Last Updated: 2019-03-04
The biggest threats to the Cleveland Indians in the American League Central Division are themselves and the Minnesota Twins. There is a clear path to the division becoming a two-horse race, but these two potential thoroughbreds won’t be chased down by the Shetland ponies that make up the rest of the division.
The Twins were one of last season’s most disappointing teams. After winning 85 games and participating in the 2017 Wild Card Game, the Twins lost 84 games last season and were nothing more than a token threat to a similarly underachieving Indians bunch.
The Twins actually allowed fewer runs as a team in 2018 than they did in 2017, but the offense took a major nosedive. Injuries played a big role, as they often do, but the mostly dismal season cost Paul Molitor his job and the Twins were all-in on analytics in the dugout with the hire of Rocco Baldelli.
Baldelli will be the youngest manager in the big leagues, but it was a change that had to happen. Before the hire of Derek Falvey, the former Assistant General Manager of the Indians, the Twins were making a big philosophical transition to be more data driven. They now have a 35-year-old Executive Vice President, a 37-year-old manager, and a 47-year-old GM and Senior VP that didn’t play above Division III and has an MBA from Cal Berkeley. They also have a pitching coach plucked straight from the college ranks in 41-year-old Wes Johnson, who was at the University of Arkansas and has been dubbed the “Czar of Velocity”. The bullpen coach is 32-year-old Jeremy Hefner.
This is the future of baseball personified. This is what teams need to do in order to spend wisely and compete in the world of analytics. The bridge between front office and players is the manager and Baldelli, whose character and knowledge of the game have always drawn rave reviews, seems like the right fit for the job.
It also doesn’t hurt to have Josh Kalk as the Senior Analyst in Baseball Research and Development. I’ll talk more about this later, but the Twins pitching staff posted a 4.60 ERA with a 4.71 FIP and a 4.75 xFIP in 2017. The Twins hired Kalk, a pioneer in PITCHf/x data and pitching biomechanics, after the 2017 season. It is by no means a coincidence that Minnesota pitchers posted a 4.50 ERA with a 4.39 FIP and a 4.33 xFIP in 2018. They went from a 7.31 K/9 to an 8.59 K/9. I would expect continued improvement this season.
Without noticeable improvement, however, those numbers would fall in the middle of the pack overall. The ceiling for the Twins this season will be defined how the offense bounces back. It will be defined by how quickly players buy in with Baldelli, who is younger than recently-signed DH Nelson Cruz.
I’m going to enjoy writing this one because Minnesota is one of the most interesting teams in baseball in my estimation for the 2019 season and beyond.
Season Win Total Odds
2018 Standings Data
Actual Record: 78-84
Run Differential: -37
Pythagorean W/L: 77-85
BaseRuns Record: 74-88
BaseRuns Run Differential: -65 (4.42/4.82)
3rd Order Win% Record: 69.9-92.1
Record in One-Run Games: 15-21
Additions: Marwin Gonzalez, CJ Cron, Nelson Cruz, Jonathan Schoop, Martin Perez, Blake Parker, Tomas Telis, Ronald Torreyes, Jordany Valdespin, Dean Anna, Brian Schales, Randy Cesar, Michael Reed, Mike Morin, Preston Guilmet, Ryne Harper, Dario Alvarez, Zack Weiss, Dusten Knight, Mike Olt, Lucas Duda, Wilin Rosario, Adam Rosales, Justin Nicolino, Daniel Camarena, Pat Dean, Tim Collins
Losses: Chris Gimenez, Joe Mauer, Logan Morrison, Logan Forsythe, Robbie Grossman, Ervin Santana, Matt Belisle, Aaron Slegers, John Curtiss
The Twins have put together one of the more interesting rosters in the American League this season. They may have slightly overpaid for Nelson Cruz given the rest of the free agent market, but he’s a worthwhile investment as a guy immune to the aging curve that was signed back in February 1998. Cruz is arguably the best pure hitter of this free agent class and a great grab for the Twins.
CJ Cron and Jonathan Schoop are buy-low guys that may be happy to get a change of scenery. Not listed here is Michael Pineda, who was signed prior to last season, but missed the year while recovering from Tommy John surgery. He and Martin Perez are likely to grab the last spots in the rotation behind Jose Berrios, Kyle Gibson, and Jake Odorizzi.
Blake Parker is slated to close and this is a quietly strong bullpen.
Joe Mauer’s retirement wasn’t a huge shocker, as he’s battled post-concussion symptoms for a while now, but it will be weird to see the Twins take the field without #7 in the lineup. Outside of Mauer, the losses aren’t very noteworthy.
Late in the offseason, after teams had already reported to camp, the Twins found some more money and signed Marwin Gonzalez. That solidified one of the best offseasons in the American League.
BA: .250 (15th)
OBP: .318 (16th)
SLG: .405 (18th)
wOBA: .313 (18th)
wRC+: 95 (19th)
BABIP: .298 (10th)
K%: 21.6% (9th)
BB%: 8.7% (15th)
A lot of those ranks are somewhere around average. The Twins offense could be one of the most improved units in baseball this season. Nelson Cruz was arguably the best pure hitter in this year’s free agent class and the Twins made it a priority to add him and his power very early in the process. Cruz dropped off in 2018, but I would expect a bounce back in 2019. The 38-year-old slugger saw his BABIP drop from .315 to .264, which led to a 40-point drop in SLG and a 32-point drop in BA.
It wasn’t a contact quality issue. Cruz was second in average exit velocity last season and posted the exact same Barrels/PA% of 9.3 percent. He actually increased his Hard Hit rate of 95+ mph contact from 48.7 percent to 51.3 percent. His batting average on ground balls dropped from .293 to .246. That seems like bad luck to me. Cruz will spearhead what should be a much improved Twins offense.
Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton both missed most of the season. Sano slashed just .199/.281/.398 and was even sent to Single-A to get his affairs in order. Buxton, who basically has to be average offensively to amass a ton of value because of his defense, only played 28 games. Those two getting back to 2017 form would provide an immense boost to this offense.
Many are pointing to a breakout season for Max Kepler, who increased his launch angle from 12.7 degrees to 16.2 degrees. He also increased his average exit velocity from 88.3 to 89.5 mph and his walk rate bumped from 8.3 percent to 11.6 percent. Add in Eddie Rosario, Jorge Polanco, and CJ Cron, who all grade as above average hitters, and this is a team that could see some really tremendous gains offensively. As you can see, they certainly need them.
On the other hand, maybe Cruz, who is well past the usual start of the aging curve, continues to regress and Sano and Buxton don’t get back to where they were. Maybe Kepler doesn’t break out. Even with Cruz, the Twins may only advance a few spots in most of those metrics.
Marwin Gonzalez is like signing three players in one because of his versatility. He’s also a switch hitter, which doesn’t hurt. Projections have the Twins with the best offense in the division and few people seem willing to argue.
ERA: 4.50 (22nd)
FIP: 4.39 (22nd)
xFIP: 4.33 (23rd)
K%: 21.9% (16th)
BB%: 9.1% (24th)
LOB%: 72.4% (18th)
PITCHf/x expert Josh Kalk seems to be making an impact. Kyle Gibson was at a strikeout per inning pace in the first half of 2018 and turned in one of his better seasons as a pro. The continued development of Jose Berrios, who was outstanding for the first four months of the season, means that the Twins have a front-of-the-rotation guy to rely on. Berrios posted a 3.56/3.64/3.75 pitcher slash before he tripped up mechanically in August and September. Jake Odorizzi allowed a .208/.291/.339 slash line with a .277 wOBA in the second half as he got on track.
The problem for the Twins is that the margin for error is so small for these guys. Outside of Berrios, nobody possesses clear, above average, swing and miss stuff. That means that this is a contact-oriented staff, which is another reason why Buxton is so important. Michael Pineda is coming back from Tommy John surgery and never really had good command to begin with, so it’s hard to expect much from him. The last time we saw Pineda, he had a 4.66 FIP in 96.1 innings for the Yankees. Martin Perez, another pitch-to-contact guy, is a below average starter.
The offensive gains could be counterfeited by what happens with this pitching staff or vice versa. Gibson not being able to sustain those strikeout gains is really worrisome. Odorizzi’s walk rate is also a concern for him, even though he is likely to carry a lower BABIP because of his fly ball rate. That means that the Twins need to convert a lot of fly balls into outs for him.
The bullpen is somewhere between solid and below average, which is a wide range, but it’s the truth. Blake Parker is only one year removed from posting a 2.54/2.71/2.73 pitcher slash, but he lost velocity last season and had a 4.40 FIP to go along with his 3.26 ERA. Trevor May was good in his return from Tommy John, but he only made 24 appearances. Taylor Rogers was dominant, holding opponents to a .162 wOBA in the second half. The rest of the pen is just made up of guys, including Addison Reed, who is already on the downside of his career at 30.
Positives & Negatives
I think the hire of Rocco Baldelli is a huge positive. Empty uniform and chronic complainer Paul Molitor didn’t help this team a whole lot and I highly doubt his philosophies jived with a progressive front office that includes Derek Falvey and Thad Levine. Molitor was always a placeholder for the new regime. Baldelli is a numbers guy. He’s also younger than Nelson Cruz, so we’ll see how that whole dynamic plays out. I think it’s a positive.
Baldelli will be the youngest manager in the big leagues, but it was a change that had to happen. Before the hire of Falvey, the former Assistant General Manager of the Indians, the Twins were making a big philosophical transition to be more data driven. It will be interesting to see how the pitching staff responds to pitching coach Wes Johnson, who methods are, to put it lightly, non-traditional. He also has no pro experience, which doesn’t matter to me, but I’m not a pro athlete.
The AL Central still isn’t very good. The Indians are the cream of the crop and no team, despite the media’s best efforts, is all that close. At least not right now. The Twins get 57 games against the White Sox, Twins, and Tigers to make a move on this win total.
There aren’t a lot of certainties with the Twins and that is a negative. If this happens and if that happens and if this also happens and if that also happens is a really bad way to justify a win total pick. But, that’s the reality with this team. You have to weigh the chances of all of these if statements coming to fruition.
Pick: Over 84.5
I think this is lined correctly, so this is a pick simply because I have to make one on every team. I think there are enough worrisome pieces and parts with the offense and the pitching staff, but I also really believe this is a team that lands in the 82 to 86 win range. The AL Central is still a bad division. Maybe the Indians falter and take a step back. Maybe that allows the Twins to step up and make a move.
They have a lot of questions of their own. In a perfect world, where everything goes right, they’re a contender for the second Wild Card and they can breathe down Cleveland’s neck enough to push the Indians. In the real world, all of those if statements that I mentioned are too much to overlook.
I also love what the Twins are doing organizationally. Push the envelope. Be different. Be unique. Hire creative thinkers. It’s awesome to see. Again, this is the future of baseball happening right before our eyes.
This will be a team that definitely surpasses last year’s team. The lineup is stronger and the rotation is better. The fact that the Twins are going the analytics route is a positive and it is a scary proposition for me as an Indians fan. I think the Twins give the Indians a real run for the division in 2020. I’m just not sure that they have enough stability to do it this year. I think there are too many question marks and too many inconsistencies, but I will be watching this team closely as the year goes along to find individual betting opportunities on a game-by-game basis.
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