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The Brain Center at Rocco’s: A Twins Twilight Zone Tale

You’re traveling to another dimension...

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The Twilight Zone

Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone might be my favorite TV show ever (sorry mygah & Jesse— Star Trek TNG is at least top ten!). Its ability to remain thematically relevant 60+ years after airing is astounding.

One particular episode—“The Brain Center at Whipple’s”—speaks to a man obsessed with technology and order. Mr. Whipple—manufacturing plant manager—continually replaces human workers with machines that don’t need “inconveniences” like bathroom breaks, sick time, or maternity leave. One by one all employees are unceremoniously dumped in favor of his shiny new devices. The traditional TZ twist? Eventually Mr. Whipple himself is brushed aside by the very devices he once championed.

Serling’s Whipple parable can be applied to Twins manager Rocco Baldelli and his strong—perhaps overwhelming—penchant for pre-ordained game-management (often in contrast to the actual situation presented). Sometimes that script works to perfection—when all actors “hit their marks”—but it can become an impediment to quick thinking or, even worse, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Before I go any further, I have to say this: In the matter of organization/planning, I sympathize with Rocco. I am a “planner” by nature. Ask me why I do something and you’ll get a Joker-esque answer. I love developing a great plan (for business or pleasure) and executing it flawlessly—sometimes even superseding the thing being planned for.

The major shortcoming with this philosophy, however, is elocuted by a somewhat surprising source:

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” (Mike Tyson)

New World Boxing Council (WBC) heavyweight champio
As adept at doling out knockouts as wisdom
Photo credit should read MIKE NELSON/AFP via Getty Images

Sometimes—dare I say most times—life does not unspool perfectly. There are too many variables to account for. As such, the ability to adapt—even in the slightest—is crucial for success in any endeavor. This may be why Baldelli hasn’t yet reached his peak managerial potential.

In multiple postgame interviews this season, Rocco has referred to “the plan” when making in-game decisions. I’m probably overstating this, but it often seems as if a pre-game strategy is developed and strictly adhered to regardless of in-game variants. Two June occasions alone support this observation:

-June 7 vs. New York Yankees: After SP Cole Sands (3.2 IP, 4 ER) struggled, it seemed clear Baldelli decided to go with the low-leverage arms out of the pen. This despite the Twins staying in the contest offensively. Somewhat predictably against the Yankee mashers, Juan Minaya coughed up another run. Yennier Cano (1.1 IP, 0 ER) fared better, but with the Twins only down a run (5-4), Tyler Duffey (1 IP, 3 ER) & Trevor Megill (2 IP, 2 ER) gave up the ghost.

-June 21 vs. Cleveland Guardians: Heading into the bottom of the 7th inning, the Twins were trailing 3-2. Emilio Pagan warmed in the pen, presumably to get the 8th in a close contest. But Luis Arraez struck for a 3-run dinger, propelling MN ahead 5-3. Cleveland’s 3-4-5 batters were due in the top of the 8th, and two Twins outs remained—presumably enough time to lather up Jhoan Duran. Instead, Pagan faced the heart of the Guardians order and immediately squandered the lead (the Twins ultimately losing in extra innings). Duran did pitch two clean innings—but only after Pagan’s damage was inflicted. Postgame, the decision to stick with Emilio over Jhoan was described as being made because Pagan was “already up” (maybe not an exact quote, but close enough to the sentiment).

In both of those scenarios, I see what Rocco was getting at. He didn’t want to burn the high-end bullpen in game one against a powerful New York lineup, then gambled that Pagan could get through one outing without a complete meltdown (sadly, this wager didn’t pay off that night or the next).

Minnesota Twins v Arizona Diamondbacks
A frustrating stretch for Rocco
Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

At the same time, I was at Target Field for the Yankees game and it felt like the Twins were very much in that contest until the parade of low-totem bullpen arms made it academic. What message does that send to players/fans? Against CLE, Duran certainly seemed like the better matchup for their 3-4-5 slots—but that decision would have required some considerable on-the-fly thinking.

I’m not ready to boot Baldelli out of the dugout stairwell. His squads have largely been competitive—if not sometimes record-setting. But like anyone in a work environment, I think his strengths/weaknesses are coming into clearer focus. Preparing for a game and having a solid plan of attach? Check. Being willing to break from that script and react to game situations in real time? Needs improvement.

I recently read The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics by Chris Jones. Without going into all the details—fascinating as they were—the take home-message was that analytics and numbers-based plans are great for predicting probabilities based on what has already happened, but very poor at anticipating new or unforeseen scenarios. This book helped me understand how/why the human mind is still the best tool we have at our disposal for making decisions (in conjunction with some pre-work, of course).

Going forward, there will be times—especially if this team plays deep into October—where the best laid plans of mice & men will go awry. Ultimately, Rocco Baldelli’s decision-making (or lack thereof) in those instances may be what defines him as Twins skipper—and determines if his fate will be like poor Mr. Whipple.


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