An important early season intra-division clash is on tap as the Twins continue their homestand with a 4-game set with Cleveland. Cleveland comes in having won each of their first two series over Kansas City and Chicago.
After winning the AL Central in 2018, Cleveland posted a better overall record in 2019 – despite numerous key injuries – but fell just short of a wild card playoff berth. The club has tried to thread the needle of re-tooling for the future while simultaneously contending for the playoffs in a window when star infielders Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez remain in town. This approach necessitated making trades of long-time ace Corey Kluber and veteran right-hander Trevor Bauer to acquire some younger, but still major league ready assets. In return, Cleveland acquired power hitting Franmil Reyes, big-armed reliever Emmanuel Clase, spare outfielder Delino DeShields Jr. and multiple future prospects. Reyes will be Cleveland’s primary designated hitter in 2020, while Clase and his triple digit heater have been suspended 80 games for an offseason performance enhancing drug violation.
Those open rotation spots will be filled by multiple homegrown arms that will be given extended opportunities in 2020. All right-handers with some big-league experience, Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale won the summer camp competition for rotation spots and Adam Plutko will supplement them at points along the way. Still remaining are last year’s breakout star Shane Bieber, right hander Mike Clevinger, and long-time stalwart Carlos Carrasco. In the relief corps, left-handed closer Brad Hand is back and he’ll be supported by a quiet group of arms that got the job done in 2019 (3rd in MLB 3.76 relief ERA) – including LHP Oliver Perez, submarining right hander Adam Cimber, and Nick Wittgren.
The team fortified some other spots through free agency this past off-season, adding veteran second basemen Cesar Hernandez and outfielder Domingo Santana on short, low cost deals. The middle of the lineup is still anchored by the under-appreciated Carlos Santana (career .354 wOBA) and young centerfielder Oscar Mercado looks to build upon a solid rookie campaign (1.7 fWAR, 6 outs above average in 115 games). Primary catcher Roberto Perez will miss this series with an injury to his throwing shoulder.
Looking forward, it’s possible top prospect Nolan Jones (3B) will arrive in 2020 and the prospect pieces acquired in the trades mentioned above – LHP Logan Allen, LHP Scott Moss – could help as well. But most of Cleveland’s highest regarded prospects are considered another year or two away from helping the big club.
Of course, this club is headlined by the superstar infielders, Lindor and Ramirez, and the contention window is now. While the pitching is solid all around, the rest of the club is mostly average-ish, finishing in the middle of the pack in 2019 by almost any metric you want to look at. The team will go as Lindor, Ramirez, and the starting pitching go and controlling the two star infielders is the key for any opponent of Cleveland.
★ ★ ★
1. The Franimal
Designated Hitter / Outfielder Franmil Reyes is one of the largest players in major league baseball, listed at 6’5, 265 pounds. A player of his stature *looks* like a power hitter and in Reyes’ case, the eye test lines up with the data. Nicknamed “The Franimal” in San Diego, Reyes was acquired in the Trevor Bauer trade last summer. Reyes quietly stood out in 2019 for his batted ball stats, ranking in the top 5 in hard hit % (51%), average exit velocity (93.3 mph), and in the top 15 in barrel percentage (14.5%) according the Statcast. When Reyes makes contact it is often loud and results in extra base damage. This is best shown by Statcast’s expected weighted on base average on contact metric (xwOBAcon) which strips out strikeouts and walks to focus only on production from batted balls. Reyes had a xwOBAcon of .494 in 2019, a number that was in top 5% of baseball. Those batted ball stats yielded 37 homers but his overall production was dragged down by a below average 28.5% strikeout rate, which gave him an overall wOBA of .338.
What to look for:
Reyes is a huge power threat, but like many long limbed, big bodied batters he is a more productive low-ball hitter. This allows him to get his arms extended in his swing to maximize his power. He also has pronounced platoon splits – performing significantly better against left-handed pitching than right. This is primarily because he will chase pitches down and away out of the zone (like right-handed breaking balls moving away from him) and is susceptible to fastballs in and above his hands that he just can’t get the barrel to. He will hit mistakes in the low and middle zones a long way, but the Twins right handers could have success working against him with a combination of down-and-away breaking balls and up-and-in fastballs – attacking the zones shown in blue in this expected wOBA chart from last season.
★ ★ ★
2. Shane Bieber’s Breakout
Third year starter Shane Bieber was projected as a prospect to be a mid to back of the rotation starting pitcher. Since he broke into the majors in 2018, he’s done nothing but over-achieve against those expectations. Through 53 big league starts, Bieber has totaled 8.8 fWAR (7th-most among qualified pitchers) and posted a FIP of 3.22 (9th). Bieber’s calling card is elite command of four average-ish pitches. He’s walked only 4.7% of batters he’s faced, fifth best among qualified pitchers in MLB since he debuted at the end of May 2018. Bieber has also struck out 28.6% of batters faced in his career, 9th best overall. Strangely and despite his dominance, Bieber’s Statcast batted ball data reveals a hard hit allowed rate of 43.3% that was in the bottom 6% of the league in 2019. This juxtaposition tells us the lack of walks and the strikeouts are critically important elements of Bieber’s success, helping him to minimize the damage when he does get hit. The statistical indicators all suggest the production is real, as his FIP is lower than his career ERA (3.65). If anything, he’s a slight candidate for positive regression as un-fun as that may be to think about for the Twins.
What to look for:
Bieber brings the standard four pitch mix and the velocity is about average for a right-handed pitcher today. He’ll mostly be fastball and slider against right-handed batters; and fastball-curveball-changeup against lefties. He gets swings and misses with the slider (43.5% whiff%) and curveball (48.7% whiff%), which are a unique pairing in that they have very similar shape and movement profiles. Both breaking balls are primarily vertical breakers – to a hitter, they will look similar, but the curve is a few ticks slower and little bit bigger breaking. Bieber maximizes the deception of these two pitches off one another by throwing the two pitches in similar locations, often within the same at-bat.
★ ★ ★
3. Adam Cimber’s deception
Reliever Adam Cimber is a rarity in baseball today. A rarity in that his average fastball velocity is a pedestrian 85.5 mph and a rarity in that he’s one of the few to utilize a submarine arm angle. On average major league pitches are released between 5.5 and 6 vertical feet above the ground and almost all pitches decrease from that height (due to gravity and spin) as they approach home plate. In Cimber’s case, his average release point is just 1.94-1.95 vertical feet.
To illustrate the difference, check out this comparison to teammate Shane Bieber’s release point:
This low release point gives Cimber a highly unique element of deception – his fastball is usually higher when it crosses home plate, than it is when he releases it. That unusual fact is something that has only been true for a small number of pitchers in baseball history and it enables Cimber’s success, especially against right-handed batters, holding them to a .270 wOBA over his career.
What to look for:
Cimber will be deployed in situational set up relief, usually specifically to face right-handed hitters. The arm angle leaves him vulnerable against left-handed batters (career wOBA allowed .401), so look for Terry Francona to use Cimber strategically against Josh Donaldson, Miguel Sano, Nelson Cruz, or Mitch Garver.
★ ★ ★
4. Lindor’s last ride?
Cleveland’s superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor has been in the trade rumors for what seems like years. He’s eligible to become a free agent after the 2021 season and the conventional wisdom is that Cleveland would be wise to trade Lindor for a haul before he leaves town for what appears to be a certain monster free agent contract. Since becoming the starting shortstop in 2015 Lindor has accumulated 27.2 fWAR and a .353 wOBA, while also creating the 4th most outs above average (OAA) of any shortstop in the game. He’s a rare, 5-tool superstar and the club will need to make a decision about Lindor’s contract in the next two years.
What to look for:
It will be interesting to see if that light at the end of the tunnel puts extra pressure and meaning on this 2020 season. If it does, how might Cleveland act around the trade deadline? The new playoff format increased this team’s playoff chances significantly. If they are in shouting distance of a playoff spot, they may be inclined to push the chips to the middle and make an all-out run for the World Series while Lindor is manning short.
Have a question or topic you’d like to be explored? Please leave a comment and let me know!
John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher.