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Can the Twins contend with this pitching staff?

A look at the historical data may give us a hint.

Baltimore Orioles v Minnesota Twins
Kyle Gibson ponders the futility of existence while another man trots around the bases in post-dongal bliss.

As the second half of the season looms its terrifying head — nine of the Twins’ next 12 games are against the Astros, Yankees or Dodgers — the Twins can still lay claim to the nebulous “contender” designation.

Though they may have received their fair share of good luck, the wins still count, and the Twins can count 45 of them as they sit two games above .500 and 2.5 games behind first-place Cleveland in the AL Central.

Record is about the only place where the Twins rate highly, unfortunately. The Twins are 17th in position-player WAR and 29th in pitching WAR, and 16th in baseball in wRC+ and 27th in ERA.

The ERA rank is the one that caught my attention. So far, through 88 games of the 2017 season, the Twins have posted a 4.90 ERA — an awfully high number for a team at least nominally in contention.

Can a team just a few hundredths away from a 5.00 ERA through the season’s first half still dream of a playoff berth? And what would the Twins need to do in the second half to contend for at least a wild-card spot?

Mesa/Vizquel
Jose Mesa and Omar Vizquel celebrate playoff victory in 1995.

Facing slim odds

Since Major League Baseball expanded its playoff system in 1994 to include the wild card, 186 teams have made the playoffs.

Of those 186 playoff teams, only 10 have had a worse first-half ERA than the 2017 Twins.

Playoff Teams with bad ERAs (Wildcard Era)

Team 1st half ERA 1st half Win%
Team 1st half ERA 1st half Win%
1997 SEA 5.17 0.563
1995 NYY 5.14 0.455
1996 BAL 5.12 0.541
1999 TEX 5.09 0.552
1998 TEX 4.98 0.552
2007 PHI 4.95 0.542
1999 CLE 4.92 0.644
1997 CLE 4.91 0.550
2000 SFG 4.91 0.541
2017 MIN 4.90 0.511
1995 SEA 4.90 0.493

So, at least from a pitching perspective, the 2017 Twins face some long odds compared to recent history.

But pitching is only half of the equation. How does the 2017 Twins’ hitting compare to these other 10 pitching-deficient teams? (sOPS+ refers to a team’s On-Base-Plus-Slugging compared to the league’s over a certain split — in this case the first half of the season — with league-average sitting at 100.)

sOPS+ of 10 Worst ERA teams (Wildcard Era)

Team 1st half sOPS+
Team 1st half sOPS+
1997 SEA 123
1997 CLE 120
1999 CLE 119
2000 SFG 118
1998 TEX 115
1996 BAL 112
2007 PHI 111
1999 TEX 104
1995 SEA 103
1995 NYY 103
2017 MIN 98

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 10-worst playoff pitching teams of the Wildcard Era (by ERA) could all hit. The median team batted 12% better than league average in the first half; the Twins batted 2% worse than the average MLB team over that split; none of the other 10 terrible ERA teams were below league average.

The worst news for the Twins? Most of these 10 teams improved their hitting in the second half. The median team boosted its sOPS+ by 3%, and the lowest second-half sOPS+ of any of the 10 playoff teams was 107 — nine points higher than the Twins’ first-half number.

Basically, the Twins as a team are hitting like 2017 Brian Dozier (.242/.328/.417), and to approach the teams that overcome piss-poor pitching to make the playoffs, they need to hit like 2017 Mookie Betts (.272/.351/.490). That’s not impossible, of course, but asking an entire team to amp up their second-half performance is a whole lot more difficult than asking one player to improve.

Another aspect working against the ‘17 Twins: their winning percentage sits at only .511, the third-worst of this 11-team pool. The median winning percentage of this sample is .546, substantially higher than the Twins’.

The only two teams with worst half-season records — the 1995 Mariners and ‘95 Yankees — both made significant pitching gains in the second half. The ‘95 Mariners dropped their second-half ERA by nearly .8 points, while the Yankees improved their ERA by more than one point.

Data via Baseball-Reference; Graph via Louie

Nearly all these teams that start so poorly in the ERA department rebound, which makes sense. After all, we’re pulling from a sample of teams that will ultimately make the playoffs, so a poor first half almost requires a strong second half.

Twins history doesn’t provide much succor, either. Of the 27 Twins teams that entered the All-Star break with a winning record, only one has had a worse ERA (compared to the AL average) than this year’s team — the 1964 squad — and they ended the season with a .488 winning percentage and no playoff berth. As the below trend line shows, there’s a fairly strong correlation between a high first-half ERA (Y-axis) and a low end-of-season win percentage (X-axis).

Data via Baseball-Reference; Graph via Louie

The Twins’ new front office has clearly expressed a willingness to churn through pitchers thus far this season, so it’s not inconceivable that the pitching could improve (or, if nothing else, at least change). Bartolo Colon made his organizational debut Thursday against the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, Stephen Gonsalves and Fernando Romero continue to impress at Double-A, and Derek Falvey and Thad Levine have expressed interest in obtaining a viable major-league arm before the trade deadline. Any number of things could happen in the near future to make the Twins’ second half look rosier.

On the hitting side, the majority of the Twins’ lineup is young and projectable: it wouldn’t be crazy if Rosario, Polanco, Kepler, Sano, Buxton, Granite, et. al continued to improve and gave the lineup more of the punch it needed in the second half.

But the pitching rotation is still rotting from the inside. Hector Santiago and Kyle Gibson look irreparably broken, yet are owed so much they will hang around like acne-riddled wallflowers at Activity Night; Ervin Santana has been fantastic, but remains old with little in his peripheral numbers to justify his recent stats (save a PED suspension, if we’re being honest); and Jose Berrios’ electric stuff has crackled and popped, while his 2016 struggles remain fresh in every Twins fan’s mind.

It’s possible the Twins will make the playoffs because anything is possible. There are worse pitching teams (thanks, Baltimore!), but no winning team with a worse pitching staff. There are worse hitting teams, but none that combine such flagrant mediocrity at the plate with such brazen ineptitude on the mound.

But baseball doesn’t always reward efficiency and ability. Perhaps the ‘17 Twins will stumble in to the playoff party, half-drunk and wondering who they gave their keys to.

Nothing of the recent past indicates there’s any other way for this team — so let’s have another drink and toast to the second half of 2017: may it be as lucky and confounding as the first half.