May 27, 2015
Coming off four straight 90-loss seasons the Twins were projected to finish in last place by nearly everyone, myself included, but instead they have the third-best record in the American League at 27-18. Since a brutal opening week of the season in which they went 1-6 and were outscored by 33 runs the Twins are 26-12 with a run differential of plus-52 and they've won 22 of their last 31 games. They're winning and they're winning a lot. But how? Here are three big reasons:
Scoring In Bunches
There's nothing impressive about the Twins' overall hitting numbers. They've batted .257 with 35 homers and 112 walks in 45 games, ranking 20th among MLB teams in both on-base percentage (.311) and slugging percentage (.388). They also haven't done much running under new manager Paul Molitor, stealing just 18 bases while being thrown out 11 times. And yet they've scored the eighth-most runs in baseball, including an AL-best 5.1 runs per game since their 1-6 start.
As a team the Twins have hit .257 with a .699 OPS overall, but with runners in scoring position they've hit .294 with an .806 OPS. When the bases are empty they've hit .240 with a .654 OPS, but with runners on base they've hit .282 with a .760 OPS. Whether you want to chalk up those huge differences to clutch performances, pure luck, or something in between it's easy to see why the Twins' lineup has scored a lot more runs than the overall numbers would suggest.
They've also done an exceptional job of clustering their hits together, exploding for big, multi-run innings to knock out the opposing starting pitcher or put a game out of reach. That's partly tied to the aforementioned significant uptick in production with runners on base and especially runners in scoring position, but it goes beyond that to an offense that has focused an unusually high portion of its damage within one inning per game.
Or, put another way: If a team averages nine hits per game they'll score a whole lot more runs if five or six of them are clustered together in the same inning than they would with a more even distribution of 1-2 per inning. Again, whether you want to chalk up the clustering of hits to clutch performances, pure luck, or something in between anyone who's watched the Twins this season can tell you their ability to explode for a big inning has been remarkable to see.
This year the Twins have scored four or more runs in an inning 15 times in 45 games, which is a pace of 54 times per 162 games. On average from 2011-2014 the Twins scored four or more runs in an inning 29 times per 162 games. So they've upped their OPS by 100 points with runners in scoring position, they've maximized a modest amount of overall damage by clustering it together, and they've exploded for a huge inning to put a game out of reach 2-3 times per week.
And that's how a lineup that ranks 20th in OPS can rank eighth in runs scored.
This season, like last season, the Twins' bullpen ranks dead last among all MLB teams in both strikeout rate and xFIP. Their rank in ERA is essentially unchanged from 23rd to 21st. However, within that all-too-familiar sub par performance from Twins relievers is some very good work in the late innings of close games. They've been bad overall, but in high-leverage situations where giving up a run could change the outcome of a game they've actually been quite good.
Glen Perkins is responsible for a lot of that. His excellence in the closer role is nothing new--he's already one of the three or four best relievers in Twins history--but he's been nearly flawless this season by converting 17 of 17 save chances with a 1.25 ERA and 21/2 K/BB ratio in 22 innings. Perkins ranks third among all relievers in Win Probability Added, which accounts for the situations in which performances occur within games and how that impacts the team's odds of winning.
His primary setup men have also thrived in high-leverage spots, which is shocking considering his primary setup men are journeyman minor-league signings Blaine Boyer and Aaron Thompson. Boyer is 32 years old and came into this season with a 4.63 ERA in the majors and a 5.31 ERA at Triple-A. He was terrible during the opening week, giving up runs in each of his first four games. And since then he's allowed a grand total of one run in 20 innings.
Thompson didn't even make the Opening Day roster, but quickly leapfrogged Brian Duensing and Caleb Thielbar in the hierarchy of lefty setup men. At age 28 he came into this season with 15 innings in the majors and 980 innings in the minors. And now he leads the American League with 23 appearances, 14 of which have come in "close and late" situations, and he's been nearly unhittable in those spots while holding lefties to a .094 batting average overall.
Thompson and Boyer both crack the top 10 in Win Probability Added among all American League non-closers and no trio of relievers in the league has a higher cumulative WPA total than Perkins, Thompson, and Boyer. They've combined for a WPA of 3.23 and the rest of the Twins' bullpen has a negative WPA, because in "close and late" situations the bullpen has held opponents to a .211 batting average and .536 OPS compared to a .314 batting average and .907 OPS in other spots.
And that's how a bullpen that ranks 21st in ERA can rank third in Win Probability Added.
Non-Disastrous Starting Pitching
Make no mistake, the rotation hasn't been good and Twins starters again rank dead last among all MLB teams in strikeouts. However, even being "not good" is actually a step up from the disastrous 2011-2014 rotation that ranked dead last in strikeout rate, ERA, xFIP, Wins Above Replacement, and opponents' batting average. For four years the Twins' rotation was a dumpster fire on which each new starter would pour more gasoline and now it's merely a standard bag of trash.
Depth has played a big part. Instead of constantly dipping down into the minors for a parade of replacement-level (or worse) starters the Twins actually have more decent rotation options than actual rotation spots, which is why Tommy Milone is currently dominating Triple-A hitters and the team is a month away from facing a tough decision when the biggest free agent signing in franchise history, Ervin Santana, returns from an 80-game suspension.
Twins starters rank 25th in xFIP thanks largely to the lack of strikeouts, but because they've been better at wriggling out of jams and limiting damage within troublesome innings the rotation sits right in the middle of the MLB pack in ERA at 15th. Whether you choose to put your faith in ERA or xFIP, going from dead last by a wide margin to somewhere within the realm of respectability has a huge impact on a number of fronts.
Compared to 2011-2014 the rotation is remaining in the game nearly 10 percent longer per start and surrendering 20 percent fewer runs per inning. Not as many games are already out of reach within the first few innings due to the starter blowing up and exiting early, which in turn leads to a less-taxing workload for the bullpen's middle relief underbelly and more of an opportunity for the Twins' lineup to explode for big, game-breaking innings of its own.
And that's how a rotation that ranks 25th in xFIP can still be a massive improvement.
To hear two podcast hosts try to figure out how to feel optimistic about their favorite team again, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.