For the first couple of weeks of the season, the Minnesota Twins looked awful. This wasn't unexpected, because most thought the Twins would be awful. In my final predictions for the season, I put the Twins down at 68-94. "The Twins have offensive ability, but the outfield defense is suspect and the rotation still shaky after Phil Hughes," I wrote.
So when the Twins lost 4-0, 11-0 and 7-1 to the Tigers to start the season, and then fell to 5-9, they fell right into our preseason season analysis: The Twins were bad. The outfield defense was suspect, the rotation was shaky and the offense hadn't shown up. Well ... here we are just over a month later and the Twins are 26-18, having gone 21-9 since that slow start. They're ahead of the Tigers in the American League Central, and they're breathing down the necks of the Kansas City Royals, a team that just topped this week's Power Rankings. If they're just two games behind the Royals, the Twins must be pretty good.
They jumped all over Red Sox starter Joe Kelly on Monday with one run in the first and six in the second, pounding out 16 hits in a 7-2 victory. They've won seven of their past nine series -- dropping two more series to the Tigers along the way -- and since April 22, they've scored 5.30 runs per game, best in the majors, and allowed 3.80 runs per game, ninth in the majors and fourth in the AL.
OK, so they were terrible for 14 games and awesome for the next 30. Who are the 2015 Minnesota Twins? Contender, pretender or fraud? Some thoughts ...
1. In losing 92 games in Ron Gardenhire's final season last year, they finished a solid fifth in the AL in runs per game, using a patient approach to compensate for a lack of power. But here's the weird thing about 2015: They're walking less. Second in the majors in walk rate in 2014, they're 24th in 2015. This isn't a Royals-like approach of putting the ball in play because the Twins' strikeout and home runs rates are identical to last season. Their well-hit average has actually declined from .159 to .138. Their batting average is only three points higher.
2. So what does that mean? As you might have suspected, the Twins are clutching up with runners in scoring position, hitting .294/.369/.438, versus .257/.311/.388. They do walk more with RISP -- 10.6 percent of the time compared to 6.7 percent overall -- so you can argue they take better at-bats with men in scoring position. Keep in mind that walk rates across the majors increase with RISP, presumably because pitchers will pitch around some hitters with a base open or simply because if runners are already on base it means worse pitchers are pitching to begin with. Anyway, the overall MLB walk rate is 2.5 percent higher while the Twins' rate is 3.9 percent higher, so maybe they do have better at-bats.
3. But here's another little nugget. We mentioned well-hit average above. That's simply the number of balls defined as well-struck divided by at-bats. The Twins are .138 overall ... and .131 with runners in scoring position. So they're not really make more solid contact with runners in scoring position, the hits are just falling at a greater rate.
4. The outfield defense hasn't been quite as bad as expected. Heading into Monday, the Twins were minus-4 Defensive Runs Saved, tied for 18th in the majors. Not good, but last year they were minus-50, worst in the majors. The signing of Torii Hunter looked like solving a problem with a problem, given Hunter's poor range the past couple of seasons. As expected, Hunter has the range you might expect from a 40-year-old and is at minus-7 DRS. Oswaldo Arcia was supposed to be the left fielder and another defensive liability, but he's been out since May 3. As a result, the Twins have already used seven different outfielders for at least 100 innings. Somehow, Paul Molitor is making it work, with Shane Robinson's plus-7 DRS providing a big lift.
5. Overall, however, the Twins don't rate as a strong defensive team, unlike the Royals and Tigers, who both rank in the top 10 in the majors in DRS. The Twins rank 26th at minus-16 DRS, with shortstop Danny Santana struggling at minus-10 DRS. In terms of the most basic of defensive stats, the percentage of balls in play that are turned into outs, the Twins have a "Defensive Efficiency" of .701 entering Monday, which ranked 22nd in the majors. The Royals were first at .739.
6. And the issue there: The Twins have the lowest strikeout rate among pitching staff in the majors, so they have more balls in play than the average pitching staff.
7. What the Twins staff does do is limit walks -- it has the second-lowest walk rate in the majors. You saw that on Monday, as Ricky Nolasco and two relievers combined for a walk-free game.
8. If you've figured out the bullpen has been holding leads, you're right. But there's some weird stuff here, as well. The overall bullpen ERA is 3.97, 21st in the majors. It has the lowest K rate among relief corps. It's 22nd in home run rate. It's 21st in left on base percentage. And yet, the Twins have yet to blow a game they've led in the ninth inning, as closer Glen Perkins is 16-for-16 in saves. They're 24-1 when leading entering the eighth -- in fact, they've lost just once when leading entering the fifth inning or later. So give the bullpen a lead and it's lights out.
9. We can measure that in something called Win Probability Added. The Twins rank third in bullpen WPA, behind only the Cardinals and Astros.
10. Add it all up and if there's one word to describe the 2015 Twins, it's "clutch." Timely hits, timely relief pitching. FanGraphs keeps track of a stat they call BaseRuns -- the number of runs a team would be expected to score and allow given all the bases it has gained or allowed. Entering Monday, the Twins had outperformed their BaseRuns win total by seven -- 25 wins as opposed to the "expected" total of 18. No other teams in the majors was more than plus-4 (and the A's, with their terrible bullpen, were minus-9).
If you're now thinking that I'm thinking this probably won't continue, you're right. But this 26-18 record is already banked, and in the mediocre American League, who knows how all this is going to play out. Maybe all a team needs to do is believe in itself and believe in clutch.