If the Twins weren’t in the AL Central, they’d be my third favorite team in baseball behind the Indians and the Brewers. They shoved all their chips in on analytics. They have a young front office, a 35-year-old manager, and a pitching coach with no pro coaching experience. Wes Johnson, the “Czar of Velocity”, has been a collegiate pitching coach and was most recently at the University of Arkansas.
If you’ve read me for a while, you know my thoughts on analytics and the teams that embrace them. The Twins are going for it and that’s awesome. It turns out that they also had a pretty good offseason on the offensive side with Nelson Cruz, Marwin Gonzalez, CJ Cron, and others.
This was one of last season’s most disappointing teams. The Twins were just 78-84 and had to win the last six games in a row just to finish at that record. They were 29-47 against teams .500 or better and 49-37 against teams with losing records. They were 49-32 at home and 29-52 on the road, which is kind of incredible, given that Target Field doesn’t really play one way or another and the Twins aren’t built only to win at home. That feels like noise to me.
Whatever the reason, the Twins scored 56 more runs at home and allowed 53 more runs on the road. Playing .605 ball at home and .358 ball on the road is extreme. Those are Colorado Rockies numbers. The irony of the Twins is that they were within two games of .500 in every month except for April. Perplexing to say the least how so many things played out last season.
Money Line Spots
This is going to be a much better team, but they’ll be priced like it. The offense deserves all of the accolades, but the pitching staff is what will dictate when we play the Twins and how we play them. I may pay for this, but I’ll fade Michael Pineda early. The saber community adores Pineda because he posts high strikeout rates with low walk rates. The expectation is that his HR/FB% will eventually regress, but it never has and I’m not sure it ever will.
Pineda’s slash lines over the last three years are 4.37/3.34/2.95, 4.82/3.80/3.30, 4.39/4.66/3.61. At some point, it is a lot more than coincidence that your ERA and xFIP never seem to meet in the middle. Pineda regularly posts high BABIPs against and poor HR/FB% against because his command is poor. But, we’re going to see bettors FLOCK to back him early in the year. I’m sure I’ll get burned a time or two, but I’ll pay to see him actually live up to the expectations.
As far as the rest of the staff, I’m all about Jose Berrios. I’m not sure people realize how good he is. He increased his K% last season, induced more ground balls, and had a second-half mechanical hiccup that drove his walk rate up. He had a 5.7 percent BB% in the first half and an 11.2 percent BB% in the second half. Consistency is a question, but Berrios is also just 24 years old with 396.1 innings under his belt. I think we’re on the verge of his breakout season with Johnson and PITCHf/x guru Josh Kalk in his ear. He’s a guy I’d like to back quite a bit.
As far as general spots to back the Twins, I think they’re going to feast on bad pitching. Many are predicting a Max Kepler breakout and the Twins have added a lot more power. If you find a guy with bad command, the Twins should hit him. Minnesota also puts lots of balls in play, so I won’t be scared of high-strikeout pitchers against them. Guys that strike out a lot of hitters often get preferential treatment in the market, as they should. But that’s not a bad matchup for every team.
Even though I expect the Twins to make more strides in the pitching department, this looks like more of an over team to me this season. Minnesota was 79-78-5 to the over last year, but the offense is better this season. It also appears that Target Field might tilt a little bit to the offensive side in the warmer months. I think the cold of April and September gives the illusion that this is a neutral park, but I do think it is friendlier for offense.
Individual Players to Watch
Kyle Gibson – Kyle Gibson is rather fascinating. He’s not a spring chicken at 31 and he’ll cross 1,000 innings this season, but it feels like some changes set in last year. This old dog learned a few new tricks, as he set a career-high in K% at 21.7 percent and a career-best K%-BB%. Gibson allowed just a .238 batting average and a .285 BABIP, which were also career bests.
Over the last two years, Gibson has thrown his curveball more. Last season, he cut his changeup usage to 11 percent and brought his slider back. His swinging strike percentage went from 10 percent to 11.5 percent. League average for starting pitchers was 10.2 percent. We don’t think of Kyle Gibson as a swing-and-miss guy, but he was last season and I would expect another leap this season. For the first time in his career, his zone-contact percentage was under 90 percent. I think he has the right coaching staff and analytics guys to figure this all out. I think he’ll be underrated in the markets.
Nelson Cruz – Is Nelson Cruz going to continue giving a resounding “Eff You” to Father Time? Did Father Time make his move last season? Cruz went from a .385 wOBA to a .361 wOBA from 2017 to 2018. His SLG went from .549 to .509. What gives?
Well, Cruz had no luck on ground balls. He batted just .246 on ground balls. For his career, Cruz is a .265 batter on ground balls. His BABIP fell from .315 to .264 last season without any noticeable drop in exit velocity. I don’t think this is the new normal for Cruz. I’d expect him to bounce back.