FORT MYERS, Fla. — The Minnesota Twins shook up their front office in the offseason, which was to be expected after losing a franchise record 103 games in 2016. Gone were familiar faces like longtime general manager Terry Ryan. In their place was new — and young — blood like 33-year old chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and 45-year-old general manager Thad Levine.
I had a chance to chat with Falvey a few moments before the Twins played the St. Louis Cardinals in a spring-training game at Hammond Stadium. Here are a few answers to the many questions I asked. You can read the full interview on my blog at the AreaVoices web site.
Question: The No. 1 thing I get in Fargo-Moorhead from fans is, ‘It looks like pretty much the same team as a year ago. They lost 103 games and added a catcher and other than that there hasn’t been a lot of moves.’ How do you respond to that?
Derek Falvey: I think when you look at this roster, it’s a really young roster. Last year, nobody’s running from the 100 losses, it was a tough season, but I think sometimes when you have young players get to the major-league level it’s not a linear path. We’d all love it to be linear and have guys perform at their peak performance when they get there, but some guys took some lumps last year. Guys like Max Kepler, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano are now coming into their own. Our goal is to build around that young core. We think we’ve seen different spurts from those guys to be the players we ultimately expect them to be. So we want to make sure we surround the young players with the right veteran talent and guys that will fit to build the culture we’re looking for. With Jason Castro, we feel we did that at the catcher position and got guys like Matt Belisle and others who are competing camp. We feel we have a nice mix of veteran players to play with those young guys.
Q: Is this an evaluation year? I know every day is an evaluation day, but is there a sense of ‘let’s sit back and see what the young guys do’ and then next year … say here’s what we want to do, A-B-C-D?
DF: Like you said, you’re always evaluating the team. You’re looking at where you can augment and make some changes. The reality is we go into this year with a lot of guys coming back who were those young players, who were growing. You look around the position player group and a lot of those guys are just entering their prime years. We certainly want them to take the next step in their career and add where necessary, but our hope is we have a lot of the core here that we’ll seek to build around over the next couple of seasons.
Q: Brian Dozier. What was the decision to not trade him? Was it that you didn’t get a good enough offer or that you see him as to valuable to the team?
DF: When we go through a trade season, every offseason, there are a number of calls we field. Literally every day, or every couple of days there is somebody calling to inquire about our players. Any time you lose 100 games and have a rough season like we did and you have a player of Brian Dozier’s caliber who hits 42 home runs and is one of the best players at his position, you’re expecting to get some phone calls from teams on a guy like that. We had phone calls on a number of other players on our team and ultimately we have to set a standard and a bar for any move we make, and if we don’t make those moves it’s because we haven’t gotten over that bar. We’re happy Brian is part of the Twins this year and we’re happy to see him compete in 2017 because we know he’s a meaningful part of this franchise, he’s a great guy in that clubhouse and he can lead some of these young guys in the direction we’re looking to go.
Q: Do you have enough starting pitching? That’s another question I get in Fargo-Moorhead: Do they have enough pitching? Like Tom Kelly always said, ‘Momentum begins with the guy on the mound.’
DF: The answer to that for all 30 clubs, I would say, is you never have enough starting pitching. You go into every spring hoping to stay healthy and we’ve been fortunate so far to do that. In that group I think we have some guys coming back who are bouncing back from injury. In Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes coming back, Hector Santiago, Trevor May, Tyler Duffey there are a number of guys on our team who can take that next step. Kyle Gibson. We feel there is still a core group of starters there who if healthy and pitching to their capabilities will lead us in the right direction. But we need to find ways to augment that group. We always do. We’ll continue to do that over the course of this year and subsequent seasons.
Q: Much has been made of you and Thad bumping up the analytics side of things and the baseball research side of things. You’re bumping up your baseball research department. … How far behind the curve were the Twins in that department and how fast are you trying to catch up?
DF: When it comes to analytics, I think there’s a little bit of a misunderstanding on what role that plays in baseball. I think we’re trying to constantly critique how to better make decisions and what information we’re using to make those decisions. It doesn’t push out any of the scouting information and, in fact, in many ways I see it enhancing our scouting information and building a process for us to make better decisions. I think the Twins had a staff that was committed to that work. I think it was behind where we wanted it to be. We are investing in some people, some different systems externally that we’ve acquired that in our minds will help us make better decisions but also allow us opportunities to develop players internally in ways that maybe we couldn’t before.
Q: How does the front office side of analytics mesh with the on-field side? Is there communication? Paul Molitor, does he have to apply what you guys are doing with the players?
DF: Here’s a good way to view it, because you always have to explain the why behind these things. Why are we using it? What value is it providing? And when you do that with coaches, typically in my experience — and I’ve worked with Terry Francona for a number of year, as respected a manager as you’ll find in baseball, and he’s blending that information as good as anyone I’ve seen. What we try to do is that when there’s information that might help us understand something about a player’s pitch mix or make us understand a little bit more about his platoon advantage or maybe matchups that are more favorable to the pitcher, our coaches are making those decisions every day. They want that information. They want to grow a player. So if we can put more tools in their hands to be better coaches, which is ultimately the goal, and to make our players better, that’s what we’re trying to do. That’s where the analytics, the art and science of how baseball works, can be powerful.
Q: It sounds very geeky. No offense to you. But it sounds like two worlds mixing, like the baseball side of things and the analytical, numbers side of things.
DF: I think you’d be surprised. The coaches in that room, they love this stuff. They want to know a little bit more about how a change-up breaks. Or how a combination of pitches might work to make one of our pitchers better. They are making those decisions in the bullpen every day. Now, they are working off of their instinct. This is another tool to maybe help them when our instinct takes us in a different direction. Our guys enjoy it. They love embracing it. They love learning a little bit more about something that maybe is under the surface that they weren’t aware of before because it helps them become better coaches. Those are the best guys I’ve seen out there in this game. The best coaches are the ones who understand they can use their experience and their history in the game, but they can also learn some new ideas that are coming in.
Q: How deep does this go? On the outside you hear about WAR and OBP and the obvious ones that are out there, but how deep does the research go? How deep does that data go?
DF: Right now at the major-league level it’s only increasing every year. If you follow the new Statcast information that’s out there, it’s tracking where players are, how quickly they accelerate, how quickly they go first-to-third on a ball to right field, the exact path of a right-fielder tracking down a ball. This stuff is really deep, but I will tell you that experienced baseball people, really successful baseball people … when they get a chance to see a Statcast visualization of a guy’s route to the ball in the outfield, they get a better understanding of how they can help them be more efficient. So now when we do our outfield work at 8 o’clock in the morning in spring training, they can potentially attack certain areas that these tools are allowing them to see for the first time because they don’t have an overhead camera on a major-league baseball field. It just helps them to be better.
Q: So how about a guy like Joe Mauer? As I’m sure you’ve already learned, there’s lots to talk about when it comes to Joe Mauer around the Twins. Do you look at his analytics and numbers and try to help him? How does a veteran like that stand? And it could it make a difference in decisions with him going down the road?
DF: With a guy like Joe … he’s so open-minded, he’s so willing to have conversations on different topics whether it’s in respect to the culture in the clubhouse, things we might want to surround our players with in terms of resources, it’s no different for a young player than an old player. There are some Hall of Fame players, men who are in the Hall of Fame that I’ve had a chance to interact with, that are deeply interested in this and trying to understand how it applied to their skills. And I’ve heard from no less than a handful of them that if they had access to that information when they were players, they feel they could’ve been better. So we want to make sure our players know this information is available to them to help them grow and become the types of players they want to be long-term.
Q: Another Mauer question: With the big contract and the declining numbers for him, what’s the decision on him and how much he plays? With the $23 million a year, does he sit or get moved aside?
DF: Paul’s talked a bit about trying to put Joe in the best position to be successful. All our players want to play every day, every pitch, and Joe’s no different. But I think we want to make sure that we blend the rest and use for him to get the most out of Joe and keep him on the field. I take a bit of an exception to the view of Joe in terms of his production, because I think he’s a very productive player. From the other side, watching in Cleveland, I know he was not a comfortable at-bat for our pitchers. We’re excited to have Joe be a meaningful part of this team and we know he can contribute on the field in a number of different ways.
Q: What do you want to see in wins and losses this year? I know you want to win a 100 games, but what are you looking at?
DF: Ultimately, that’s how a team is measured. But for us, I haven’t been around a team that’s been successful that one Day 1 talked about a win number. What they talked about was playing competitive baseball each and every night and playing competitive baseball in September. So what I want to see from this team is that we’re playing a competitive brand of baseball all the way through September. If we are, that will be the type of team that fans can be proud of and want to see. I think that will be a sign that we’re taking the next step forward on the path to being a championship team.
Q: You’re so young and you don’t have a background in major-league baseball before you got into major-league baseball. The old path was you played, you coached, you managed, maybe you moved to the front office. How have you been received by the Twins, by the manager, by the players?
DF: I’ve been really lucky because while I am young, this has been a bit of a trend and the guys who came before me like Theo Epstein (Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs) and Chris Anonetti (Cleveland Indians) and Mike Chernoff (Indians) and Mark Shapiro (Indians, Toronto Blue Jays) and others who have led organizations over the past 10 or 15 years … I think it’s become more understood or comfortable. But I can also say that this group of people with the Minnesota Twins have embraced me, my wife and my son in ways that I couldn’t imagine. The players have been great. We’re hoping to open up those lines of dialogue in the clubhouse daily and building the type of culture we need in our clubhouse to be successful long-term.