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Off-Day Observations: Not Winning the Close Ones

Digging into the Twins’ expected record and challenges in close games, plus an update on free bases allowed, and an interesting comp for a young player!

San Francisco Giants v Minnesota Twins
Jorge Lopez #48 of the Minnesota Twins reacts to giving up a two-run home run
Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

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.

Expected Records

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.

Free Bases

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.

Data from FanGraphs

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:

Data from FanGraphs

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?

Data from FanGraphs

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:

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.