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“Mental Toughness” and the Twins’ playoff streak

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An exploration into what folks think mental toughness is and how to end the worst streak in sports history

A lot of theories can arise when a sports team loses eighteen straight playoff games. It could be the fault of a bad GM, or a bad coach. Perhaps a mercurial closer if we’re focusing on baseball, or even a modern day curse. Except the Twins now hold the record for playoff futility across all of American sports, so there is no longer precedent. What Twins fans want to know is why this has happened and if there is a way out.

I like to get “Mad Dog” Chris Russo’s take on baseball, because his stances are obnoxiously traditional and usually in direct contrast to my own. He also has no qualms about taking shots at teams and players. In the lead up to the 2019 postseason, there were a lot of analysts picking the Twins to, if not beat the Yankees, give them a good run in the ALDS. Russo ended up having the sanest take prior to the series by simply saying “The Twins can’t beat the Yankees in the playoffs, case closed.”

After the 2020 season? Russo:

“I know people will tell you, they weren’t on the team 15, 20 years ago, why do you get on [the Twins]? 18 consecutive playoff losses? You gotta wear it if you’re a Twin, that’s all there is to it…”

“… I hate to say it: The Twins are a soft team. They didn’t scratch, they didn’t claw, they didn’t dig, they didn’t do what teams that are that good should do. Horrendous. Horrendous. Wear it. Eighteen straight postseason losses, they’re not all against the Yankees. Wear it.”

I became a Twins fan when they were in a pretty pathetic place—getting a perfect game thrown against them by David Wells, with Ron Coomer as its best hitter, and the threat of contraction looming. They got good at the same time that statistical analysis became accessible to the average fan, and I marveled at how bad Juan Pierre was compared to how good Bobby Abreu was, if you just took a little closer look at their (readily available) statistics and stopped listening to color analysts on T.V.

The Twins flouted this wisdom, and perhaps were given the wrong kind of reinforcement by beating the Moneyball A’s in the 2002 playoffs. They batted Christian Guzman and Luis Rivas way too high in the batting order, threw away outs with sacrifice bunts, and didn’t place much value in having high on base percentage players.

What they did do, was play with a lot of energy. They liked to put pressure on the pitcher with men on base. They had a hardnosed first baseman in Doug Mientkiewicz who would bark and scream and do the splits if it gave him another inch of stretch at first.

They had a catcher who talked trash and got under the skin of the opposition and couldn’t stop if he tried, who also could hit .300 with power.

They had a designated hitter who could crush the ball and looked as intimidating as anyone in the batter’s box.

By mid-2004, all three were gone, and the Twins are 1-18 in playoff games since. We know that the Twins didn’t have a change of heart and embrace analytics at that time; in fact it would be years before any progress was truly made in that department. And if you looked at baseball analytics as a monolith, well, it liked those three players.

The division championships kept coming, but the playoff losses kept mounting. The front office looked at ways to improve on the cheap, seemingly skimming the Wikipedia page for analytics but not fully comprehending what they found. For every Carl Pavano-type pickup, they traded away J.J. Hardy for nothing.

The tear down happened after the 2016 season with the new Falvine regime installed. Advanced stats and batted ball data were now important to this team, and the hiring of Wes Johnson made the Twins into a pitching destination for guys who hadn’t put it all together yet or were recovering from injury. We started giving chances to guys like Ryne Harper, retooled Tyler Duffey into a force in the bullpen, told Max Kepler and Mitch Garver to lift the ball to the pull side and have even started to get Eddie Rosario to take a pitch now and then. The results are two division championships and two excruciating playoff sweeps.

Fans in in the mid-2000’s wondered what the team could be like if it embraced analytics and bucked traditions that didn’t serve any purpose. It took fourteen years, and here are the results: Plenty of talent on both sides of the ball, and zero playoff success.

“The Twins are a soft team.”

You hear it and cringe. First of all, the notion of some people being soft, and some tough, is rooted in toxic masculinity. Traits related to not being soft include being closed off, not asking for help, and fearing intimacy, and these are all contributing factors towards the terrible state of mental health in this country. Physically, too—how many dudes think they are too tough to go to the doctor and end up dead?

That’s worth a column in and of itself on a different website, but Russo’s comments still hurt. Sports don’t actually matter, but winning them does require a certain kind of mental toughness. You have to have players who can deliver in the big moments where the pressure is the greatest, and the abstract nature of mental toughness makes that difficult to predict as far as who has it and who doesn’t. Even this year, Jose Altuve has the yips on defense, but is crushing the ball at the plate. Analysts and writers are loathe to criticize any deficiency in terms of mental toughness, however, because on the one hand the new way of thinking is that only what is measurable is what matters, and on the other, they don’t want to speak a curse into existence. So the Twins may show up in the playoffs next year fresh off eighteen straight playoff losses, and tons of analysts will tell us that this year the Twins improved in XYZ and that’s why they are breaking the curse. One of these years the A’s will break through. The Indians pitching will carry them one of these years. Clayton Kershaw will have his October moment one of these years. Justin Verlander will pitch well in a World Series One. Of. These. Years.

So for once, I actually appreciate Russo’s obnoxiousness. The analysts who sing Kershaw’s praises defeat after defeat after defeat are hyping him up because they want him to succeed. He’s a nice guy from Texas who doesn’t cause any trouble and is one of the best regular season pitchers in baseball history. They want him to succeed in the postseason. That is not analysis. Russo for one, thinks he’s trash. That link is from 2016, and Kershaw has had four middling to bad postseasons since. Kershaw’s failures are firmly entrenched in his own mind, and no matter how many people want, so bad, to see him succeed, those demons aren’t going anywhere. In fact, the pressure of people wanting him to perform in the playoffs after all the failure adds only more weight to his shoulders and leads to less performance, I would argue.

When Chuck Knoblauch couldn’t throw to first base as Yankee, there were many who said he would figure it out because he was a good second baseman. But the errors kept coming. His mind was not right, and there is no metric to measure that.

Steve Blass was a good pitcher before he caught his own disease. You can look at his mechanics and blame injury, but the fact is that Blass lost his control and never got it back. His stats before he succumbed to Steve Blass Disease did nothing to predict what Steve Blass would be going forward.

In the same way, the Twins regular season statistics offer nothing to predict what they will do in the playoffs. Converting to being an analytics literate team hasn’t helped because that was never the root problem. The root problem is that they are, like Kershaw, mentally weak. Or at least that they do not place enough value in players and coaches who exhibit the opposite traits, however you define those. This is entrenched in the Twins culture. The old regime of Terry Ryan turned Mientkiewicz down for the manager’s job prior to the 2015 season, and the new regime fired him as A-Ball manager after experiencing tons of success and praise from players in the minor leagues. Mientkiewicz was not offered a reason for his firing, but we can infer from his comments as well as the comments given after his firing from the Detroit organization, that he was too hard on his players, too vocal and too insistent on “teaching how to win.”

The case of Kershaw is illustrative, I think, because his individual lack of success in the playoffs is so seemingly inexplicable, and most baseball fans want to see him flourish like they just know he can. Dave Roberts would resign as manager and never work again if he could be assured Kershaw would win World Series MVP. I don’t personally care what Kershaw does, but prefer he exits the playoffs early so I don’t have to hear John Smoltz call him a Hall of Famer 200 times a series. Those comments do make Kershaw’s failures contextually a little sweeter, though.

Kershaw was an elite prospect coming up in the Dodgers system. He was drafted as the seventh overall pick in the 2006 draft out of high school and pitched about one and a half minor league seasons before getting called up for good in 2008 at the age of twenty. That is a very aggressive development schedule for a high school pitcher- perhaps Kershaw relied on his immense talent to get promoted to the detriment of him learning how to win?

As a stats minded person, that is ridiculous to type, but it’s starting to line up. Returning to Mientkiewicz, here is a quote regarding his firing from the Tigers minor league system via the Detroit Free Press:

“It just turns my stomach when they tell me to call guys up that definitely weren’t deserving,” Mientkiewicz said. “You have to understand — I’m part of a fraternity in that, I know what I had to do to get called up to the big leagues and I know what I had to do to stay. So, pardon me when I’m a little perturbed that we keep calling these guys who aren’t ready yet up, because we don’t have anybody else…”

“…The Tigers declined Mientkiewicz’s request [to delay promoting top prospect Daz Cameron], saying that factors beyond a player’s performance go into such decisions and citing his strong spring training performance. (Cameron hit .357 with seven extra-base hits in 28 at-bats.) The translation: The organization didn’t want to take a hit in public perception for demoting a key prospect, even if it stood to benefit the player…

Cameron, for whats its worth, struggled mightily this year, hitting .193 with almost zero power.

There is a part of me that knows, “teaching how to win” is not a thing. Players develop skills in the minor leagues, they get called up, and those skills either translate or they don’t. But eighteen straight playoff losses will have you questioning things. Pierzynski, Mientkiewicz and Ortiz all won championships elsewhere after leaving Minnesota.

Maybe Russo is right. The two most inexplicable things in baseball right now are arguably the Twins losing streak and Kershaw’s failures in the post. Stats can’t measure it, batted ball data can’t measure it, and it’s hard for the eye to believe it sometimes. I’m not saying the Twins should hire the ghost of Bobby Knight, but it stands to reason that Rocco Baldelli is about as far from Knight as you can get. The Twins, and Kershaw, are great in the regular season, but the sample size each has in the postseason is enough for me: Eighteen games for the Twins and 28 starts for Kershaw. The philosophy is broken. You can call it mentally weak, or you can call it soft, but it is something. It wasn’t a bad deduction to think that the Twins former aversion to advanced stats was the culprit. We now know that isn’t it. Signing the intense and ill-tempered Josh Donaldson may have helped if he had been able to play against the Astros, but we’ll never know how that would have played out. We can’t take the chance that he will a) be healthy next year, or b) that his intensity is enough for this organization to turn it around mentally. So here is my proposition:

Fire Baldelli, hire Mientkiewicz. Stay on the cutting edge in the front office, and use it to your advantage, but as far as the mental side of the game, let it ride with someone who offers a potential solution to a terrible problem. It is well past the time to say, “Let’s keep the gang together and see what happens next year.” It has been eighteen years with a team that has been in contention twelve of those years. This team is good, the scouting is good, and the skill development is good. The Royals got to win a World Series without knowing what OBP stood for. Make a change.