We know that it’s not even Memorial Day, and we surely know that you can’t predict baseball, but it’s still a surprise to see some of the standings in Major League Baseball quite different than we had imagined six or seven weeks ago. The Cubs are just over .500, the Blue Jays and Giants are closer than anyone would have expected to mailing-in their seasons, and the Minnesota Twins are in first place in the AL Central. Just another year in the life of baseball.
Earlier this month, Jeff Sullivan briefly discussed the Twins much-improved defense, and that largely has continued. The Twins are third in the Majors in UZR and second in FanGraph’s DEF metric. Defensive metrics, especially in small samples, don’t necessarily correlate with team success, as evidenced by the fact that the Reds and Royals are one and two in UZR and the Reds are number one in DEF.
Minnesota is only three games above .500, but it is still surprising that a team that lost nearly 100 games a year ago is sitting on top a division that Cleveland was expected to control from pole-to-pole. First and foremost, from the team level, the Twins have been pretty lucky. They have a negative run differential of -7, and have outperformed their pythagorean win-loss record by two games. They are 4-3 in one-run games, and have been blown out by five or more runs in six of their 16 losses.
The Twins have not helped themselves in intra-divisional play. They haven’t played well against the Indians (2-4) or the Tigers (2-4), and have only found moderate success against the White Sox (5-3). The Twins have however managed to destroy the Royals so far, winning all five games and outscoring them 34-14.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Twins had six position players from 2016 returning (Joe Mauer/Brian Dozier/Miguel Sano/Byron Buxton/Max Kepler/Robbie Grossman), only one of whom has been productive. While Eddie Rosario has a respective batting average (.273) his OBP is a pathetic .294. Despite Robbie Grossman’s .400 OBP, he has no power and has been a lousy defender. Outside of Sano, no other position player has more than five home runs, and only Sano has an fWAR above 0.6.
Sano has been far-and-away the best hitter on the team, having already amassed 2.3 fWAR. In the AL, his 185 wRC+ is third-best, only behind Mike Trout and Aaron Judge, and he trails only Trout in fWAR. His walk rate is nearly double what it was last season, and he has hit 97 percent of batted balls at hard or medium contact. Sano leads the league in average exit velocity at 99.9 MPH, a significant increase from his 93.6 MPH last season. He also increased his average launch angle from 15 degrees to nearly 23 degrees. All this sounds good, until you look at Sano’s batting average on balls in play, a whopping .411. While he projects to always have a BABIP on the higher-end (think .330-340), a dip from to even .350 would lower his batting average to below .230.
On the offensive side, the Twins have one good player who is hitting the ball extremely hard, but is benefiting from a BABIP that is likely to come down by a least 60 points or more. Not good.
If we look at the pitching, the story is similar. Minnesota is 27th in the league in pitcher fWAR, with only one player having posted an fWAR higher than 0.3. Over their 35 games, the Twins have mostly relied on three starters, two of whom have been mediocre. Hector Santiago has more or less kept the Twins in games, having given up three or fewer runs in all but one start, but he rarely makes it out of the sixth inning. With a bullpen that is third-worst in the majors in strikeout rate, it’s hardly a given the team can get out of a mid-inning jam or keep a lead.
Phil Hughes more often than not gives up four or more runs (he’s done this in five of his eight starts), and the back of the rotation (consisting of Kyle Gibson and “other”) has unsurprisingly been inconsistent. The only bright spot in the rotation is Ervin Santana, who has a sparkling ERA of 1.50 through nine starts. He is the anti-Sano, in that his BABIP currently sits at a minuscule .128. If we expect Santana’s success to continue, we might want to think again. He is posting the lowest strikeout rate of the last five years, the highest walk rate of his 12-year career, and a completely unsustainable strand rate of 98.4 percent. When a player pitches to contact, and that contact generates outs 88 percent of the time, it’s a good combination. Unfortunately, it’s entirely a mirage.
The Twins have benefitted from some good luck, some good sequencing, and two players who look like they’re playing far better than they actually are. It won’t be long before the Indians overtake them for the divisional lead. But there’s nothing wrong with some optimism generated by early season luck. It’s almost Memorial Day, and if the Twins can stay lucky for another few weeks, who knows, they might position themselves to even make July 4th interesting in the Twin Cities.