For a time this winter and early spring, the Minnesota Twins didn’t feel like protagonists in their own story. Instead, they were cast as foils to Cleveland’s three-time defending division champs, the hypothetical, fantastical contender that might have a chance at making Cleveland look foolish for its miserly approach to the offseason.
But nearly a quarter of the way through the 2019 season, Minnesota has wrested control of the narrative. Off to the franchise’s best start since 2001, the Twins are no longer a hypothetical contender. They lead the AL Central by four games and all of the major leagues with a 25-14 record. The question now is: Is this start, which has depended on impressive performances from nearly the entire lineup and rotation, sustainable?
Minnesota’s success starts with the offense, which even before the season seemed superior to Cleveland’s lackadaisically constructed lineup. The Twins rank fourth in the majors in runs per game and second in team wRC+. More specifically, they’ve produced impressive power numbers, with the majors’ highest isolated power mark—which would be the highest in MLB history if it maintained for a full season. No Twins hitter is a star, necessarily, but the lineup is deep and balanced thanks to improvements from holdovers like shortstop Jorge Polanco (172 wRC+), and additions from newcomers like designated hitter Nelson Cruz (133) and second baseman Jonathan Schoop (119).
The early-season schedule might render some of these numbers illusory, however. The Twins went 6-0 in two April series against the Orioles—who are on pace to blow past the record for home runs allowed—and in so doing juiced their offensive stats. Eddie Rosario is tied for the AL lead with 13 home runs, but four came against Baltimore; ditto for four of the eight homers for Max Kepler and four of the seven for Cruz. As a team, Minnesota hit .293/.347/.684 with 3.8 homers per game against the hapless Orioles, while the team has hit a more mediocre .257/.329/.462 with 1.5 homers per game against all other opponents.
Overall, the Twins rank first in the majors with a 141 OPS+ against sub-.500 teams, but they’re tied for 20th with a 90 OPS+ against teams with a neutral or winning record. That gap is the largest in the majors by a huge margin, and even though it’s still a bit too early to be slicing slivers of batting splits, this detail indicates that Minnesota’s offense might not be as formidable as its surface stats suggest.
That split isn’t all bad news for the Twins, though. Because they play in the porous AL Central, they project for the easiest remaining schedule in the majors (Cleveland has the second-easiest slate). They’ll have plenty more opportunities to batter bad pitching with 49 games—a whopping 40 percent of their remaining schedule—to be played against the Tigers, White Sox, and Royals. And at least Minnesota takes care of business against those teams—Cleveland, on the other hand, ranks 29th in OPS+ against losing teams and 24th against .500-or-better teams.
Similar to their offensive production, the Twins’ pitching has been impressive on the surface, albeit with deeper underlying concerns. In terms of approach, Minnesota’s pitchers look downright unTwinsian—they’re actually striking opposing hitters out! This development draws particular note because starting in 2008, the first season after they traded two-time Cy Young winner Johan Santana to the Mets, the Twins spent a decade ranking as one of the worst strikeout teams in the majors. From 2011 through 2015, they ranked last in K rate every year, then broke out of last place only to finish 28th in 2016 and 29th the year after.
Twins’ K Rate
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But new management arrived ahead of the 2017 season and, a year later, thanks to a new emphasis on analytics and different coaching strategies, the Twins moved from the bottom to the middle of the pack. This season, they’re above the league average in K rate for the first time since Santana led the staff, and it’s been a group effort: Four of the five Twins pitchers who have thrown enough innings to qualify for the ERA leaderboard this year have at least an average strikeout rate. For comparison, from 2011 through 2017, just one Twins starter total (Phil Hughes in 2014) managed that feat over a single season.
Aiding that effort is Minnesota’s catchers’ increased emphasis on pitch framing. Over the last half-decade—the start of which coincides with Joe Mauer’s full-time move from catcher to first baseman—Minnesota ranked 23rd in this area, losing 29.4 runs over that span to poor framing alone. This season, the Twins rank in the top five, just behind teams with vaunted defensive catchers like the Giants (Buster Posey), Brewers (Yasmani Grandal), and Padres (Austin Hedges).
Third-year backstop Mitch Garver has jumped from a bottom-10 framing catcher last year to a top-25 framer this season, and his rise might be the most unexpected yet important reason for the Twins’ hot start. Garver was a ninth-round draft pick in 2013, and per Baseball America’s rankings, he never cracked the Twins’ top-10 prospects list. Yet this year, he’s been the majors’ most valuable catcher, according to FanGraphs WAR. Garver hasn’t just improved his defense; he’s a masher now, too. Here’s the top of the wRC+ leaderboard for all players with at least 75 plate appearances this season:
1. Cody Bellinger: 221 (which means he’s been 121 percent better than the MLB average)
2. Mitch Garver: 219
3. Christian Yelich: 206
Of course, Garver won’t continue to hit like prime Barry Bonds; he certainly won’t still lead the league in isolated power by season’s end. (His current mark would place him in the top 10 all-time; that pre-2019 list consists of three Bonds seasons, three Babe Ruth seasons, three Mark McGwire seasons, and one Sammy Sosa season.) But as a catcher who can hit, Garver is a unique force in 2019, and even if his stats sink from the stratosphere, he’ll still supply Minnesota with tremendous offensive value from a mostly defensive position. He’s already led off six times this season, compared to just two such games for the other 29 teams’ catchers combined. (Fellow Twins catcher Willians Astudillo also led off on Sunday.)
Beyond framing gains, Minnesota’s pitchers have made encouraging, if not fully convincing, strides. Free-agent signee Martín Pérez, for instance, had never thrown a cutter before this year but is now tossing one on 35 percent of his pitches, limiting opposing hitters to a .100 batting average with one extra-base hit against it thus far. It’s clear why Pérez is succeeding, then, with a 2.83 ERA and career-best strikeout rate, but he still needs to prove he can sustain this unprecedented level as the rest of the league adjusts to his new trick.
The staff’s best ERA belongs to Jake Odorizzi, who has boosted his strikeout rate, but is also benefiting from a top-5 BABIP and top-3 home run–per–fly ball rate. With a 2.32 ERA, he looks like an ace now, but if those probably fluky rates regress, he will return to his norm as a roughly average pitcher. Odorizzi’s ground-ball rate is by far the lowest among qualified pitchers, and it’s hard to imagine someone with such an extreme profile continuing to succeed in the homer-happy 2019 environment.
Minnesota’s greatest pitching concern, though, extends beyond its current starters to its lack of depth. The Twins have only needed to turn to a sixth starter twice so far this season, and that pitcher—Kohl Stewart—has surrendered five walks, allowed three homers, and struck out just three across those games. Minnesota will assuredly need more arms at some point: Michael Pineda probably won’t last 30-plus starts in his return from Tommy John surgery, and both Pérez and Odorizzi have had multiple IL stints in recent seasons. A staff made up of five pitchers will suffer from attrition—the average team last year had 12 pitchers make starts, with the group outside the primary five combining for 35 or 36 starts per team. That’s a whole extra rotation spot’s worth of appearances just for replacement pitchers.
Where might Minnesota find an extra arm? Likely not internally, as the club’s best prospects are all at the Double-A level or lower and skew toward the position-player side anyway. But Dallas Keuchel is still a free agent, and even if Keuchel isn’t going to win another Cy Young anytime soon, his signing would both address the Twins’ depth issue and help solidify their spot atop the AL Central. Even compared to pitchers who might be midseason trade options, Keuchel is the best starter available, and all he’d cost is money.
Minnesota can easily afford a multi-year contract for the veteran left-hander, if that’s what Keuchel wants. The Twins’ 2020 payroll has just $20 million guaranteed at the moment; for 2021, that amount drops to just $10.8 million split in owner-friendly contracts to Kepler and Polanco. Those figures aren’t perfect because they don’t include likely arbitration increases for the Twins’ good young players like Byron Buxton and José Berríos, but the takeaway should be clear either way: Minnesota has oodles of payroll space. Heck, the Twins should sign Keuchel and fellow free agent Craig Kimbrel, too, to add another late-inning reliever; setup men Taylor Rogers and Trevor May have pitched well in the early going, but Blake Parker’s 1.54 ERA belies worrisome walk and strikeout numbers that could mean Minnesota has to look for a new closer before season’s end.
Keuchel and Kimbrel could help Minnesota more than almost any other team, given the club’s place in the standings and its chance to win its first division title since 2010. The Twins shouldn’t take their hot start for granted, but rather take advantage by supplementing the current talented core: We haven’t even discussed Buxton, who isn’t the star that his prospect status once promised but compensates for an elevated strikeout rate with power when he does make contact, and adds copious defense and baserunning value; or the incredible fun (and underrated skills) of Willians Astudillo; or the steady progression from staff leader José Berríos, who has cut his walk rate in half from the last two years.
FanGraphs gives the Twins a 72 percent chance to win the division, after they started the year with 11 percent odds; Baseball Prospectus has bumped Minnesota to 57 percent from a preseason 15. Of course, a four-game lead this early in the year is far from insurmountable; just one slumped week from Minnesota paired with one surge from Cleveland could plunge the division into a tie. But the Twins have demonstrated sufficient skill in the early going, and their rest-of-season outlook has ticked upward as a result. Cleveland, meanwhile, has hit like the Marlins for six weeks and lost pitchers Corey Kluber and Mike Clevinger to long-term injuries.
There we go, framing Minnesota’s season in terms of Cleveland’s failures once again. At least this time, the Twins have something to say for themselves, too.
Stats current through Saturday’s games.