Q&A: Bert Blyleven on the Twins
Bert Blyleven played for five different teams, covering 22 seasons during the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. He was drafted by the Minnesota Twins out of high school in 1969 and made his major-league debut exactly one year later at the tender age of 19, beating the Washington Senators 2-1 at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium.
The man who would go on to win 287 games (17th most since 1900), strike out 3,701 batters (5th highest of all-time), and hurl 60 shutouts (9th most ever) is now in his 11th season as the color analyst for the Twins. He has been playing or announcing in the big leagues for four decades, spanning a total of more than 5,000 games (including over 3,000 under the employ of the Twins).
I caught up with Bert while the Twins were on the road in Cleveland this past weekend to get a handle on the hottest team in baseball. Minnesota has won nine of its last 10 games and 31 of its last 39. The only dry spell was right before and after the All-Star break when the team lost four of five.
Rich: Hi, Bert. Thank you for taking the time today to talk about your favorite team: the Minnesota Twins.
Bert: Thank you, Rich, for asking me to do this with you.
Rich: The Twins have the sixth-best record in all of baseball, yet find themselves in third place in the AL Central, 9 1/2 games back. Climbing over two teams to win the division is going to be tough and, last time I looked, MLB still only allows one Wild Card team per league. Close but no cigar. . .or do you think these guys could be smoking some good Cubans amidst the free-flowing champagne in the clubhouse in October?
Bert: A Major League baseball season is always a roller coaster ride. With 162 games to play a lot of things happen over the six months. The Twins started the season with a poor April while Detroit and Chicago started off hot. The cigar will have to wait until they start winning within their own division. Currently the Twins are 14-22 within their division as they start a three-game series in Chicago before heading home to face Detroit.
Rich: At 37-11, Minnesota has the best home record in all of baseball. But at 19-30, the Twins have the sixth-fewest number of wins on the road. It's typical for teams to play better at home than away but my goodness. . .
Bert: The Twins have been unbelievable at the Metrodome. I have always said that if a team can play .500 on the road and win at home that they should be in the race in late September. Eleven games under .500 on the road will have to improve if the Twins want a stiff of that cigar in October.
Rich: Stepping back for a moment, the Twins won a couple of World Series in 1987 and 1991. I bet you might even remember that first one.
Bert: As in 1987 and 1991, the key to any team winning their division is pitching and solid defense. In 1987, the Twins had a great bullpen that helped them get to the World Series and the defense was very consistent. In 1991, the key was their starting staff along with a good bullpen. Also those two teams had very consistent offenses with some power. The key for this year's Twins team is the starters because the bullpen might be the best in baseball. The starters have to be more consistent to allow this team to stay in games.
Rich: We're going to talk about the team's starting staff and bullpen in a bit more detail, but I'd like to review the team's recent history first. After hoisting two world championship banners in five years, the franchise then hit the skids, going eight seasons (from 1993-2000) without a .500 record. What happened?
Bert: Minnesota is known as a small-market team so when they lose key players through trades or free agency, they depend on their minor-league system to develop players for the Majors. The strength of any consistent organization is the young players and if they don't come up and produce it reflects in the standings. As the Twins did in the late '70s and early '80s, it sometimes takes time to develop a team that can work together to build a Championship team.
Rich: The Twins turned things around in 2001 and have played better than .500 ball every year since, including winning division titles and 90 or more games three times.
Bert: That's what I mean. Starting in 1999 you saw these names in the Twins lineup: Hunter, Lawton, Jones, Koskie, Mientkiewicz, Pierzynski, Guzman, Rivas. The pitching staff was young with Mays, Milton, Radke, Redman, Guardado, Hawkins and Romero. The Twins also had some veterans on this 1999 team but mainly these players, under manager Tom Kelly, learned to play together as a team. They took their lumps and finished the season with a 63-97 record. Three years later, with almost the same cast of players, they finished the 2002 season with a 94-67 record and went to the post-season for the first time since 1991.
Rich: Looking to the here and now, the team has a couple of big series this week vs. the White Sox and Tigers. Do you think the Twins need to win at least two out of three in each case to have a legitimate shot at winning the division or earning a Wild Card spot?
Bert: This year's Twins players are now going to face their biggest challenge. They are now starting to play teams within their division and they have to win series. It's not a matter of sweeping series but winning the series, two of three or three of four. They cannot afford to be swept in a series from here on out.
Rich: Let's talk about that pitching. Minnesota leads the AL in strikeouts while giving up the fewest walks. That's a pretty impressive combination.
Bert: Pitching is always the key to a team's success. The Twins have two starters in their rotation--Santana and Liriano--that strike players out. The other starters like Radke, Silva, and now Baker are control-type pitchers. They may give up more hits then innings pitched but this staff doesn't beat itself with walks. Then you look at the bullpen and you see relievers that throw gas like Rincon, Crain, Nathan and the newest member of the bullpen Pat Neshek. Even Dennys Reyes is doing a great job as the only lefty in the pen. This bullpen is the best in baseball.
Rich: Neshek has a lot of supporters among bloggers who follow the team closely. I know they were glad that the Twins finally called him up. I mean, this kid has had a history of doing nothing but getting batters out.
Bert: Pat's time will come. He has a funky delivery with an explosive fastball with a lot of movement. The Twins will let him get his feet wet first before throwing the rest of him into the water.
Rich: The starting staff has just one complete game thus far. You averaged 14 per year with your two stints with the team. What is the biggest difference between then and now?
Bert: Complete games are a thing in the past. Starters are usually asked to go seven innings and the bullpen will take it from there. This is why in today's game you see some teams carrying 12 or 13 pitchers. Starters are on pitch counts today and I'm still waiting for the first pitcher to "blow up" throwing his 101st pitch. I am not a believer in pitch counts, but I'm from a different era. Pitchers today are role pitchers rather then complete pitchers back in the "old days."
Rich: Francisco Liriano has been a pretty good role pitcher this year. Have you ever seen a more impressive rookie than him?
Bert: Liriano is probably the key player that has helped get the Twins back into the race. He is currently 12-2 with a Major League leading 1.93 earned run average. He has helped stabilize the starting rotation even though he is only 22 years old. Bet the Giants would like this guy back.
Rich: Liriano, Joe Nathan, and Boof Bonser for AJ Pierzynski and cash. Is that the biggest heist of all time or what?
Bert: What a trade Terry Ryan, the General Manager of the Twins, and his scouting staff did to pull off this one. Pierzynski for three pitchers that will be in the Twins system for years to come. Sometimes the baseball scouts don't get enough credit for the success in an organization, but they are huge.
Rich: Liriano has got to be the best young pitcher in baseball right now.
Bert: Hopefully, he can stay healthy as baseball is seeing a lot of young arms develop this season. It's an exciting time in baseball because of these young guns throughout both leagues.
Rich: Speaking of which, name a few young pitchers and hitters that have made you sit up and take notice this year.
Bert: Of course, you have to look at Detroit. Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya are having a huge impact on this team's success. Jon Papelbon with Boston is a great story with him taking over the closer role and leading the league in saves. Looks like Eric Bedard of the Orioles is coming into his own. Bobby Jenks is doing his thing for the White Sox. On the hitting side, the story has to be Joe Mauer. Can he hit .400 and can a catcher win the batting title for the first time in the American League? In the National League, it's Freddy Sanchez of the Pirates. Getting his first chance to play every day, he is leading the league in hitting. And even though he's a veteran, how about the job Nomar Garciaparra is doing for the Dodgers? He has really helped the young Dodgers stay close in the National League Western Division. Brandon Webb, of the Arizona Diamondbacks, is having a Cy Young year winning his 11th game the other night and leading the National League in earned run average.
Rich: There's also another young gun out west who is having a pretty good start to his career. Seven starts. Seven wins. You have to go back to 1981 to find someone who has matched that feat.
Bert: Weaver didn't pitch when the Twins visited the Angels in late May. But, yes, he's another one. Over the years we have been spoiled by the veteran aces like Schilling, Johnson, Clemens, Mussina, and Maddux. It's nice to see young arms come into the different leagues and have instant success.
Rich: Changing gears here. . .Carlos Silva has really struggled this year. He was more of a groundball pitcher in 2005 than what he has shown in 2006. Silva's GIDP rate is down, the HR/9 rate is up, and his ERA has doubled from the mid-3s to nearly 7. What gives?
Bert: Baseball is about making adjustments. Carlos is going through that now. He has had to rely on changing speeds on his fastball, throw more breaking balls while continuing to throw strikes. Last year was last year. Today he is a different pitcher who doesn't have the same sinker he had last year. If you don't make adjustments in your game, whether you're a pitcher or a hitter, you will be watching from the sidelines. Plain and simple!
Rich: Two players we can always find on the field are Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. The M&M Boys are in the midst of terrific seasons. Was this always just a matter of time or are they doing anything differently this year?
Bert: I would rather call them the "J&J" boys. In my opinion there is only one set of "M&M Boys" and that was Mantle and Maris. Or is it Maris and Mantle? Joe and Justin are both very good hitters. Joe is leading the Majors in hitting and Justin is becoming one of the best power hitters in the game. Joe is a pure hitter who will hit the ball where it is pitched. He is so calm at the plate and has a great eye and knowledge of the strike zone. Justin is a power hitter who wants to drive the ball over the fence but his batting average is over .300. And these two players are only 23- and 25-years-old. Another great find by the Twins and their scouts.
Rich: On the topic of finds, do you expect Terry Ryan to make any significant deals before the trade deadline next week?
Bert: I asked Terry that question the other day and he told me that if there is someone out there who can help this Twins team win, then he would have to see what can be done to get that player. But, as he told me, last season the Twins were also looking to improve their team right around this time of the season and everyone wanted Liriano in the trade. Sometimes it's the trades you don't make that work out best for a team. I really would be surprised if the Twins make a major trade because everyone trading wants young talented players in the Twins organization and I don't see them giving any of them up.
Rich: While on the subject of youngsters, can you give us your views on Matt Garza and Kevin Slowey? Their minor league stats have been sensational.
Bert: Here are two more examples of two young pitchers in the Twins minor-league system that are making an impact. Both pitchers are starters and hopefully one day starters for the varsity club. With Brad Radke, Kyle Lohse and maybe even Carlos Silva not coming back next season in a Twins uniform, these two might fit nicely into next year's plans.
Rich: OK, here is a fun one to close out our chat. It's the seventh game of the World Series and Liriano and Santana are both well rested. Who would you start and why?
Bert: I would start Santana because he has the "Cy Young" behind his name. But, Liriano would be the first one out of the bullpen if Johan got into trouble early in the game. Let's hope it happens for the Twins.
Rich: Well, good luck to Santana, Liriano, and the Twins. Come October, I don't think there are too many teams who would want to face those guys.
Bert: If the Twins are able to get to post-season I'm sure there are teams that would not like facing these two pitchers in a five-game series twice and maybe one of them three times in the World Series.
Rich: Boy, that would almost seem unfair. Thanks again, Bert.
Bert: Anytime, Rich.