Like the Indians, the Twins were a surprise. Just for the opposite reason. Minnesota didn't just start the season bad, they started it epically awful. They sank so far in the standings that when the Tigers defeated them on June 1 the Twins were 20 games under .500 and looking up in the standings at the other 29 teams in the MLB.
That was most certainly not the Minnesota Twins team we are used to, nor the one that many predicted would win the division again.
Then a funny thing happened. Minnesota went on one of its patented winning streaks. The kind where they come back from the grave and seem to be winning 75 or 80% of their games. The kind that caught the Tigers in 2009, in other words. But this one came earlier in the year. From June 1 until today, their record is a sparkling 24-11 (.686). And six of those loses came all in a row.
Losing early then winning in bunches? Yep. Same ol' Twins.
But what are their chances of landing on the top of the Central for the seventh time since 2002?
The Twins are curious in a way. Their 3.98 ERA is the same as their FIP, which is the same as their xFIP. How often does that happen?
Scott Baker is leading the staff with a 3.01 ERA, a bit better than his 3.41 FIP. The main difference in Baker this year is an improvement of almost a strikeout per inning (8.46) from his prior season (7.82) and career average (7.2). Baker seems to improve the figure on a yearly basis, however. His BABIP is below his career norms, which is interesting because the Twins defense is not putting up good numbers.
Nick Blackburn is another starter whose ERA (4.24) outpaces his FIP (4.63) this year. He, too, improved his strikeouts by nearly one per nine innings, 4.73 K/9 this year after a lowly 3.80 last. On the other side of things, he has the worse HR/FB rate of his career. If this is closer to normal in the second half and his other numbers hold steady, he might actually improve.
Carl Pavano brings up the middle. His strikeout rate is actually down noticably this year, by about 1.5 K/9 from his career norms and 2 K/9 from last year. He's not stranding runners as well as should be expected, but he's also giving up fewer home runs per fly ball. His ERA (currently 4.10) should hover in the low 4s.
Francisco Liriano, last year's ace, has the worst ERA on the staff at 5.06, more than half a run worse than his FIP. Two big differences in Liriano are his HR:FB rate -- much worse than last year but actually at his career average -- and stranded runners rate -- a low 66%. His fastball has lost nearly 2 mph of velocity and actually has a negative run value this year. His slider, while still an above-average pitch, is not nearly as good as in past years. Batters are also swinging at pitches outside the zone much less than normal. Most curious of all might be that his BABIP is actually .265. Very strange season indeed.
Then we have Brian Duensing. His ERA (4.13) is worse than his FIP (3.69) but about in line with his xFIP (4.09). The deciding factor there is his HR:FB rate. This season it's a low 6.5%. He's consistently been below the norm, making xFIP not a real useful stat for him. But he's doing better than any point during his starting career. On the other side of things, he's striking out more batters and has an FIP of 3.10.
For the rest of the season, the ZiPS projections see each of these starters having a worse second half, with Baker's ERA being a full run worse.
Moving on to the bullpen, it's no longer scary. Gutted last year, and with Joe Nathan not quite himself, the Twins' pen is pretty near awful. By ERA, it's the worst in the AL.
Closer Matt Capps is bad, his ERA and FIP both coming in about 4.42. Alex Burnett is awful. Joe Nathan was awful, but has allowed a run to score just once in his last seven appearances.
Glen Perkins may actually be the best thing Minnesota has going for them in the pen, and he had an ERA of 5.82 last year. (Wonder why I don't put much emphasis on bullpen numbers one season telling us about what might happen the next? Look no further.) Perkins is doing it by striking out more than a batter per inning thanks to an improved fastball and slider. His K/9 of 9.62 is an improvement of more than 4 above his career norm and nearly 4 above last season.
Pitching conclusions: Again I just come up with typical Twins. Their pitchers don't seem overly impressive. The stats project they should take a step back in the second half. But we've heard this story before haven't we?
The Twins are near the bottom of the AL in most stats. And it's not because all the batters are bad. Four of them are actually having pretty nice seasons overall, led again by Michael Cuddyer. Whenever winning streaks happen, Cuddyer seems to be in the middle of it. He's pretty much the antichrist when it comes to getting in the Tigers' way. He's joined by Jim Thome, Jason Kubel and Denard Span.
Cuddyer is enjoying the best season of his career. Average, on-base percentage, slugging, he's better than ever nearly across the board. He's cut down his strikeouts and improved his line-drive rate.
Kubel's average is 36 points higher than his career norms, but his OBP and slugging are about normal. He's walking a bit less, but hitting fewer home runs per fly ball than normal.
Thome walks a lot, strikes out a lot, and has home runs (6) in more than a quarter of his hits (23). This guy is going to turn 41 in August. Amazing.
Denard Span is getting on base much better than he was last year, getting more hits, too. His 2011 season is basically splitting the difference between 2009's high mark and 2010's low. However, he's been injured since June 6 with a concussion. He has been cleared for a rehab assignment.
Of the aforementioned players, Thome is the only one who might get better in the second half, ZiPS projects.
Then we have the players who should have been good but have not been this year thanks to injuries: Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. The latter hasn't played since June 9. Mauer returned June 16 but hasn't really been the same. His slash line is .247 avg, .310 OBP, .299 SLG since returning on that date. However, he does have six hits in his last four games before the break (17 at bats).
Add Delmon Young to the list of underachievers, as his batting average is 40 less than his career norm and slugging 100 less. He suffered an ankle injury and hit the DL but will be activated after the break. Before he hit the DL though, he was batting .321 in June and a big reason the Twins were turning things around.
Helping the Twins win in the past month is Ben Revere, who is batting .284 and playing in center field while Span is gone. How Minnesota will find playing time for Revere and Span both will be interesting.
Then we have the typical Twins players who appear to be role player quality yet the team wins anyway. Most of them appear to stink but that never seems to hurt the Twins, so why should it now?
Batting conclusions: There's definitely room for the Twins to improve here. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau have not contributed much. Morneau just might not be the same ballplayer after his concussion suffered before the All-Star Break in 2010. Mauer, however, you have to believe will improve greatly when healthy. One key difference this year is that Mauer is playing less than ever at catcher. Meanwhlie Twins catchers can barely hit the ball, while Mauer tried out first base. That's going to hurt the team's overall numbers. If Young heats up and Cuddyer doesn't take a step back, they'll definitely score more runs in the second half.
The Twins are winning at a better than .500 clip at home and losing on the road. So that's not a big surprise. They're playing a bit over .500 in extra innings game and a bit under .500 in one-run games. So that seems normal.
Their strength of schedule in the first half was about average for the MLB. It was harder than the White Sox, easier than the Tigers and Indians. In the second half, they have the toughest SOS of any of the four division contenders. They have eight games remaining against the tough AL East teams -- including five against the Yankees who yearly have their number -- but most of those are at home.
Actually, their schedule features 42 home games and just 31 on the road after the break, so they do have that going for them. They also have a winning record against the Central Division overall at 16-11. That's helped by 4-1 vs the Indians and 7-1 vs the White Sox. Meanwhile they're 0-5 against the Tigers. If those trends continued in the second half, I wouldn't complain!
It might all end up a wash in the end, making this schedule a bit easier than it sounds.
I understand the history of the Twins is causing Tigers fans to get worried. They dog it for awhile then get hot. They enjoy fighting from behind and remind me a lot of the A's in the early 2000s. You just feel like every season is going to be won by Minnesota.
Based on history, I'm not going to write them off totally. But for every team there comes a time when that magic you've come to rely on runs out. They don't have the bullpen that made them so dangerous in the later innings in the past. Their lineup of left-handed mashers has taken quite a beating. Their starting pitching is not particularly good, and it's probably not going to get much better. This team just doesn't look that good to me compared to Twins teams of the past. Compared to the division, they might actually be on par with the Indians when it comes down to the number of dangerous players. Actually, the Indians have a better bullpen too. Neither team is as good as the White Sox or Tigers from what I see.
Minnesota has been incredibly hot during the past six weeks while Detroit has been pretty blase. They've only cut the Tigers' lead over them down from 11.5 games to 6.5 At that rate it's going to take another two months just to catch up unless the Tigers totally fall apart. I just find a hard time believing that's going to be how the season plays out for either team. In order to get to 87 wins, they'll have to go 46-27 (.630) the rest of the way and that just seems unlikely to me.
I'll give Minnesota what I feel is a pretty charitable .550 winning percentage the rest of the year and say they wind up between 80 and 82 wins.
If they were to come back to take the division; well, that's the Twins for you. But if ever there was a year to believe they won't do that, it's this one.
Some numbers (rankings are AL only):
Record: 41-48 (.461), 6.5 GB
From Baseball Prospectus:
Playoff odds: 7.4%
Expected win % rest of the season: .507
Simulated wins: 78.8
From CoolStandings Remaining Strength of Schedule: . .505 (2nd hardest in division)
From ESPN.com: Current Strength of Schedule: .491 (17th hardest in MLB)
Rotation ERA: 3.98 (7th)
FIP: 3.98 (9)
xFIP 3.98 (10) (seriously 3.98 for all three stats. remarkable.)
Bullpen ERA: 5.01 (14)
FIP: 4.61 (12)
AVG: .248 (11th)
OBP: .307 (12)
SLG: .355 (12)
wOBA: .296 (12)
UZR: fielding: 1.5 (8th)
Defensive Runs Saved: -18 (13)
Defensive efficiency: .709 (9)