For the past three years, the AL Central has been dominated by the Cleveland Indians. They have faced little competition and many have called it unfair that Cleveland has been able to get such an easy ride to the playoffs each season. However, this year Cleveland has found themselves in an early hole, four games behind the Minnesota Twins. Four games can be made up in a week’s worth of games, but is Minnesota legit, or will their hot start fizzle out?
When looking at the Minnesota Twins and how sustainable their success can be, the first thing that jumps out is their team defense. So far this season, they rank first in the league in both ultimate zone rating and Fangraphs’ team defense rating. This is worth noting as team defense isn’t something that fluctuates much through the season and can’t be fluked. Byron Buxton, arguably the game’s best defensive outfielder, is responsible for a large part of the Twins defense. Also contributing is catcher Jason Castro, one of the best framers in the league, and Eddie Rosario, whose 6 DRS ranks first among left fielders.
Having such a great defense has been a huge help to the Twins pitching staff, who have quietly been one of the better units in baseball this year. They rank 10th in ERA and 8th in FIP, well above the 21st spot they placed in both categories last season. The revival of Jake Odorizzi and Martin Perez have helped, but it’s been young star Jose Berrios leading this rotation. Back end guys Kyle Gibson and Michael Pineda have struggled, but a lot of bad luck has come their way, and their numbers should look better as the season goes on. One through five, this is a really impressive group.
Surprisingly, the Twins bullpen has also impressed many. There are essentially two main guys that manager Rocco Baldelli trusts in the late innings, both of them with ERAs under 2. Reliever ERA can be tricky, but the peripherals have been stellar as well. The two arms are Blake Parker and Taylor Rogers. To sum it up quickly, Rogers strikes out a third of the batters he faces, while Parker excels at inducing ground balls. The Twins back end has been one of the best in the AL.
The Twins are unique in that they rank last in the league in spin rate. While a higher spin rate is typically a predictor for success, the Twins have not needed it. Instead of going for spin, the organizational philosophy has been to focus on command and inducing soft contact. While this process is rare in this era, it has clearly worked for them, as seen below.
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Now to the offense. Much like their pitching, Minnesota has seen leaps and bounds of improvement. Last season, they finished 19th in team wRC+, while this year they currently preside at 5th. The Twins rank poorly in walk rate but well in strikeout rate, meaning they put a large number of balls in play. This has been a successful strategy for them, thanks to the fact that they rank third in average exit velocity. In addition to hitting the ball hard, the Twins have also done a better job than almost every other team of getting the ball up in the air, via launch angle.
The Twins are currently third in fly ball rate and 28th in ground ball rate. As an organization, represented above by the chart, Minnesota loves to put the ball up in the air. They have the roster for it, as well. Nelson Cruz, Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, and Jorge Polanco have all excelled this year by hitting the long ball, and it has taken their career to new heights.
Minnesota has done a terrific job in all three facets of the game this year. From their stellar defense to their popular hitting approach, to their unconventional pitching strategy, everything has clicked for them thus far. Time will tell if the Twins are a legitimate threat to win the division, but the way they have started out, they should be well in the mix for a wild card spot at the very least.