On Sunday, the Minnesota Twins appeared to let the season slip away entirely. Instead of salvaging a game against the Cleveland Guardians, the Twins went down 4-1 in a devastating sweep. They started the series 1.5 games behind Cleveland. Now they’re 4.5 games back and are below .500 for the first time since April 23.
The season has been incredibly frustrating for Twins fans. Why? Because this wasn’t supposed to happen. Yes, pre-season projections weren’t high on the Twins, forecasting them as about a .500 team. They’ve borne out correctly – this is basically a .500 team. But on May 24, Minnesota was 11 games above .500 with a 5.5-game lead in the AL Central.
The Twins have banked those wins, and they had two MVP-caliber players in Byron Buxton and newcomer Carlos Correa. From that day on, Jose Miranda emerged as a big-time hitter, slashing .310/.364/.863 with 30 extra-base hits. Rookie fireballer Jhoan Duran is untouchable. They bolstered the team at the deadline with Tyler Mahle, Jorge López, and Michael Fulmer.
This isn’t a team that should collapse.
But they’ve done exactly that. Why? There are plenty of places to point to. Correa’s lack of clutch hitting (game-winning homer at Yankee Stadium aside) is one of them. So is the pitching, which seems to burn Minnesota whether they pull their starters early or let their starters go deeper into games.
The simplest answer, however, can be gleaned from looking at their starting lineups when they were 10 games above .500 on May 23 and yesterday’s lineup.
All we can say is: ouch. Having Luis Arraez and Correa hanging out at the top of your lineup is a good thing. Nick Gordon‘s having an excellent season, too, and Gio Urshela and Max Kepler are around league-average. And hey, the super-hot Miranda is in the latter lineup!
The absences are devastating, though. Buxton has been out since Aug. 22. Even in a diminished state, he’s accumulated four Wins Above Replacement in 92 games. Five days later, they lost Jorge Polanco, a top-5 hitting second baseman. We haven’t seen Ryan Jeffers for months, and the drop-off between him and Sandy Leon at the plate is steep.
Even losing Trevor Larnach (104 OPS+), whom Miranda would’ve bumped from the lineup, hurts big-time. Losing him means there’s no one to spell a corner outfielder/first baseman/DH other than Gilberto Celestino (82 OPS+). Then there are guys who don’t appear in either lineup, Royce Lewis and Alex Kirilloff, who are also on the shelf now. We’re not quite in the territory where anyone misses Miguel Sano, but it’s as close as we’ll get to that.
And that’s just the hitters! Look on the pitching side now. A best-case scenario for Kenta Maeda might have been a return in June. Even an Aug. 1 return could have given Maeda about 10-12 starts down the stretch. That’s essentially a trade deadline pickup. Speaking of trade deadline pickups, hope you enjoyed those four starts by Mahle. He was only healthy for two of them.
Minnesota’s Chris Paddack gamble also ended after five starts when the pitcher underwent Tommy John surgery. Bailey Ober emerged as a surprisingly solid back-of-the-rotation starter last year. He’s made three starts since April 28 and is just finishing his rehab now. Josh Winder, the Twins’ No. 4 prospect entering the season, returned yesterday after making just three appearances since May 27.
If you’re thinking you could make an entire team out of hurt Twins, you’ve already been beaten to the punch.
But how much have injuries cost the Twins this year? Is it enough to make up a 4.5-game gap in the AL Central or to be comfortably in a playoff spot? Or are the wins left on the table small enough that it doesn’t quite matter?
Let’s start by taking a look at Buxton. As labored as Buxton was with his injuries, he was having a fantastic season. It’s not hard to draw a clear line from his absence to the Twins’ position. They’re 7-12 without him in the lineup, falling 2.5 games behind Cleveland in that stretch.
Say he was able to continue his play as normal after Aug. 22 –- still hampered by injury, but not going on the shelf. We’re talking about 0.83 WAR in that stretch alone. Maybe that translates to one more win over the Yankees or Guardians, but 3.5 GB is a lot different than 4.5 when you’re in mid-September.
And this is just the injury-wracked version of Buxton. If you’re talking about a more-or-less healthy Buxton for even 110 of Minnesota’s 139 games? Extrapolate Buxton’s 2021 to 110 games, and we’re up to 7.4 WAR instead of the 4.0 Minnesota’s got from him this year. We won’t count this – statistically, you can’t rely on a 7-8 WAR season from Buxton – but damn, that’d close the gap to one game by itself.
Let’s add some more games up for hitters. We’ll use ZIPS’ Rest-Of-Season Projections and pro-rate those stats to the games they’ve missed. Missing Polanco for 14 games is significant, as it cost them about .33 WAR. That might not seem like much, but these are the most crucial games of the season. And as we’re about to see, these add up.
Jeffers played about two-thirds of games before getting hurt after July 14. Let’s say that continued, and he played 32 of the past 48 games. That’s another .46 WAR left on the table. Add another 0.3 WAR because Sandy Leon wouldn’t have been in the lineup to cost them that.
We’re getting into murkier territory, but would Royce Lewis have been a near-every day player? It seems like the Twins were trying to find him spots to play. If he’d never been hurt and played 80 of the Twins’ final 114 games, ZIPS projects that to be worth about 0.8 WAR. That’s conservative, though. If he was even half as valuable per-game as he was in his 12-game stint with the Twins, we’re talking more like 1.7 WAR. Any sort of health from Kirilloff probably stops his nagging wrist injury from costing the Twins 0.6 WAR. Add that all up, and we’re talking about Minnesota losing about 3.32 WAR from injuries to their lineup alone.
Now we go to the pitching.
There was no scenario where the Twins were getting 150-plus innings out of Maeda this year. But what if they got even 50? Cut his WAR in half from last year, when he threw 106.1 innings, and you get 0.8 WAR from a stretch-run Maeda starting games for Minnesota. Assuming the Twins could also have gotten 10 healthy starts from Mahle, we’re talking another 0.9 WAR, based on his last two seasons.
Ober has been worth 1.8 WAR in 27 career starts, and Winder has been about replacement level through 45.1 innings. Would they move the needle if they were the fourth and fifth-starters over Dylan Bundy and Chris Archer? Eh. Let’s maybe say half a win better.
Add up the hitting and pitching injuries, and that’s 5.5 WAR out of the lineup due to injuries. That “should” put Minnesota a game up on Cleveland, who’s on pace for an 86-win season. Now, is an 87-win team anything special? No, and you can look at this team and rightfully conclude that they aren’t that great and go from there in your analysis.
But you can definitely see room for optimism here. The potential for Minnesota to return next season with Maeda and Mahle ready to give Minnesota 30 healthy starts is intriguing alone. Even if the Twins can’t find a way to retain Correa past this season, they’ll come out ahead with their two front-line starters healthy – especially if Lewis can make a full recovery.
Is it enough to take the bitter stinging of squandering a postseason spot away? Absolutely not. As an organization, the Twins will be on the hot seat, and injuries shouldn’t excuse them from soul-searching. But there’s no question that these pieces, in some sort of combination, should have some success. We saw it in the first half. That might make it feel worse, but at least that means there’s a way out of this frustrating mediocrity.