The Minnesota Twins clinched the second AL Wild Card slot, much to the surprise of many analysts and their preseason predictions (ourselves included) before the season began. The team had the worst record in baseball last year with 103 losses, which makes them the first team ever to reach the playoffs one year after losing over 100 games. Of course, such an achievement became a lot easier when the second Wild Card slot was put into place.
FanGraphs gave the Twins about a five percent chance of making the playoffs at the beginning of the season. That number grew to only thirteen percent at the All-Star break. In fact, their playoff odds did not crack 50 percent until just a couple weeks ago, on September 12th.
The Twins’ terrible 2016 was certainly a factor in their low odds even as they maintained their competitiveness throughout 2017. You can’t just ignore what happened the year before, and this team shared a lot of players with that team. Furthermore, the last AL Wild Card slot was extremely competitive. At the beginning of this month, the Twins were one of seven teams within 3.5 games of that final playoff spot. When a team is competing with so many other teams for one slot, that will also severely impact their playoff odds, as just one opponent getting hot could spell their doom.
While it would have been very difficult to make a credible argument predicting the Twins’ playoff berth, the same cannot be said about predicting a vastly improved team going into this season. Everything went wrong for the Twins to win only 59 games last year. By FanGraphs BaseRuns metric, they were a 71-91 team in 2016! They just had terrible luck with timing their hits.
Not very clutch
|2 outs, RISP
|Late & Close
The stat tOPS+ compares the numbers of a split to the team’s overall offensive performance. As you can see, the Twins’ offense had some terrible luck with RISP and in high leverage situations. In other words, they should have scored a lot more runs than they did.
There are other factors as to why the Twins had a record that was 12 wins worse than their BaseRuns record, but we will not go further into it here. Suffice it to say that there was plenty of reason to predict positive regression in 2017. In fact, FanGraphs projected them as a 75-win team to begin the year!
At the All-Star break, the Twins were a respectable 45-43 and had a win percentage of .511. That win percentage surged to .543 in the second half, thanks to an improved performance from both the offense and the pitching.
As a team, the Twins had a .342 wOBA in the second half, which is a big 25-point improvement over their first half performance. This was despite the fact that Miguel Sanó has not played since August 19th. In the first half of the season, he was the only Twins’ player with a wRC+ over 110. In the second half of the season, five players had a wRC+ over 120: Brian Dozier, Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, Eddie Rosario, and Joe Mauer.
Byron Buxton deserves special recognition for appearing to turn into the player that scouts believed he could be. He started the season very poorly, hitting .216/.288/.306 with a 30.7 K% in the first half. Thankfully, excellent baserunning and 80-grade defense in center field buys a ton of leeway at the plate. (Just ask Billy Hamilton.) Buxton then exploded in the second half, hitting .305/.353/.560, which is good for a 135 wRC+. There are certainly sustainability questions with that line, especially for a player who was never expected to hit for much power. His walk rate remained below average and he is still striking out a lot. Still, if he can hit anything at close to that level for a full season, his incredible contributions in the field and on the basepaths could make him an easy MVP candidate.
The Twins’ pitching staff also saw a big improvement in the second half. Their 5.33 RA9 was one of the worst in baseball in the first half, and in a fact that should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Twins’ general pitching strategy, they also had the worst strikeout rate at 17.6 percent. Their run average improved to a far better 4.58 RA9 in the second half, though their strikeout rate had a more modest improvement to 20.1 percent.
The Twins’ BaseRuns record has them as a .500 team. If it were not for the increased parity in the AL, and a little luck, they would not have made the playoffs. Even if you assume that they would have the same record in the NL — which is a huge assumption — they would still be on the outside looking in. Of course, the fact of the matter is that they are in, and that is all that matters.
We still do not know for sure whom the Twins will be facing in the Wild Card game, just that it will either be in New York or Boston. So that means they will likely be facing Chris Sale or Luis Severino on the road, not to mention that the Yankees and Red Sox are significantly better teams. It’ll be an uphill battle, but in one game anything can happen. Should they get eliminated in the coin flip game, it would still be a very successful season for the Twins. Remember, they are supposed to be rebuilding!
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.