What a difference a few weeks can make. Cleveland has won six straight series and fifteen of their last nineteen games to gain significant ground on the Twins ahead of eight head-to-head matchups scheduled over the next two weeks. The Twins haven’t been “bad” so much as keeping their heads above water in going 5-5 over their last ten and splitting their last six series.
Through June 20, Chicago is again the most likely among AL Central clubs to make the playoffs by FanGraphs (59.7%). Minnesota (57.2%) had briefly overtaken Chicago in that projection from June 11 through June 19. Like the feature photo above (and seemingly every year), Cleveland is closing fast (42.1%). They’ve gained about 33 points of playoff chances since the end of May. In terms of winning the Central and the increased playoff home-field advantage that comes with being a division champion, it’s turning into a three-way crapshoot. The White Sox are still minor favorites at 38.5%, with Minnesota close behind at 37.3%, and Cleveland up to 24%.
2. Scouting the Guardians
I’m sure you’ll be shocked to read that the Guardians are in the thick of the division race with baseball’s youngest roster that’s full of players drafted by the team or acquired as near-ready prospects in trades of stars (plus the recently extended José Ramírez).
As usual, the Guardians own one of baseball’s best team ERAs (3.57, 6th). In a role reversal, that has not been driven by the starters, but by an outstanding relief corps (2.81 relief ERA – 2nd, 3.24 relief WPA – 3rd) that you probably know almost nothing about. Cleveland’s starters have been middle of the pack (4.03 ERA, 17th) and are again fronted by Shane Bieber.
The ‘pen is led by Emanuel Clase (0.71 WPA/LI), who was acquired as part of the deal that sent Corey Kluber to Texas two offseasons ago. His 100-mph cutters are the main attraction and he offers them about 70% of the time. Clase is backed up by the often multi-inning Eli Morgan (1.02 WPA/LI, 7th among all qualified relievers), who moved to the bullpen this season and has blossomed with a simpler pitch mix and more favorable situations (somewhat similar to the Twins’ Griffin Jax). Morgan’s calling card is a mid-70s bugs-bunny changeup that just never gets there because of the roughly 17-mph gap between it and his four-seamer.
On the offensive side, Cleveland checks in about average in most team batting categories (exactly 100 wRC+), but leads the majors in avoiding strikeouts (18.3% strikeout rate) and putting the ball in play (85.2% zone contact). That contact is often sub-optimal, however. The Guardians have the game’s lowest hard hit (33.9%) and barrel rates (5.4%) and 4th-lowest average exit velocity (87.5-mph).
Their power-hitting should get a boost this week when DH Franmil Reyes returns from the injured list and rookie Oscar Gonzalez hit 31 home runs in AA and AAA last year. Their impact might be counter-balanced by a nagging thumb issue that has kept the excellent Ramírez out of the lineup the past two games. Aside from those three, middle-infielder Andrés Giménez (acquired from the Mets in the Francisco Lindor trade) is Cleveland’s breakout star, with a .302/.342/.500 line (140 wRC+) and plus defense at both second base and shortstop.
3. Grading the Twins' defense
With the Guardians' propensity for putting the ball in play and the Twins pitching staff’s middle-of-the-pack-ish ability to get swings and misses (26% whiff rate, 12th) and strikeouts (22.1%, 19th) a key for these upcoming series might be if Cleveland hits the ball in the air or on the ground and how well the Twins turn those batted balls into outs.
The Minnesota outfielders, collectively, lead all teams in Statcast’s Outs Above Average (OAA) with +15, having made 93% of their defensive plays successfully against an expected mark of 90% and prevented an estimated 13 runs as a result.
The infield, however, has been the polar opposite story. Twins dirt defenders rank 29th in OAA with -22. They’ve allowed 17 more runs and made 3% fewer successful plays than expected.
The Twins grade below average at each of the four infield positions, “led” by third base with -12 OAA. Much of that can be credited to Luis Arraez’s abysmal part-time efforts there (-7), but Statcast isn’t fond of Gio Urshela’s work either (-5), especially on plays coming in and toward the foul line (despite his penchant for making very difficult highlight-reel plays).
Up the middle has also been surprisingly weak, especially given Carlos Correa’s reputation and past performance and Jorge Polanco’s previous work at second base. Correa (-4) has particularly struggled on plays to his left, while Polanco’s (-1) intermittent throwing issues seem to have cropped up again in recent weeks.
First base had been a bit of a black hole earlier in the year (and still is/will be when it is manned by Jose Miranda or Miguel Sanó), but Arraez has proven fairly adept in limited time at first, and Alex Kirilloff projects to be plus when he plays there.
Given the extremes between the infield and the outfield, it makes sense that the Twins' total team defense is more middle of the pack, depending on your preferred measure. OAA has them 22nd, with -8 OAA. By Defensive Runs Saved they are 17th, with +7. Ultimate Zone Rating says 15th with +2.
4. Aiming High on Purpose
Another measure of team defense, the defensive efficiency ratio, looks a little more favorably on the Twins' work and ranks them 11th. Part of the explanation for that is Minnesota has the third-highest rate of fly balls hit against its pitchers (28.7%), something that plays right into the strength of the outfield defense.
So far this season, Twins pitchers have shown an increased willingness to pitch up in and above the strike zone. Just more than 35% of the Twins pitches have been located across the top or above the Gameday strike zone (zones 1, 2, 3, 11, and 12 of the chart shown below), the team’s highest rate of elevated pitches in the Statcast era by a wide margin (32.7%, 2017). Given how generally accepted pitching philosophy used to dictate working down, it’s probably a safe bet that this Twins staff is working up more than any previous group in franchise history.
Minnesota ranks 6th in the rate of elevated pitches and is in company with the usual suspects of progressive pitching strategy (Houston, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Tampa Bay). This approach is not just limited to changing a hitter's eye level with high chase fastballs in favorable counts – the Twins rank 4th in throwing elevated pitches within the confines of the strike zone and 8th when the hitter has the count advantage. You can visualize the approach from the chart above — fastballs up, breaking balls and offspeed pitches down.
Unsurprisingly, Bailey Ober and Joe Ryan lead the way in this area, followed closely by Caleb Thielbar. Seventeen of the 28 pitchers (excluding Nick Gordon) used this season have thrown high pitches more than the 32.7% league average, including soft-tosser Devin Smeltzer.
Overall, the results from the strategy have been a bit of a mixed bag. Twins opponents have hit .213/.325/.365 (.311 wOBA, ranked t-13th) against these high pitches, slightly better than the league average .221/.343/.360 (.319) line. Cumulatively, the high pitches have a positive run value (5.1, 7th-best) largely because the Twins have allowed the 3rd-most home runs (21) on high pitches.
5. Twins Links
- Luis Arraez’s league-leading batting average is generating a wide variety of attention and heady historical comparisons. Arraez also got to meet one of those comparators, Ichiro Suzuki.
- There was also this nugget within David Laurila’s always excellent Sunday Notes column for FanGraphs: Rod Carew had 334 hits and a .297 batting average through his first 300 games. Luis Arraez has 340 hits and a .320 batting average through his first 300 games.
- Betsy Helfand has a behind-the-scenes story of how some of the Twins’ significant others help them on and off the field.
- Voting for the 2022 All-Star Game Starters is open through June 30
6. Around Baseball Links
- Everybody’s favorite Commissioner met with reporters and provided a number of updates, including the possible rule changes – like the pitch clock and regulating shifts – that will be discussed with the league’s new Joint Competition Committee. The Commissioner does not expect the Automated Ball Strike system to be on the table for 2023.
- Also discussed were issues associated with local media and the ability of fans to access games. The Commissioner shared some insight into the developing plans for an expanded nationwide streaming option (hopefully without blackouts?). It sounds promising but is probably still a long way off in this very complex area.
- A father’s day story about a father and son going to a Nationals game to catch a home run ball… and catching a home run ball.
- Major leaguers who previously defected from Cuba are ineligible to play for their native country in the World Baseball Classic. A group is working on an alternative way for them to play.
John is a writer for Twinkie Town and Pitcher List with an emphasis on analysis. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnFoley_21.