The 2006 Minnesota Twins were a rather unique team in the annals of baseball history. At a time where baseball media and fans were falling over themselves in their love for the big bats of many American League teams, the Twins built an identity by going the completely opposite direction.
Four players – Jason Tyner, Jason Bartlett, Luis Castillo and Nick Punto – were far from power hitters, but their combined might fueled Minnesota’s offense a bit more than the heart of the lineup that featured Michael Cuddyer, Torii Hunter , the unbroken-at-the-time Joe Mauer and eventual league MVP Justin Morneau. The foursome hit between the 8th and 2nd spots in the batting order - Castillo and Punto were at the top while Tyner and Bartlett were at the bottom - and all hit at around .300, with the lowest average coming from Punto at .290. They had little pop with just six homers in a combined 1,780 plate appearances, but they wreaked havoc when they were on base. Of the 377 hits between them, they notched 56 doubles and legged out 17 triples. Where the power bats had the green light to swing, manager Ron Gardenhire had these guys do whatever it took to advance the runner. Castillo stole 25 bases despite being caught 11 times. Bartlett was hit by 11 pitches, perhaps leaning in a bit more than others would have. Punto lead the team with 10 sacrifice hits and Tyner carried the best batting average at .312.
Quite frankly, they annoyed the hell out of the AL Central. Former Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen unofficially christened them with the most appropriate nickname in recent memory.
"All those piranhas -- blooper here, blooper here, beat out a ground ball, hit a home run, they're up by four. They get up by four with that bullpen? See you at the national anthem tomorrow. When I sit down and look at the lineup, give me the New York Yankees. Give me those guys because they've got holes. You can pitch around them, you can pitch to them. These little guys? Castillo and all of them? People worry about the catcher, what's his name, Mauer? Fine, yeah, a good hitter, but worry about the little [guys], they're on base all the time."
Fast forward about nine years, where it seems as if this aggressive and relentless offense reared its head again, but with a team 6 ½ hours south of Minneapolis. The defending AL champion Kansas City Royals are in World Series in back to back years for the first time ever on the strength of a deep bullpen, superb defense and a shockingly diverse offense.
Whereas last year’s squad made the Fall Classic largely on speed and tenacity, they added power by adding Kendrys Morales at DH in place of Billy Butler. With the free swinging of Morales, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez, the best way to try to make their at bats productive is to make sure that there are players throughout the lineup that can get good contact and run the basepaths.Kansas City Royals' Lorenzo Cain celebrates after scoring on a hit by Eric Hosmer against the Toronto Blue Jays during the eight inning in Game 6 of baseball's American League Championship Series on Friday, Oct. 23, 2015, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
This is where the new piranhas come in. You have Lorenzo Cain with his finest campaign as a major leaguer so far with career highs in nearly every offensive category that lead to an All-Star nod this past July. The trade deadline addition of the game's best utility man, Ben Zobrist, provided lineup versatility and plate discipline to work opposing pitchers into a frenzy. Jarrod Dyson draws walks and swipes bases off the bench or in spot starts. Alcides Escobar's numbers are down from his career season in 2014, but they were still keeping pace with the overall team dynamic.
Of course, the stories differ in several ways. For starters, Minnesota had a couple more power bats in 2006, though Morneau would never reach those numbers again for the Twins or any other team in his career. Even in terms of physical stature, the "little piranhas" label was precise in that none of those guys stood anything more than 6'1' (Tyner). Punto was built like a fire hydrant at 5'9" and nearly 200 lbs. At 5'11", Castillo was lithe and tenacious at around 145 lbs. Contrasted with the 2015 version where Cain at 6'2"/205 lbs nor Zobrist at 6'3"/210 lbs. would be considered small by any means, though Dyson clocks in at average, yet super athletic build at 5"10 and 160 pounds.
In terms of results lies the greatest difference as those Twins were swept in the Division Series by an Oakland team that pounced on Johan Santana in Game 1 and never looked back. The Royals, however, seem to hit any and every pitcher that comes their way. In the ALDS against the Houston Astros, they notched 36 hits over the five games, with the fewest coming in Game 1 with five.
Yet, what unearthed the "piranhas" comparison was how the Royals played against the game’s most prolific power offense in the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS. In that series, you witnessed the embodiment of the boxing cliché, “styles make fights.” Other than the Game 3 explosion and the 6th inning of Game 5, the Jays were relatively handcuffed by Royals pitching. Yet, even in Game 3, you saw Kansas City make a bit of a push at the top of the 9th to make things interesting late.
In just one game in the ALCS did the Royals fail to get less than seven hits in a game, just four in the 7-1 loss of Game 5 that helped Toronto save face at home. They hit two home runs in the first 3 games combined, yet scored 19 runs off of 31 hits. For the full series, 59 hits in six games, with 17 for extra bases (nine doubles, a triple and seven homers). Even crazier was that they only stole three bases in the entire series; Cain twice and Alex Rios notching one. Cain drew five walks, which forced Blue Jays pitching to look over their shoulders often as the heart of the order could smell the RBIs with a stolen base threat feinting for second base. While he was fantastic against Houston, Escobar was sensational en route to winning MVP of the series, hitting a torrid .478 with eleven hits, 15 total bases, a couple of key sacrifice bunts and HBPs.
If there was one play that symbolizes what this team was, it was the redemptive call from third base coach Mike Jirschele, who was roasted for not sending Alex Gordon last year in the dream scenario; bottom of the 9th with two outs in Game 7 of the World Series. Just about eleven months later, Jirschele's swinging arm and Cain's speedy legs were in unison for this one.
There's a great challenge ahead for the Royals as the New York Mets, who Shang Tsung'ed the souls of Chicago Cubs fans everywhere en route to the NL pennant, boast the most formidable starting pitching quartet they've seen all year long. Stymied by Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants last fall, how they contend with an Amazin' rotation will say everything about how effective their brand of small ball can truly be.
Neither team – these Royals or those Twins – was the first to play this kind of baseball before; over 150 years of professional baseball means that styles are reincarnated generation after generation. However, while it hasn’t been too often that such a style won championships in the modern era, the new piranhas or rather, the Kansas City Royals' form of small ball has them four games away from their first championship in 30 years.
Jason is the editor-in-chief here at TSFJ. In addition to a past life as a research analyst in advertising, television and online media, he spent seven seasons as the New York Beacon's beat writer for the New York Giants. Jason has written for Yardbarker, Dime Magazine, Decider, Awful Announcing and The Week. He is also a member of his high school's 4th period gym class floor hockey champions.