The Twins have concluded their 60th regular season, shrunken though it was, and the big-league club has employed 14 managers over these six decades.
Billy Martin held the best winning percentage, .599, among Twins managers, based on having a tremendous club that went 97-65 to win the first American League West in 1969, and then getting fired for being such a lout.
At this moment, Martin has fallen to second in that winning category, with Rocco Baldelli having managed the Twins to full-season and mini-season AL Central titles since being hired on Oct. 25, 2018.
Baldelli’s record is 137-85, putting him at .617. He was the AL’s Manager of the Year as a rookie in 2019. I concurred with that as one of 30 voters, not as a homer but from being impressed by the fact his team’s 101 wins were built on a 55-26 road record.
The 2019 team saw a lead of 11½ games in June deteriorate to zero in August, then kicked it in for a 30-14 finish, 101 wins, and an eight-game separation from Cleveland in the AL Central.
Very strong when you consider the injured Byron Buxton was not in the lineup for the closing surge, and Michael Pineda, the most consistent starter, was suspended with three weeks to go for testing positive for a masking agent.
Yet, there’s a case to be made that Baldelli’s work in Year 2 has been more impressive, when considering the obstacles encountered.
This started when he lost two of his three most important coaches: bench coach/confidante Derek Shelton, hired as Pittsburgh’s manager, the poor guy; and hitting coach James Rowson, hired away by the Miami Marlins (from 105 losses to the National League’s sixth seed in the pandemic playoffs).
Wes Johnson remained as pitching coach, Edgar Varela was promoted within the system to be hitting coach and Mike Bell was brought in from a front-office job in Arizona to be bench coach.
This was a mere adjustment for a second-year manager. What came next was an adjustment for North America. The coronavirus made its way across oceans and, by mid-March, the Grapefruit League was shut down.
Soon, the Fort Myers complex was closed and everyone was told to head on home.
Derek Falvey, the Twins’ baseball CEO, said: “I remember getting on the plane to go back to Minnesota, and never feeling so uncertain about anything. Rocco also decided to come back to Minnesota. He moved into the apartment they have here, and I was in contact with him every day.
“We had players spread out all over the country. And Rocco was on the phone constantly, asking, ‘Do you have what you need to work out? Do you want us to send you anything? Is your family OK?’
“Players have told me they appreciated that contact with Rocco.’’
The coaching staff was shook up again before the start of summer camp in early July. The Twins’ medical staff recommended coaches Bob McClure (68) and Bill Evers (66) not be with the team because of age and thus increased risk.
“When we made the decision on Bob and Bill, Rocco said, ‘I want to talk to those guys first,’ ” Falvey said. “Rocco’s not afraid of tough conversations, and that was one because of his feelings for those two men.’’
On Sunday, the Twins gained the second straight AL Central title at 36-24, when the White Sox lost to the Cubs. Among those sending congratulations were McClure and Evers.
Doubt about the ability to play a season had surfaced in the opening week. Teams were shut down by the virus, including the St. Louis Cardinals right after they had departed Target Field.
As Game 60 was being played, Twins President Dave St. Peter said: “I wasn’t all that confident we would get to this day. With the problems early, it wasn’t certain that players around baseball would choose to continue. Rocco gets a lot of credit for giving our players a confidence we could get through this.’’
On the field, the Twins had constant absences because of injury. No Josh Donaldson for over a month, no Buxton, Max Kepler or Luiz Arraez for stretches. Pineda’s suspension lasted for 60% of the schedule. Plus, there was no power surge from Mitch Garver, or invincibility from closer Taylor Rogers — to name two missing elements from those 101 wins in 2019.
The road also was much tougher; changing towns, hotels and ballparks, while other leagues had their teams playing in “bubbles.’’ The Twins were 12-17 in away games this time, so Rocco’s players reversed the secret to success and went an MLB best 24-7 at home.
Baldelli isn’t the AL’s Manager of Year again — that will be the guy in Tampa Bay, Kevin Cash, whom he worked for in 2018 — but Rocco again was outstanding, this time leading the Twins through the Great Unknowns of 2020.
And we know this:
Unlike Billy Martin, previous kingpin for Twins’ managerial winning percentage, the odds are several thousand to one against Rocco Baldelli ever getting fired for being a lout.
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