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Ten reasons the Twins are contending in 2015

We've heard people ask the question a million times this year, and it'll only come up more if the club continues to contend. Instead of shrugging or trying to defend your favorite baseball team, just point the doubters here.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

After Wednesday night's win in Kansas City, the Twins have to be feeling pretty good about themselves. And for good reason. Every prediction I can find tabbed the club for somewhere between 65 and - the optimistic outlier - 72 winsEveryone at CBS Sports thought the Minnesota Twins would finish last in the American League Central Division.

So after basically everyone wrote off the Twins before the season even began, how is this team any good? I've narrowed the reasons to a list of ten. It's a list that is by no means exhaustive, but it should give those curious enough to ask a fair answer.

Let's start with the youth movement.

Production from Rookies

All good teams throughout the history of baseball have needed to have contributions from young and experienced players alike, but the Twins are constructed a bit differently this year. As a whole the club isn't particularly young compared to the rest of the league (thanks, Torii Hunter), yet there's no denying that a lot of the club's success has come not just from young guys - but from rookies.

Miguel Sano's mark of 2.1 wins above replacement ranks him as the third-most valuable player for the Twins in 2015, in spite of playing in just 57 of the team's 139 games. It's the fourth-most valuable mark among position player rookies in the American League.

Eddie Rosario, who in most seasons might be in the discussion for Rookie of the Year, is worth 1.6 fWAR so far this season. That's fifth for Minnesota's position players, eighth on the team as a whole, and 18th among AL Rookie position players.

Then there's Trevor May, who was flying under the radar as a starting pitcher and who has - in good spirit - taken on the role of Glen Perkins' and Kevin Jepsen's primary set-up man. He's accumulated 2.0 fWAR in 2015, best among all Twins pitchers, fourth on the roster in Minnesota, and it also makes him the second-most valuable rookie pitcher in the American League.

At this time next year I fully expect to see all three of these players playing big roles in the success of the 2016 Twins, but I also expect guys like Byron Buxton and Jose Berrios to be among the league's most impactful rookies.

Talent Development

I don't think you can give an organization credit for where they draft, considering their lack of success the preceding season is the reason for their high draft position. But you can give the organization credit for consistently drafting good players and not whiffing on those top-level picks, and you can also give the organization credit for bringing them through the system to become contributors for the Major League team.

Everywhere you look on the Twins' roster, you see home-grown and developed talent. Aaron Hicks, Joe Mauer, Brian Dozier, Miguel Sano, Trevor Plouffe, Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario, Danny Santana, and Kennys Vargas on the position player side; Kyle Gibson, Trevor May, Glen Perkins, Michael Tonkin, and Brian Duensing on the pitching side. Some of these guys may be on their way down, but the vast majority are on their way up, and over the next couple of years Minnesota will continue to see a pretty big influx of home grown talent to the big league roster.

Say what you will about poor drafts in the mid-2000s or the lack of players the team developed in the late 2000s, but right now here's something you can take to the bank: the Twins are developing Major League players of their own design.

Managerial & In-Game Strategic Changes

After the collapse of the 2014 season, something had to change for the Twins. Instead of lopping off the head and re-hiring the organization's brain trust from the top down, Minnesota opted to remove Ron Gardenhire from his role as manager. Bringing in Paul Molitor, right now, looks like a pretty good choice.

Molitor's affect was noticeable in just the first few weeks of the season, perhaps not in the small sample size of wins and losses but in his approach to pre and in-game strategy. It was clear very early that he was willing to play platoons where he thought it would give him an advantage or perhaps mitigate a team weakness; he was willing to deploy his relief pitchers for more than one inning with regularity; his defenses are shifting an order of magnitude more often, including not just dramatic shifts but subtle ones based on count, outs, and game situation.

But the changes haven't come just from Paul Molitor. Pitching coach Neil Allen has his pitchers focusing on new approaches to hitters, tying together pitch sequences specifically designed to bait and set up the opposition. Perhaps the most public aspect of this change is the focus on the willingness to throw changeups - not more of them for more of them's sake, but to same-sided hitters and as more than a show-me pitch, at times lining up two or three in a row.

Kevin Jepsen was throwing his changeup 7.7% of the time with the Angels earlier this year. Since his arrival in Minnesota, he's throwing 15.1% changeups. Kyle Gibson opted for the changeup approximately 12.5% of the time between 2013 and 2014, but in 2015 he's thrown it 19.6% of the time. Trevor May is using it more often; Phil Hughes has brought it back from the dead; Brian Duensing has almost doubled its use from last year. Not all of these players are having seasons we'd like them to have, but Allen's desire to present more and different looks to hitters - and the pitching staff's willingness to buy into his philosophy - have a correlation with the improved run prevention.

Run Prevention

That seems like a good transition, doesn't it? In the Twins' funk since that talent-packed, oh-so-fun 2010 campaign, the Twins have allowed an indecent number of runs. Have a look, and take special note of how that last row compares to those above it.

Year Runs Allowed Runs Per Game MLB Rank
2011 804 4.96 29
2012 832 5.14 28
2013 788 4.87 29
2014 777 4.80 29
2015 609 4.38 19

While run prevention hasn't improved to the point where we're all impressed, it's still a run reduction of nearly 10%. Starter ERA is down to 4.21 from 5.06 in 2014, which is where the real improvement lies. Reliever ERA is up about 0.40 runs, from a 21st-ranked mark last season to a 23rd-ranked 4.08. Having Neal Cotts and Kevin Jepsen available now might help to bring that number down, and getting Glen Perkins back and healthy would be fantastic for a number of reasons, but there are two things worth noting here before we move on.

  1. The Twins have three and maybe four relievers who they should be able to rely on down the stretch. That's an improvement over where the team was at the All-Star break.
  2. Starting pitcher ERA is down 0.85 runs from last year, from terrible to simply not bad.

The pitching isn't great. But it's definitely better.

Rotation Depth

Coming into the 2015 season we regularly speculated on whether or not the Twins would trade some of their starting pitcher depth. Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, Ricky Nolasco, Kyle Gibson, Tommy Milone, Mike Pelfrey, Trevor May, and Alex Meyer were the club's top eight candidates, and while there was no true ace in that group it was also a deep crew that meant the team wouldn't be forced to fill one or two rotation spots with filler material.

Suffice it to say we're all glad the Twins didn't trade any of that depth. Santana lost half the season to a suspension, Nolasco hit the disabled list yet again, Milone was sent to Triple-A, May was forced into a bullpen spot to save a drowning relief corps, and Hughes has spent the last couple weeks on the disabled list as well.

Gibson and Pelfrey have been the rotation's stalwarts this season. J.R. Graham made a spot start, and we've seen the impressive debut of Tyler Duffey and his curveball. In all, nine pitchers have made a start for Minnesota in 2015. And really, forgiving Graham's start on short notice, no team in all of baseball would have been embarrassed to start any of those eight primary pitchers.

In recent seasons, the Twins were turning to Sam Deduno, Pedro Hernandez, Andrew Albers, Liam Hendriks, and Yohan Pino well before they were eight deep on their starting pitcher depth chart. That's a nice step forward, and we haven't seen starts from Alex Meyer, Jose Berrios, Kohl Stewart, Lewis Thorpe, Stephen Gonsalves, or Taylor Rogers yet. Starting pitcher depth is incredibly deep in this organization right now.

RISP Success

After finishing seventh in baseball in runs scored in 2014, and with all nine of their main position players posting an OPS+ that was above average, the Twins' offense looked poised to take a big step forward in 2015. That hasn't happened entirely, but in spite of ranking 29th in on-base percentage, 24th in OPS and wOBA and wRC+, and 17th in slugging, Minnesota has still scored the 12th-most runs in Major League Baseball. How'd that happen?

By smashing with runners in scoring position, of course! In that situation the Twins are fourth in all of baseball in OPS, hitting a sick triple slash of .279/.347/.445. That can make scoring runs tricky at times, considering the club is 29th in OPS with the bases empty with a line of .228/.281/.374.

Hitting so well with runners in scoring position means that when the Twins do get something going, they're a threat to deliver. Perhaps it's a bit of situational hitting, or perhaps there's some influence from Paul Molitor on understanding how the pitchers will attack and capitalizing on that knowledge, or perhaps it's just luck. But at this point, the club has been performing in the clutch all season. If they can keep it up, they'll be in the race for a Wild Card spot until the last day of the season.

The Month of May

Remember when the Detroit Tigers eviscerated the Twins in that first series of the season? Minnesota was swept, outscored in those three games 22-1, and started the season with a 1-6 record. Fans everywhere turned off their televisions and stared at the calendar, willing it to be Week 1 of the NFL season. The Twins went 9-6 the rest of April, though, winning three of the last five series of the month.

Somewhere along the line, the baseball gods sprinkled magical pixie dust on the Twins. They put together winning streaks of four, four, and five games in May, ultimately going 20-7 that month and - remember this? - taking over first place of the AL Central.

The Twins have spent all of 12 days in first place in 2015, but that's 12 days longer than anyone expected they'd be in first place in 2015. And it was glorious. Fans of our Facebook page will remember this.

june 8 2015 standings

Without the month of May being as successful as it was, the 2015 season wouldn't be anywhere near as promising.

Hot Streaks

No season is complete and its narrative is not fully told unless we talk about the players that caught fire.

In May, a number of players powered up. En route to a 20-win month, Trevor Plouffe hit .312/.381/.570 with five home runs and 21 runs batted in; Torii Hunter hit .333/.391/.566 with six home runs and 25 runs driven in. Brian Dozier kept it going for a bit longer, batting .287/.355/.593 through May and June, with 18 doubles, 14 home runs, and 43 runs scored.

Earlier we mentioned how Mike Pelfrey and Kyle Gibson have been the rotation's mainstays. Pelfrey's ERA was 2.97 through 13 starts. We wrote things about how good he was early in the season. Gibson's ERA was 2.85 through 18 starts, and he's been remarkably consistent all season long. Glen Perkin's ERA was 1.81 through the All-Star break. Five of Trevor May's last seven starts were Quality Starts.

Recently, we've known who the big stories are. Ervin Santana has been unbelievable in his two most recent starts, throwing 15 innings of one-run baseball while striking out 21 batters. That's insanely good. Tyler Duffey, since his rough debut, has given Minnesota five starts of 2.67 ERA baseball, including good starts against some of the American League's toughest teams in Baltimore and Houston.

Aaron Hicks, between his recall and his injury, seemed to find himself a bit. In that stretch of 41 games from July 3 to August 19, he hit .281/.333/.477 with seven home runs, 14 extra-base hits, 23 runs batted in, and 24 runs scored. It couldn't have come at a better time either, with the club scuffling at times and in need of a center fielder. His continued development will change the game for Minnesota's outfield and offense over the next few years.

And then there's Miguel Sano. More home runs than any Twins player in history through his first 57 games, with 16. A .281/.389/.592 triple slash is incredible for a 22-year old rookie, and that includes his slump recently as he's struggled to get over that hamstring issue. If he doesn't win AL Rookie of the Year, he shouldn't be far off.

Success at Home

Winning at home is a necessity for any team that wants to have a shot at the post-season, and the Twins have been very, very good at Target Field this season. With a 42-26 (.618) mark, the Twins own the fourth-best home record in the American League. It would only figure that the three teams with better home records are the Toronto Blue Jays, Houston Astros, and Kansas City Royals.

Of course, the other end of that traditional mantra is that a team with aspirations of October needs to play .500 baseball on the road. With a 30-41 record the Twins are a fair way off of that benchmark, but they've improved lately by going 8-4 in their last 12 road games.

The Twins Have Nothing to Lose

There's a lot to be said about mindset and confidence when it comes to sports. It works the same way in other walks of life, too; when you feel like you have nothing to lose, when you allow failure to roll off your back, when you aren't afraid of what will happen if you fail, it frees you. For a baseball player that means no fear when facing a player like Mike Trout, an ability to shake off a terrible game or a bad series, and eventually a bred confidence that helps the players believe that they can compete with any team in the league.

And that's exactly what we've seen from the Twins as the season as gone along. There have been stumbles certainly, including that road series against the Yankees just a few weeks ago. Since that series in New York, however, Minnesota has bounced back to sweep the Orioles in Baltimore, has split six games with the AL West-leading Astros, has taken a series from the White Sox in Minneapolis, and has taken road series against both the Royals and the Rays.

Back at the beginning of this essay, we discussed the expectations for the Twins coming into 2015. Minnesota had no chance from Opening Day, and you know that the players are well aware of those expectations and are happily blowing them out of the water. They're at least a year ahead of schedule in terms of arriving as a legitimate contender, and they know that they're not supposed to crash the post-season party. When everyone expected you to lose anyway, losing doesn't seem so scary.

The Twins are playing loose and easy. They look confident, and we've talked at different points this season about how they seem to have a different swagger and a different feel. Winning can do a lot of things for a team and its players, after all.

Of course, it can also do a lot of things for the people that follow the team, too. Maybe this last one is all in my mind, since confidence isn't quantifiable. Right?