Given that the Minnesota Twins have the largest division lead in the American League, now is a good time for pundits to say, “you know, I really liked them in the spring.” Most of the time, that statement is false. I defy you, dear reader, to find one prognostication from February or March that didn’t project Cleveland to win the AL Central.
Beyond the Box Score is no exception. Some hack writer covered the Twins for our season preview series, and he barely entertained the idea that they might be a playoff team. What an idiot!
Around the same time, a much less hack-ish writer named Devan Fink showed that the Twins needed to sign both Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel to have a decent shot at the division.
Indeed, no team’s playoff odds have increased more than Minnesota’s since the beginning of the season, as per FanGraphs. The AL Central chart is almost comical:
(Side note: The Tigers division odds were as high as 0.5 percent on April 23. Isn’t that adorable?)
Whenever a team surpasses expectations to this degree, there’s always fear of collapse or expectation of regression. If their success is derived from players performing over their heads, they will probably come back to the pack, and the bottom will fall out.
Will that fate await the Twins?
Buxton is the rare ballplayer who doesn’t need much offense to be a star. In 2017, he accrued 3.5 fWAR in spite of a 90 wRC+. His defense and baserunning are that good. With a 120 wRC+ this year, he’s finally joined baseball’s elite. Middling Statcast numbers suggest his offense may come back to somewhere around league average, but that’s more than enough. Besides, when you can get extra base hits like this, you don’t need to bang them off the wall:
For everyone else this is a routine single hit in front of the center fielder. For Byron Buxton this was his league-leading 21st double. pic.twitter.com/Fn1WyDpmpd— Aaron Gleeman (@AaronGleeman) June 8, 2019
For roughly 160 years, that exact type of hit was a single. Buxton has broken the physics of baseball.
Not only is Berríos for real, he still has room to improve. His strikeout rate is down a few ticks (though not enough to worry about). However, his 4.4 percent walk rate is among the top ten in MLB. His home run rate is almost identical to last year’s despite a much more dinger-conducive environment. If he can keep the walks suppressed and the home runs (relatively) limited while picking the strikeouts back up, he’s a Cy Young contender. He may be one anyway.
Pérez is a completely different pitcher now that he’s with the Twins. He picked up a cutter in Spring Training, which he now throws 33.8 percent of the time. Baseball Prospectus’ Aaron Gleeman detailed the repertoire change thoroughly.
Kepler is walking and striking out about as much as he usually does. His BABIP is within five points of his career average. The only real difference is his ISO, which is through the roof.
Max Kepler ISO
The reason for the increased power is simple: he’s hitting the ball better. His 9.7 percent barrel rate is 3.5 points higher than the MLB average and 4.1 points above his career average.
The Twins don’t have any big name relievers, but these guys are a big part of the team’s success. Ryne Harper, Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey, and Mike Morin all average at least 5.0 strikeouts per walks.
Maybe Real, Maybe Not
Not only has Polanco been the best player on the Twins, he’s been one of the best overall players in the sport. His 2.7 fWAR is tied for fifth best in the AL. Statcast loves what he’s done so far, putting his xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA all in the 84th percentile or better. His .364 BABIP suggests he might regress a little though. He’s a heckuva player, but he won’t likely maintain this pace for the full season.
You know how home runs are out of control this season? Not for Odorizzi. He’s surrendered just four bombs in 70 1⁄3 innings. A 4.9 percent home run-to-fly ball ratio in 2019 isn’t built to last, but there are other good signs as well, such as a career best 28.6 percent strikeout rate. This may be a career year for him, but the home run bug will bite him eventually.
Not For Real
Babe Ruth holds the career record for slugging percentage with .690. Mitch Garver’s was .405 entering this season, but this year it’s .693. In other words, he went from a league average hitter to a Ruthian slugger. His 29.4 home run-to-fly ball ratio would be eighth highest in MLB if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. Expect a few more of those to turn into fly outs, unless you really believe he’s The Babe reincarnated.
Here is Castro’s wRC+ year-by-year since 2014:
Jason Castro wRC+
Injuries limited Castro’s playing time and effectiveness last year, but given that he turns 32 next week, he almost certainly didn’t become a masher all of a sudden. He’s always been a below average hitter; now he’s 45 percent better than the league. More likely, he slips back to the kind of hitter he’s been for his whole career.
Are the Twins For Real?
A lot of their best players give cause for optimism. Even breakouts like Polanco and Odorizzi probably have some fire beneath the smoke. Besides, even if the Twins do regress, no one in the division appears capable of challenging them.
It’s time to buy in on this team’s playoff chances if you haven’t already. Ah, but of course you have! You told everyone they would win the division back in March, didn’t you?
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983