The Minnesota Twins lost 103 games last year, which means it was the worst season for the franchise since it was known as the Washington Senators. Think of all the bad seasons in the pre-Puckett era. Think of all the bad seasons in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, when there was an unironic push to contract them out of existence. There has been plenty of bad baseball teams in Twins’ history, but last year’s team was worse than any of them. They started the season 0-9, and it wasn’t their longest losing streak of the season.
The Twins are probably going to make the postseason this year.
Didn’t see it coming? Don’t feel bad. Neither did the Twins. And I’m not talking about before the season started, but a couple of months ago. When the trade deadline arrived, they were 50-54 and 4½ games behind the second wild card, so they did the sensible thing: They gave up and traded away their best relievers. It was a pragmatic decision, considering they had roughly a five-percent chance of making the postseason and a .1-percent chance of winning the World Series, according to FanGraphs. They were closer to the Tigers than the Royals, so they traded the starting pitcher they acquired the week before, as well as their closer.
Twins fans were horrified, of course.
Overall, though, the Twins handled this deadline very nicely. I think they maximized their value and made the right moves.
You would react similarly if the postseason was ripped from your favorite team in front of your very eyes.
As the fan of an awful last-place team, I’m fascinated with their story. You should be, too. We need to pop the hood and figure out how they did it.
The 2017 Twins are better at hitting this year
Well, I’ll be. Though it’s fair to look at the (completely understandable) drop in production from Brian Dozier and assume the Twins have slipped, that’s not the case.
Twins hitters by position, 2016 to 2017
|Split||2016 OPS||2017 OPS|
|Split||2016 OPS||2017 OPS|
The changes aren’t drastic, but it adds up. All of it. This year’s Joe Mauer instead of last year’s. Jorge Polanco instead of Eduardo Escobar, who is greatly improved compared to last year. Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano both improved.
Another way to put it is that there are fewer absolute dead spots in the lineup. Consider the 10 players with enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title. Here are their adjusted OPS:
The median is roughly around the league average, which is a good thing. More importantly, it’s not like that 88 mark at the bottom (from a plus defensive catcher, no less) is a serious liability. Jason Castro is contributing a little with his bat. You don’t have to look hard to find catchers who aren’t doing nearly as much.
Last year’s wins team had a similar distribution, but it featured far more players who couldn’t crack 400 at-bats because of injury issues, playing-time concerns, or other problems. Plus, there was the unfortunate matter of Eduardo Escobar’s 377 lost plate appearances. He’s better now.
The 2017 Twins are better at pitching this year
This one is probably more important. Last year’s Twins had an adjusted ERA of 84, which is absolutely dreadful. It’s the kind of ERA+ you would see from a team that lost 103 games. This year’s team has an ERA+ of 96, which doesn’t sound great. Until you remember that 84, which, man. It’s the difference between eating raw possum meat and a drive-thru hamburger. You’re not proud of the latter, but IT COULD BE WORSE.
We’ll do the same trick with the pitchers, listing the ERA+ marks for the 10 pitchers who have logged the most innings. First, here’s the 2017 team:
Twins pitchers by IP, 2017
Compare that to the 2016 team, which was pretty wretched.
Twins pitchers by IP, 2016
It’s not like this year’s batch is great. But it’s better. It’s better equipped to take advantage of the improvements from the lineup. And while it’s weird that Bartolo Colon’s 73-and-counting innings are going to rank in the top five of this team, they’re getting better performances from the pitchers who are being used the most.
Not great performances. Just not dreadful ones.
They’re getting just a pinch of luck
They’re not the 2016 Rangers, winning every one-run game by divine intervention, but there is a little luck involved. The Twins are two games better than their Pythagorean record, which means at least a little, if you’re not a sputtering talk-radio chud. And they’re four wins better when it comes to BaseRuns, which tallies up the expected runs from all the hits/walks/extra-base hits/etc they’ve scored and allowed.
Or, if you want to use the metrics from Baseball Prospectus, they give the Twins less and less credit the more context they provide. This isn’t to take away from the success they’ve had, but their sense of timing is the reason they’re pulling away in the second wild card race, and I’m not sure that’s something that can be bottled for next season.
It counts for this season, though.
That’s ... that’s basically it?
It’s not like the Twins went out and signed Jon Dowd and Pablo. They mostly stood pat and waited for their players to develop and improve, which is roughly what happened. They’ve avoided fewer black holes on the 25-man roster. They’ve hit better. They’ve pitched better. And they’ve distributed their runs scored and allowed rather well.
If you want big picture reasons, you can find them. Jose Berrios is one of the most exciting young pitchers in baseball. Ervin Santana continues to give the Twins what they paid for. Joe Mauer is hitting like late-30s Pete Rose instead of Mets-era Doug Mientkiewicz. Byron Buxton is turning into the player he was expected to become for years. They’ll have five players with 20 homers or more and six qualifying hitters with an on-base percentage better than the league average.
But the story of the Twins isn’t very complicated. It wasn’t a whirlwind of transactions, each one more clever than the last. It wasn’t a bold new vision from a rich owner or a statistical revolution like Moneyball. They’re just last year’s Twins, but a little better. If you’re a fan of a lousy team, they’re the best reason for optimism going. Your team could go from 100 losses to October baseball in just one year, too.
They just have to hit better and pitch better. Bless the Minnesota Twins for reminding us of this better than any other team this year.