Written By Brandon Warne
When a team plays drastically better from one year to the next, it usually means one of a couple things. With some teams, it means a number of key offseason acquisitions have paid off. For others, especially if the roster is largely intact from a season ago, it suggests that some guys — usually younger players — have taken a step forward and elevated their game to a new level.
Considering the complexion of this current Twins roster, the latter seems far more likely. Sure, players from the outside have (Torii Hunter, Blaine Boyer) and will (Ervin Santana) continue to shape the way this team evolves, but this is largely the same roster from a season ago, and most of the changes that’ll come after the break will come from within.
So who has improved the most on this Twins roster from a season ago? Here’s a look at my personal picks, in order. Feel free to differ if you like, via Twitter with @Brandon_Warne or @ColdOmahaMN.
1. Trevor May
May’s growth has been nothing short of amazing. It’s not just because he’s got really nice peripheral numbers, or that his ERA — while still a bit high at 4.16 — is so much under what he did in his shot of espresso last year with the Twins. It’s because May has completely reversed a trend, at least so far, that has plagued him through his entire development as a rather highly-regarded prospect. Walks were always part of the deal with May, who peaked as the No. 51 prospect on Baseball Prospectus’ pre-2012 list. May walked 4.4 batters per nine innings in his seven minor league seasons, and 4.3 per nine in his 10 appearances with the big club last year as well. The stuff was raw and powerful, but the belief was always that his command would hold him down as a back-end horse who could eat up innings with lots of strikeouts and walks. Or in the worst case, he’d profile as a late-inning power reliever.
That all has changed this season, as May told Cold Omaha in an exclusive earlier this year that he decided to just not be afraid anymore. May has attacked the strike zone much in the same way — though not to the same exact effect — as Phil Hughes did a season ago, and the results have been quite good. May has walked just 1.9 batters per nine innings this season and has walked more than two batters in just three of 18 starts so far. He did the same last year in his nine starts with the Twins and six times in 18 starts at Rochester. The changeup (16.1 percent whiff rate, .637 OPS against) has been big for May, as has been a newfound reliance on a two-seam fastball, which has not only filled up the strike zone, but induced a healthy number of grounders as well. He’ll need to continue to avoid walks and miss a few more bats to reach his xFIP and FIP, but he’s already improved by leaps and bounds in just a short time in the majors.
2. Aaron Hicks
Hicks looks like an entirely different player, and it’s in pretty much every fashion. He’s ascended into the defensive player he was always advertised to be, making highlight-reel catches with relative ease while showing off a powerful and accurate arm. He’s also started to drive the ball more, and in recent games has seen his usually precise batting eye return in the form of adding walks back into the mix. Add it up and you’ve got a batter hitting .266/.333/.387 with a higher walk rate (9.4 percent) than Joe Mauer. The AL average center fielder has a wOBA of .318; Hicks’ is .319. Don’t be surprised if this is your starting right fielder next season.
3. Kyle Gibson
Gibson’s growth on the whole is pretty unremarkable, as his 2014 and 2015 seasons are mostly indifferentiable when you look at peripherals. He’s slashed his ERA a run and a half, but he’s done so with better strand rates, nearly an extra strikeout per nine innings and virtually the same batted-ball profile. But where Gibson’s growth has come most has been in recent starts, at least in my opinion. Gibson’s posted 59 strikeouts in his last 10 starts, spanning 65.1 innings for an 8.1 K/9 mark in that span. That’s well above anything Gibson has done for any extended stretch of time, and could be him turning the corner and becoming a very nice No. 2 starter, especially when used in conjunction with his fantastic penchant for inducing grounders. Gibson’s growth pitch-wise has come with the slider, which is inducing swinging strikes at a 20.7 percent rate — a career high. The changeup has also taken steps forward (17.9 percent this year, 13.8 last), and his two-seamer has a groundball rate of 65.5 percent. He’s on the upswing, folks.
4. Brian Dozier
It’s hard to envision a scenario in which Dozier has become better than his grand breakout in 2014, but yet here we are. Dozier faded a bit in the second half in 2014, but if you were to extrapolate his numbers out evenly to 700 plate appearances, he played at a 4.8 fWAR pace a season ago, and is at a pace for a 5.9 mark this season. He’s not walking quite as much as last year, but you can see it simply in his triple-slash. Last year he hit .242/.345/.416; this year, he’s at .256/.328/.513. It remains to be seen if there’s another second half slowdown in his future, but right now his blistering pace is ahead of last year’s tremendous run overall. This is a star, perhaps verging on superstar.
5. Tommy Milone
Neither Milone nor Sam Fuld did much for their respective clubs after last season’s trade found them on the move. But unlike Fuld, who has continued to flounder in Oakland this season, Milone has taken his game to a new level and has now made decisions awfully difficult for the Twins brass in the first half. Milone sprung out of the gates before faltering pretty hard and getting sent to Rochester, but that stretch at Triple-A seems to have ignited something inside the lefty, as he’s pitched like a man possessed since returning. Milone allowed just three earned runs in his five-start stay in Rochester (0.70 ERA), and since returning in early June has slashed his ERA by nearly two full runs. Milone returned to a 4.55 ERA but has that all the way down to 2.83 after this seven-start stretch: 1.84 ERA, .236/.284/.345 opponents’ line and 32-11 K/BB ratio in 44 innings. In other words, he’s averaging pitching well into the sixth inning, taking pressure off an otherwise-distressed Twins bullpen while giving the club a quality start in the last six straight. Milone has never been, nor will he ever be overpowering, but for now he seems to have a stronger hold on his starting spot than rotation mate Mike Pelfrey, who is a free agent at season’s end.
Also considered: Eduardo Nunez, Ryan Pressly, Pelfrey
Follow Brandon on Twitter: @Brandon_Warne