It's not in his new job description, not specifically, but it might as well be. Theo Epstein, former championship-winning boss of the Red Sox and Cubs, has been hired to consult with Major League Baseball over improving the product on the field.
Or, put in a way that might resonate with ticket-buyers and TV viewers in Minnesota: He needs to fix the Twins offense.
The problems that plague the current game, the scourges that Epstein intends to target, have worsened over the past five seasons, and nowhere is that devolution more evident than at Target Field. The Twins offense, historically explosive in 2019, turned significantly sclerotic in 2020.
Just check out these extremes. The 2019 Twins hit more home runs than any team in major league history. The 2020 Twins hit fewer triples than any team in major league history.
The latter stat is out of context, of course, because the Twins played only 60 games in the pandemic season, so their MLB-low three triples — none in the first 25 games, itself a franchise record, until transient infielder Ildemaro Vargas broke the spell on Aug. 20 — were the product of only 37% of a normal year. Still, that prorates to only eight triples over a season, barely half of the 15 they managed in 2013, their previous low.
"We weren't trying to avoid them or avoid the risk," said third base coach Tony Diaz, who never in 2020 waved a batter to third base only to see him thrown out. "We weren't doing anything different."
But the lopsidedness of the Twins' 2020 attack, adjusted for a full season, shows up in far more areas than triples.
•The Twins hit only 291 singles and 81 doubles as well, numbers that extrapolate to 791 singles and 219 doubles over a 162-game season. That would represent the lowest number of singles in team history, and the fewest doubles since 1974.
• Home runs fell, yes, perhaps inevitable since the Twins cracked an MLB record of 307 in 2019. But their 91 homers is a 246-homer pace, which easily surpasses their 225 in 1963 for second-most in team history. Home runs remained at heights unimagined by Twins fans, while other types of hits plummeted: The Twins hit more home runs than doubles for only the second time, that 1963 team being the other outlier.
• Strikeouts continued to mushroom, with the Twins whiffing 528 times, a pace for 1,426, or just four K's short of their 2013 record. They had more strikeouts than hits for the third time ever, the other examples coming in 2016 and 2013, seasons the Twins lost a combined 199 games.
The unifying theme of all these examples: less contact and fewer balls put in play than ever before. Eliminate strikeouts, walks and home runs, and the Twins forced fielders to make a play on only 61% of their plate appearances, by far the lowest rate in their history. Balls in play have been dropping steadily throughout the game for most of the decade, as teams focus on homers and forgive strikeouts, but never before had the Twins put a ball in play less than 65% of the time.
"I don't think there's any way to get around the fact that we think we could have had a better year offensively this past season," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said last month. "Our guys went out there and had good at-bats, but we certainly weren't as explosive in a lot of ways as we were before, or as effective."
But it's not just the Twins, of course. Research has proved that home runs are the most efficient way to score runs, and teams have understandably focused on exploiting their increasing knowledge of how to produce them, of launch angle and exit velocity.
The Twins, at least in the past two seasons, have taken those principles to an extreme, for good and for bad. The ratio of ground balls to fly balls has steadily declined, with grounders now accounting for 76% as many as fly balls; for the Twins, it's only 65%. The ratio of fly balls that carry into the seats was 10.2% in 2020, but the Twins managed it 12.2% of the time in 2020, and an amazing 12.9% in 2019.
That latter number should give Twins management pause at the news that MLB is considering "deadening" the ball this season, which would turn a fraction of those homers into fly outs.
But on the heels of a season filled with long-ball fireworks, perhaps the Twins can be forgiven for trying to take every pitch deep. If they are less successful than in 2019, as they proved last summer, the offense suffers.
The Twins believe that their bizarre numbers were partly the result of a bizarre season, and not as problematic as they seem. For one thing, Baldelli said, Mitch Garver, Luis Arraez, Jorge Polanco and Josh Donaldson were frequently playing through nagging injuries. And a three-week training camp in July wasn't enough, he said.
"No matter how many live [at-bats] you give hitters, no matter how much time you spend in the [batting] cage, a more traditional length of camp and number of at-bats helps guys find their timing, and does help guys get their bodies to the point where their swings feel natural," Baldelli said. "The short camp was challenging."
The lack of access to video during games, a temporary rule change last season in the wake of the Astros' sign-stealing scandal, hurt the Twins, too, according to President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey.
"We're a super-prep team. We do a ton of work with video, with advance prep, with adjustments, things like that. Not having access to all that was a little more problematic for us than maybe for a team that wasn't using all of that stuff," Falvey said. "I do think we felt that loss a little bit more. Nelson Cruz would tell you how much he felt some of his success was amplified by how much he watched video of pitchers and was able to make adjustments. That showed up for some of our other guys, for sure."