Twins

Pitching Has Led The Way During Minnesota's Best Stretch

Photo Credit: Thomas Shea (USA TODAY Sports)

Wait, hold on a second. Are the Minnesota Twins playing like one of the best teams in baseball over the last two weeks? A huge “yes,” actually!

They have been clicking in all facets lately and have generated a heap of optimism during a season that has previously shown little in that department. Before their hot stretch in early August, they were sitting in last place in the AL Central. Ten games later, the Twins put up a 7-3 record by winning their last three series.

The most impressive part of that run is the teams they have played. The Houston Astros, Chicago White Sox, and Tampa Bay Rays were first in their respective divisions entering each series.

The Twins slashed .229/.317/.392 with a .281 BABIP during the 10-game span, scoring 44 runs and belting 12 home runs. But it hasn’t been the offense that’s carried the team over the last two weeks. From the start of the season until Aug. 5, the offense took a small step back by hitting at a .245/.318/.431 clip with a .284 BABIP.

The offense continued to produce most of the season, but consistency from the pitching staff has driven winning over the last two weeks. Up until that point in the season, Minnesota’s pitching had been among the worst in all of baseball. Every metric told us this pitching staff was struggling: a .256 opponent batting average, a .297 opponent BABIP, 1.34 WHIP, 4.62 FIP, and 5.00 ERA.

The under/over five runs given up per game statistic is important so far this season. The Twins hold a 50-21 record when they hold their opponent to under five runs and a 3-45 record when they gave up more than five runs.

Since that turning point two weeks ago, the pitching staff has seen sizable improvements. The pitching core has been able to bring their numbers down to just a .234 opponent batting average and .256 BABIP while also adding a 1.19 WHIP, 4.19 FIP, and brought the runs all the way down to a 3.86 ERA. There have been a couple of 10-plus run outings during that span, but Minnesota’s arms have been lights-out outside of that.

The Twins haven’t leaned exclusively on their pitching, though. They have won games by out-slugging their opponent, like their 7-5 win over the Houston Astros on Aug. 8, where they hit three home runs. Then, three days later, they beat the White Sox 1-0 thanks to a great pitching performance from Bailey Ober, the bullpen, and a solo home run in the sixth by Jorge Polanco.

The main takeaway is that this team has been finding ways to win now, where they seemed to always find a way to lose earlier in the season. Errors in high-leverage situations, a bullpen meltdown, an extra-innings loss (thanks Rob Manfred), or any combination of the three cost them games earlier in the season.

The last 10 games were a mix of optimism for the future and frustration for how much of a dud this season became for the Twins. Every team in baseball will see a hot stretch at some point during the year. The last two weeks are so frustrating because the Twins show flashes of being the team the fanbase and the front office expected them to be all season long. Minnesota should be in a playoff race, not trying to avoid last place, and that’s largely been because of the lack of pitching this season.

It’s not all on the pitching staff, though. There still have been cases of defensive and baserunning woes popping up, even in the last 10 games. Their flaws from earlier in the season still manifest now and then, adding frustration because of where their bar was set when the season began — even though they seemed to have turned a corner with some young arms.

What’s made this run more fun to watch on the pitching side is that they are doing this without their top arm after José Berríos was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays last month. During the first half of the season, veteran pitchers on one-year contracts made unproductive starts on the mound. Matt Shoemaker posted an 8.06 ERA and 1.66 WHIP in 60 innings, and J.A. Happ, who wasn’t far behind him with a 6.77 ERA and 1.58 WHIP in 98 innings before being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Now, rookie arms like Ober and Griffin Jax are getting major league innings and making the most out of them. Both players continue to grow with their first taste of big-league action. While they may not be pitching past the 6th inning yet, they are improving with every start. After posting an 8.66 ERA in his first five appearances, Jax has settled down to throw a .137 BABIP and a 2.66 ERA over his last four starts, all against playoff teams. The same goes for Ober. He has recorded a 9.61 K/9 rate, 3.64 FIP, and a 2.75 ERA over his last four outings.

The Twins have climbed out of the AL Central cellar, overtaking the Kansas City Royals in the division standings. There’s even some small hope that the Twins can jump the Detroit Tigers or Cleveland Indians if they continue to avoid some of the pitching issues that tanked their season earlier this year.

This 10-game stretch is a snapshot of what the Twins season could have been. Instead, the sights are now locked onto 2022 with a different core in mind. But for the team to have a full season similar to the last two weeks, they need to look at the first four months and figure out the best ways to avoid what took place before. That answer seems to be whether or not they can fill out their pitching staff with internal options before next season.

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