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The ’87 Twins and teams built for October

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There might be a championship formula, but what does it say about the 2020 squad

1977 World Series, New York Yankees vs Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Rich Pilling/Getty Images

Ed note: Hans is another new byline here at Twinkie Town, so everyone be on your best behavior today!

The 2020 season is nearly upon us, and there is much to discuss. The Astros are terrible and I can’t wait to see them face justice. The Mookie Betts trade has made it pretty clear who the two best teams are and the Twins have made some moves that, on paper, make them a viable number three. I have never in my life seen the Twins sign a player in free agency who is (arguably) better than all the players they currently had on their roster, so I’m pretty pumped.

So I’m trying to occupy my time as February drags along and have been watching the 1987 World Series tape. I feel like the ’91 series gets more of the hype, and deservedly so, but ’87 was pretty cool. To commemorate that year, I wanted to do a comparison of the two pennant winners in ’87 and draw some similarities to the 2019 season. I also wanted to make the point that, although the ’87 team wasn’t a great regular season team, they operated under a formula that depth challenged teams can—and have—used to win in October.

Concurrent to my winter malaise watching old Youtube videos, MLB Network is doing this silly documentary on the 80’s Cardinals and “Whiteyball;” glorifying how they won 90 games 3 times during the decade, along with three pennants, without hitting home runs, focusing on speed and defense. In discussing this era of the Cardinals, talking heads are quick to point out that they should have won more titles besides ’82*, as if trading Garry Templeton and Ted Simmons means you deserve multiple titles or something. And in watching the Twins bash them into oblivion, I felt that team needed a closer look.

*I’ll grant you that they should have won in ’85, and may well have if not for the most egregious safe call at first in history outside of Armando Gallaraga.

I have confirmed that the Cardinals in ’87 should not have won, because that team was garbage, and the Twins team they played was woefully underrated.

I shouldn’t say the Cardinals were garbage the whole year. They won 95 games during the season, scoring nearly 800 runs and stealing 248 bases. Willie McGee was basically Willie McGee by then, driving in 105 runs with 11 triple and 11 home runs, Ozzie Smith was peaking (a 105 OPS+ for said Wizard) and Vince Coleman was his best self as well, stealing 109 bases with a .360 OBP. (You see what’s missing Billy Hamilton?) 1987 also represented the first time Terry Pendleton was usable offensively (103 OPS+)*

*Can someone explain Terry Pendleton to me? I was born in the late 80’s and I feel like there is a lot more to him than his stat sheet- like he was a great fielder and he carried the Braves offense in ’91, I know that, but was he like, a feared hitter during his Cardinal days except xyz? Was he a can’t miss prospect? Was his ’91 breakout considered overdue? From afar he seems like Trevor Plouffe with better defense.

The 1987 Cards pitching was pretty reminiscent of the 2019 Twins: 4 pitchers posting ERA+ between 108 and 118 and their ace reliever Todd Worrell striking out 92 with 33 saves and a 157 ERA+. They seemed to like starter Danny Cox the most- he started game 7 of the NLCS, and was brought in in relief in game 7 of the World Series, which is a move I’m sure Whitey Herzog will regret forever. So what was good about this team? Sure they fielded well and stole a lot of bases, but that can only take you so far. How did they win so many games and beat the Giants with their 35 home run hitting first baseman named Clark in the NLCS?

Because the Cardinals had a better Clark who hit 35 home runs named Jack, and he was a difference maker in ’85, and even more so in ’87. It wasn’t just bunting and speed or dominant pitching that drove the Cardinals, as the producers of said MLB Network special so desperately wish it was. It wasn’t going the other way and hit and runs. It was, in large part, Jack Clark taking 136 walks, leading the league in OBP and SLG and posting a 176 OPS+, which for context is right between Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger in 2019 production. His 24.3% walk rate in ’87 is fifth all time… to Barry Bonds, four times.

But then on September ninth, he tore tendons in his ankle. He tried to pinch hit on October third and fourth against the Mets, but further aggravated the injury, and after one attempt at an at-bat in the NLCS he was done. Terry Pendleton strained his ribcage in game 7 of the NLCS and was very limited in the World Series. That left St. Louis lineup as this for game 1 against Frank Viola:

Vince Coleman – nice

Ozzie Smith – good number two hitter

Tom Herr – not a terrible hitter, but jeez

Jim Lindeman – the eff?

Willie McGee – ok back to good

Tony Pena – no wait

Jose Oquendo – the third base coach?

Tom Pagnozzi – this is your DH, the backup catcher with 53 career PAs in which he hit .188/.250/.333

Tom Lawless – three run HR in game 4 aside, what?

Here’s their OPS+ 1-9

91

105

80

66

94

55

99

52

-19

So that’s why the Cardinals were garbage and also might explain Clark’s historic walk rate. Again, their pitching wasn’t bad, but they lacked a true ace. In fact, the Twins should have cleaned up. They had Hrbek, Puckett, Brunansky and Gaetti, who combined for 125 home runs, the underappreciated Greg Gagne, additional hitting depth with Roy Smalley, Randy Bush and Gene Larkin, an ace in Frank Viola and a Hall of Fame number two starter in Bert Blyleven.

They wrecked the guy who the Tigers traded John Smoltz for in game one of the ALCS. Then they wrecked proven postseason pitcherJack Morris for 6 ER in game two. For good measure they knocked the guy the Tigers traded John Smoltz for out of the game in the 2nd inning in the deciding game five.

But, you say, the Twins only won 85 games and were outscored by their opponents! This is true, but it ignores something that teams need when building a championship level ballclub: There are two seasons you have to win and winning one doesn’t mean you’re well stocked for the other: You need depth for the grind of the season and top end pitching along with 3-4 consistent offensive core players for the postseason. In other words, having the best back of the rotation is wonderful for the regular season, but is practically useless in the postseason when you likely won’t use more than your best three pitchers. Same for having a lineup full of solid role players. If everyone in the lineup has a slash line of .275/.325/.450 your team will likely score enough runs, but will likely fall victim to quality pitching in the playoffs. Let’s say the rule for playoff success is four offensive players with a 115 OPS+ or so, and two starting pitchers with an average of a 130 ERA+. From now on, this will be referred to as the formula.

Observe the 2019 Washington Nationals- they won 93 games, yes, but they were not dominant outside of their initial hot streak and the final week and a half of the season where they cleaned up against teams, like the Indians, that were exhausted and out of contention. Their bullpen was weak, and without Howie Kendrick playing the best 4 months of his life, they may not have made the playoffs. But they squeaked in, and once they were in they had:

Two dominant starting pitchers, and a good core to their lineup. Rendon (153 OPS+), Soto (138) Turner (113) and Kendrick (142) provided the core, and Scherzer (157 ERA+) and Strasburg (138) the dominant pitching. This allowed them to beat the kings of depth in the LA Dodgers, and is what gave them a chance against the Astros (I would argue that the Cardinals and Brewers were not particularly scary opponents, in fact they represent a good argument not to expand the playoffs. They also do poorly with my formula, for what its worth).

How about a different Cardinals team to compare to, the ‘06 Championship squad? That team only won 83 games but they had an ace in Chris Carpenter (144 ERA+), a Robin to his Batman in playoff™ Jeff Suppan (108), and a lineup core of HOF’er Albert Pujols (178 OPS+), should be HOF’ers in Scott Rolen (126) and Jim Edmonds (110) as well as Chris Duncan (140). There are many ways to bake the cake, but the ingredients that make it edible are usually four good hitters and two great pitchers.

Let’s contrast that to some seemingly great teams that faltered in the playoffs.

2001 Mariners – 116 wins, decent lineup depth (5 hitters over 120 OPS+), but a rotation fronted by Freddy Garcia (135 ERA+), Aaron Sele (115) and Jamie Moyer (120). Those numbers do qualify under my formula but under the broader intent of it, none of those three was a real ace in any sense of the word.

2006 Twins – 96 wins, strong lineup with two MVP candidates in the middle. Johan Santana and… Boof Bonser. Had we beaten the A’s, the ALCS may have been rough.

2013 Tigers – 93 wins, Verlander and Scherzer at the top along with ERA champ Anibal Sanchez and a good Doug Fister year. But the lineup only went two deep with Miggy Cabrera and Prince Fielder (the latter of whom only slugged .457 that year).

Now the Twins in ‘87 were not as well balanced as the 2nd place team in the AL West, the Kansas City Royals. Those Royals had the most powerful offense KC has maybe ever had, with still-in-his-prime George Brett (131 OPS+), Bo Jackson (94, but also he was Bo Jackson), Danny Tartabull (141) and Kevin Seitzer (128) combining for 93 home runs, and Steve Balboni chipping in 24 more. They had better overall pitching than the Twins, with ace Bret Saberhagen in his prime (136 ERA+), along with Charlie Leibrandt (134) and Danny Jackson (114) setting up borderline HOF’er Dan Quisenberry (167). They could have done well in the playoffs under my hypothesis.

But by outlasting the Royals and six other teams with 75 or more wins in the AL West, the Twins were somehow in the playoffs despite having no pitching depth to speak of. Like the Nats and the ’06 Cardinals, they were a matchup nightmare. Although they had no number four starter (and a rookie number three in Les Straker who would only pitch 82 more innings after ’87) they had two aces who could shut any lineup down, and a powerful lineup that could get hot at any time.

The ’87 Twins were built to win in October, and that may have been by accident. I’m sure Andy McPhail would have preferred a team with more depth, that would have had an easier go through the regular season. They probably shouldn’t have even made the playoffs, but somehow they did—and entered with four good hitters and two great pitchers. This isn’t groundbreaking, as teams are constantly looking for something like that formula, and yet the ’87 Twins are still looked at as a flash in the pan that squeaked in, got lucky (Jack Clark’s absence was pretty lucky) and used the dome to its advantage. Even though its offensive core would repeat as champions four years later, respect escapes that era of Twins baseball.

The formula is imprinted on all sorts of champion teams. The ’18 Red Sox had Boegarts, Betts, Benintendi and Martinez to pair with Sale and Price/Eovaldi. The Astros had Bregman, Altuve, Correa and Springer to pair with Verlander and Keuchel. The Giants for their 3 championships had Posey, Panda, Belt and Pence to pair with Bumgarner and Lincecum/Cain. The ’87 formula was consistent with how many other teams won championships. Those teams had better supporting pieces than .191 hitting Tim Laudner or Joe Niekro and his 6.26 ERA, but that doesn’t always matter if you have the main ingredients in place.

For sure, the formula doesn’t work every year- who was a dominant hitter for the ’16 Cubs besides Bryant and Rizzo? Who pitched like an ace for the ’15 Royals? Those teams had a different way of getting it done- the Cubs with all around pitching and the Royals with a bullpen so effective it changed the Yankees entire payroll philosophy. But I would put up Puckett, Gaeti, Brunansky, Hrbek, Blyleven and Viola against almost any World Series winning team. It’s pretty rare to have a lineup with four 30 home run guys that go with an ace (did I mention Viola’s 159 ERA+?) and a HOF’er as your one-two punch in the rotation. In fact, since 1987 no World Series winner has had a core four of hitters surpass 125 home runs with a HOF’er on their staff.* Perhaps the Twins simply perfected the formula- they trimmed all the excess and were left with just the 6 players they needed.

*The caveat to that is the ’09 Yankees had CC Sabathia and hit 126 home runs, and the ’08 Phillies hit 138 with Cole Hamels fronting the staff. I am by no means suggesting either of them are surefire Hall-of-Famers, but a case could be made, particularly if Hamels has an old guy resurgence akin to Verlander or something. Hamels has never made fewer than 23 starts in a year (rookie year in ’06) and his ERA+ for his career is 123.

Some other notes on World Series winning teams since ’87:

Boston in ’04 had four players combine to hit 122 home runs- Manny Ramirez with 43, Papi with 41, Johnny Damon with 20 and Kevin Millar and Jason Varitek tied with 18. Of course, Pedro is somewhat of a HOF’er.

Arizona in ’01 should have both of its 1-2 in the Hall, if Curt Schilling sends the writers a fruit basket or something. And with Luis Gonzalez hitting 57 home runs, their lineup core got to 121 home runs.

The White Sox in ’05 were interesting in that they hit 116 home runs, but I wonder if the writers will love Mark Buehrle enough to keep him on the ballot for a few years. His 117 ERA+ for his career is better than CC, he pitched in a bandbox in a very high run scoring era, and led his team to a championship. He also made 30 starts every year of his career, was an incredible fielder and never had a fastball. Maybe not good enough for the hall (he has 59.2 career bWAR), but he was pretty unique and I hated watching him pitch against the Twins.

The ’87 Cardinals had none of this formula. They were 1 for 4 0-for-4 in power bats, and 0-for-2 in dominant pitchers. They didn’t deserve any more championships than they won in the ‘80s. They never had enough hitting and outside of some great John Tudor years, not enough top level pitching. Here’s their record by year:

1980 74-88

1981 59-43

1982 92-70

1983 79-83

1984 84-78

1985 101-61

1986 79-82

1987 95-67

1988 76-86

1989 86-76

Not bad, but if that’s all you need for a decade where’s the documentary about the 2000’s Twins?

Now it should be said that there are some flaws in my methodology: Gary Gaetti had a .303 OBP (102 OPS+) and Blyleven gave up 46 home runs and was past his prime in ’87- so his HOF credentials are perhaps overstated. That’s all quite fair, and my only counter would be that Blyleven pitched well in the postseason in ’87 and would go on to post a 140 ERA+ with the Angels two years later (the juiced ball of ’87 maybe playing a part), and that Gaetti sandwiched his down ’87 with an OPS+ of 131 before and 148 after. He was clearly still a good hitter in his prime.

The unfortunate part about all this is that as far as trying to describe the championship formula, I am not describing the Twins in 2020. They will have a deeper lineup than almost all of the teams I have mentioned- heck you could reasonably expect 7 regulars in their lineup to have an .850 or above OPS, and the other two to post 3 WAR seasons. But even if Jose Berrios improves, he’s more Nathan Eovaldi than Chris Sale. More Jeff Suppan than Chris Carpenter. The Andy Pettite to another’s Roger Clemens or David Cone.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that he can definitely be 2nd half of that tandem, and if the Twins can find a Jon Gray, Charlie Morton, Noah Syndergaard or even Sale, an Odorizzi/Maeda/Hill/Pineda back of the rotation would sure beat out Les Straker.