Better Than Expected, or Just Better?

We're one-third of the way through the 2008 regular season, and the Twins are still performing better than expected. At what point does 'better than expected' turn into 'better'?

I was tempted to start off this essay by writing that the Twins have shown themselves to be a better team than I expected at the start of the season. After all, it's getting close to mathematically impossible that I'll actually be able to collect my beer from cmath on the 20th, given that the Twins would have to go 3-13 over their next 16 games to reach the 'eight games below .500' mark I predicted for them on June 16. The more I think about it, though, the more I wonder how confident we can say that the Twins are really better -- there are more than a few people (including Howard Sinker and John Bonnes) who would certainly argue that they are, but I still can't shake the feeling that something's not right. After all, very few pre-season projections gave the Twins much if any shot of winning the AL Central or, honestly, even being an average ballclub, in the sense that one can call a .500 ballclub 'average'. Should we really abandon our pre-season projections based on just one-third of the games played in the year?

I'm going to ask and try to answer a few basic questions about the Twins in the hopes that I'll clarify my own thinking and either be able to join the bandwagon with a clear conscience, or conversely be able to stick to my guns that the ballclub will not effectively compete for a 2008 playoff spot.

1. Is the Twins offense really this good?

As of the start of play on May 31, the Twins are scoring 4.63 runs per game -- that's the fourth-best scoring offense in the AL, and an improvement of about half a run per game from their scoring rate at the end of April, when they were among the AL's worst offenses. Yet the Twins still are among the worst in the AL in doubles, home runs, and walks. It's possible to argue that the Twins scoring totals don't really reflect their actual offensive ability.

A simple comparison will help demonstrate why:
		 Runs	   Avg	  OBP	  SLG	 OPS
Minn	   	 250	 .267	 .324	 .380	 .704
Toronto	        233	.263	.339	.379	.718

The Jays are hitting just about as well as the Twins, yet have scored seventeen fewer runs, which makes Toronto the fourth-worst offense in the AL while the Twins currently sit at fourth-best. There's no obvious reason, just looking at these raw numbers, why the Twins should have so many more runs.

The biggest reason, of course, is situational hitting: the Twins are hitting .311/845 with runners in scoring position, which is far and away the highest average and OPS in the league in those situations. The Jays, meanwhile, are hitting just .244/647 in those same situations, which is the lowest OPS (but not lowest average) in the AL in those situations. I'd guess nearly all of this difference is luck, for two reasons:

- The Twins batting average on balls in play (BABIP) in RISP situations is .338, also far and away the highest total in the AL, while the Jays BABIP in RISP situations is .274, second-lowest in the AL; differences from the mean in BABIP are usually attributed to random chance.

- If players had the ability to improve their hitting in RISP situations, why wouldn't they try to find a way to use that to improve their hitting in all situations? We're talking about players who've taken steroids, stimulants, and any other swallowable that might enhance their performance; hitters sometimes try to sneak a bat filled with cork or super-balls into the box with them, while pitchers sometimes try to sneak a tack, piece of sandpaper, or slug of Vaseline on their person when they head to the mound. If a batter knew that he could make an adjustment with a runner on second that helped him hit 80 points higher, why wouldn't he try to do it all the time?

And before you say 'well, maybe they do', keep in mind that taken as a whole, players do hit slightly better in RISP situations than they do overall, but not by all that much:

2007 - overall = .271/761; RISP = .275/780
2006 - overall = .275/776; RISP = .276/792
2005 - overall = .268/755; RISP = .273/780
2004 - overall = .270/771; RISP = .272/790

While I'd prefer to see a formal study before drawing conclusions as to why this is true, my guess would be that there are two factors involved, neither of which has anything to do with the batter 'trying harder'. First, pitchers throw from the stretch with runners on, which likely makes them slightly less effective. Second, defenses often position themselves so as to attempt to prevent the runner from scoring as much as to prevent the batter from getting a hit. Given those two situations, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find a typical batter gaining about 20-30 points of OPS in RISP situations.

1a. So if the offense isn't really this good, how much worse should we expect it to get?

Well, let's get one thing straight right off the top -- I think the Twins overall numbers in terms of batting average and OPS are actually sustainable. Morneau's hitting really well right now, but he was better in 2006, as was Mauer. Everybody else who's playing regularly is either right around where his career average predicts, or is actually significantly below his career average (Everett, Cuddyer). About the only player I'd suggest is playing over his head is Carlos Gomez, yet a .286/738 hitting line isn't that outrageous for a talented youngster -- Lew Ford hit significantly better than that in his first full season with the Twins in 2004 (.299/827), and Ford was never considered a top prospect.

What is likely to happen is that you'll notice the Twins are stranding more baserunners instead of pressing the rallies the way they have been thus far. While it would be a fallacy to expect the club to fall equally below the mean in June and July as they've been above it in April and May (the gambler's fallacy, to be precise), it would not be at all a fallacy to suggest that the Twins are more likely to end June having hit closer to the league-average .266/760 RISP performance in that month than they are to match their current RISP performance -- this is called 'regression to the mean', and while it's not guaranteed, it's where to put the smart money. And if they do that, they'll finish June scoring closer to the 4.0 runs per game that Toronto is currently scoring than the 4.6 runs per game they're scoring now.

2. Is the defense really this good?

Let's get another thing straight -- the defense isn't really very good at all. The pitching staff has been reasonable thus far; they're middle-of-the-pack with a 4.32 ERA, though it should be noted that the Metrodome has been a pitcher's park since 2006 and thus this ERA is lower than it would otherwise be. Add in the effects of defense, however, and the Twins are allowing 4.83 runs per game, better only than Detroit, Seattle, and Texas. They're dead last in hits allowed per game, allowing a full hit per game more than the Angels and Royals are (and they're tied for 10th place allowing 9.0 hits per game), and just one strikeout ahead of dead last in the AL, which wouldn't be so bad if it didn't mean that the Twins are relying less on their pitchers and more on their defense to record outs than nearly any other team in the AL, which for a team with the second-lowest defensive efficiency, second-most errors, and second-largest number of unearned runs in the league can't be all that good. Then consider that the Twins pitching staff has allowed more home runs than any other staff in the AL -- it's true: the Twins have allowed 57 homers, while the Royals have allowed 55, the Orioles 53, and the Yankees and Red Sox 52 apiece.

The only saving grace is that the Twins pitching staff has allowed far and away the fewest walks in the AL, more than twenty fewer than the Royals, A's, and White Sox. Even so, they're allowing so many more hits that even the small walk rate still leaves the staff among the AL's worst at baserunners per nine innings.

A lot has been made of Boof Bonser's slow start, but the truth is that the Twins starting staff as a whole isn't as good as it looks: Glen Perkins is 2-2 with a league-average ERA. Scott Baker is 2-0, but his 4.09 ERA is actually higher than the league average, and has been helped an awful lot by the Metrodome:

Baker at home: 16.2 IP, 13 H, 2.16 ERA
Baker on the road: 16.1 IP, 18 H, 6.06 ERA

Yes, it's a small sample size, but it's only unrepresentative in the size of the home/road split:

Twins pitchers at home: 268 IP, 1.35 WHIP, 3.66 ERA
Twins pitchers on the road: 217.2 IP, 1.49 WHIP, 5.13 ERA

And yes, that difference in innings is also a harbinger -- the Twins have pitched much better at home than on the road thus far this season, but they've also played an extra four home games (and will play two more before the current series is up); as the season goes on and the club makes up those road games, odds are the pitching won't perform so well.

So I've reached my conclusion: though I'm unlikely to enjoy a free beer on the 20th, I'll be a lot less disappointed than those fans who've decided that a hot start to the season is reason enough to climb onto the bandwagon, just before the axle starts getting wobbly.

And one last observation: if, despite all this, the Twins do still manage somehow to steal the AL Central without making a signficant free agent move? Then Ron Gardenhire is the best manager in the AL, period. There would be no other explanation.

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