The Minnesota Twins are 20-10 after Monday night’s win over the Cleveland Indians. That pushed their lead to 2 and 1/2 games in the American League Central, and assured the Twins would leave the series at Progressive Field in first place no matter what happens in the subsequent games.
Maybe 20-10 isn’t that surprising. Maybe the divisional lead isn’t, either. But the path to where the Twins are at the season’s halfway point has been anything but conventional. We’ll touch a bit more on the specifics on that next week, but for now, let’s take a peek under the hood.
Here are some things you may not have noticed about the 2020 Twins:
They’ve been absolutely abysmal against relief pitching
Against opposing starters, the Twins have been perfectly fine. Downright good, even. They’ve hit .270/.339/.474 for an .813 OPS which ranks eighth among MLB clubs.
But like most teams, the Twins aren’t built to come from behind. Well, more accurately, they haven’t done a good job of doing so when they’ve needed to against relievers this season.
A lot of that falls on injuries to key players, but the numbers are piling up and they aren’t in favor of the Twins offense against opposing bullpens.
Just six teams have a worse OPS than Minnesota does against relievers. The Twins are hitting a scant .213/.304/.349 against non-starters — almost a mirror-image of what Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford did last season (.228/.304/.350).
For context, Crawford was among the 10 or so worst regular players in baseball last season.
Now of course, this is not a gigantic sample size and bullpens are as good as ever. It’s just something that — especially in light of how slow offenses have started, with the Twins no exception — could be an issue if it lingers into the second half of the season.
In October, bullpens reign supreme.
The bullpen garners headlines — justifiably so — but the rotation has been brilliant
It’s easy, for the first time in a long time, to talk up the Twins bullpen as one of the best in baseball.
But the rotation — as marred by injuries as it has been — has been absolutely terrific.
Certainly a lot of it starts with Kenta Maeda, who flirted with a no-hitter in Milwaukee last week and was terrific in Cleveland on Monday night. He, along with rookie Randy Dobnak, has given the Twins terrific stability in a year where Rich Hill, Jake Odorizzi and Homer Bailey have been marred by injury issues, Michael Pineda still hasn’t pitched yet due to a suspension and Jose Berrios hasn’t quite looked like himself yet — last start notwithstanding.
But beyond Maeda and Dobnak, Wisler and Clippard have been very good as openers. Devin Smeltzer was pretty good in a spot start. Even Bailey, in the one start he made, tossed five solid innings.
The upshot is this — the Twins’ rotation ranks fifth in baseball with a 3.46 ERA. Opposing batters are hitting just .216/.281/.351 against them. They’re fifth in WHIP (1.11).
Now imagine getting Pineda back. And getting more out of Hill moving forward. And Berrios….and Odorizzi. And who knows, maybe even Bailey for the final two weeks of the season.
The Twins came into 2020 looking to bash people over the heads with offense and do just enough pitching.
Talk about a flipping of the script.
Speaking of bullpen — Taylor Rogers is pitching a lot better than you think
The ninth inning on Monday night typified a lot of what Rogers has dealt with this season. With two outs, Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor reached to bring Carlos Santana to the plate as the tying run. And while it felt like Rogers — who came in with a 5.23 ERA — was in hot water yet again, that didn’t quite tell the whole story.
The ball Lindor hit was a sinker out of the zone. It was hit 81.8 mph and had an expected batting average of just .180. By comparison, the lazy fly ball that Rogers induced off the bat of Santana to end the game was hit 79.0 mph with a .110 xBA.
In short, Rogers has been getting BABIP’d this season.
A lot of Rogers’ struggles show up in the geekier stats. He’s got a 58.8 percent strand rate this season — nearly 20 percent below his career norm. He’s got a .433 BABIP — almost 130 points above his career norm. He’s striking out nearly as many batters as last year, and is walking almost no one. He’s keeping the ball in the ballpark.
In all, it meant his FIP was 2.17 and his ERA was three runs higher.
So what gives?
Again, he’s being BABIP’d. In other words, in a small sampling of innings, balls are just falling in against him. His average exit velocity against coming into Monday night’s game was 87.3 mph — the lowest of his career. Just one of the batted balls Rogers allowed in the ninth — an out off the bat of Jose Ramirez at 90.2 mph — exceeded that mark, so that average likely went down.
Rogers is still throwing hard. He’s still spinning a pretty good — but perhaps slightly down — slider.
Target Field has been a desert for offenses this season
ESPN’s park factors measure offense across the entire league in an effort to neutralize context based on home ballparks. In other words, if an MLB park is exactly league average at seeing runs cross the plate, it would score a 1.000. Miller Park, for instance, is a 1.020 — so it plays roughly average for pitchers and hitters alike.
The factors come up for runs, hits in general and then each individual type of hit except singles.
For runs, Target Field is dead last at .611. In other words, the home park of the Twins is seeing runs score at a rate of about 40 percent below league average. For home runs, Target Field is at .571 — ahead of only the new Globe Life Field in Texas.
The result has been an MLB-low 6.33 runs scored per game at Target Field through 15 games. In other words, that 4-2 score the Twins keep seeming to play the Royals to is about the norm this year at the House Mauer Built.
Bats are starting to heat up across both leagues — but the Twins have some work to do, clearly.
Nelson Cruz can still catch up to heat
Cruz hit his 11th home run of the year on Monday night, and nine of them have come against fastballs. The most impressive, perhaps, was the one he hit over the weekend against Royals flamethrower Trevor Rosenthal on a pitch out over the plate that Statcast measured at 99.7 mph.
In all, Cruz has homered on five pitches 93 mph or higher.
Cruz has seen 257 fastballs this season out of a total of 448 pitches (57.4 percent). Against those pitches, he’s hitting .365 with a wOBA of .520.
Why does anyone throw him fastballs?
The Twins have been astonishingly good with runners in scoring position
Even a team with good pitching needs some fortune at the plate. And while the Twins offense has been uninspiring through 30 games, they’ve come through when the situation arises.
With runners in scoring position, the Twins have hit a stellar .297/.414/.503 — a .917 OPS which ranks third among MLB clubs.
The on-base percentage is especially apt. While teams focus on driving runners in, keeping the conga line going around the bases is just as important to sustaining the innings that result in crooked numbers. While the Twins likely can’t keep up their MLB-best .414 on-base percentage in these situations, they’re still likely looking at positive regression in terms of returning players like Josh Donaldson and Mitch Garver on offense as well as continued awakening from Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco and Luis Arraez.
Again, there’s ample reason to be enthused about the direction the Twins are heading here.
Say what you will about errors, but the Twins are catching the ball
It’s a pretty good indication of where the Twins are as a team defensively when Polanco made an error on Monday and it was a surprise — his first of the season. Not only does the eye test suggest Polanco is improving, but so too do statistical measures.
After posting a minus-13.1 mark in runs above average defensively via Fangraphs through the first six seasons of his career, Polanco has turned the corner at plus-1.8 runs this season. In terms of defensive runs saved, Polanco was at minus-31 for his career after posting minus-7 last season. He’s dead even at zero this season.
As a team, the Twins have made just eight errors through 30 games — the fewest in all of MLB. Only once in Twins history — 2010 with six — has the team had fewer errors to this point in the season.
Perhaps most impressively is that this has been without the full participation of two defensive anchors in Byron Buxton in center and Donaldson at third.
Early standouts via Fangraphs’ defensive measure are Buxton (plus-3.7 runs), Polanco, Jake Cave (plus-1.1), Garver (plus-1.1) and Arraez (plus-0.9). For all except Buxton and perhaps Garver, those are marked improvements. Might part of it be positioning? Sure, but these guys have also put in the work to improve greatly on their defense.
They’ve only bunted twice
Only two teams have attempted fewer steals
In today’s game, steals seem to signify one of two things — a really exciting team or a really bad team.
The Seattle Mariners lead baseball with 36 steal attempts. They’re pretty bad. The Rangers are second in the AL with 31 and the Royals are third with 30. They’re all pretty iffy, too. Leading the way for the NL are the San Diego Padres — maybe the most exciting team in either league.
Meanwhile, the Twins have attempted just 11 — two more than the Tigers and three more than the Cardinals, who have barely played.
A non-insignificant portion of this has been the availability of Buxton — in more ways than one. Buxton has attempted just two steals, and sure it doesn’t help that he’s missed nine of the team’s 30 games due to injury or a routine day off. But how about the fact that he’s sporting a .225 on-base percentage, besides?
No Twins player has attempted more than three steals. Max Kepler has been successful on all three. Rosario picked up a steal on Monday night to have two successful in three attempts. Polanco is just 1-for-3.
The long and short of it is — this isn’t going to be a running team. Not even when the well is fairly dry offensively. Some managers like to “shake things up” with the running game, but Rocco Baldelli isn’t one of them.
Activity for the sake of activity in the game is counterproductive. It’s like trying to look busy at work when you really aren’t. Baldelli is aware of that, and has no interest in making his guys run the bases to spark something that, to this point, just hasn’t been there.
But it will be. The Twins are too talented for it not to happen. They just have to get guys healthy.