1. Standings and Playoff Chances (through May 28)
When the season started, FanGraphs projected the Twins for 82.4 wins and gave them a 40.4% chance of reaching the playoffs. That outlook was the second-best in the AL Central, trailing the heavily favorited White Sox (87.4 wins, 72.2% to make playoffs). Through 47 games, the Twins’ 28-19 record has them on a 99-win pace. It’s probably unlikely they’ll keep that up the rest of the way, but the strong start has had a meaningful impact on their chances in the eyes of the models.
FanGraphs’ estimates are now up to 85.5 wins and 61.2% to the make the playoffs. Those still trail Chicago, but the gap has narrowed considerably. In almost an exact opposite of last season, the Twins’ gain of 21.7 percentage points of playoff odds since the start of the season is the 2nd-largest improvement of any team, trailing only the Mets’ +22.5%.
2. Make Your Own Luck
The Twins' great start is supported by a +30 run differential, the best mark in the division and 4th-best in the American League. Playing what’s perceived as a soft schedule in what’s expected to be a weak division has been a common point of discussion. Those, combined with the Twins’ 9-5 record in one-run games work together to give the impression that there has been some good fortune involved in building the current 5.0 game lead in the division.
By Baseball-Reference’s Pythagorean Record, the Twins have played like a 27-20 team so far, just one game off their actual mark. FanGraphs also uses a different method called BaseRuns for these purposes and it estimates the Twins as a 25-22 club, or three games worse than their actual record.
So maybe the Twins have been a little fortunate thus far. Their 26-13 record against losing clubs and 2-6 record against teams with winning records will add some fuel to that notion. But, that’s not to say it’s guaranteed they’ll come back down to earth. Every year there are a couple of clubs that surpass these kinds of expectations. Last year’s San Francisco Giants (107-55) were projected as a 76-win team before the season. Last year’s Seattle Mariners (90-72) somehow outperformed their Pythagorean projection by fourteen games. Only time will tell.
3. Examining the Catching Situation
When Mitch Garver was traded to Texas and Gary Sánchez was acquired by Minnesota during Spring Training, the Twins’ catching situation was seen as a considerable question mark. Garver, while oft-injured, had been a very good offensive catcher and a competent defender. Sánchez had been neither of those the past couple of seasons and his mate behind the plate, Ryan Jeffers, had yet to fully establish himself in the majors after an impressive rookie debut in 2020.
Through about two months of play this season, the series of transactions Minnesota made behind the plate has been, at worst, a push. The future outlook may be even better.
Collectively, Jeffers and Sánchez, with a few games of José Godoy, rank tied for 11th in FanGraphs’ WAR thanks to the combination of just slightly below league average offense (98 wRC+) with slightly above-average defense. According to Statcast, Minnesota catchers are 13th in MLB with .283 wOBA as a group.
Behind the plate, the Twins’ backstops have combined for 14 passed balls and wild pitches, which is tied for fifth-fewest in MLB. That’s notable because of the major struggles Sánchez had in New York with those pitches. Perhaps it’s just easier to catch the Twins’ pitchers than the team of velocity and movement Monstars the Yankees roll out on the mound? Perhaps Hank Conger has continued the Twins' steady run of being able to develop catchers defensively? Probably a little of both. In terms of pitch framing, Jeffers ranks 8th out of 61 qualified catchers with +2 framing runs per Statcast, and Sánchez is just above average at 28th.
Now, it’s not all been positive. Stolen bases are a diminishing aspect of how the game is played nowadays, but the Twins’ group has only thrown out three of 30 attempted base stealers. That 10% caught stealing rate is the lowest in MLB. If you add stolen bases allowed to the passed balls and wild pitches and think of it as a cumulative category of “free bases” the Twins rank 15th, with 41 total.
All of that said, it’s hard not to like the Twins' end of these deals going forward this season. Of Garver’s 29 games played, just 14 have been at catcher. He has missed time with a forearm strain and likely won’t catch at all (but will hit as DH) because of the injury for several more weeks. In the playing time that he has had, his production is roughly similar to that of Sánchez:
Through May 28
|Framing Runs Rank||16th||28th|
4. Byron Buxton’s Slump
At the end of April, Byron Buxton was on top of the baseball world and drawing lots of attention for a torrid start (.275 / .350 / .714, 5 homers in 53 April plate appearances) and some late-game heroics.
Now, nearing the end of May, Buxton has been in a prolonged slump that has dropped his batting average near the Mendoza-line. Over 85 May plate appearances, Buxton’s line is .158 / .235 /.382.
Odd things happen in small samples in baseball, though. Throughout May, Buxton has increased his walk rate and decreased his strikeout rates from April. He’s hit roughly the same rate of line drives and he’s hit the ball up the middle (instead of pulling) at a higher rate.
On the negative side, he has hit a few more groundballs and he’s made a little less hard contact than he did in April (although, it would be very hard to continue to make as much hard contact as he did in April).
A major culprit behind Buxton’s rough May has been a total reversal of batted ball luck. For the month, he’s carrying a .137 batting average on balls in play. His expected batting average this month is .247. His expected slugging percentage this month is .539. In other words, about exactly what you would expect from him.
He’s struggled, there is no denying that. But there does not seem to be much difference or concern with his approach. Just in the past three series against Kansas City and Detroit, Buxton has hit seven balls that had expected batting averages above .550 based on their exit velocities and launch angles. Six of them went for outs. It’s just been a tough stretch.
5. Twins Links
- Luis Arraez has been getting quite a bit of attention the past few weeks. The depressed offensive environment this season is highlighting (and increasing) the value of guys who can make contact and get on base. Perhaps no one in the game today can do those things like Arraez (especially against right-handed pitching). More than a few writers have drawn the obvious comparison of Arraez to Twins legend Rod Carew. While that might be a little rich, especially given Arraez’s platoon splits, there is no doubt that he is an incredibly valuable and underrated player. On that point, Arraez was included in a speculative piece at FanGraphs that looked at what potential extensions for various young players might look like. Using ZiPS projections, a fair deal for Arraez was estimated at five years, $64-million.
- My initial reaction to that number was that it was surprisingly high, but after thinking about it more I decided that reaction was more because I have long been anchored on the five-year, $26-million extension David Fletcher signed with the Angels two winters ago as a good template for Arraez. But Arraez (career 120 wRC+) is a much better offensive player than Fletcher (career 87 wRC+) and ZiPS projects Arraez to lead baseball in batting average for the foreseeable future. ZiPS might be a little optimistic on the overall value, but if the Twins could reach an extension with Arraez somewhere near the mid-point of those two ends (say, 5 years, $45-million), I think it would be an excellent decision for both sides.
- Staying on the ZiPS theme for a moment, Dan Szymborski also used those projections to take a look at what a full career of a healthy Byron Buxton might look like. The conservative estimate of a career total of 55 WAR and 376 home runs might get Buxton into the borders of the Hall of Fame discussion.
- Former Twin Josh Donaldson was in the news for all the wrong reasons this past week. It is impossible not to notice the different feeling the Twins have around them this season without the outspoken third baseman in the clubhouse. Twins players are publicly alluding to that fact. How much of that is actually attributable to Donaldson is unknowable, but I did enjoy this piece comparing his impact to the fictional Jack Parkman of the classic baseball movie Major League II.
6. Around Baseball Links
- The conversation around the makeup of the baseball continues. Home runs are down about 20% from just last season and more than 30% from 2019. Over the past couple of weeks its become popular on social media to contrast two batted balls with similar launch angles and exit velocities but different results as evidence of MLB using two (or more) different baseballs. In response to that, Justin Choi at FanGraphs used a Trackman dataset from college baseball to illustrate the effects batted ball spin (Part 1) (Part 2) (something we don’t have easy public access to from Statcast) can have on similar batted balls. The upshot: the spin of a batted ball can affect the distance it travels significantly. Don’t fall for those comparisons floating around on Twitter. MLB probably did mess with the baseball (again), but there are a lot of other factors at play.
- We are about a month and a half away from the first round of the MLB draft on July 17. The general consensus is that this draft class favors hitters and the latest mock draft from Jim Callis has bats going as the first twelve picks (which would be a first). The Twins are slotted to pick 8th and have consistently been linked to LSU switch-hitter Jacob Berry by Callis and other draftniks. Berry fits the Twins' usual draft profile as a college bat with big numbers and questions about a defensive home. It’s unclear if Berry would reach the Twins draft position, though. Others have mocked him as high as the first overall pick.