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June 1, 2015

Rubbing Mud

OMG Twinsies

by Matthew Trueblood

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The Twins trailed the Blue Jays 4–1 after five and a half innings on Sunday, but after a Joe Mauer RBI single, a two-run home run from Trevor Plouffe, and a two-run double from Torii Hunter, they turned that into a 6–5 lead by the end of the seventh. From there, the shutdown relief combination of Blaine Boyer and Glen Perkins sewed up the team’s 21st win in 28 games. Not long after they finished their comeback win, the Cubs beat the Royals at Wrigley Field, vaulting the Twins (the Twins!) into first place in the AL Central at the end of May. They’re 30–19, and 19–7 at home.

This is a surprise, to put it mildly. Before the season, 45 staff members here at BP gave you our preseason predictions, including full standings for each division. The only person kind enough to let the Twins out of the AL Central cellar was Matt Sussman, who pegged them for fourth. Our first Playoff Odds Report of the spring gave Minnesota a 5.7 percent chance of playing more than 162 games. In short, we had them down as the worst team in the American League, and we weren’t alone. That much-maligned group has now won more times over a 28-game span than all but five teams (the Angels, Rays, Royals, Blue Jays, and Tigers) won over any such span last year.

Obviously, though, we have a long conversation ahead of us about this team. Surely you noticed that the Rays and Jays both made the list of last year’s 21–7 streakers, but neither made the playoffs. In fact, the Rays finished 77–85, and the Blue Jays 83–79. There are probably Twins fans who would take an 80-win season pretty happily, but by now, they’re in the minority. The question is: Are the Twins for real? At all? It turns out that, despite a mountain of evidence on one side of the issue and virtually none on the other side, the answer is pretty damn complicated.

First of all, let’s dispel a few possible explanations for the Twins’ success, the kinds of things that can occasionally explain surprising teams, but fail to do so in this case.

Misjudged or Underestimated Talent
Nobody simply missed on a bunch of good players the Twins have. Well, maybe they did, but there’s been no evidence to this point that they did. Here are the basic breakouts, entering Sunday, showing what kind of fundamental talent the Twins have demonstrated on the field.

Minnesota Twins, 2015 Batting, Pitching and Fielding Statistics, and MLB Ranks

Offense

Statistic

Value

MLB Rank

Batting Average

.257

11th

On-Base Percentage

.310

22nd

Slugging Average

.389

18th

True Average

.253

27th

Baserunning Runs

-2.6

21st

Pitching

Statistic

Value

MLB Rank

Starting Pitcher cFIP

104

17th

Starter DRA

4.27

15th

Relief Pitcher cFIP

101

28th

Reliever DRA

4.13

14th

Fielding

Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency

-1.55

24th

This team has not shown any significant strengths, does have glaring weaknesses, and is marred by more or less all the same problems it had last year: dreadful pitching depth, the worst strikeout rate in baseball, a brutal defense (especially in the outfield), and a tepid collection of guys who can only sort of hit. They’ve just been outrunning those problems. (Not literally. They’re a poor baserunning team.)

Run Differential/Variation from Expected Record
Of course, when a team is winning games but not fundamentally playing well, the first thing to check is whether its run differential is way out of whack. In the Twins’ case, though, that offers only a partial explanation. After beating Toronto Sunday, Minnesota is 11–6 in one-run games and has a Pythagorean expected record of 27–22, which isn’t 30–19, but is still a whole lot better than anyone would have expected them to be.

Soft Factors/Clubhouse Stuff
This is Baseball Prospectus. If you want to hear about how Torii Hunter is helping guys keep their chins up and Paul Molitor has them playing with energy, doing the little things, seek out (or create) Baseball Midnight Infomercial, or Baseball Radio Testimonial, or Baseball Door-to-Door Magazine Subscription Pitch. Veterans and managers don’t magically help teams bunch their hits together so that an offense with the fourth-worst True Average scores the sixth-most runs of any team in baseball. Nor do they massage a bullpen with a hilariously low 15.7 percent strikeout rate (the lowest among the other 29 teams is 18.3 percent) and the third-worst cFIP of any club into surviving a league-high 65 appearances in save situations with a league-low three blown saves. I can’t imagine the intangibles that would make those things happen. It’s just clustering of outcomes, and good luck.

***

Okay, so what the Twins have done to date is not real. We can see that. If Kyle Gibson’s 2.61 ERA came with a newfound ability to miss bats with his once-promising slider, that’d be meaningful, but instead, Gibson has a career-low 11.5 percent strikeout rate. If Danny Santana and Eduardo Escobar had held onto their impressive offensive progress (at encouraging ages) last season, it would really get my attention, but the two of them are hitting an aggregate .234/.251/.323, with 75 strikeouts and five walks. Escobar is the starting left fielder.

Still, there are two interesting factors we need to bake into any evaluation of the Twins’ viability as contenders:

  1. The American League is a complete muddle. The five best teams in baseball are, in some order, the Dodgers, Nationals, Cubs, Cardinals, and Pirates. I’m not talking about records, here. I’m talking about bedrock, baseline quality. There is no team in the American League as good (or, especially, as balanced) as those.

    The NL also has the seven worst teams in baseball: the Marlins, Braves, Diamondbacks, Reds, Brewers, Rockies, and Phillies. But the fact is, if you wanted to sneak into Real Contention with an inferior AL team, this is the year to do it. None of the giants who have ruled the junior circuit for years are winding up to smash teams like Minnesota (or Texas, for that matter) under their boots. Everyone has big, ugly warts, and that makes the Twins’ warts a little bit smaller and a little bit less ugly, by comparison.

  2. There’s serious improvement potential here. Remember that league-worst reliever strikeout rate? Well, the Twins recently moved Triple-A flamethrower Alex Meyer to relief. Meyer has command problems at times and no longer looks like the high-upside hurler he was a year or two ago, but one thing he does in both good times and bad is miss bats. Byron Buxton is starting to look more like what Minnesota once hoped he could be, hitting .277/.326/.571 in May at Double-A Chattanooga. He also plays one of the positions at which the Twins most need help: center field.

    Speaking of positions where the team badly needs help, they could fill left field with Trevor Plouffe later this year, if they feel Miguel Sano’s progress (.303/.374/.556 in May, also in Chattanooga) signifies that his rust is gone after Tommy John surgery stole his 2014. Replace Aaron Hicks or Shane Robinson with Buxton, and Escobar with (in effect) Sano, and the makings of a real, live offense start to come into focus. A return to health for Oswaldo Arcia and a return to the majors for Kennys Vargas would give them enough depth and options to keep Hunter and Joe Mauer fresh (and, honestly, to get Mauer out of the lineup a little bit more often; he’s hurting the team to this point).

    Last, but not least, Ervin Santana is due back in early July from his suspension for using Stanozolol. With Ricky Nolasco exiting Sunday’s game with an ankle injury, that reinforcement might be badly needed, but if things break right, it will allow the team to exile one of Mike Pelfrey, Trevor May, or Gibson to the bullpen. (All three look stretched as starting pitchers, though May has made progress by beginning to really pound the strike zone this year.) The Twins have zero pitching depth, and that has made for miserable second halves several years running. This season, there’s some evidence that they can withstand the summer better, and an effective Santana (no guarantee, but a possibility) would make that seem even more plausible.

Barring a brutal stretch starting almost right away, the Twins will head into the early stages of trade season looking more like buyers than sellers. That’s sort of terrifying, given the risk that they’ll make a move that doesn’t actually improve them to the level of a playoff-caliber team, but does cost them a long-term asset. It has to be exciting for Twins fans, though, and the most important point is: It might not be a total red herring.

The Twins aren’t good. Their success to this point is smoke and mirrors. But in this iteration of the American League, and given the fact that there’s a chance they’ll organically improve as the season moves along, they’ve reached a threshold at which they deserve to be taken somewhat seriously. Not because they are what they appear to be, but because they don’t need to be what they appear to be in order to make this season memorable.

Matthew Trueblood is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

Related Content:  Minnesota Twins

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