The 2023 Minnesota Twins personified the team concept. They truly were a collective.
When identifying why the Twins cruised to a division title in the American League Central, no singular name among the team’s position players stands out as the most valuable.
Depending on your favorite statistical resource, 11 or 12 position players produced at least one Win Above Replacement. Twelve hit at least 10 home runs, 16 drove in 30 or more runs and a whopping 17 stepped to the plate at least 150 times.
As spectacular as Royce Lewis was, injuries limited him to 58 regular season games. Max Kepler was the team’s most consistent player down the stretch, but he struggled early. Ryan Jeffers produced 3 WAR, though he was restricted by co-catching duties. Willi Castro dazzled us on the bases, yet the outstanding utility man was limited in other ways. Edouard Julien was an on-base machine and highly valuable, except his defensive numbers slowed down his value.
The combined approach made for a good team, one that at long last ended the playoff losing streak and advanced to the AL Division Series. But to find the team’s most valuable player, we must shift our focus to pitching and a staff that from start to finish carried the Twins.
While eight pitchers were worth at least 1 WAR, veteran pitcher Sonny Gray was the clear winner.
Whether it was leading the majors in fewest home runs per nine innings, finishing third in ERA, making all 32 of his starts, allowing three earned runs or fewer in 29 starts, pitching at least five innings in 28 starts or throwing his most innings since 2015, Gray was a step above the rest on a staff that included a dominant season from Pablo López. Gray was named the team’s most valuable player by the Minneapolis chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, the team announced Thursday.
“It’s been awesome,” Twins bench coach Jayce Tingler said last month. “It’s been awesome watching him work every single day. It’s been a pleasure watching him the last two years. I personally have seen a different look in his eye. Coming into spring training, he just felt overly prepared. He’s felt confident. He is routine-based. He is in the weight room doing his program. He’s done a great job of preparing all throughout the year. Nothing he does really surprises me.”
Here’s a look at the Twins’ other Diamond Award winners, which were announced Thursday.
Pitcher of the Year: Gray
What else needs to be said? Gray was consistent and dominant the entire season. He struck out 183 batters in 184 innings. He and López anchored a staff that suffered potentially back-breaking injuries in April when Tyler Mahle and Kenta Maeda were placed on the injured list.
Though he faltered in Game 3 of the ALDS against Houston, Gray was the team’s go-to guy. A year earlier, Gray was good despite getting a late start to his preparation because of the lockout.
This season, Gray bet on himself in free agency and was outstanding the entire way, including shutting down Toronto at every turn in the AL Wild Card Series.
“This is the most locked in I’ve seen him,” said utility man Kyle Farmer, who played with Gray for three seasons in Cincinnati. “This year, he’s just a different pitcher, he knows what’s on the line for him and the team. … He’s made for the big moments. It probably started in high school, but he went to an elite school at (Vanderbilt), and learned how to pitch in big moments. He’s just a different breed of pitcher.”
Rookie of the Year: Lewis
The ballots were cast before the postseason, when Lewis became a breakout star by launching four home runs in six games, including two in the first postseason game of his career.
Lewis didn’t appear in 104 of the team’s 162 games, and he faced a stiff challenge from Julien, who was an offensive force and made defensive strides. Rookie Matt Wallner’s big bat also made lots of noise.
But Lewis made this decision fairly easy. Had he been around longer, Lewis easily would have received more consideration for MVP. From the grand slams to the high average to the endless positive energy, Lewis was an all-around force and should give Twins fans hope this team has staying power.
“It feels like he hits a homer every single day, every single time,” shortstop Carlos Correa said. “He’s truly a special talent, the type of talent that can carry you to win a lot of ballgames when the postseason comes. And he showed that. … And for him to just go out there in Game 1 and just put up that performance, it’s really special. One of a kind.”
Most improved: Jeffers
A season ago, Jeffers struggled to control the running game and his OPS-plus was well below league average. The Twins wondered enough about Jeffers’ ability to stick that they signed veteran catcher Christian Vázquez to a three-year deal worth $30 million.
But Jeffers made big strides. In a season in which players ran the bases like they hadn’t in several decades, Jeffers prevented opponents from running at will. He increased his caught stealing percentage from 18 percent in 2022 to 25 percent. Equally important, he regained the hitting stroke that led the Twins to draft him in the second round in 2018 when most scouting services didn’t have him included in the top 250 prospects.
When the Twins reached the playoffs, Jeffers was no longer a platoon player, starting all six games behind the plate.
“We often don’t talk about the season that Ryan Jeffers had, and ultimately may have been as good a season at catcher as could have been imagined going into this in terms of the way he approached the defensive side, got better over there, but obviously the offense too,” Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said.
Defensive Player of the Year: Correa
This was no slam dunk. The metrics favor Kepler and outfielder Michael A. Taylor, who was brilliant in center.
But Correa delivered at every turn despite playing with plantar fasciitis since May. Sure-handed, strong-armed and a leader on the field, Correa steadied a Twins defense that finished ninth in Defensive Runs Saved, according to Sports Info Solutions.
“He’s a real general, a quarterback,” pitching coach Pete Maki said. “He’s got eyes everywhere. He’s involved in everything and that’s what you want from your superstar player, which he is. He’s exactly what you want out of a shortstop in terms of leadership. … It’s so much more than meets the eye than his offensive line. Right? He’s just making sure people are where they need to be and anticipating X, Y, and Z. And there’s being an outstanding shortstop, the best one-hand player in the game. I haven’t seen him field a groundball with two hands since he’s been with the Twins. The management skills are just otherworldly.”
As if he didn’t demonstrate it playing through foot pain every day, appearing in 91 of 102 games after his initial plantar fasciitis diagnosis, Correa made his value as a leader demonstrably clear in the playoffs.
Whereas Lewis was the team’s energy and López was its newly discovered ace, Correa was the Twins’ leading man.
Even after the worst full offensive season of his career, there should no longer be questions from those fringes of the fan base about whether Correa’s worthy of his $200 million contract.
From his in-game awareness to his ability to command a room to his meticulous preparation on and off the field, there was no mystery about who would win the team’s leadership award.
“When it matters most, it’s like he can really take his attention and channel it and focus it and just play even better over and over again,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “It’s not by chance. It’s definitely not the lottery here. He keeps hitting right at the right time. No, this is a lifetime of work in the making when you see him step on the field to do these things. We’re not surprised. We took the guy, hit him right in the middle of the lineup today for a reason because we believe that he’s going to go out there and do things like that. And to keep doing it, it’s hard to do, but he keeps doing it.”
Media Good Guy: López
In 17 seasons on the beat, I’ve never encountered such a strong group of candidates.
Correa won last year and continues to deliver incredible insight and honest one-liners, like the time he told reporters all the double plays were a result of plantar fasciitis making him “slow as f—.” Byron Buxton answered a lot of questions he didn’t want to. Gray is incredibly detailed and was hilarious on the postseason podium. Kyle Farmer won Cincinnati’s 2022 Good Guy and could have here as well. Willi Castro was insightful, honest and friendly. Emilio Pagàn never made it so easy to talk to a player about their struggles. Caleb Thielbar brings perspective most of his teammates don’t possess. Jhoan Duran was funny and didn’t hesitate to tell us when even he was in awe of his velocity. Jeffers is a good communicator and unafraid to share an opinion. Griffin Jax never hid when he struggled. Brock Stewart and José De León constantly were open and honest about their journeys. Lewis actually apologized to reporters for making them wait and thanked them for their interviews. Julien was entertaining and accommodating.
But López somehow was a step above. From the moment he arrived at TwinsFest, López bent over backward to accommodate media requests. Perhaps it’s because he knew whom he replaced in Luis Arraez, but López made time for everyone. Even when they were infringing upon his time, López never made a reporter feel bad about it. He answered every question with patience and thoughtfulness. In short, he made a difficult decision easy.
(Top photo of Sonny Gray: Brace Hemmelgarn / Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)