From 2015-2018, MLB Hall-of-Famer and St. Paul native Paul Molitor managed the Minnesota Twins. During his tenure perched on the top step of the dugout, Molly skippered two surprising—though not exactly powerhouse—clubs (‘15 & ‘17), one very “meh” squad (‘18), and the worst ball club in franchise history (‘16). An uneven ride, to say the least.
For the past two seasons—both AL Central-winning campaigns—Rocco Baldelli has been at the helm. With the ‘21 season off to such a laconic—if not outright disastrous—start, Rocco has been the whipping boy for much criticism. Always easier to “fire the manager” than dismiss all the under-achieving players, right?
While not letting Baldelli completely wriggle off the hook for the current team performance, I wonder if perhaps some of the vitriol directed his way comes from the stark differences between he and his predecessor at the end of the dugout.
One thing to make clear right off the bat: In the area of relating to and communicating with players, Rocco has the substantial edge over Molly. Not even a contest in that department. Perhaps simply a function of Molitor edging into his sixth decade of life while Baldelli hasn’t yet hit 40. I’ll never forget, as one of his first acts as Twins manager, Rocco personally visiting Byron Buxton & Miguel Sano to build (or re-build) those relationships. This was something Molitor just would not have done.
Other than that clear distinction in favor of the current hire, the style of both skippers has been as different as the success (or lack thereof) one could posit it brings to the ball club. A few examples...
- Molitor managed every game as essentially a must-win—for better or for worse. I’m sure this played a big role in keeping the ‘15 and ‘17 teams on the fringes of playoff competitiveness. Of course, that approach would also burn out the high-leverage arms mere months into a season, or engender a veteran gaining his unadulterated trust. Matt Belisle, anyone? Molly also had a propensity for bunting, or playing for one run in lieu of a bigger inning. Bird in the hand, two in the bush, and all that. Contrast that with Baldelli, who often seems to be managing as much with an eye on tomorrow as today. Pitchers are pulled early, no out is ever sacrificed, and dinged up players are given multiple days off instead of maybe one or two.
- A Baldelli-managed game often seems to be conducted from something akin to an Excel spreadsheet. Every matchup, split, and stat is accounted for and will be used in proper sequence. Of course, to quote noted sports strategist Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. Even while absorbing those blows, however, Rocco shows a propensity for “sticking to the script”. Again, a stark contrast to Molitor, who had more of a “gut feel” sense about him. To his credit, Molly was ahead of the curve—in his day—on shifting and preparing his teams well. But instead of 100% embracing next-level analytics, he’d be more inclined to fall back on strategies employed during his own playing tenure.
- Of course, the final—and most obvious—difference between Baldelli & Molitor is general temperament. While not nearly the agitator that, say, Ron Gardenhire was (as far as I know, Molitor never drop-kicked his hat across the infield), Molly could build up a head of steam:
Rocco, on the other hand, has become rather infamous for his passivity. Whether winning a division title or helming one of the worst squads in the game, you’d never know it based on his dugout and postgame comportment.
I’m not going to get into the “who is better” discussion regarding Molitor and Baldelli. That isn’t the point here. No, I’m more intrigued by the idea that the stark differences between both men are the reason for the sudden turn on Baldelli (besides, you know, the team being 11 games under .500 in mid-May). When one managerial style isn’t getting the desired result, it’s easy to say “well, just do the opposite”, and the Twins essentially had Rocco’s mirror-universe twin sitting in the same seat just before him.