With the Angels’ loss to the White Sox yesterday, the Twins officially clinched the second wild card spot in the MLB postseason. It also made them the first team in MLB history to lose over 100 games one season and make the playoffs the next year. It’s pretty safe to say few people, if any, saw this coming.
So how did the Twins do it? Below I have some the the top reasons, more or less ranked, explaining how Minnesota made it to the 2017 MLB playoffs.
1. The two-team wild card system is sort of messed up
Yes, the Twins are the first team in MLB history to lose at least 100 games and make the playoffs the following season, but let’s be frank: they only made it because of the two-team wild card format. By having two wild card teams instead of one, it’s a lot easier for teams to make the “playoffs”, even if it’s only for the one wild card game. In fact, every American League team with a record above .500 this year made the playoffs. Why? Because the best teams in the league (Red Sox, Astros, Indians, Yankees) won a lot of games, meaning the not-good teams lost a lot of games, thus leaving the Twins in a super weird “just good enough” limbo area where they squeaked by.
Under the old, one-team wild card system, the Twins would be at home watching the postseason like everyone else. Now, however, they get to lose a one-game playoff to the Yankees, and then go home and watch the postseason like everyone else.
2. The 2016 Twins were extremely unlucky
In 2015, a young Twins team ended with a respectable 83-79 record. Hence, no one was really expecting the 2016 Twins to so completely and ruthlessly shit the bed, but that’s exactly what they did. Their 103 losses last season were the most for any Twins team ever.
You don’t end up with an unexpected 103 losses by just being really bad. You end up with 103 losses because you’re really bad and also pretty unlucky. Yes, the Twins made some bad managerial decisions (cough cough Miguel Sano playing right field), but they also had a lot of unlucky injuries (Glen Perkins and Phil Hughes, to name a few) that certainly did not help.
Don’t believe me that the 2016 Twins were unlucky? I could look up and analyze stats, or just give you this example: One time Pat Light threw a wild pitch on an intentional walk, allowing the first of six runs to be scored against the Twins in the ninth inning of an awful, awful game that, somehow, only about 300 people showed up to watch.
3. Young talent just getting more experience
Despite their horrendous record, the 2016 Twins actually had a lot of talent. Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Jose Berrios—these were all the names of highly touted prospects that had been thrown around baseball circles for years. However, because they’d been hyped for so long, many people failed to realize how young they still were—just 22, 23, and 21 years old respectively. That’s, like, really young.
Clearly, none of those guys had reached anywhere near their full potential in 2016. Usually when a team losses 103 games and then goes into the next season with almost the same roster, you’d expect them to be similarly as crappy. However, these guys were actually young players with a lot of tools and potential. I mean, they are still young now, but they have more experience and are now living up to that potential.
Sano is no longer a failed right fielder—he’s an all-star third baseman. Byron Buxton has a team-leading 5.3 bWAR, and seems destined for a Gold Glove in center field. Jose Berrios has arguably been the team’s best starting pitcher—and I haven’t even mentioned Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, and the other young Twins who have stepped up this year.
4. Really good defense
In 2016, the Twins were throwing out an outfield like Robbie Grossman, Danny Santana, and Miguel Sano. When you’re a team that’s almost embarrassingly known for employing pitch-to-contact type pitchers, an outfield like that leads to bad things.
In 2017, the Twins defense is a much different story. I’m basically going to name my first born child Byron Buxton at this point, regardless of gender. With his incredible speed, Buxton has made himself the premier defensively center fielder in all of baseball. Hell—probably the premier defender at any position. If you don’t think defense can ever be that important in baseball, just watch Byron Buxton. Just for one inning. It will change you.
Even Jorge Polanco, who many thought would be a defensive liability at shortstop because of his sorta weak arm, had been doing great defensively. Part of that might be because first baseman Joe Mauer, has been playing Kent Hrbek-levels of defense at first base, which bring me to my next point...
5. Joe Mauer is playing like Joe Mauer
I’ve been a Twins fan since I was about two years old, which was 30 years ago. I’ve been lucky to watch many great players for this organization—Kent Hrbek, Kirby Puckett, Brad Radke, Johan Santana... But the best player I’ve gotten to watch play, hands down, is Joe Mauer.
When Mauer plays well, the team does well. And guess what? Mauer is hitting .305/.381/.417. He’s only hit seven home runs, sure, but one of them was his first-ever walk-off home run. He’s hit 35 doubles. He should win the Gold Glove at first base, which will make him one of less-than-a-handful to win a Gold Glove at two different positions. Of course, at age 34, Mauer will never match his peak—but he is playing like the elite athlete we know he is. If that doesn’t give Twins fans the warm fuzzies, I don’t know what will.
Obviously, there are many more reasons behind these five that explain the Twins’ incredible success this season: improved pitching, a savvy front office, Jason Castro’s magical pitch-framing abilities, like five times backup catcher Chris Gimenez had to pitch, so on and so fourth. But also, as mentioned, the Twins are still sort of the underdogs, sneaking into the postseason with only 83-75 record (currently).
Here’s some food for thought: Thirty years ago, the Twins ended their season with an 85-77 record. Their Pythagorean win-loss record—meaning, how much they should have won or lost based on their run differential—was 79-83. And guess what? Those Twins beat the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games to win their first World Series championship.
These Twins are likely to end up with a similar, though maybe slightly better, record. Don’t count them out.