Twins

Early-Season Revelations for the Minnesota Twins

Photo credit: Matt Marton (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Twins are 8-2. That’s certainly a terrific start, but how surprising is it, really?

Anything can happen in 10 games. It just so happens that the Twins have been absolutely terrific in those 10 games.

Credit should go to people in all levels of the organization, from the front office all the way down to the bullpen catchers. Getting this thing off the ground with minimal trouble some three-plus months after initially scheduled has been nothing short of astounding.

Some of the usual suspects are contributing to the effort. Nelson Cruz, fresh off crushing a walk-off double in Monday night’s game, leads the charge with an OPS in excess of 1.000, six extra-base hits and 14 runs driven in. Max Kepler has looked good at the plate — walks aside — and in the field. Taylor Rogers has been elite at the back end of the bullpen.

But a team can’t do this without some revelations, either. That is, players performing better than expected — even if expectations were relatively high to begin with.

What are some of those revelations? Let’s look:

Kenta Maeda

It’s difficult to avoid getting really charged up about the addition of Maeda — even though people might still be seeing late-night, West Coast highlights of Brusdar Graterol touching triple digits with his sinker.

But Maeda has been really, really good.

He’s showing the best fastball velocity of his career — 92.9 mph on his four-seam fastball, 92.3 on his sinker — and through 11 frames is inducing grounders at a rate of over 50 percent, well above his career mark of 41.2 percent. As a general reminder, around 45 percent is considered average.

Maeda’s pitch mix has evolved as well, at least through two starts — which admittedly is early. He’s cut his four-seam fastball usage (25.1 percent) drastically in favor of sliders (37.1 percent) and changeups (30.5 percent), which each of those corresponding to career-high/low marks as appropriate.

The results haven’t led to a higher swinging-strike rate this year from last year — at least not yet — but that seems like a reasonable eventual yield if he continues to favor the slider (18.5 percent swinging-strike rate this season) and changeup (17.0 percent) in favor of the four-seam fastball (7.1 percent).

It wasn’t hard to see in the first place, but it’s certainly possible the Twins have unearthed a gem here. Maeda was already terrific with the Dodgers, but it feels possible he can take his game to another level altogether with a full-time, stable starting spot with the Twins.

It’s also worth noting that he’s been astonishingly hard on right-handed hitters over his career, holding them to a .199/.250/.341 collective line, while lefties have hit him around a bit (.254/.327/.430). So far this year, lefties are just 2-for-21 against Maeda. It’s too early to tell for sure, but it would seem that using more changeups and sliders could suggest the potential for improvement against left-handed hitters. Through two starts, he’s thrown the slider 25 percent of the time against lefties (career-high) and the change 34.6 percent of the time.

He’s thrown the slider 44.4 percent of the time against righties (not atypical) and the changeup 17.5 percent (career-high).

To beat a dead horse: It’s unclear to this point if any of these changes are specifically added to combat left-handed hitters, but the early results are positive.

The team’s depth in general

We’ve always said it’s a marathon, not a sprint, but in 2020 that’s been turned on its head. And in a year where players are either opting out or ramping up at an unusually-high pace, it’s not surprising that injuries have been commonplace around the league — in some cases, quite serious ones.

There was no mystery around the fact the Twins came into 2020 with plenty of depth, but it’s already been tested with injuries to Byron Buxton and Josh Donaldson, most notably. Jake Cave has filled in capably in the outfield — this is not a recording — and Marwin Gonzalez has been nothing short of terrific in place of Donaldson. That’s not only on offense, but defensively as well.

On the pitching side of things, Jose Berrios hasn’t gotten going yet, Homer Bailey and Rich Hill are on the injured list after just one start each and Jake Odorizzi hasn’t yet made his season debut.

And yet the Twins are still trucking along thanks to not only Maeda, but terrific work from Randy Dobnak (one earned run in two starts spanning nine innings) and even Tyler Clippard in the role of the opener.

The Twins will continue to be pushed and tested depth-wise; everyone will. But so far, they appear ready to stand that test as well as anyone — with plenty of help looming on the horizon.

The bullpen

On a Saturday in the Park in Chicago — not the Fourth of July, however — Zack Littell and Devin Smeltzer were roughed up for nine earned runs in just three innings in a 10-3 loss. Over the next seven games, the entire team gave up just nine runs as the Twins rattled off a 5-1 stretch heading into the Pirates series which opened Monday night.

From the following Sunday on — a 14-2 win to steal the series from the White Sox — the Twins bullpen has been absolutely electric. Only the Cardinals (0.68 ERA) have posted a lower ERA than the Twins (0.77), and the rest of the numbers are just out of this world:

  • 0.86 WHIP
  • .154/.238/.205 slash line against
  • 39-12 K/BB ratio in 35.0 IP
  • Four extra-base hits allowed

It wasn’t going to be a surprise if the Twins put together one of the best bullpens in the AL this season — but they’ve taken it to a whole new level.

Matt Wisler

Wisler joined the Twins as an intriguing waiver pickup in the offseason, and he’s been sneakily good for them so far this season. Wisler’s a former top prospect who was expected to do big things with Atlanta, and even last year, when he struggled with the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners, managed to strike out 63 batters in 51.1 innings.

So far this year, Wisler has fanned nine batters in 5.2 innings — albeit with four walks — and in the process has held opposing batters to a .105/.261/.105 line. And in early, early action, batters are missing on 40.4 percent of their swings against Wisler this season — easily a career-high mark.

The slider is a big reason for Wisler’s swing-and-miss propensity — 44.7 percent rate — but he also throws a four-seam fastball with good, late life that he can run up to the mid-90s when he needs to.

The nice thing about Wisler — and Cody Stashak to this point, too — is that they aren’t so vital to the Twins that they’ll need to throw big, high-pressure innings every time out.

But Wisler threw two pristine innings in Monday’s win and combined with Rogers and Jorge Alcala to toss five innings of one-run ball — zero earned — in relief of starter Lewis Thorpe. Wisler entered when the game was tied, kept it that way for two innings and gave way to Rogers, who grabbed the win when Cruz doubled home Jorge Polanco in the ninth.

No Trevor May.

No Tyler Duffey.

No Sergio Romo.

No Littell.

No Clippard.

No problem.

The depth of this bullpen, on the other hand, is going to be a Problem for the rest of the league — with a capital P.

Tyler Duffey

More than 100 relievers have thrown at least 20 innings in the last calendar year (Aug. 4, 2019-Aug. 4, 2020).

How many of them do you think have a lower ERA than Duffey?

One.

That’s right, one. It’s Yankees lefty Zack Britton (0.44). Since that day, Duffey has an ERA of 0.71, a WHIP of 0.67 and a slash-line against of just .159/.194/.227. He’s fanned 44 batters in that span — and walked just three. In those 25.1 innings, he’s allowed just 14 hits — and just one home run.

A total of 44.7 percent of the swings against him have come up empty in that span — the best mark in baseball.

Everyone knew Duffey was going to be good — but this good? Nah.

Team defense

It was pretty widely accepted that the Twins’ team defense was abysmal in 2019 (minus-15.9 runs above average last year via Fangraphs) but would likely improve in 2020. So far this season, the Twins grade out at plus-3.0 runs by the same measure — fifth-best across MLB heading into Monday night’s action.

The expectations were that a healthy Buxton and the addition of Donaldson would help the defense immensely, and that’s been mostly true. But at the same time, those two have combined to play fewer than 100 defensive innings combined.

Arguably the biggest jump so far has been Polanco at short. He’s managed 11 out-of-zone plays in 78 innings via Fangraphs — second to only Oakland’s Marcus Semien entering Monday night’s game. At that pace over the 1,233 defensive innings he played last season, that would come out to 174 out-of-zone plays — which would have not only been easily enough to lead the major leagues, but well ahead of the 118 that he put up in the first place.

Another potentially meaningful jump is Luis Arraez at second base. Arraez was nearly five runs below average last season defensively, but early returns have him being worth nearly a run in the other direction thus far.

Again, it’s all too early to say it will continue, but the early returns on this defense are encouraging. There’s also potential for more players to make progress as the season goes on, like Eddie Rosario:

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