and their financial standing after likely having made a lot of money in their career. It’s even more rare to have a Hall of Famer as a manager, but the Twins have one in Paul Molitor.
How has his first season with the Twins gone?
Lund: Molitor’s results have been less important to me that what he does differently than his predecessor. Molitor pays attention to splits and he’s – to an insane degree – detail-oriented. Reading pitchers to get jumps, understanding how pitchers sequence their pitches, shifting defenders not just based around the hitter but based on counts (both radical and subtle shifts); one of the more interesting aspects of his tenure has been his penchant for allowing relievers to go more than one inning.
It’s been a lot of fun watching Molitor this year and learning how he’s different both on (as I mentioned above) and off (communication is far more important) the field. He doesn’t get involved in personnel decisions as much as Gardenhire did, if the reports I’ve read are accurate.
We’ll see how he gets along. It’s tough to put too much of a club’s successes or failures at the feet of the manager, but if you’re winning people don’t care. He’s off to a great start considering the predictions for the Twins this year.
Keefe: Molitor’s first season is also the first season since 2001 that the Twins’ manager isn’t Ron Gardenhire. After four straight losing seasons in which the Twins lost 99, 96, 96 and 92 games, Gardenhire was fired after it seemed like he would keep his job no matter what for as long as he wanted.
What was it like to watch Gardenhire get fired after 13 seasons as manager and how has Molitor been different?
Lund: Personally, after the 2014 season it was just a matter of time. Someone was going to go, whether it was Terry Ryan or Ron Gardenhire or both or perhaps the entire leadership of the front office.
I’m a bit different than a lot of Twins fans in that I lay the blame for the last four awful years at feet other than Gardy’s: Ryan for terrible drafts in the mid-2000s, Bill Smith for terrible trades, and then Ryan since his return for not expediting a rebuild by scuttling all valuable pieces earlier than he did. (Then again, not shedding Michael Cuddyer allowed the Twins to draft Jose Berrios, so it wasn’t all bad.) Gardy was put in a tough spot, since it’s tough to win when your front office doesn’t give you much with which to work.
But I don’t blame the Twins for removing Gardenhire as the manager (he technically wasn’t fired, just removed from the role). Something had to change, even if it was a figurehead move that would allow a culture shift, and as we’re witnessing the results are good in the early stages. It’s so good to see this team win and feel good about itself again; you miss it when it’s gone.
Keefe: Last year when we talked, you thought the Twins would be a 70-win team and they finished 70-92, so I hope you put some money on that before the season started.
What were your expectations coming to this season and what are they now that the Twins are 51-44 and in playoff contention?
Lund: Ha! Yeah, I never did. But I also expected this year’s team to be a 77-win club, which at the time was considered to be optimistic by three or four games.
I figured the Twins would surprise people by being more competitive this year than the national outlets predicted, but of course I didn’t see them being as good as they have been.
As far as my expectations go, I think the Twins have an opportunity to hang around for that Wild Card play-in spot. They have their work cut out for them and they desperately need help in the bullpen (not to mention behind the plate and at shortstop), but really … any success Minnesota has at this point is totally gravy. 2015 has been so much fun.
This current stretch (three versus the Angels, three versus the Yankees, two versus the Pirates) will go a long way in predicting where Minnesota’s season will end up. Ultimately I think they’ll grab a wild-card spot or end up a couple of games shy — I don’t think they’ll implode entirely.