The Twins are off today after losing three consecutive series to west coast opponents. Up next is Toronto, who have the same 26-24 win-loss record as the Twins, but currently sit in last place in the American League East, 9.5 games back of the league-leading Rays. Oh, the benefits of being in the AL Central division!
Despite the Twins’ disappointing 9-12 record so far this month, they’ve mostly held steady in their playoff outlook at FanGraphs, shedding only 4 percentage points of playoff probability since I last wrote one of these notes articles on May 1:
Of course, that’s possible because Cleveland has gone just 8-13 this month, falling to 21-28 overall. Chicago has perked up (13-9 this month) after their dismal start to the season but still has a large hole to climb out of. Detroit has been similar, 12-8 this month, but still just 22-25 overall.
The playoff chances chart above shows the Twins as heavy favorites in a bad division, even though the current standings are much closer. The Twins’ expected record, based on their runs scored and runs allowed, also supports the prospect of them as heavy favorites.
By the Pythagorean method used by Baseball Reference, Minnesota’s record should be 30-20, the 5th-best expected mark in all of baseball. The rest of the AL Central teams are among the bottom third of the expected records standings in MLB, led by Chicago at 21-29, which ranks 24th. Minnesota’s -4 game difference between expected and actual records is the 2nd largest gap, trailing only the Cardinals’ and the Cubs’ -5. It’s a similar story if you look at FanGraphs’ BaseRuns method, which has the Twins at 29-21.
So how does a club underperform its expected record?
One major way is by losing more close games than expected, as was discussed in comments yesterday The Twins have gone just 4-10 in one-run games so far in 2023, the 4th-worst record in such contests in MLB (only St. Louis, Chicago (NL), and San Diego have been worse). That 4-10 mark even includes a winning record (4-3) in extra-inning contests.
Formulas like Pythagorean Record and BaseRuns estimate a club’s performance based on their total runs scored and runs allowed. However, as we know, those aggregate numbers can sometimes obscure the whole story. When runs are scored or allowed can often make all the difference in winning a game or not. Sequencing matters, even if it’s not really something teams have much control over. And the 2023 Twins, as we well know, have had their problems with sequencing.
Those are not just fan perceptions, either. We can use the stat clutch to get a sense of how well the Twins have performed in the most important situations. One way to think about a clutch score is that it’s the fraction of a team’s win probability added that comes from high-leverage situations (you know, like when the bases are loaded). On offense, Minnesota has a -2.91 clutch score (the 2nd worst in MLB), which means they’ve cost themselves almost 3 full wins with their failures with the bats in the biggest spots. On the mound, Twins relievers have a collective -0.96 clutch score, ranked 23rd. Roll that together with the starters’ mostly neutral clutch performance and you’ve got about 4 missing wins.
Another way teams can underperform what we’d expect from their runs scored and runs allowed totals is by playing sloppy and giving their opponents extra bases via walks, hit-by-pitches, errors, balks, passed balls, wild pitches, and stolen bases allowed. In light of the discussion above, I checked in on how the Twins have done in this category so far this season, wondering if perhaps these also played a factor. I found it’s mostly a good news story. In aggregate, Minnesota has averaged about 4.84 free bases allowed per game this season, a rate that is the 7th-lowest of the 30 teams.
Here again, though, the aggregate numbers only tell us so much. While the Twins have done a pretty good job of controlling the opposing team’s running games (caught 11 of 38 base stealers, 29%, ranked 8th-best) and taking care of the baseball in the field, their relievers have the 3rd-highest walk rate (11.2%), including some fateful bases-loaded walks in the past two weeks, and have uncorked a middling 8 wild pitches.
A New Way to Freebie
This year there are several new ways to give your opponents a freebie, thanks to the various new rules, like the pitch clock and limits on pitcher disengagements. So, let’s check in on how the Twins have fared with respect to these. You might have noticed that they’ve experienced an uptick in timer violations going against them this month, and the data confirms that observation:
On the batting side, the Twins have been charged with 6 violations at the cost of a strike each. But opposing batters have given the Twins 8. The struggle has been on the defensive side, with Twins pitchers being called for 12 clock violations, led by Sonny Gray’s 4, in addition to two catcher’s clock violations. Overall, the Twins are about average in violations of the new rules, so it’s not something they are doing much worse than everyone else, but the cost of an extra ball or strike (or a free base in the case of a disengagement) can be impactful nonetheless.
A Player Comparison
Let’s play a quick game. Here are the stat lines of two young Twins players, through their first 160 career games. Can you identify who they are?
If you need more clues, both of these players were defensively limited, right-handed swinging, third basemen. Both players were “tweeners” for corner infielders, lacking prototypical homerun power but counterbalancing that with above-average contact skills.
Player A is Danny Valencia from his debut in 2010 and through most of June 2011. Player B is José Miranda since his MLB debut last season.
Thus far, Miranda’s MLB experience is tracking eerily similar to how Valencia’s did, not just by the overall numbers, but also the arc of an exciting rookie campaign, replete with a penchant for late, clutch hits, and then a sophomore slump driven in large part by an inability to lay off pitcher’s pitches out of the zone:
Valencia never quite arrested his own challenges with swing aggressiveness with the Twins and essentially swung himself out of the organization’s favor by early in the 2012 season. (His inconsistent glovework during a Gardenhire administration didn’t help his cause.)
The Twins had/have high hopes for Miranda, and with the injuries stacking up he might find himself back in the big leagues as soon as tomorrow. They went out of their way to make space on the roster for Miranda to have an everyday job when they traded the serviceable veteran Gio Urshela to the Angels for just a lottery ticket arm in the off-season.
But he’s going to have to make an adjustment to his approach and get it to stick if he’s going to be successful long-term. His prospect breakout back in 2021 was fueled by successfully making this exact same adjustment – tightening up his swing decisions – albeit against lesser-quality pitching. He’ll need to do it again.
Here are some links to articles I’ve read and found interesting lately:
- For ESPN Insiders, Bradford Doolittle broke down the Twins’ grand experiment with Byron Buxton. In rough terms, Doolittle estimates that Buxton the full-time DH is 75% as valuable as Buxton the all-world centerfielder on a rate basis. But, because Buxton the DH is available quite a lot more than Buxton the CF, his total value over the course of the season projects to be about the same. While Buxton is leaving a lot of his value uncaptured by not playing the field, it’s worth noting that he’s diversifying his offensive game a little bit this season by drawing significantly more walks than his career norms. His 13.0% walk rate so far this year is just shy of double his 7.0% career mark and he’s already drawn 25 free passes (his career high is 38). Every little bit of value he can produce helps.
- Ken Rosenthal broke the news earlier this week that Twins’ manager Rocco Baldelli was extended through at least 2025 at some point in the past year.
- Carlos Correa might be headed to the injured list with foot and heel injuries, but he was in the headlines this week with the Giants in town. Correa had some interesting comments about his free agency saga and how he’s now grateful to not be locked into a 13-year contract.
- Staying with Correa, FanGraphs’ Estaban Rivera gave us a great breakdown of Correa’s early season struggles and swing analytics. The takeaway: he’ll be fine.
- Going more broadly, Travis Sawchik and Will Carroll put together a fascinating analysis of pitcher injuries so far this season and explored what effects the new pitch clock might be having on them. It’s a tricky thing to untangle.
- Twins fans might enjoy this Michael Baumann article about sibling relievers at FanGraphs, featuring Old Friend Taylor Rogers and his twin brother Tyler.
- Freshman Olivia Pichardo became the first female to play NCAA Division I baseball when she played for Brown University in March. ESPN’s Joon Lee profiled Pichardo earlier this week.