The Twins are Playing .600 Ball?? Are They Contenders or Pretenders?

Posted: 05/27/2015 by levcohen in Baseball

What a difference a month makes! Entering May, the Twins were 10-12 and already five games behind the Royals (4.5 behind Detroit). Now, with the Royals mired in a four game losing streak and the Twins on a five game tear, the two teams are tied for first in the AL Central. The Twins are 18-6 in the month of May and now have a 28-18 record, tied for fourth best in baseball. Their run differential-based expected win loss record is 25-21, which is, while not as good, still surprising enough that it would warrant a post by itself. I predicted that they would finish 68-94, saying:

When your below-average offense is the best part of your team, you know it’s going to be a long season. The Twins are horrid defensively, with Torii Hunter and Oswaldo Arcia rating as two of the worst corner outfielders in baseball and a huge liability in Trevor Plouffe at third. In fact, first baseman (and former catcher) Joe Mauer might be the only guy who isn’t a net negative in the field. Then there’s the pitching, which won’t be much better than the staff that posted a 9.7 WAR (third worst) and 4.58 ERA (second worst) last season. Their #5, Mike Pelfrey, who posted a 5.19 ERA in 2013 and a 7.99 ERA last season, isn’t much worse than their #1, Phil Hughes. That’s how bad this is.

What’s changed? You wouldn’t think that a team whose cleanup hitter is Trevor Plouffe and whose ace is Phil Hughes would be able to sustain a winning percentage anywhere near .600, right? Let’s check it out.

The Twins are hitting .257/.310/.387 with 37 homers, 25th in baseball, and 18 steals, 23rd. They rank 18th in offensive value added per Fangraphs, How, then, do they rank ninth in runs scored, despite playing just 46 games, fewer than the majority of baseball? Well, they’ve been good when it’s counted. They have been the second most clutch team in baseball by a ton and trail only the Royals. They are third in average with runners in scoring position at .299, well ahead of the fourth place Orioles. That’s one sign that team-wide regression could be coming, because teams are rarely this good when the stakes are high despite being sub-par in low-leverage situations. They haven’t gotten any huge individual performances, but have managed to get things done despite the fact that Mauer has been a negative at the plate. Brian Dozier, Plouffe, and, surprisingly, Torii Hunter have provided most of the power, combining to hit 23 of the team’s 37 homers. Those three and Mauer make a pretty solid offensive core moving forward, but with Oswaldo Arcia injured, there’s not much depth in the lineup. The bottom four in the lineup of Eduardo Escobar, Eddie Rosario, Aaron Hicks, and Danny Santana has been anemic, posting OBPs of .277, .288, .269, and .256. Talent-wise, it’s still a mediocre offense at best, and I expect the runs scored numbers to decrease.

I thought this team would be the worst fielding team in baseball. Instead, Fangraphs ranks them 23rd while saying they have the second worst range in all of baseball, better than just the Indians. Hicks and catcher Kurt Suzuki have helped improve the team defensively, and Shane Robinson is a great glove to bring off the bench with a lead. Plouffe and Hunter, while not good defensively, haven’t been as bad as I expected. But Mauer is playing poorly defensively, Arcia is one of the worst defenders in baseball, and the left side of the infield (Escobar and Santana) are hemorrhaging runs defensively. The defense has gotten better, but it still isn’t the reason this team will remain in contention.

Pitching-wise, the traditional stats (3.94 ERA, 16th in baseball) line up more with the advanced ones (4.11 FIP, 19th). This isn’t a pitching staff with great stuff. They strike out just 5.75 hitters per nine innings, nearly a batter per nine fewer than the 29th ranked Rockies (6.52). The rotation is better than I thought it was. Hughes has a 4.50 ERA, but I expect that to drop a run by the end of the year, homer prevention problems and all. Young starter Trevor May has finally solved his control problems, posting a 1.65 BB/9 ratio, and his 3.00 FIP is nearly two runs better than his 4.95 ERA. Ricky Nolasco also has peripheral numbers that are far better than his 5.12 ERA, but that’s nothing new for Nolasco; he has a career 4.50 ERA and 3.80 FIP. While Nolasco and May probably have some good ERA luck coming, expect Kyle Gibson (2.72 ERA, 4.22 FIP) and Mike Pelfrey (2.72, 4.21) to regress, as they’ve posted K rates that are second and fourth worst among the 94 starters who have thrown at least 50 innings. So Hughes and May will get better, Nolasco is and has always been a mystery, and Gibson along with Pelfrey will get worse. It’s likely that the rotation is what it is; better than it has been recently but again not enough to support a playoff run.

The bullpen has been poor, ranking 23rd in WAR, 21st in ERA (3.91), and last in strikeout rate by a long shot. Glen Perkins, who already has 18 saves along with his 1.19 ERA, is a stud and one of the best closers in baseball. Setup man Blaine Boyer has gotten very lucky, with a 2.28 ERA supported by a lucky .269 BABIP, 84% left on base, and a 3.8:2.28 K:BB ratio. And outside of Perkins and Boyer, the Twins don’t really have any relievers they seem to trust. I think it’s safe to say this bullpen is below-average.

Everything about this team screams: “70 wins.” They already have 28 wins in the bank, so they’ll probably end somewhere near .500, but I still think they are the worst team in the AL Central, and I think they’ll perform the worst over the final 100-odd games. It’s the clearest decision left, simply because the Twins don’t really have any above-average traits to hang their hat on besides their “clutch gene,” which has been proven to be one of the least predictive traits out there. The Twins are..

Pretenders.

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