<
>

Minnesota Twins' exceptional start relies on exceptional execution

It's two months in and the Minnesota Twins are now 30-19, overtaking the Kansas City Royals for first place in the AL Central while building the league's best record (by percentage points) over the Houston Astros. Two weeks ago, after losing a series with the Tigers two games to one, they were still a modest surprise, a consolation for Twins fans who wanted nothing more than a better season than the fifth-place finish predicted by many. But now they're on an 11-3 run, and the confident predictions that the Twins would go away, have to go away, might sound just a little bit less confident.

They're also doing so despite a relatively short list of guys delivering big results in the early going: In the lineup, you're really only seeing solid work from second baseman Brian Dozier (.849 OPS), third baseman Trevor Plouffe (.841) and right fielder Torii Hunter (.789). In a rotation that's just 12th in the league in quality starts, they're getting reliably good turns from only two regulars, Kyle Gibson and Mike Pelfrey. The bullpen relies on lights-out relief from their late-game tandem of closer Glen Perkins and setup man Blaine Boyer, and few others. In terms of performance, the Twins are getting stars-and-scrubs results from a roster not known for its stars.

What are the key takeaways from the Twins' big start?

1. Execution in tight spots. In all save situations, the Twins' relief crew has been excellent, posting a combined 1.69 ERA after Boyer and Perkins delivered their latest tag-team act to protect Sunday's 6-5 win over the Blue Jays. Counting saves and holds in all save situations (not just the ninth), the Twins' relief crew has converted on more than 89 percent of its opportunities -- significantly better than the MLB average of 72 percent.

On offense, they have been excellent with runners in scoring position and two outs (.838 OPS against a teamwide .699). Across the entire game, they're plating 16 percent of their baserunners, higher than league average of 14 percent.

On both offense and defense, you can call these performances clutch or random. It can be called good execution as a result of coaching, preparation or applied ability. But whatever label you apply, it's what they've done, and this execution goes toward explaining why the Twins' record is better than you'd expect. Which brings us to the next point, which is noting that …

2. Circumstance is everything. Using simple runs scored and allowed, the Twins are three games better than expected, or what a simplistic analysis would call “lucky.” That's attended by a number of unsurprising symptoms: An 11-6 record in one-run games, 3-1 in extra-inning contests. But perhaps the most interesting fact during this early run is that they are an American League-best 19-7 at home. Part of what goes into that record is that their pitching staff, which strikes out fewer batters (15.1 percent) than any other team, profits from getting to call pitcher-friendly Target Field home.

One thing in their won-loss record is especially noteworthy: The Twins are tied with the Astros in facing the most left-handed starters in league at 21, and they've gone 15-6 in those games. That's despite being fairly middle of the pack in terms of OPS against lefties (.743 through Saturday), but that's significantly stronger than their performance against righties (.672), which ranks 13th in the league. So thanks to seeing more southpaws than most, the Twins have been able to minimize a significant weakness on offense.

3. Regression? What regression? So you might look at all of that stuff and anticipate it's going to go away, and the Twins with it. The Twins won't always win all of these late-and-close situations, and teams might go out of their way to start righties instead of lefties against them. Over the stretch of 162 games, that's the easy thing to assume and accept, just as it's easy to assume that the Twins will go away.

And before we get carried away, let's remember where things stood in the standings exactly one year ago: The Blue Jays were 33-24 and in first place in the AL East on June 1, the Brewers were 33-24 and atop the NL Central, and the Athletics had the best record in the AL (34-22). None of that lasted, and nobody wins a prize for winning the first two months in the regular season.

The Twins' roster has its share of weak links: left field (.615 OPS), center field (.589) and DH (.640) among them. But that's if the Twins sit still, and there is little reason to believe that they will. Hello problems, meet your solutions: If rookie Eddie Rosario isn't the answer in left field, there's the pending return of Oswaldo Arcia from the DL to provide the lineup with the lefty power source that it lacks. And the thing everyone anticipated most about their 2015 season still remains to be revealed: The arrival of their two top prospects, third baseman Miguel Sano and center fielder Byron Buxton. Both are raking at Double-A with OPS marks north of .830. And to shore up the rotation in the second half, there's the expected return of Ervin Santana in July from his 80-game suspension for PEDs.

The Twins already have banked a good two months. They can congratulate themselves on that much, and for doing something that many observers didn't believe possible on Opening Day: They're relevant on their own, and as something more than just the future employers of Buxton and Sano. If they're going to string together a connection between their surprising start and that promised future, it's what they do with this start that will define them as something more than just another transient fancy in the standings.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.