When Derek Falvey and Thad Levine were hired to run the Twins’ baseball operations following the 2016 MLB season, Minnesota was coming off its fifth losing campaign in the past six seasons. At the root of the organization’s fall after its decade-long run of success was a pitching program that had fallen behind the times and failed to produce or acquire meaningful contributors at the big league level. From 2011 through 2016, Minnesota ranked 29th in ERA and FIP, 27th in pitching fWAR, and 30th in strikeout rate. Fixing the pitching would have to be priority number one for the new decision-makers.
Fast forward five seasons and the offseason of 2021-2022 has the no-longer-new leaders facing many of the same pitching-related questions that were prevalent in 2016. Minnesota’s 73-89 record in 2021 was primarily the result of poor pitching (26th in ERA and 24th in FIP and fWAR) that was delivered by a staff that included several veteran retreads and short-term stopgaps. By mid-season, the Twins were far from contention and those veterans (and homegrown ace José Berríos) were soon to be gone. Throw in a season-ending injury to Kenta Maeda that will also affect a large portion of 2022 and Michael Pineda earning free agency at the conclusion of last season, and the Minnesota roster now has as many as four starting rotation spots and several more bullpen roles currently open or in need of an upgrade.
Despite club owner Jim Pohlad’s public comments that the team would not be rebuilding and Falvey re-iterating that stance heading into the offseason, many Twins fans were left scratching their heads and frustrated when the team then mostly sat on the sideline during the free agent frenzy that happened right before the lockout started. The Twins did not act as a team that had major needs on the mound, money to spend, and leadership committed to winning.
Naturally, that inaction (save for signing Dylan Bundy as a rebound candidate and extending Byron Buxton) led many to ask “What is the plan here? There is a plan… right? RIGHT!?!?” (See Aaron Gleeman, Nick Nelson, Bob Engvall, among others).
While those are reasonable questions to ask, there is an instructive through-line to be drawn about the Twins plans for 2022. Those plans have their roots in the strategy Falvey and Levine laid out five-plus years ago. From their public comments, we can piece together the principles their strategy rests on and see how it has been shaped by the lessons they and the personnel they have hired have brought with them from other MLB organizations.
With that lens, we can try to make sense of their actions this offseason and see that it becomes clear that the Twins leadership is being serious and honest when they say they do not see 2022 as the start of a rebuild. Instead, they see 2022 as the next critical stage of the organizational rebuilding plan that was established back in 2016. They believe if their strategy was implemented well, 2022 will not be a rebuilding year. If it wasn’t… well… that’s a different article.
The power of “and”
Many (most?) professional sports organizations express their desire to build and manage their organization in a way that successfully produces contending teams in both the short and the long terms. The Twins are one of these franchises. Falvey said as much in his introductory press conference five years ago, “The goal here is straightforward and measurable. It’s to build a sustainable and championship-caliber team and organization that Twins fans across Twins Territory will be proud of.”
While many organizations present this intent, most will fail to achieve it. That’s partly because language like this is convenient management buzz speak. It’s also because it is really hard to be consistently competitive in professional sports because parity is baked into the structure of the leagues. And it is because ownership and management are prone to treating “being consistently competitive” as a problem to be solved. A problem that has a “right” answer.
That’s a natural human behavior that gets ingrained into our thinking and actions from childhood onward. We’re consistently encouraged to find the (usually singular) “right” answer and often that “right” answer is framed as an “either-or” choice. These kinds of choices are how we learn languages and how to navigate the world. We identify things by asking “Is this object this, or that?” We treat most problems like math problems that have a definitive “right” answer. “Does 2+2 equal 4, or some other number?” You get the idea. We solve the problem and move on to the next.
That kind of finite thinking, while vital and appropriate for most things, is insufficient for complex issues that do not have a definitive “right” answer or endpoint. Issues like... running a consistently successful baseball team.
Running a consistently successful baseball team has no endpoint – it’s an infinite game. Yes, the goal is to win the World Series each season, but the game does not stop when a World Series winner is crowned. Instead, the next season is right around the corner and the quest begins anew. Major League Baseball is an infinite contest marked by finite seasons.
In that way, taking a problem to be solved/finite approach can hinder the organization from its long-term goal of consistently contending. It might result in short-term success, such as a World Series championship. But it is not likely to be sustainable season after season. This kind of thinking often presents options and decisions as exclusive of or at odds with one another. It leads us to false dichotomies and limits our thinking about the options available.
For instance, should we try to win in the short term or focus on the long term?
Well, why not both? Pursuing success in the near term and in the long term does not have to be mutually exclusive. It also does not preclude winning. You can win finite games within the infinite game.
In that sense, considering decisions from the perspective of “both-and” is a helpful complement to our habitual “either-or” thinking.
Many of the most successful organizations in sports – including the St. Louis Cardinals, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, and perhaps a few others – have consistently found ways to manage their organizations for both the short and long terms. They do so because they always want to be competitive and relevant and they understand that luck plays an outsized role in the playoff tournaments used to crown seasonal champions. Therefore, it is rational to try to give themselves as many credible chances at championships as they can.
If you are willing to take Pohlad, Falvey, and Levine at their word, and not chalk up their public comments as corporate speak — which, I recognize, some may not be willing to do — then you can buy that this is what they have been attempting to do. Levine said so shortly after being hired back in 2016, “Ownership has stressed to us that this isn’t really a today thing, it’s more about building something that will be more sustainable,” Levine said. “I think every decision we make will be with that in mind on what can help us win over a long time frame.”
Falvey used the keyword in the quote from his introductory press conference included above: “build a sustainable and championship-caliber team and organization.” In mid-2017, with the team teetering on the edge of wild card contention before the July trading deadline, Falvey re-emphasized their intentional focus on balancing between the short and long terms in explaining the team’s decision making in first acquiring and then trading away, left-hander Jaime García.
A critical element to making the “and” strategy work is discipline from the management and enduring commitment from ownership to stay the course. Sports history is littered with organizations that intended to build sustainable organizations, only to see those careful plans upended by impatient owners who pushed all the chips to the middle of the table for a short-term pursuit. You might win a title or two going this way – see: Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, among others – but that approach is far from a guarantee – see: the San Diego Padres twice in the past decade, among others – and the period immediately following the all-in stretch is often terrible.
Patience and commitment to the strategy from ownership is something the Twins have had in deep supply the past five years. Just this past fall, following the unexpected non-competitive season, Pohlad was extremely positive in his review of his baseball leadership. “I’d grade them all A-plus,” Pohlad said. “For sure. I mean, I’m 100 percent on that with them.”
While that high of a grade surprised many who follow the Twins, it is perhaps not that surprising if the past five seasons are compared to the prior six. From 2011-2016, the Twins combined for a 407-565 record that was better than only Houston (and only by 5 games), a team that was purposely tanking for much of that span. It goes without saying that they had no playoff berths in that period. Despite all the losing, Minnesota’s farm system was ranked just 21st by Baseball America heading into the 2017 season (although it had just produced several future core position players) and was decidedly devoid of impact pitching talent. Moreover, while many of the most successful teams in baseball were embracing data analysis to guide decisions, ESPN categorized the Twins as analytics “skeptics” in its Great Analytics Rankings in 2015.
While teams like Houston and the Chicago Cubs have popularized the tanking formula as part of their organizational rebuilds in the last decade, the Twins took a different tack when Falvey and Levine took over. They didn’t strip the place down to the foundation. They sought to compete and modernize the infrastructure at the same time.
Over the past five seasons, Minnesota is a combined 373-335, which ranks 12th-best in MLB. Three of those five seasons concluded with playoff berths, including two AL Central division championships. The farm system ranked 10th in FanGraphs’ 2021 mid-season update (despite in-season graduations of Alex Kirilloff, Ryan Jeffers, and Trevor Larnach) and likely improved from there with their trade deadline acquisitions. Unlike some other highly regarded farm systems, the Twins ranking is built on a large crop of players in the high minors, knocking on the doors of Target Field. Baseball America described the Twins’ system as “rich in pitching” in their most recent update if you can believe it. Moreover, no one pegs the Twins as a dark age franchise when it comes to technology and data anymore, as pieces like these (SportTechie, Databricks) and recent hiring cycles where Minnesota was targeted as a talent source for other organizations illustrate.
Taken together, it appears from the outside Falvey and Levine have threaded the “and” needle pretty well. They seemingly found a way to execute a parallel paths strategy that had the team competitive in the majors while also investing significant resources in rebuilding the minor league player development pipeline from the ground up and modernizing the way the club uses data and information to scout, draft, develop, and train players. But coming off a losing campaign five-plus years into the plan, the upcoming season represents a transition point. The parallel paths must now come together and work in concert at the major league level.
A learning organization
A key part of executing the strategy to get to this point has been being open-minded toward learning from other organizations and applying those lessons in Minnesota. Consider this excerpt from FanGraphs’ David Laurila after he interviewed Falvey and Levine in December 2016:
According to Falvey, he, Levine and (former interim Twins general manager) Rob Antony “shared practices from all three organizations” during November’s GM Meetings. He explained that the newly formed front office “is taking unique things from each place, and trying to blend the best of all operations together.”
Levine concurred, saying, “The combination of those three mindsets can lead us down a path of building a sustainable winner.”
Falvey came to the Twins after nine seasons working for division rival Cleveland. Levine came to Minnesota from Texas, where he had been GM Jon Daniel’s top lieutenant in architecting back-to-back World Series teams. About a year into Falvey’s leadership of the Twins, the club quietly hired analyst Josh Kalk away from the Tampa Bay Rays, adding another team’s knowledge to the mix. A year later, when Falvey and Levine decided to make a change in the dugout, they again turned to Tampa Bay and hired Rocco Baldelli as field manager.
There is a common theme across those three organizations and the periods these men were part of them.
Supplying your own pitching
Consistently supplying the major league team with impact talent from within is critical for sustained success, especially in a mid-sized market like Minnesota. Falvey said in 2020, “The lifeblood of a sustainable winner or a championship organization is to have some young players get better and find a way to impact you.”
Over the past ten seasons, Cleveland and Tampa Bay have been great examples of this point. Since the 2012 season, only the Dodgers, Yankees, Cardinals, and Nationals have won as many or more games as Cleveland and Tampa Bay. The two perpetual underdogs have combined for nine playoff berths and two World Series appearances in that time.
The biggest factor driving their success has been elite pitching. You can see in the chart below where Cleveland (red) and Tampa Bay (light blue) hurlers have stacked up against the rest of the league since 2012. The Twins are represented in navy blue.
Because this is a chart about pitching, lower values are better. You can see that both Cleveland and the Rays have consistently had team earned run averages among the best in baseball. If you aggregate the ten seasons, Tampa Bay ranks 3rd (3.72) and Cleveland ranks 5th (3.86) in team ERA, despite being in the American League and having to deal with the designated hitter. By comparison, the Twins are 22nd in team wins, 28th in team ERA (4.54), and have only bettered Cleveland or Tampa Bay once each in the past ten seasons (both times during the Falvine era).
At the same time, the Rays have averaged the league’s 28th-highest payroll over the past ten seasons and have never ranked higher than 25th. Cleveland has averaged the 22nd-highest payroll and topped out at 16th-highest in the years following their World Series appearance in 2016. But they win anyways.
Despite higher payrolls and franchise values being shown as positively linked with winning, especially when sustained over extended periods of time, Cleveland and Tampa Bay have proven that a way to be a consistent exception to the idea that you have to spend to win is to be able to produce your own effective pitching. (Oakland is another example – it ranks 8th in wins over the past 10 years, with baseball’s 7th-best team ERA. The A’s have averaged the 27th-highest payroll and never ranked higher than 24th in that span.)
Data from FanGraphs shows that Cleveland has had 30 pitchers since 2012 produce 1.0 cumulative fWAR or more. Tampa Bay has had 39. I went through the Baseball-Reference database to identify how those organizations acquired those pitchers:
Nearly half of the successful pitchers for these two organizations over the last decade have been acquired in trades (33 of 69). I split the trades into the minor league and major league bins, which might imply the major league trades were for veteran pitchers. But that is not the case. Of the 25 MLB trades shown in the table, the majority were Cleveland or Tampa Bay acquiring a pitcher who had made their MLB debuts but not yet established themselves as reliable hurlers. Those include pitchers like Jake Odorizzi (KC to TBR, 7.1 MLB innings pitched at time of trade), Tyler Glasnow (PIT to TBR, 141.1 IP over 3 seasons), Drew Smyly (DET to TBR, 280.2 IP over 3 seasons), Trevor Bauer (ARZ to CLE, 16.1 IP), Justin Masterson (BOS to CLE, 219.2 IP over 3 seasons), and Cal Quantrill (SDP to CLE, 120.1 IP over 2 seasons).
Similarly, the minor league trades included several deals where the players acquired were already in the high minors and close to MLB ready. They include Cleveland getting Corey Kluber (AAA at the time) and Carlos Carrasco (AAA) and Tampa Bay netting Chris Archer (AA), Ryan Yarbrough (AA), Andrew Kittredge (AAA), and Matt Andriese (AAA).
After trades, amateur draft choices were the next most common transaction type, representing about a third of the pitchers in the data set. In total, trading and drafting make up more than two-thirds of the acquisitions by Cleveland and Tampa Bay, who have been able to consistently litter the top prospect lists with their pitchers.
Conversely, professional free agent signings made up just eight of the acquisitions in this data and they were mostly small-dollar signings. Cleveland’s two were for reclamation of an out-of-affiliated-baseball Scott Kazmir and then 36-year-old reliever Oliver Perez. Tampa Bay’s signings do include a $30-million, multi-year outlay for Charlie Morton, but the remainder were for small deals with Tommy Hunter, Michael Wacha, Fernando Rodney, Joel Peralta, and Collin McHugh.
The point is, despite not spending anywhere near the top of the league (by choice or by circumstance), Tampa Bay and Cleveland have been very successful over the past decade thanks in huge part to their ability to acquire and develop impactful, inexpensive pitching talent.
Given the Twins front office ties to Cleveland and Tampa Bay, it’s not hard to surmise from their actions and words that they see producing the majority of their impact pitching internally as a key to sustained competitiveness. As much as the public statements about not rebuilding would imply a willingness to invest in the team through free agency, doing so now, with so many homegrown pitchers almost ready to contribute in the major leagues would seem to run contrary to that organizational plan.
That’s not to say the Twins will always sit out the free agent pitching market. As Falvey has said before, “With pitching, I think you want to explore every avenue and opportunity to add talent. Whether that’s being opportunistic in the free agent market, or through trades, or through unique development philosophies.”
That said, the Twins have been nothing, if not disciplined in their pitching transactions under this regime. They have a narrow set of criteria that define good opportunities to acquire pitching and they have limited their free agent forays to the select few that fit. Occasionally, that’s a big-ticket item like Zack Wheeler, but most of the time it will be the value-oriented Michael Pinedas and Rich Hills of the world in free agency, and trades for controllable, not yet established pitchers with the potential to grow (like Joe Ryan) or for veterans in need of a change of scenery (like Jake Odorizzi and Kenta Maeda).
Given that, the way they have approached the pitching market so far this offseason is maybe not so shocking or tantamount to mismanagement. It’s just part of the plan.
I do not intend for this to be a defense of this strategy or Falvey and Levine’s tenure. I wrote this because I wanted to try to understand what they were doing in November. We can (and should) debate their strategy and decision-making. There are valid arguments for spending more liberally on pitching, or just spending more in general, or other strategies.
But this is the path they set out on back in 2016. It has taken longer than expected to get to this point, where they even have a credible argument for choosing to rely primarily on homegrown pitchers. They seem eager to make that choice. As a result, next season offers the biggest, real-world opportunity yet to put Falvey and Levine’s organizational strategy to the test. We’re going to find out if the implementation of the strategy has been any good and if the rebuilt organization can sustain itself as intended.