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Welcome to Bizarro World: Pitching carried the Twins to playoffs

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2019 feels like a long time ago, doesn’t it?

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Minnesota Twins
Kenta Maeda was a god-send for the Twins’ starting rotation this year.
Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone knows that 2020 has been a weird year. And, yes, “weird” is entirely too kind of a word.

But it’s been weird for the Twins, too. And not the part about the regular season only being 60 games and not starting until late July, either. Just ... everything else. It’s so different than 2019.

Don’t believe me? What if, 12 months ago, I told you that the Twins would finish the 2020 campaign slipping to eighth in the majors in home runs and have an average-at-best offense by almost any measure? You’d probably assume that the Twins finished in second place, or maybe even third.

But then, if I told you that the Twins still logged a .600 winning percentage (97 wins in a normal, 162-game regular season) and won the A.L. Central, what would you think?

In that case, you may assume that the Twins managed to sign Hyun Jin Ryu. Or Zack Wheeler. Or both. Or Madison Bumgarner. (Talk about a bullet dodged...) Or perhaps Jose Berrios or Jake Odorizzi were Cy Young candidates, or maybe Taylor Rogers and Sergio Romo formed a dynamic, shutdown closer duo at the back end of the bullpen.

Alas, none of the above is true.

Yes, Berrios had a great final few weeks of the season. And Romo was quite good for most of the season while Rogers was okay, but both have scuffled down the stretch of the regular season. Odorizzi made only four starts to the tune of a 6.59 ERA.

The only major pitching acquisition made by the Twins was a trade for a player who wasn’t on many folks’ radar in Kenta Maeda, and the only free agents signed to shore up the rotation were Rich Hill, Homer Bailey, and Jhyouls Chacin. The trio combined for 10 starts, and two aren’t on the team anymore.

Instead, the Twins were carried by Maeda, who is one of the best 10 or 12 starting pitchers in the game this year. Randy Dobnak was great early before falling apart in the second half of the abbreviated season, and Berrios did the opposite of what Twins fans are accustomed to, getting better as the season went on. Rich Hill was okay despite some persistent control issues, and Michael Pineda came back from suspension to throw 26 23 innings of 3.38 ERA ball.

At any rate, here are the Twins’ rankings, out of all 30 teams, in offensive categories:

  • Runs per game: T-No. 18
  • Home Runs: No. 6
  • Doubles: No. 22
  • Triples: T-Last
  • Stolen Bases: Last
  • Average: No. 18
  • On-Base Percentage: No. 20
  • Slugging Percentage: No. 14
  • On-Base plus Slugging: No. 15
  • OPS+: No. 15

That’s No. 14 or lower in every category except for home runs. Some — triples, and stolen bases, most obviously — aren’t a shocker, but this goes to show that the Twins’ offense was largely below average, and didn’t make up for a comparative lack of power with generating runs in any other way.

From Bradford Doolittle in the Twins section of the ESPN playoff preview:

,,,the Minnesota attack has been more dependent on homers for scoring than any other team on the AL side of the tournament, with 51% of the Twins’ runs coming via the long ball. Conversely, no team in the AL — playoff entrant or not — has scored fewer runs per game by non-homer means. The Twins need to go deep during games to go deep into the tournament.

This was simply a below-average offense for much of the season, suffering through a lack of production from players like Mitch Garver and Jorge Polanco, and injuries to the likes of Luis Arraez, Garver, Josh Donaldson, and Byron Buxton. Marwin Gonzalez, Ehire Adrianza and Jake Cave were mostly underwhelming as replacements, making matters worse.

But, the pitching was phenomenal, and the formula of Maeda + (early season) Dobnak + (late-season) Berrios + (post-suspension) Pineda and (healthy) Hill equaled one of the league’s best starting rotations. Not that that’s a repeatable format for 2021, but there you have it.

When it was all said and done, Minnesota finished No. 4 in team ERA, behind only the L.A. Dodgers, Cleveland, and Tampa Bay.

Here are those numbers, laid out in list format:

  • Earned Run Average: No. 4
  • Runs allowed per game: No. 3
  • ERA+: No. 4
  • Fielding Independent Pitching: T-No. 2
  • Walks and Hits per Innings Pitched: No. 4
  • Home runs allowed per nine innings: T-No. 1
  • Walks per nine innings: T-No. 6
  • Strikeouts per nine innings: T-No. 9
  • Strikeouts-to-walks ratio: No. 6

That’s top six in virtually every relevant pitching category.

A league-average offense, combined with a top-five or six pitching staff (remember — these stats are all innings pitched, not just starters) is one of the best teams in the league in any season.

And don’t discount the possibility of the Twins getting hot offensively at any point. Provided Buxton and Donaldson get healthy this week, a full Twins lineup is still dangerous, and they still finished No. 8 in the league in home runs. As we all know (and know all too well) anything can happen in a short series.

Maybe once — or actually, four times, hopefully — the Twins can be the team that catches lightning in a bottle. They have the pitching staff to win in the postseason, and if the offense comes to the party, too ... look out.