For an overview of projections, the major projection systems and how they work, and tips for using projections, see our Projection Systems Primer.
Today we’ll dive into the projections for 2020 and explore what they have to say about the 2020 Minnesota Twins. We’ll look at the projected standings and resulting playoff odds, assess the strength and depth of the Twins’ roster, highlight some individual player projections, analyze the Twins starting pitching rotation options, and have some fun looking at how the projections systems think the Twins’ top prospects might fare in big leagues right now.
For ease of use, I’ll be using only the Steamer and ZiPS projections for this analysis of the 2020 projections. Projections from both systems are available for download in their entirety at Fangraphs.com
2020 Projected Standings
ZiPS master Dan Szymborski at Fangraphs has used the ZiPS player projections to make projected standings of the 2020 season. You can check out his post explaining the methodology for more details. The short version is that he uses the player projections to simulate the 2020 season a million times and create a probabilistic distribution of potential team records, associated strengths of schedule, and probabilities for making the playoffs. An important caveat is these simulations include a fair number of assumptions regarding team depth charts and individual player playing time, however it’s a solid way to project a season and gives us fun things to analyze and talk about. With the explanation and caveats out of the way, let’s get to it:
Good news Twins fans! ZiPS’ most likely projection is the Twins winning 91 games and taking the AL Central Division crown by 4 games over Cleveland. I mentioned above these projections are developed using simulations. We can see in the table that the Twins won the division in almost 61% of those simulations, and earned a wild card spot another 13.7% of the time. All told, ZiPS is giving the 2020 Twins a 75% chance to make the playoffs, and a 7.9% chance to win the World Series for the first time since 1991. This 91-win projection would place the Twins (and Rays, also 91 wins) behind only the Yankees (100 wins) and Astros (95 wins) in the American League.
Looking a bit more broadly, ZiPS’ simulation is assigning the Yankees the best chances in MLB to win the World Series at 18.3%, followed by the Dodgers at 17.9%, the Astros at 11.7%, and then the Twins – 4th best – at 7.9%. Also, worth noting is the competitive landscapes in the two leagues looks to be somewhat different. The American League has more teams with World Series chance greater than 5%, but it also has the three teams with largest chances (Baltimore – 47.7%, Seattle – 21.6%, and Detroit – 17.7%) to have the worst record in baseball. And by a wide margin – the next closest is Miami at 4.5% and no other team in the National League has even a 3% projection to end 2020 with the worst record in baseball. It certainly appears that the AL is a bit top and bottom heavy and the NL will be more competitive across the board. This also bears out in the data – the collective projected winning percentage in the AL is lower at .495, versus .505 in the NL.
Roster Strength and Depth
Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is the sabermetric community’s best attempt at quantifying the total value of a player’s contribution on the field. While it is not perfect, it’s the closest thing we have today to numerically value the total player and compare that value with the value of other players. One of the nice things about WAR is it rolls up into a neat, tidy single number (higher is better) which makes it very easy to use for these purposes. One way we can use WAR projections is to roughly evaluate the overall strength of a roster. We can look at the projected total WAR of a roster as an approximation of that rosters’ talent level and compare it to other teams. In general, it is smart to use WAR figures as an approximation and not get too hung up on the decimals – there is just too much noise and too many assumptions in the data. Because of that, I’ll use 0.5 as our cutoff for the analysis below so we’re more confidently projecting a player to be above replacement level. One last word of warning, we should also be cautious trying equate WAR to actual wins on the field – adding up the WAR projections of a roster is too simple of an approach. What we’re doing with this data is comparing the Twins roster with the other teams’ rosters.
What do ZiPS and Steamer have to say about the strength of the Twins, relative to the rest of the MLB?
The table above represents the top 10 teams in projected total WAR. For this question, the total WAR figures from the two systems are less important than the relative rankings within the systems (meaning don’t read too far into the Twins’ 44.9 Steamer WAR versus the 66.9 ZiPS WAR – the systems make different assumptions about playing time, which impacts a cumulative statistic like WAR).
What’s important from this data is we see the Twins are projected highly overall by both systems and the projections agree the Twins’ roster is among the top five in baseball. The systems do seem to diverge in their projection of the pitching staff - it seems ZiPS is a bit more bullish on Minnesota in this regard (more on that in a moment). Both systems agree the Twins’ position player group is among the best in baseball and clearly the leader in the American League Central division.
We can also go another level down to evaluate the depth of the roster. A quick and simple way to do that is to analyze the number of players on a roster that project to be above replacement level, which is 0.0 WAR. We’ll again use 0.5 as a cutoff point due to the margin of error inherent in projections.
Again, we see the Twins among the top teams in baseball. The same caveat from the last table applies – focus on the relative rankings within the systems and less on the raw counts. A way to think about this data is, if player X received enough playing time at the major league level, how would they perform relative to replacement level.
As we noted above, ZiPS appeared higher on the Twins pitching staff, and now we can see that it seems that was driven in some measure by its assessment of the depth of the staff. ZiPS is projecting a full 25 Twins pitchers to be above replacement level in 2020. Now that won’t actually happen, most notably because 25 pitchers aren’t likely to get enough playing time to achieve that value. But the point is, the Twins have accumulated significant depth of potentially viable major league pitchers. That is one potentially effective strategy for overcoming the lack of true superstars in the rotation and the bullpen. When someone goes down with injury, or proves to be ineffective, there is confidence that the next man up can perform adequately in their stead – and over 162 games, depth is a necessary asset.
Highlights from Player Projections
I’ll point out and dig into some selected highlights from those projections below.
Projected MLB Batting Champ – 2B Luis Arraez
Both systems project Twins 2B Luis Arraez as the mostly likely batting average champion of major league baseball. Here are his projected numbers:
It’s important to remember these numbers are mid-points – meaning there is an approximately 50% chance that his actual numbers will be above these and a 50% chance his numbers are below these projections. Let’s hope he hits the over! Also impressive is both systems expect him to maintain his strong plate discipline shown last year with the ZiPS numbers expecting more walks than strikeouts.
Projected Twins WAR Leader – 3B Josh Donaldson
Both systems project Twins 3B Josh Donaldson as the probable most valuable player on the roster. If Donaldson produces somewhere around the 4.0-5.0 WAR that the systems project, he will have provided substantially more value than his $21M base salary for the 2020 season.
A rough rule of thumb for converting WAR into dollars is that 1.0 WAR is valued at about $8.0M to $9.0M on the free agent market. Given that, if Donaldson hits these projections he will provide somewhere between $32M and $47M in value to the 2020 Twins.
The Pitching Rotation
I know that’s a lot of data in the table above. But the Twins have acquired too many potential starting pitchers for me to give you a smaller table.
A few interesting things pop out here. First, for the depth starters towards the bottom of this table we can see the two systems differ in their projections of WAR. This is primarily due to the playing time assumptions being different, as evidenced by the innings pitched projections.
As expected, we see Jose Berrios is projected to lead the pitching staff in WAR (around 3.5) and ERA (in the low 4.00s). Jake Odorizzi and Kenta Maeda don’t trail far behind, giving the Twins three very solid starters to anchor their rotation. As we established earlier, the staff doesn’t project to have any superstar aces, but it does have many potentially serviceable options after those first three. For reference, the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole (clearly an ace) is projected for 6.7 WAR, almost double that of Berrios.
Also notable is that ZiPS seems to be fairly down on Homer Bailey, projecting an ERA in the mid-5’s and almost one and a half baserunners per inning pitched (see WHIP data). If Rich Hill can return and then stay healthy he may prove to be a very valuable part of this staff as he is projected to have the highest strikeouts per 9 rate. In addition, both systems seem to be buying in on Randy Dobnak, with ERA and fielding independent pitching (FIP) projections that are generally in line with those of Berrios, Odorizzi, and Maeda.
Projected Leaders in Key Categories
What do the projections say about who will lead the Twins in key stats?
One thing that definitely stands out is that Steamer still believes in Nelson Cruz to be a power hitting run producer – he’s projected to lead the Twins in slugging, home runs, and runs batted in by that system. Overall, I don’t think we see much that is surprising here. The projections seem to align with our conventional wisdom and public opinion. The players projected to lead the Twins are the players we would expect.
Fun with Prospects
Another fun way to use projections is they give us an opportunity to see how our top prospects project to fare in the major leagues if they were added to the big-league roster today. Keep in mind some of the tips we covered in part one of this projections series – it is very difficult to project prospects due to limited data and their individual development paths. Nonetheless, these are fun to think about.
Unsurprisingly, as none of these prospects have played a game above AA, the projection systems believe they would mostly struggle in the big leagues today. The systems seem to have the most confidence in Alex Kiriloff’s hitting abilities at this point - both systems expect him to hit around .270 in the major leagues today.
On the pitching side, it appears the Twins’ top prospects that are closest to the majors are also projected to struggle if they were pushed to the big leagues today. All the pitching prospects shown here have projected MLB ERAs around or above 5.00. Like the hitters above, Duran, Balazovic, and Sands also haven’t spent time above AA.
When you see these projections of the Twins pitching prospects, it helps put the Twins’ off-season approach of acquiring as much low-cost big league ready pitching depth as they could, in context. It certainly appears that the best prospects are still a little way away from helping the big club.
All of this data makes it clear - 2020 certainly looks to be a promising season for the Twins and the projection systems are expecting them to have success. As Twins fans, let’s hope that’s the case.