The optimistic among us have many statistics we can point to that suggest a lot of what the Twins have experienced in their terrible start to this season is driven by almost unbelievably bad luck. So many of the macro level statistics suggest things will have to turn around as the season goes on.
You’ve read about the team’s Pythagorean Winning Percentage and BaseRuns projected win-loss record being significantly better than its actual record and winning percentage. In both cases, the Twins’ negative delta between actual on field results and expected results is the largest in baseball.
You’ve also probably read that the Twins’ futility in close games (3-7 record in one run games, 0-7 in extra innings) is fluky and not emblematic of anything very meaningful about the roster.
Another commonly cited reason for optimism is that the offense is near the top of the league in a lot of categories, including the popular Statcast process measures like exit velocity, hard hit rate, and barrels.
There are even reasons to be optimistic the bullpen, as bad as it has been, will be pretty decent going forward. (Ok, I’m stretching it on this one.) But! There is a meaningful gap between the bullpen’s ERA and FIP which suggests they have been somewhat unlucky. The ERA estimator SIERA suggests the Twins relievers are actually better than league average. If nothing else, they can’t possibly be *this* bad for a full season. Right?
So far, though, whenever there seems to be good reasons to hope that things are going to turn around, it hasn’t come to fruition. The discussion and comments on our game threads and in social media track along the lines of “here we go again.” It feels like the biggest spots never play out in the Twins favor. It is not a stretch to say that it feels like they don’t come through in the clutch.
I’m here to tell you — that feeling is not just our frustration. It is real. And it bears out in the numbers. The Twins have been the least clutch team in baseball — and by a wide margin. We have the data and stats to prove it.
First, let’s do a quick refresher on the concept of leverage, which is key to understanding performance in clutch situations. You intuitively know that some situations throughout the course of a baseball game are more crucial than others in determining which team wins and which team loses.
Batting with runners on base late in a close game is more pressure packed than doing so in the first inning. The situation when a reliever enters the game with the tying run on third base is more impactful to the eventual outcome of the game than the starter facing the leadoff man in the first inning.
Using the fundamental analytic concept of win expectancy — the percent chance a particular team will win based on the score, inning, outs, runners on base, and the run environment — baseball analysts have been able to quantify the amount of pressure in each base-out-score situation with the stat Leverage Index (LI).
Explained simply, each situation is assessed for how much it could swing win expectancy. Situations where the possible win expectancy swings are highest — and therefore most likely to affect the outcome of the contest — are considered “high leverage.”
So far in 2021 (through Friday, May 14 games), the Twins’ performance in high leverage situations has been abysmal. Using FanGraphs’ Splits Leaderboard Tool, we can see that the Twins hitters have performed at the lowest level in baseball in high leverage situations. Their collective slash line in these situations is .137 /.198 / .231 and .193 wOBA (30th). In 127 high leverage plate appearances, the Twins have just 16 hits and only 4 of them have gone for extra bases.
On the other side, Twins pitchers have fared only slightly better. In high leverage spots, opposing hitters have produced .308 / .340 / .451 and .337 wOBA (26th) off Minnesota hurlers. Each of those triple-slash stats ranks somewhere in the bottom third of MLB teams. Collectively, the group has a 9.35 ERA in these most critical spots.
It’s not just that the Twins have been bad in high leverage situations. It’s that they’ve been much worse than should be expected based on their usual production. FanGraphs maintains a statistic called Clutch that evaluates how well a player (or team) performs in high leverage spots relative to how they otherwise perform, using win probability and leverage.
Clutch has limitations as a measure — most notably that each player is compared to themselves as the baseline and it assumes that one has to perform better in high-leverage situations than their context-neutral level in order to be considered clutch. What that means is a player who hits .300 in high leverage situations when he’s an overall .300 hitter is not considered clutch. But a player who hits .320 in high leverage spots, compared to .300 overall, would get positive credit in the clutch score.
Or, as is the case of the 2021 Twins, players who hit much worse in high leverage spots than they do otherwise get negative clutch scores. It is instructive that by this measure, the Twins have been the most extreme un-clutch team in baseball this season.
Here are the team total clutch scores:
On the offensive side, Minnesota is ranked last with a minus-3.29 clutch score. On the mound, they rank 27th with minus-1.53. Only seven teams score negatively in Clutch in both hitting and pitching. The Twins are the only club that is worse than minus-0.37 in both. Incredibly, their minus-4.82 total score is nearly 3 standard deviations away from the mean and more than a full standard deviation away from the next least clutch team.
So what does this mean? Here’s an explanation from FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan:
The specific stat might be difficult to explain to the average fan, but the idea is a basic one. Teams with high Clutch scores have had really good timing. Teams with low Clutch scores have had really bad timing. Timing is important! This explains a lot of the difference we see between actual wins and BaseRuns wins, which you can just think of as “expected wins.”
This is what we’ve been seeing and feeling with the Twins and the big reason why those decent looking macro stats I noted at the beginning of this article haven’t paid off in wins.
Clutch explains most of the big disparity in their actual and expected records. Further on in the FanGraphs article linked above, Sullivan includes an analysis of the 2002 through 2014 seasons. It showed that 54% of the difference between actual wins and BaseRuns projected wins can be explained by Clutch scores. Clutch doesn’t explain everything for teams that perform differently than expected, but it explains a big chunk.
That finding is holding true in 2021, as well. The top three teams in the clutch chart above — Oakland, Cleveland, and Philadelphia — have the three largest positive differences in their actual and BaseRuns records. Similarly, two of the three teams at the bottom of the chart — the Dodgers and Twins — are two of the teams with the largest negative differences between actual and expected results.
So, what does that mean for the rest of the 2021 season? The Twins can’t do anything about the poor performance that’s already in the bank. But, does past un-clutch performance portend future un-clutch performance? The answer is... not necessarily.
Sullivan has periodically updated his analyses on clutch, including again in 2018. Using more than 40 years of data, he has found precisely zero relationship between past clutch performance and future clutch performance. Whether he looked within seasons (i.e., first half vs. second half) or season to season, the results proved that past clutch performance — positive or negative — is not an indicator of future clutch performance — positive or negative.
It’s basically completely random and not a repeatable skill (or lack of skill).
Maybe the Twins can change it. Maybe they can’t. It might be too late. Even if it’s not too late, there’s no real demonstrable fix that can be implemented to improve this. (Other than just playing better.)
But, in my search for the answer to what has been the most common question I’ve asked myself this season — “What the hell is happening?” — it seems that this incredibly poor performance in high leverage, clutch spots is the best explanation.
John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnFoley_21.