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Championship Window Update: Where did the Twins fit? Part I

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Are we there yet?

Photo by Peter Endig/picture alliance via Getty Images

Back in February, I tried to analyze what an open “championship window” consisted of. I took a look at World Series winners from 2014-2018 and tried to find some common threads that could give us insight on whether the Twins had an “open window” (which was a contentious point last off-season). This is the conclusion I came to:

“So let’s daydream a little bit. Let’s say all of my proposed core guys improve this season. Buxton and Sano prove they’re big-league ballplayers and can stay healthy, Berrios becomes a bona-fide ace, Rosario matches his great season from last year, and Kepler breaks out. These guys won’t be of a “World Series Champion”-type average age for three more years. Top studs like Kirilloff and Lewis could (and likely will) be in the bigs by that point. So we have a couple seasons for these guys to improve and breakout and see how they all fit together. I can’t blame the front office for waiting to see if these things will happen in the meantime. It is potentially a terrific homegrown core, and most of the championship teams were built on mostly homegrown players. If they see marked improvement from these guys, then they should and they will go out and sign and trade for proven players (read: pitchers) to push the team over the top.”

Hmm. Don’t want to brag or anything, but in hindsight, it looks very accurate. The 2019 season ended up being the very best-case scenario that was imaginable at the beginning of the season. So now that we have that insight about how the 2019 Twins season ended up, where do they fit in the championship window conversation?

First of all, I expanded and improved the study I conducted back in February. Back then, I used six criteria (payroll, average roster age, previous year’s result, strength of division, number of players above 5.0 and 3.0 WAR, and five-player “core”). I also only researched five teams. With some added insight, I’ve thrown out the “strength of division” category, expanded the criteria to 13 categories, and researched both the World Series winners and losers from the past 10 years (I have a life, I swear). This includes 2019’s data.

The chart is understandably a little bit overwhelming, so I’m not going to drop it into the blog, but you can take a look at it here if you’re interested in the raw data. There’s also some handy charts for every criteria that can be found here. Instead of dropping all the data on you, I’m just going to summarize the criteria and compare the 2019 Twins to the averages in this blog.

You’re going to find three averages in each criteria. There’ll be a total average, an average for pre-2015 (including 2015), and an average for post-2015 (which is a smaller sample size, to be fair). Gathering the data, there was a marked change in the roster strength of World Series teams after 2015. Why? It coincides with Rob Manfred becoming commissioner, more lively baseballs being utilized, and with a year-by-year increase in the number of bad teams in baseball. More teams are tanking than ever before, so there is more talent going to the teams that are trying to win.

Let’s get into the data. In this blog, I’ll cover stats from the “year of”, and in a future blog, I’ll look at “year prior” stats, which would give us some insight into the 2020 season using 2019’s outcomes.

Payroll

AVG: 10.05

Pre-2015: 10.93

Post-2015: 8.29

2019 Minnesota Twins: 17

Spend more, win more. This is a concept I covered in a blog in early October, and it rings true when studying championship teams. There are a few outliers, but to put themselves in the best place to win, the Twins should try and get closer to a top-10 payroll. I found that of the twenty pennant winners in the past 10 years, sixteen of them were in the top 13 of payroll. However, last off-season was the wait-and-see off-season, and the front office has now indicated that they’re ready to spend to supplement the current core. I expect the team to creep up the payroll rankings a few spots, and will be disappointed if they do not.

Average Age

AVG: 28.93

Pre-2015: 28.84

Post-2015: 29.13

2019 Minnesota Twins: 28.6 (27.4 w/o outlier Cruz)

It was surprising to me that the average age has actually risen since 2015. However, the Nationals (congratulations!) were a pretty large outlier, with an average age a full year older than any pennant winner in the past 10 years (32.1). This could also be attributed to health science improving, as there are (all across sports) more players contributing at older ages than there used to be. Fourteen of the twenty teams fell between 28 and 30, and the Twins fell right in there. However, Cruz was so much older than the majority of the team that he brought the average up a full 1.2 years, and so the team would’ve actually been younger than your typical pennant winner.

Core Average Age

AVG: 28.10

Pre-2015: 28.49

Post-2015: 27.31

2019 Minnesota Twins: 29.2 (26.6 w/o Cruz)

This is where you see the youth movement across baseball. Since 2015, the average “core age” has dropped by more than 1 year. I define a “core” as the top 5 players on a team by bWAR. This is also another area where the Twins were dramatically effected by Cruz’s advanced age. The rest of the core has growing left to do before they fall out of the ideal range (26-29).

Wins

AVG: 95.10

Pre-2015: 93.00

Post-2015: 99.29

2019 Minnesota Twins: 101

The influence of the increasing amount of tanking teams is very evident in this category. There were 4 teams that won over 100 games this year, which was an MLB record. There have also been some juggernauts with well over 100 wins lately, which brings the average up. The Nationals only won 92 games this year, but (especially in the AL) a team really needs to win 95+ games these days. 95 wins wouldn’t have even earned you a playoff spot in the AL this year! All that said, and the Twins fell squarely above the bar in this category.

5-WAR Players

AVG: 2.24

Pre-2015: 2.07

Post-2015: 2.57

2019 Minnesota Twins: 1

Another example of the recent supercharging of rosters, the number of studs on pennant teams has risen. 5.0 bWAR is a bar cleared by only true studs, guys who performed above an All-Star level for the full year. Jorge Polanco cleared the bar for the Twins this year at 5.7, and there were a few players on the Twins who cleared 4.0. Additionally, Byron Buxton likely would have cleared 5.0 had he played around 140 games rather than 87. Both World Series teams in 2019 had a whopping four players clear 5.0.

3-WAR Players

AVG: 6.24

Pre-2015: 5.64

Post-2015: 7.43

2019 Minnesota Twins: 8

3.0 WAR players are typically above-average starters. The number of guys who clear the bar indicates what kind of depth a team had. This is yet another area that has risen in recent years, as the best lineups nowadays have 7-8 dangerous batters. The Bomba Squad had excellent depth this year, and hopefully they can repeat this next year.

125 ERA+ Starting Pitchers

AVG: 1.86

Pre-2015: 1.29

Post-2015: 3.00

2019 Minnesota Twins: 1

ERA+ is a metric for pitchers that compares pitchers to each other. Simply speaking, a 100 ERA+ indicates an average pitcher, and 125+ is 25% better than average. I only considered starters with more than 80 innings pitched for this category. Recently, more of these pitchers are being traded than before. Previously, these are the types of pitchers that even bad teams would hold onto, because they’re very difficult to find. Jake Odorizzi cleared the bar for the Twins this year, and Jose Berrios narrowly missed it (124 ERA+). Previously, you could win a pennant with only one of these guys, but you really need three of them to stack up against the best teams in the playoffs these days.

150 ERA+ Relief Pitchers

AVG: 2.52

Pre-2015: 2.64

Post-2015: 2.29

2019 Minnesota Twins: 3

Interestingly, in the “age of the bullpen”, this metric has actually lowered since 2015 (though not by much). I used 150 as the bar for relievers, because in such short outings you need perfection to be considered an elite reliever. You do need a couple of these guys, but quality (not elite) depth is equally important. This makes sense when you consider that these teams typically have a number of elite starters. The oft-maligned 2019 Twins bullpen boasted THREE elite relievers. Taylor Rogers (176), Tyler Duffey (184!!!), and TREVOR MAY (156), were among the best relievers in the game in 2019, and all will be back for the Twins in 2020. The Twins bullpen actually ended up being a strength of the team in 2019, and it’s the starting staff that really needs improvement.

According to the criteria I’ve assembled, the Twins were a little bit short of being championship-caliber this year. 2019 was probably the best-case scenario for this roster, and with some improved starting pitching, a little more money spent, and further improvement from the young studs (Kepler, Sano, Buxton, Garver), the 2020 Twins could be in an excellent position to win a pennant. Stay tuned for part 2, which will analyze “prior-year” stats and see how the 2020 Twins compare (with 2019 being the prior year).