Even though this year’s Minnesota Twins club is entirely different from the 2011 roster, the echoes of frustration still ring true 10 years later. Both teams had high expectations heading into their respective seasons, and both squads stumbled mightily in their first 20 games. Of course, this year’s club is hoping that the similarities end there.
Sure, plenty of teams that would go on to win the World Series got off to bad starts. That includes the 1991 Twins that started 2-9 and then went on to win the franchise’s most recent championship pennant. However, it’s more common that teams start slow and never gain traction.
Even with the reminder that there is plenty of time to turn things around, it’s hard to ignore the sneaking suspicion that the team is approaching the end of the runway — much like their 2011 counterparts. Eventually, they’ll need to either take flight like the ‘91 club or crash and burn as they did 10 years ago.
Key Similarities to the 2011 Twins
Bullpen disappointments have been a common theme between the two clubs. To measure this, I looked into the alarming Win Probability Added numbers from the team’s high-leverage relievers. In 2011, the Twins relied on Matt Capps (-1.00 WPA, 4.25 ERA), Jim Hoey (-1.08 WPA, 5.47 ERA), and Alex Burnett (-1.16 WPA, 5.51 ERA) to do a lot of heavy lifting.
This year, Alexander Colomé has already accumulated minus-2.20 WPA since joining the Twins, which is the worst total for a reliever through their first nine games in MLB history.
While other late-inning relievers like Tyler Duffey have been mostly solid, they have come up short in a few crucial situations early on this year. For example, Duffey boasts a 3.86 ERA, but he gave up a crucial game-tying home run in the eighth inning on Monday night against the Cleveland Indians. While one earned run shouldn’t feel like an embarrassing meltdown in the grand scheme of things, it was the last thing that Twins fans wanted to see after a disappointing series loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
For a team that has struggled to score runs lately, any lead is viewed as sacred. That leads to offensive similarities between this year’s Twins team and the 2011 version.
Instead of looking at a position-to-position comparison between the 2011 club and today’s, it makes more sense to look at main contributors from the years prior. The Twins won the AL Central in 2009 and 2010 thanks largely to offensive contributions from franchise icons Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, as well as key contributors like Jim Thome, Delmon Young and Michael Cuddyer.
In 2011, Morneau and Mauer both missed significant time due to health concerns. Morneau missed 93 games while dealing with concussion symptoms, and Mauer missed 82 games while dealing with back problems and an infamous bilateral leg weakness diagnosis. Those two were supposed to be the offensive engine of this team, and their absence took its toll on the rest of the lineup.
While they were out, the team had to rely on light-hitting replacements like Drew Butera (.167 batting average, 24 OPS+) and Luke Hughes (.223 batting average, 73 OPS+). Cuddyer also filled in at first base, and quite admirably (.284 batting average, 120 OPS+), but this meant having to give more playing time to sub-replacement level outfielders.
This scenario should sound very familiar to Twins fans. With extended absences from Andrelton Simmons, Max Kepler, Miguel Sanó and Josh Donaldson this year’s team has had to rely on near-everyday playing time for Jake Cave (seventh-highest strikeout rate in MLB) and the lovable yet light-hitting Willians Astudillo (.277 OBP, only three extra-base hits in 17 games played).
The circumstances for these replacements getting extended playing time are quite different from the conditions in 2011, but the fact remains the same. The kitchen has had to 86 the steak entree, and they’re trying to get the customers to fill up on bread until the next delivery comes in.
Strong strikeout emphasis
One encouraging difference between the two clubs is an organization-wide emphasis on finding pitchers that can strike batters out. In 2011, Glen Perkins was the only pitcher on the big league roster that averaged at least one strikeout per inning (9.2 K/9). The Twins have nine pitchers accomplishing that feat this year, with Michael Pineda and Kenta Maeda just barely trailing behind (8.87 and 8.86 K/9, respectively).
Healthy strikeout totals aren’t necessarily the definitive pathway to successful pitching (Colomé has a 9.00 K/9). But generally speaking, having fewer balls in play will drastically decrease the hit totals for the other team.
This year’s Twins are also getting good strikeout rates from depth pitchers like Cody Stashak (20.65), Caleb Thielbar (19.13) and Jorge Alcala (10.57). In 2011, they got almost zero help from depth pitchers, especially when it came to overpowering opposing hitters.
Pair of aces
José Berríos and Pineda have also displayed strong underlying numbers that put them in the category of frontline starters in the American League.
Berríos has shown the ability to make easy work of the opponents that he should be dominating. Hitters in the bottom third of the batting order are hitting a pitiful .069 against him this year. His 3.04 ERA ranks 16th in the American League and his 2.23 fielding independent pitching (fifth-lowest in the AL) suggests his performance has been even better.
Pineda has shown his own form of dominance. He’s allowed hitters in the heart of the order to get on base at just a .156 clip. That ability to take arguably the biggest bats out of the opposing lineup has led to a stellar 2.42 ERA on the year.
In 2011, the Twins’ de facto ace was veteran Carl Pavano, who boasted an unremarkable 4.30 ERA with just 102 strikeouts in 222 innings pitched. That isn’t a trainwreck by any means, but it is underwhelming for someone who is relied on to take control of a game or end a losing streak. After Pavano, the next hurler in line was Brian Duensing, who had a 5.23 ERA in 162 innings. By all accounts, the current frontline starters for the Twins are worlds better than the 1-2 punch 10 years ago.
As the season nears its second month, Twins fans are frustrated with the results they’ve seen thus far. Like in 2011, there were huge expectations heading into the year, and a rocky start has made life difficult, to say the least.
Plenty of teams have found themselves in a similar hole and would go on to have success. Just two seasons ago, the Washington Nationals were crowned world champions after starting that campaign with a 12-17 record. But fans don’t want to hear that right now. They’re just trying to drown out the echoes from 2011.