- Standings and Outlook
With the All-Star Festivities behind us, let’s start, as we always do, with the standings and playoff outlook. The Twins limped into the All-Star break by going 3-7 in their last ten games. Looking back further, Minnesota is 20-23 since the start of June, with 199 runs scored and 205 runs allowed in that stretch. Naturally, the AL Central Division standings have tightened up as Cleveland and Chicago have gained ground.
While the past few weeks have felt pretty frustrating, if we could flash back to March and tell ourselves that the Twins would spend 84 first-half days in first place and enter the All-Star break with a two-game lead, we all probably would have signed up for that very quickly.
Notice the far right-hand column of the standings above. The three teams at the top of the standings have experienced almost perfectly neutral luck. The actual win-loss results for the Twins and Guardians match their expected record and Chicago has won one game more than expected. Other methods, like FanGraphs’ BaseRuns and PythagenPat. also suggest mostly neutral luck for these three teams.
That suggests that what we’ve seen so far is about what we can expect to see down the stretch (any major trade deadline moves notwithstanding). These teams are imperfect and flawed in their own ways and that should make the second half simultaneously exciting and excruciating. It looks more and more like the only path to the playoffs from the AL Central is to win the division. Both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference project that 85 wins will be enough to squeak out the division title, but even with the playoffs format changes and the addition of a sixth spot, it seems unlikely that will be enough to land a wild card spot.
So, it’s a three-team race for one spot and head-to-head matchups will play a major role in determining the final outcome. The Twins will play the Guardians and White Sox eight and nine more times, respectively (all in September), and Chicago and Cleveland match up head-to-head ten more times.
2. Buyers and Sellers
The trade deadline this season is 6 p.m. eastern time on August 2nd, leaving less than two weeks for teams to make moves to separate themselves for the stretch run. The extra wild card spot serves to give more teams a chance to “go for it,” and that will have some impact on the number of teams that are buying and selling.
Based on the playoff chances at FanGraphs, this deadline seems to have a very clear dividing line. There are seven teams in the National League with playoff chances below 3 percent – Miami, Colorado, Arizona, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cincinnati, and Washington. On the American League side, there are six teams: Los Angeles, Baltimore, Texas, Detroit, Kansas City, and Oakland.
If you’re interested in scouring for available players the Twins might be looking to acquire, the teams called out above are the places to look. Everyone else, seventeen teams in all, has playoff chances greater than 25% as the unofficial second half of the season begins. Last year’s champions, Atlanta, surprised everyone by being aggressive buyers at the deadline, despite playoff odds hovering around 10 percent at the deadline. There probably is not a team looking to model that behavior this year, although the next week figures to be very informative for determining the paths taken by Baltimore and Texas, who are both eager to contend after long rebuilding periods.
3. Twins Needs
All the pitching. Ben has covered the potential top end of the market targets for both the starting rotation and the bullpen over the past few weeks. The needs here are obvious and across the board. Minnesota’s seasonal 3.92 team ERA ranks 16th, but its 4.16 FIP is just 22nd. Since June 1st, those marks have been significantly worse: 4.48 ERA (21st) and 4.71 FIP (28th).
The raw numbers paint the picture well enough, but indexing them against the league average with ERA- and FIP- helps to account for the fact that run scoring typically increases as the weather warms in the summer months. By those measures, the Twins staff was about ten percent better than the league average (89 ERA-, 92 FIP-) through May. Since the calendar moved to June, they have been about 15 percent worse than average (115 ERA-, 118 FIP-).
Among the American League teams with meaningful playoff chances, the Twins' offense is tied for 3rd-best with 112 wRC+. But their seasonal 104 FIP- pitching performance is tied for worst among contenders, with Seattle.
Only Oakland and Kansas City have been worse on the mound in the American League this season. The bottom line is that this team is not a viable playoff contender without much better pitching. That’s true both in the sense of competing with Cleveland and Chicago for the division title and in actually winning a playoff game.
Other than pitching help, the Twins don’t appear to have significant trade deadline needs. The position player group is generally performing and is relatively deep.
The news that Ryan Jeffers has a fractured thumb that will sideline him until September may create a low-key need for catching, but the focus will be on the mound.
However, In light of the playoff odds and strength of the favorites in the AL discussed above, the dilemma for the front office is determining the course to take. The Twins should be buyers, but truly addressing their weaknesses as many fans probably expect a “first place team” to do, will require no less than acquiring four new pitchers of significance and will be painfully expensive. Does that kind of aggression fit within their plans?
4. First Base Turnaround
One of the positions that looked like it could be a trade deadline need earlier this season was first base. Despite what appeared to be several quality options on the roster, the first baseman combined to hit .161/.271/.234 (.239 wOBA) with only two home runs through May 15. That total production ranked 29th at that point and, after factoring in defense and baserunning, the position was well below replacement level (-1.2 fWAR, also ranked 29th).
Through that point in the schedule, Miguel Sanó had taken about 45% of the first base reps and hit a very disappointing .098/.242/.157, despite slight improvements in his walk and strikeout rates. Luis Arráez handled about 30% of the first base work and hit a mediocre .263/.378/.316 while at the position. Rookie Jose Miranda was promoted when Sanó was injured and got off to a rough start, batting just .133/.161/.267 when playing first base. Alex Kirilloff took six plate appearances while at first base and went 1 for 5 with a hit by pitch before he was optioned to St. Paul for a reset period.
Since May 16, though, it’s been a totally different story. Led mostly by Arráez (114 first base PAs) and Miranda (87), the Twins rank 4th in offensive production from first basemen (.338/.490/.496, .385 wOBA). With 50 first base plate appearances from Alex Kirilloff mixed in, Minnesota’s first basemen have put up 2.8 fWAR across that span, good for 4th-most among all teams.
What started out as a black hole has become a real strength thanks to Arráez’s superlative hitting (.343/.412/.471), and Miranda (.341/.379/.573) and Kirilloff (.318/.360/.409) finding their footing. Incredibly, this turnaround at the plate has been so strong that it’s completely compensated for this group’s objectively terrible defense.
Since May 16, Minnesota's first basemen have accumulated a league-worst -12 defensive runs above average. Outs Above Average, Defensive Runs Saved, and Ultimate Zone Rate are only a smidge more positive on their glovework. Small sample size caveats aside, defensive runs above average is the primary defensive input to WAR calculations, so the fact that they’ve still produced the 4th-most WAR over that time shows how good the bats have been.
With Sanó nearly complete with his injury rehab assignment, the Twins will face an interesting roster crunch decision shortly after the break. Is it worth disrupting the current state to make room for Sanó? He would not improve the defense at first and has not hit as the others have been hitting since 2019. Or, have we seen the last of him in Minnesota?
5. Twins Links
- Kyle Garlick was featured in David Laurila’s Sunday Notes column (FanGraphs)
- Ben Clemens explored players who use their top-end speed only when they need it, with Byron Buxton as a leading example (FanGraphs)
- Nick Nelson offered a summary of why this trade deadline is deceptively complicated for the Twins front office (Twins Daily)
- Do-Hyoung Park has a profile of Twins 9th-round draft choice Cory Lewis and his knuckleball (MLB.com)
- Jay Jaffe looked at Byron Buxton’s path to the All-Star Game and how defensive shifts and his pull-heavy approach are suppressing his results (FanGraphs)
6. Around Baseball Links
- Speaking of defensive shifts, MLB is experimenting with a new rule in the Class A Florida State League intended to limit their effectiveness (MLB.com)
- Zach Crizer uses the trade deadline to argue that technology and analytics have become barriers to entry for new and casual baseball fans (Yahoo Sports)
- Tom Verducci looks at the numbers behind the rise of slider usage and highlights several pitchers that have turned around their careers by featuring the pitch, including old friend Matt Wisler (Sports Illustrated)
- If you watched the Home Run Derby you might have noticed some new graphics displaying Statcast data about bat tracking. Mike Petriello has a primer on this next frontier of data analytics. (MLB.com)
- Ethan Moore wrote about the potential ways bat tracking data could be applied to player evaluation and development (Medium.com)