There’s no doubt Paul Molitor got a bad shake when the Twins fired the manager after the 2018 season.
That team dealt with a ton of injuries and still finished 78-84. That performance should have been good enough to deserve another season with the club, but it’s also fair to say that Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine had the right to hire any manager they wanted, as long as owner Jim Pohlad was willing to pay for it.
In his four seasons as Twins manager, Molitor led the team to two seasons above .500, going 83-79 in 2015 and 85-77 in 2017. He also led the club to the worst record in team history in 2016, going 59-103, but did a commendable job in 2018.
Molitor was at Target Field last weekend to see Joe Mauer have his jersey retired. He said that while he is out of the game now, he is watching the Twins with great interest.
Has he been surprised to see the team get off to the best start in franchise history?
“You know, I wouldn’t say I’m surprised,” the Hall of Famer said. “When they make changes, and they brought in some people that are performing extremely well, the maturation of some of these players that have been around here for a while, it has just kind of all come together. I give [manager] Rocco [Baldelli] a lot of credit, and the players certainly have performed. They have put themselves in an outstanding position here.”
Last season the Twins hit 166 home runs, the 12th-highest total in club history. This year they have hit 140 home runs in 73 games.
Molitor explains the team’s current home run pace in a couple of different ways. Homers are way up around the majors, and teams are focused on hitting as many as they can.
But he also said the Twins — with a balance of veterans with power such as C.J. Cron, Nelson Cruz, Jonathan Schoop and Marwin Gonzalez, and young power hitters such as Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, Mitch Garver, Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton — have created a lineup where players are comfortable swinging for the fences.
“There’s just a lot of home runs that we’re seeing in the game and [with the prevalence of] the three true outcomes [a home run, walk or a strikeout, which don’t involve the defensive team], it’s just a different game to watch,” Molitor said. “As far as the Twins team, I don’t know if it’s contagious as much as they got some results early. I think the veteran players took some pressure off some of our younger players and it just seems like they go up there with the idea that maybe tonight is my night but if not, the guy behind me has got my back.
“They keep finding ways to pick each other up. It has been impressive to see the consistency of the power display.”
Many observers believe the Twins’ bullpen needs improvement, but Molitor said he really likes the way the relievers are performing.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of talk about what they need to do and believe me, Derek and Thad will do the right thing by the team, but I’m a big fan of the people that are here,” he said. “I have seen a lot of them develop into dependable, quality relievers. The fact that they’re kind of giving guys different opportunities to do different things on different days, I think that only makes you better in the long run.”
Watched young stars
Maybe the toughest part about Molitor no longer managing the Twins has to be seeing players such Buxton, Kepler, Rosario and Polanco put together such great seasons.
Molitor watched a number of those young stars come up through the team’s farm system, and he is thrilled they’re having this kind of success.
He said that seeing Buxton’s improvement has been rewarding for him.
“I am not surprised. I am happy about a lot of things — rooting for this team and having them perform the way they have — but there is no question, I never hid it, Byron is one of my favorite people,” Molitor said. “To see him come out and perform the way he has, I couldn’t be any more pleased than I am for Byron.”
And what about Kepler, who is hitting a career-high .277 and already has 19 homers?
“Max has had his moments along the way, and I think he has just been looking to find a way to keep improving his game,” Molitor said. “The power numbers are up, the production numbers are up, he looks very confident against lefthanded pitching. Again, it’s just the way these guys are all blending together.”
One player who has seemingly come out of nowhere is Polanco, who Molitor really missed at the start of last season while the shortstop served an 81-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. This year Polanco is leading the American League in batting average (.326), and Molitor said that is no surprise.
“I think that a lot of us over the years here thought he was going to develop into one of the better hitters in the league, possibly a guy who contends for batting titles,” he said. “He has figured out his balance from both sides of the plate — you know, the right side took a little while to catch up to the left side — and you can see how he has developed his confidence defensively, too. Just a complete player who can beat you in a lot of ways.”
Praise for Mauer
Of course, Molitor also had great things to say about Mauer. Both played high school ball at Cretin/Cretin-Derham Hall and finished their playing careers with the Twins.
“I was fortunate to know Joe as a youngster in St. Paul, got a chance to see him play a few times,” Molitor said. “His high school coach [Jim O’Neill] was a good friend of mine, a former teammate [at Cretin],” he recalled. “We used to talk about Joe quite a bit.
“I was very excited when he rose up the Twins ladder into the No. 1 slot [of the draft]. I saw him perform in the minor leagues before he got up here. You know, to carry the burden that he has of being the local guy, the face of the franchise, he couldn’t have handled it any better. I am really proud of him for what he has done and he’s certainly deserving of this honor.”
While Molitor said there’s no question he misses being in the game, he did say there’s some calmness in having time away from the field for basically the first time in his life.
“I miss it. It is part of how you’re wired,” Molitor said. “I am really enjoying some of the benefits of not having to be around the game day to day, particularly with my kids. But yeah, it is in your blood. But you know, I am making do as far as taking advantage of the time I have been given. I haven’t had a free summer like this in about 40 years, so it is going well.”