Twins could be biggest underdog overachievers ever

Twins could be biggest underdog overachievers ever

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Tuesday, 25 July 2017
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The Minnesota Twins contending this season despite sporting the American League’s fourth-worst run differential is astonishing. While the Twins are scoring 68 fewer runs than their opponents after a 6-4 loss to the Dodgers, Monday night, the Twins sit just two games out of the playoff picture and 3.5 games back in the AL Central. And the run differential is just the tip of the iceberg.

The combined WAA (wins above average) between Twins batters and pitchers is -4.3 wins, meaning the team (excluding coaching factors) should be at least four games worse than average.

Given the games played as of this writing, the MLB average for wins would be 49.4, but the median is 48. The Twins have 49 wins, which means they have outperformed their WAA by almost four games using the average and five games using the median. All this while allowing 68 more runs than they’ve scored. It all screams regression, doesn’t it? In fact, I’d venture to bet there’s never been an MLB team that has overachieved more than the 2017 Twins thus far, and if there is one, it’s also a team from Twins history.

The 1987 and 2002 Minnesota Twins

It’s fitting the Twins just celebrated the 30th anniversary of the 1987 World Series Championship team at Target Field this weekend, because the 2017 Twins are a lot like that team. The Twins organization established a reputation as underdog overachievers immediately upon finding the ultimate success in 1987 and have continued that tradition to a fault at times.

Most of the ‘90s were tough on the Twins and their fans. The pitch-to-contact approach started resulting in harder contact, and payrolls plummeted along with Metrodome attendance, as a slew of youngsters like 21-year-old shortstop Christian Guzman and 23-year-old center fielder Torii Hunter played almost everyday. I remember people joking about how the Twins wouldn’t beat most AAA teams, but everything came together just in time to quiet discussions of contracting the team.

A surprising second-place finish in the AL Central in 2001 that saw Matt Lawton grace the cover of Sports Illustrated blew new life into the Metrodome. And in 2002, the pesky piranhas were AL Central champions, fielding the youngest and fourth-cheapest roster in baseball. While the 2002 Twins entered the playoffs with the lowest run differential that year, they still scored 56 more runs than they allowed. But that squad had a combined WAA of +6.3 and finished 94-67, outperforming that WAA by a ridiculous seven wins over the average and 8 wins over the median MLB record in 2002.

Despite it all ending in the ALCS, that’s still my favorite Twins team. I feel like they did the most with the least, and the numbers seem to substantiate that feeling. It just feels better to win as an underdog overachiever, even if you don’t win it all.

The 1987 Twins did win it all, though, and did so despite entering the playoffs having posted a run differential of -20 during the regular season and outperforming their -.8 WAA. Those Twins went 85-77 in 1987, which would be outperforming their WAA by almost five wins based on the MLB average and median for wins that season.

The 1984 Royals are the only other team besides the ‘87 Twins to win the World Series despite a negative regular season run differential since 1960 (and likely ever). They had a -13 run differential and finished the regular season 84-78, outperforming their .1 WAA by almost three games on average and four games taking the median MLB record.

The team with the lowest run differential entering the playoffs was the 2005 San Diego Padres at -42, in a year when every team in the NL West had a negative run differential, and only the Padres had a winning record (82-80). They outperformed their -3.2 WAA by four games on average but just three games on the median MLB record.

Again, the 2017 Twins are outperforming their WAA by four games on average and five games given the median record — with a run differential 62 percent lower than that of the 2005 Padres, 70 percent lower than the 1987 Twins and 182 percent less than the 2002 Twins!

The Twins making the playoffs isn’t just improbable. It would challenge everything we think we know about what makes a playoff baseball team, just as the Twins did in 1987. The 1987 Twins might have hit a lot of home runs, but they won games with defense. The only regulars with negative total zone defensive runs saved averages over the course of 135 games were Kirby Puckett and Tim Laudner (each at -8). And while three players had RARs (runs above a replacement player) above 40 (Puckett, Kent Hrbeck and Greg Gagne), most of the pitching staff had lower strikeout rates than the current Twins’ staff. Frank Viola averaged just seven strikeouts per nine innings and was the only starter with an ERA below three, so the ball was being put in play, and the Twins were picking it.

What a Difference a Year Makes

The Twins have improved their run differential from last season by 98 runs thus far, and it’s still the fourth-worst differential in baseball. That’s how bad the Twins were last season, and the roster has hardly changed, so there are some things working in the Twins favor.

If you think a weak AL Central is the reason for the Twins’ contention, then you also have to blame most of the American League given the Wild Card standings. While a drop in relative competitiveness allows more teams to hang in the race longer, it does little to explain the 98-run improvement.

Actually, the Twins’ schedule thus far has probably contributed more to their seemingly unsustainable success than a lack of competitive teams in their league. The Twins remain the second best road team in the AL behind Houston, but they’ve played nine fewer road games than home games going into Tuesday. And as of Monday, they had played 10 fewer road games than the Red Sox, Yankees and Rangers, who are all still in the hunt. Translation: the Twins’ schedule is about to get tougher, as they saw first-hand on Monday when the L.A. Goliath finally knocked out the pesky David of the Midwest in the eighth. But instead of simply marveling at the Twins’ improbable season, let me attempt to explain the extent of its improbability.

The Good

There are some easy answers with regards to runs contributed this year that weren’t there last year, like Miguel Sano improving his RAA (runs above average) 19 points after a 2016 season spent lost in right field so Paul Molitor could accommodate Trevor Plouffe. Sano has arguably become the Twins’ best player at 24 years old — three years younger than Kent Hrbek was when he was second on the 1987 squad with 21 RAA. Sano is also second on his team in RAA, which is why I say he’s arguably the Twins’ best player..

Enter Byron Buxton, the player for whom statistics like range factor and runs added from baserunning were invented. If Buxton was playing anytime before these statistics came around, I feel he’d have a much harder time sticking in the bigs. Buxton’s .604 OPS is last among center fielders with 250 plate appearances, and he’s 14 runs worse than the average hitter so far this season. He’s no ‘87 Puckett at the plate, but his ability to play center field and run the bases make that all matter a whole lot less — a ton less, in fact.

Buxton is four runs better than average on the bases, and 18 runs better than average in center field, which is eerily similar to Greg Gagne’s defensive contribution for the ‘87 Twins (19). Gagne finished the year leading his team with 23 RAA despite negative contributions at-bat and on the bases. Buxton is on pace to lead his team in RAA this season, too

So despite his 62 OPS+, Buxton is worth 11 runs more than a replacement player because he can catch balls no one else can and score from first base on a single. Puckett couldn’t do that, and if Buxton comes back from his groin injury on Tuesday and hits, he could chase down Puckett’s incredible 44 RAR in 1987. Buxton’s RAR sits at 22, tied with Sano for the team lead amongst batters despite playing seven fewer games.

One of the Twins best pitchers has been Jose Berrios, who was living a nightmare on the mound in 2016 and has improved his RAA from -25 to 6. While his win-loss percentage with an average team (.551) is more comparable to the Bert Blyleven’s (.558) from 1987 than 27-year-old Frank Viola’s (.664), he’s four years younger than Viola, and hasn’t had to perform like him thanks to Ervin Santana.

Despite his inconsistencies, Santana has been the Viola for the 2017 Twins. While his .612 win-loss percentage with an average team is not vintage Viola, it has been 21 runs better than average, which leads the team.

It all up and that’s 54 runs of improvement between three players all under 25, and another two from Santana so far. So the kids are growing up just fine, and Papi Santana has set a great example for Berrios, in his good starts and bad.

The Bad and the Ugly

Speaking of bad, there are plenty of Twins who have been worse than last year, too. Kyle Gibson’s RAA is 10 runs worse than last season (-17), Jorge Polanco’s RAA is down seven runs, and Ryan Pressly has been nine runs worse than average after posting a +3 last season. Our 56 runs of improvement is now 17.

The 1987 Twins were not without their Gibsons, Polancos and Presslys, either. The Gibson was probably Mike Smithson (-15 RAA in 20 starts). The Polanco of the 1987 Twins was likely Gene Larkin, who was in his rookie season, so he has an excuse for his -11 RAA in 262 plate appearances. As for the Ryan Pressly of ‘87, George Frazier was seven runs worse than average in 81.1 innings.

But who’s the Bartolo Colon of the ‘87 Twins? Easy: 42-year-old Joe Niekro was 20 runs below average in 96.1 innings pitched.

The Twins Way, Est. 1987: Defense

One of the biggest reasons for the Twins turnaround is the first move new president of baseball operations Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine made — signing free agent catcher Jason Castro. I loved the move then, and still love it, despite having to watch Castro swing and miss so much.

Castro doesn’t hit well — even for a catcher. His OPS is 17th out of 18 catchers who have at least 250 plate appearances when they wear the gear. If you lower the required plate appearances to 150, he’s well behind the Twins’ former catcher Kurt Suzuki, who is ninth amongst catchers with an .816 OPS.

Suzuki’s defensive contribution this season is also his best since 2012. The uptick could very well be that he has his legs under him (he’s caught just 345.1 innings), but even if Suzuki finishes the season having contributed 14 runs on defense, he still falls short of Castro’s contribution.

Like Buxton, Castro makes up for his woes at the plate on defense. Castro is worth 22 defensive runs above average over the course of 135 games. Suzuki checks in at 14 defensive runs above average this season, but is 12 runs below average per season for his career as a catcher. Again, even assuming Suzuki’s improved defense is not inflated due to sample size (it is), Castro, with the second-worst OPS at his position, is worth 14 RAR, and Suzuki, with the ninth-best OPS at his position, is worth just 11 RAR.

Furthermore, if we consider the performance of Twins’ catchers last year compared to this year, the net gain for the Twins is 28 fielding runs above average. That would account for almost a third of the Twins’ improvement, bringing our rough total to 45 runs of improvement.

There’s really no comparison for Castro from the 1987 Twins’ catching corps. The ‘87 backstops were a combined 39 runs worse than average. When it comes to win-loss percentage with an average team over 162 games, Tom Brunansky was fourth (.503) on the ‘87 Twins just as Castro is with the 2017 Twins (.502).

The Key is Charisma

Eduardo Escobar is the ultimate utility man, not because he can play just about anywhere, including catcher apparently, but because he provides the energy and attitude the Twins need to make a push for the playoffs. His smile and charisma are infectious, and he’s an essential leader in the clubhouse. I thought Falvey and Levine might consider trading him given his value to a contender, but I’m glad the Twins have forced the front office to chase history so Escobar can stick around.

While Escobar’s runs above average numbers are mostly negative (except running the bases), all have improved substantially from last season. His RAR has improved by 12 compared to last year, which brings our total runs of improvement to 57.

Escobar is the Dan Gladden of this Twins team. Gladden managed to be 12 runs better than a replacement despite costing the 1987 Twins 15 runs swinging the bat.

Kintzler Closes the Door

Brandon Kintzler has been nine runs above average in the closer role this season. That’s four runs better than last season already, which makes 61 runs of improvement.

Reliver Juan Berenguer was nine runs above average over 112 innings for the 1987 Twins, but he wasn’t the closer, and I don’t think Kintzler should be, either. The bullpen is the area where the Twins could stand to improve the most (read: acquire Brad Hand).

While the 1987 Twins relievers posted a RAA of -49, current Twins relievers (excluding the catcher Gimenez, who has been just one run below average in five innings) are sporting an RAA of -87 already. Adding Hand’s 12 RAA would allow the 2017 Twins to act a lot more like the 1987 Twins.

Trouble in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood?

Taylor Rogers has been fantastic until recently. His RAA was eight entering Monday’s game, and after allowing the go-ahead, three-run home run in the eighth inning on Monday, it is now six. That’s still second amongst Twins relievers, and he’s a big reason the Twins have managed to hang in games despite a drop in his strikeout rate from last year (9.4 to 6.5 K/9).

I kept waiting for the regression given his 4.05 FIP, 2.15 ERA and 71 percent balls-in-play percentage, and I think we’re starting to see that regression with his blown hold in Los Angeles, Monday night. Ideally, he would be pitching the seventh inning if the Twins could acquire bullpen help before the Trade Deadline. He’s contributed five more runs than last year so far, though, bringing us to 66 runs of improvement.

Mejia will Lull You to Sleep

When it comes to pace of play, Adalberto Mejia is the sloth of Major League Baseball. In his start Sunday the Twins set the record for the longest regulation game in franchise history: 4 hours and 23 minutes, I believe. As you fall in and out of sleep while watching Mejia, you’ll dream of comparisons like Les Straker. But Mejia’s 4 RAA better this year than last (70) and is just 24.

The Moneyball Man

Robbie Grossman got my MLB All-Star vote at designated hitter because he had the highest on-base percentage amongst his peers, and walks are as good as hits. While he’s a liability in the outfield, his approach at the plate is straight out of the moneyball era. And in an era of home run or nothing at all, having a guy who can work counts and get on base before the free swingers is a nice piece to have available.

Grossman has 50 walks in 317 plate appearances and leads the Twins in that category. His .373 OBP is also best on the team, and while Grossman’s OPS+ is just 103, it’s better than Joe Mauer’s 101. His RAR of three doesn’t quite touch Mauer’s, though, and is the same as 2016’s, so no runs of improvement available here. But without Grossman, Twins fans would be forced to watch the struggles of Kennys Vargas, whose RAR is down three from last year.

Grossman also cost the Twins 21 runs playing defense last year. Molitor has managed to limit that damage to just four runs this season by keeping Grossman in the dugout more often. It adds up to a six-run increase in RAA for Grossman since last season (76 runs of improvement).

Mauer Coming of Age

Joe Mauer is going to win the AL Gold Glove for his performance at first base this season, and it will have little to do with the fact he hasn’t committed an error as of this writing. His defensive runs saved (8) and total zone runs saved per year (6) is better than the defending Gold Glove winner, Mitch Moreland (7 and 1, respectively). Mauer’s range factor and his OPS+, which does matter despite it being a fielding award, are also higher than Moreland’s, and his 1.3 WAR just trails All-Star first baseman Yonder Alonso’s 1.5. Mauer’s basically been Roy Smalley, which isn’t bad.

Will Twins Repeat Recent or Distant History?

Twins hitters are a collective one run above average in 2017 but 58 runs better than last season. Twins pitchers are 62 runs below average this season but also 58 runs better than last season. That’s 116 runs of improvement, and given the 98 runs of improvement at which they currently stand as a team, the Twins’ run differential is likely to get worse barring any trades that might occur.

Jaime Garcia should help delay the inevitable. His RAA of three is 20 runs better than Gibson’s, who was demoted despite having his best start of the season on Saturday against Detroit. Falvey and Levine are going to stick with Colon for at least another start, which is fine. Gibson has been far from consistent, and you have to give the veteran a chance to see a lineup that’s not the Dodgers or Yankees before you ask him to gracefully retire. He kept the Twins in that game in Los Angeles, Monday, even contributing a sacrifice bunt to the delight of his teammates. His butt also puts butts in the seats.

While adding Garcia is like adding another Les Straker, the Twins don’t even have enough Les Straker’s let alone Frank Viola’s to make a playoff push right now. If they add an arm to the bullpen, though, the Twins could make history, and I think they should go ahead and chase history. Sure, if they make the playoffs they’d go down as the absolute worst team ever to do so based on run differential. But that would likely make them one of the biggest underdogs of all time, and if they continue to outperform their WAA at the same rate, they’d be right up there with the 1987 and 2002 Twins as the biggest overachievers in baseball history.

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Anthony Varriano is a news editor at GCNLive.com, editor of GoGonzoJournal.com, and founder and editor of FoulPlaybyPlay.com. He has been blogging about the Minnesota Twins since 2009 and hosts a live, uncensored, commercial-free play-by-play broadcast during select Twins games.

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