Written by Brandon Warne
It’s early June, and the Minnesota Twins are not only keeping their proverbial heads above water, but in fact have the second-most wins and the best winning percentage in the entire American League. Yes this Twins team, who was picked by national types to be among the five or so worst teams in baseball, is leading the charge in one of the better divisions in baseball.
Baseball is truly a weird game.
The Twins are 32-17 since a 1-6 start. They’re 31-16 against teams that aren’t from Detroit. They’re getting contributions from unlikely sources, winning games they have no business winning and having post-win dance parties which seem to have made baseball in Minnesota fun again. Fans seem to be noticing, as just over 100,000 people streamed through the gates for the Milwaukee Brewers series over the weekend.
But I don’t think it’s sustainable.
Even since I wrote the piece detailing how I’m not a Twins fan due to my work obligations, I’ve still seen scores of people imploring me to simply enjoy this current run. But I don’t really think a writer’s job changes too terribly much based on how good a team is. Sure, you might be more apt to see guys hang around for postgame comments, but with a team that has Torii Hunter, you immediately have that accountability anyhow. It isn’t my job to ride the wave; it’s my job to analyze streaks and tendencies to find out if I truly feel it can keep on going.
And for a few reasons, I’m not sure it can.
That isn’t to say this team hasn’t had great success. To be clear, being 10 games over .500 at any point in the season was never part of the plan. Think about all the projections that came up in the preseason. Most pegged the Twins at a 72-win team, again possibly prolonging the 90-loss streak into the first year of the Paul Molitor regime. Pretty much all of those projections have done an about face; Fangraphs’ latest projection has the Twins dead even at 81-81. That’s not only an 11-game improvement from last year, but just three games off the projected pace to win the division outright.
As I mentioned before the season, I figured the AL Central on the whole would be a dogfight, separated by fewer than 10 games from top to bottom. The revised projections seem to flesh that out, with not only the winning team taking home 84 wins (a virtual tie between Kansas City and Cleveland at this second) and the last place team (Chicago) winning 76, but with the Tigers sneaking into third place with 83 wins and leaving the Twins in fourth. Still, that would make for an insane rest of the season if the first four spots have just three games separating them.
But let’s talk about the rest of the division for a minute. To say Detroit is staggering is putting it nicely, as the Tigers are 13-17 over their last 30 games, 7-13 over the last 20 and 2-8 over the last 10. It’s gotten worse, not better for the aging Tigers as the season has worn on. But even so, if this Tigers team seems vulnerable, keep in mind they’re getting Victor Martinez and Justin Verlander back over a short span. That could provide a huge boost. For how well the Twins have been cruising, Kansas City is still nipping at their heels, just a game down coming into today’s action. As most expected their rotation has been suspect (4.55 ERA; 25th in MLB) and their bullpen has been unbelievable (1.75 ERA; No. 1 in MLB), and their offense is impossible to strike out. Cleveland has probably the best rotation in the AL, but it has been let down by poor luck and bad defense. Most projections still have them winning the division. And as for the White Sox coming off their free agent spending spree, well, they aren’t too far down to make a hard-charging run before all is finished.
And maybe that’s the biggest detriment to the Twins, who have to continue playing at this pace to fend off all comers, which includes the heel-nipping Royals starting Monday night. In the Twins’ favor is their 20-9 record at home, and to be quite honest the 13-14 mark on the road is not terribly far off from what most playoff teams do — dominate at home and stay afloat on the road.
But is it fair to say the Twins have gotten fat off playing subpar teams? Yeah, maybe a little. The Twins are 24-12 against teams presently under .500, and just 9-11 against teams currently over. That means as of today, the Twins have played 36 games against teams with more losses than wins. No other team in the division has played more than 28, as you’ll see here:
Record against teams under .500 (AL Central):
Twins – 24-12
Royals – 16-7
Tigers – 13-15
Indians – 14-9
White Sox – 13-11
Interestingly, the team (Detroit) who has played the second-most games against lower-level teams is under .500 against them. And while it’s true that you have to take advantage of those opportunities when they’re presented, it does call into question the sustainability of this run over the long term.
Another thing that could potentially become a problem is lineup depth. Consider this top four on any given day:
That’s not exactly a star-studded top four in a lineup, but it’s more than enough to get the job done in today’s game. That’s Brian Dozier up top, Hunter, Joe Mauer and finally a still pretty decent line from a currently slumping Trevor Plouffe.
Now, have a look at a handful of candidates that could fill out the bottom five of the lineup on any given day:
Those are the slash lines for Kurt Suzuki, Danny Santana, Eduardo Escobar, Aaron Hicks and Eddie Rosario. You could also lump in Eduardo Nunez (.300/.340/.460 in just 53 PA), but either way this is not a group that inspires confidence. Sending out Santana for a resurgent Kennys Vargas (.308/.403/.519 in 16 Triple-A games) after Sunday’s game represents progress, but this is a bottom half that simply isn’t going to be competitive over the long haul. The other thing that stands out is that aside from a few more extra-base hits — three home runs, specifically — Escobar is having roughly the same season Santana is. In that sense, keep an eye on Jorge Polanco, who is hitting .315/.346/.440 down at Double-A Chattanooga.
And while it would be foolish to suggest the pitching staff hasn’t made big strides this year, it’s still a rotation that doesn’t strike anyone out, and is backed by a largely piecemeal bullpen.
The simplest way to explain it is that while the results have been better, the process has not. So while the team’s 3.84 ERA coming into Monday — still just eighth in the AL — is markedly better than last year’s 4.57 mark, the peripherals don’t really show a huge leap. Last year’s team struck out 6.5 batters per nine innings. This year’s iteration is at just 5.9. The league average last year was 7.7 K/9, and is 7.6 this year. So even as the league has taken a slight step back, the Twins took it a step further. Last year’s team had a 3.97 FIP (fielding independent pitching, a barometer of what the team’s ERA ought to normalize to over time); this year’s bunch has a 4.10.
As we’ve seen with Mike Pelfrey and Kyle Gibson, strikeouts aren’t necessarily a must to be a successful starter. That isn’t to say that they can both sustain sub-3.00 ERA marks without strikeout jumps, but pitching isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition either. With that said, the Twins’ staff isn’t really groundball heavy like Gibson and Pelfrey each are, ranking eighth in the AL with a roughly league-average 44.2 percent groundball rate. Considering Pelfrey (55.2 percent) and Gibson (53.2 percent) are both well above that mark, that means there are a fair share of other guys who come up way under that mark, and will need a little added help to keep their ERAs down.
The theory behind that is if a guy isn’t striking too many hitters out, grounders are the next best step for run prevention because there are so few extra-base hits that come via the groundball. Basically speaking, a hitter has to roll one over the first- or third-base bag for an extra-base hit. Statistically in 2015, just 1.9 percent of grounders resulted in extra-base hits across both leagues. For fly balls, that spikes to 11.5 percent and for line drives a staggering 24.4 percent.
The nice thing for the Twins moving forward is that they can address their fly ball tendencies one way, and it’s one the fans will be largely happy about: promoting Byron Buxton. There’s some buzz around town that the move could come sooner than later, and an outfield of Rosario-Buxton-Hicks would spell death to fly balls in a way that Twins fans haven’t seen since the days of the Soul Patrol. This bunch could be even better, and that would allow Molitor to keep Hunter fresh with more days DH’ing with Rosario rotating in and out depending on how Vargas does with this go-round. Again, it would be nice for Molitor to have too many guys going well with the stick rather than needing to simply fill out the bottom of the order with guys who aren’t carrying their weight.
That the Twins have managed to continue winning despite that might suggest a certain moxie, but most likely it’s been getting key hits at key times, something that doesn’t necessarily play itself out on a regular basis over the course of a 162-game season. The important thing to remember is that even if the Twins can’t keep it up over the long haul, nobody can take away the early-season wins, and any step forward represents a good look into the future. Even if this team finishes 81-81 as the projections suggest, that’s a) still in the thick of it in September and b) a huge improvement over last year.