Twins

How Do the Twins Become the Team They Ought To Be?

Photo Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Pythagorean winning percentage estimates a team’s winnings percentage based on their runs scored and runs allowed. The influential statistician and baseball writer Bill James created the stat to determine if teams have been lucky or unlucky at any point in their season. A team with a good record but a bad Pythagorean record has gotten lucky, and vice versa. After taking the season series from the Houston Astros, the Twins are 29-27. However, they’ve scored 256 runs, allowed 210, and have a 33-23 Pythagorean record.

They should be better than they are.

Earlier this year, Minnesota took the season series from the New York Yankees for the first time since 2001 – Tom Kelly’s final season. The Twins also won a game in Dodger Stadium for the first time since 2005. And now they’ve taken the season series from the defending champs. They’ve finally fixed their pitching staff and play in a winnable division. However, their poor hitting with runners in scoring position and shaky bullpen have kept them from running away with the AL Central.

Target Field would be packed every night if the Twins were 33-23 coming off series wins over two of the best American League teams. In 2019, we saw how the Bomba Squad revitalized interest in the team. People got out their old gear and flocked to the stadium to watch Minnesota’s potent lineup. Suddenly fans in Justin Morneau and Torii Hunter jerseys were locked in on Nelson Cruz’s at-bats and wowed by Byron Buxton’s fielding. They shelled out for Garv Sauce and Super Rosario t-shirts. The Twins benefitted from the juiced ball, and the Yankees swept them in the playoffs, but it felt like the start of something.

MLB only played 60 games during the pandemic. But the Twins won 36 games and retook the AL Central, only to lose to the Houston Astros in the playoffs. They entered the 2021 season with World Series aspirations and lost 89 games. They led the AL Central for most of last year, only to succumb to numerous injuries late in the season. However, Minnesota can tap into that optimism again this year. They’ve spent money, shelling out $200 million to Carlos Correa and $100 million to Buxton. The starting staff is among the best in the majors. Sonny Gray, Joe Ryan, and Pablo López have formed a formidable trio in the rotation; Bailey Ober started the year in St. Paul.

But there are fundamental flaws with this roster. They strike out too much. The lineup is having trouble producing with runners in scoring position. Jhoan Durán is lights out in the bullpen. But Jorge López is in a rut, and Griffin Jax hasn’t built off last year’s success. Correa is hitting .211/.303/.378; Buxton’s slash line is .221/.324/.448. Max Kepler was sensational in 2019, hitting 36 home runs, only behind Cruz for the team lead. But Kepler has slashed .218/.310/.393 since, and he’s hitting below the Mendoza line this year. The Twins signed Christian Vázquez, 32, to a three-year, $30 million deal in the offseason, and he has a 59 OPS+.

Every good team has flaws, and players go through ups and downs throughout the season. Perhaps López regains his early-season form. Maybe Vázquez straightens things out at the plate. Certainly, Correa should return to form. The bigger concern is that the Twins have elements of a great team, play in a weak division, and continue to leave wins on the table. A Pythagorean win-loss record isn’t everything. But it feels like Minnesota ought to be better, given their circumstances. Conversely, a team with a poor win-loss record and a good Pythagorean record is in a better situation than one that’s overachieving and likely to regress to the mean. The Twins have latent potential. The question is whether they’ll ever tap into it.

The Twins are getting production from their young players, which should bode well for their immediate and long-term future. Royce Lewis hit a three-run bomb and had a game-tying hit in Game 1 against Houston. He appears to have picked up where he left off. And Alex Kirilloff has quietly played a vital role in Minnesota’s lineup. He’s a lefty contact hitter slashing .314/.448/.486 since recovering from a lingering wrist injury. Louie Varland and Ober are late picks holding their own in the rotation. Matt Wallner is hitting .368/.520/.579 in 11 major-league games, including an eye-opening recent stint.

However, a team is only as good as their record says they are. Some peripheral metrics indicate the Twins ought to be better, but that doesn’t matter if they can’t fix their bullpen and RISP issues. Minnesota has the power to engage fans across the Upper Midwest if they play to their potential. But until they do that, they will languish in relative obscurity. And that’s unfortunate for a team that has taken season series from the last two teams that eliminated them from the playoffs.

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