The Twins lost an MLB-leading 103 games last year, and seemingly made few improvements over the off-season. Yet, somehow, they started the 2017 season 4-0—one of the best starts in all of MLB, and the team’s best start since 1987, when they won the World Series.
Does this mean the Twins are headed to the World Series again? No, probably not—but there are some reasonable explanations for their seemingly sudden improvement.
Here are six of the biggest explanations for the Twins’ hot start.
1. The outfield defense is much better
When you have a bunch of pitchers known for “pitching to contact,” going from possibly the worst to possibly the best outfield defense in the league makes a huge, noticeable difference. That’s exactly what the Twins have done in the past year.
Maybe you blocked this out of your memory (hopefully if you are a Minnesota fan), but the Twins started 2016 with Oswaldo Arcia and freakin’ Miguel Sano as their corner outfielders. Sure, Arcia and Sano are both professional ballplayers and supposedly athletic guys, but basically having Delmon Young 2.0 and a 6’ 4”, 260-pound “infielder” playing in the outfield at the same time was not pretty—to say the least.
This year, the Twins started off with Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler as their corner outfielders, and it has been a night-and-day difference. Add in a slightly-more mature and still exceptional-fielding Byron Buxton in center field and the Twins outfield defense this year is now among the best, if not the best, in all of baseball.
2. The infield defense has been better than expected, too
There were a lot of questions about the Twins infield defense going into this season, especially on the left side. So far, however, it’s looked... surprisingly competent? The young Jorge Polanco has been okay at shortstop, even though he has basically been pegged as more of a second baseman, and shortstop-turned-third-baseman-turned-outfielder-turned-first-baseman-third-baseman Miguel Sano didn’t even make an error until the fifth game of the season! Wowsa!
The Twins also supposedly improved at catcher by adding pitch-framer extraordinaire Jason Castro. It’s a little too early to say how much of an impact Castro, his defense, and especially his pitch framing have really had, but so far, so good.
3. Stronger pitching performances
Maybe Castro’s aforementioned pitch framing skills may had something to do with it, but the Twins pitching has peen pretty solid so far in 2017. “Ace” Ervin Santana gave a sparkling Opening Day performance, surrendering only one run over seven innings pitched. Last year on Opening Day? Santana didn’t even make it past two innings.
The rest of the rotation looks better too. Kyle Gibson worked hard at improving his delivery this off-season using giant balls and oven mitts, and it seems to be paying off. Phil Hughes had a rib removed, and claims to have regained more feeling in his throwing arm. The Twins traded Ricky Nolasco for Hector Santiago, who somehow hasn’t spontaneously-combusted yet. It’s all been, surprisingly, going okay.
And the bullpen? They’ve only given up three runs so far—all on home runs given up by rookie Justin Haley in just yesterday’s game.
4. Walking—a lot
The Twins have walked a lot so far this season. Like, a lot a lot. They walked 23 times in the first three games against the Royals, including three times in a row with the bases loaded during the season opener. Believe it or not, walking that much leads to a lot of runs. Who knew?
The strangest part about all this walking? It hasn’t just been career lazy-guy Joe Mauer. The whole team has been walking. Castro has six walks, Sano has four, and Brian Dozier, Robbie Grossman, and Mauer each have three apiece. Even free-swinging Eddie Rosario has walked twice—in one game, no less!
The question now is if all this walking has just been a fluke against the bad Royals bullpen, or if it’s something the Twins (and their new hitting coach, James Rowson) can keep up.
5. Unreasonably low expectations
Did you hear that the Twins lost 103 games last year? Yeah, and that is the most in the team’s history, too. The Twins made seemingly few changes in the off-season, so I get why people might assume they’re just going to be as bad again this year.
But here’s the thing: losing 103 games took a combination of bad luck, injuries, and sheer incompetency so incredible it’s nearly impossible for the Twins to repeat it.
Basically: There was and is virtually no way the Twins will be as bad this year as they were last year, based on mathematical probabilities.
The 2016 Twins were full of stupidly-young and highly-talented players that have only grown and learned more in the past year. They weren’t a bunch of aging veterans that were bound to be worse. National writers may not have been as keenly aware of the potential up-side of some of these guys or how close they are to breaking-out at the big league level—and I’m not just talking Sano and Buxton.
I don’t blame national outlets for paying little attention and having low expectations for a team coming off 103-losses, but it does lead to more surprise when those thinly-supported predictions are reasonably out-performed.
6. Bad competition
I hate to be the party-pooper, Twins fans, but maybe the Twins’ hot start is just because the teams they’ve faced so far have... not been that good?
Most people already predicted the White Sox to be worse than the Twins this season, given that they appear to be in full-on rebuilding mode. And even though the Royals won the World Series less than a year and a half ago, they aren’t really strong contenders anymore, and definitely aren’t still known now for their bullpen.