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Behind enemy lines: What is the Twins' secret of success this season?

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BYB talks with Twinkie Town about the Twins and their surprising season, as well as their manager in this Q & A.

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

With just a couple of weeks left in the regular season, the Detroit Tigers are hopelessly buried in last place, while the Minnesota Twins find themselves just one game out of the final playoff spot. Few would have predicted such a scenario when the 2015 season began.

We talked with Jesse Lund, head writer and editor at Twinkie Town, SB Nation's Twin cities baseball affiliate, about the Twins resurgence and the reasons for their success. We snuck in a question about their second year manager, and a certain former Twins' manager's name naturally cropped up. Here is the discussion:

1: The Twins are surprising most baseball observers by sticking around in the playoff race right until the end. Is the team surprising their own fan base, and in what area have they performed above expectations to keep them in the race?

They're absolutely surprising the fan base. It's a bizarre situation to be in, at least as a fan. On the one hand, we're absolutely rooting for the team to hand in there and steal that second Wild Card spot. On the other hand, the Twins could go 7-13 down the stretch, finish with 81 wins, and everyone would be exceptionally pleased with how the season played out.

As for the areas they've performed well in, there are really only a few. They've played very well at home, with their 42-26 record being the fourth-best in the American League behind Kansas City, Houston, and Toronto. The Twins have also raked with runners in scoring position (which is great considering how terrible they've been with the bases empty). And it's hard to understate just how important the rookies have been this season. Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario, and Trevor May are among the club's seven or eight most valuable players this year. For a more detailed look at the question of how Minnesota is competing, I drilled it down to ten reasons last week.


2: The Twins have not been relevant in the standings this late in the season over the past few years. They’re on the verge of drawing two million fans for the season. Is there a buzz of excitement among the fan base, being involved in the playoff chase once again?

Oh, yeah. Definitely. Over the last four years we've gotten used to the Twins more or less tanking come mid-August and becoming unwatchable. You'd get to the All-Star break and most of the state was more concerned with Week 1 of the upcoming NFL season than that night's Twins game. It's always great when the general public starts to care again, but it's always a treat to cheer for the underdog, too. Nobody thought the Twins would be competing in June, much less September. It's just a lot of fun right now. I feel like this fan base probably deserves a bit of fun after how terrible these last few seasons have been.


3: The Twins rank in the bottom third of the American league in most offensive categories such as batting average, slugging, and home runs, and they’re dead last in on base percentage. How are they scoring enough runs to stay above .500?


Minnesota is hitting .278/.348/.442 with runners in scoring position, which is the fifth-best OPS in baseball. With the bases empty they're hitting .229/.282/.377, which is 29th-best (HA! Best.) in baseball.

The Twins have also reaped the benefit of hot streaks. Torii Hunter and Trevor Plouffe were torching the earth back in May, for example, and Brian Dozier did so in May and June. Aaron Hicks had a good stretch between his callup mid-season and his trip to the disabled list. Miguel Sano, obviously, has been a gift of the baseball gods. You go through stretches where, if the pitching and the defense is good enough, one or two guys can really lift you up. And that's certainly happened this year in Minnesota.


4: Twins’ pitchers also have the fifth highest team ERA and the fourth highest WHIP. There is no real standout pitcher in their rotation, but the bullpen seems to be very good at holding leads. What is the key to the Twins’ pitching for them to continue their success?

Better starting pitching. The pitching staff as a whole is drifting towards the middle of the pack in runs allowed per game, which isn't great but it's a drastic improvement over ranking 28th or 29th. The starting pitching is better by almost a whole run from last season, and has in turns been led by great stretches from Kyle Gibson, Mike Pelfrey (wut), and Tommy Milone. The bullpen hasn't been as good, but with Glen Perkins closing things out it's been relatively easy for Paul Molitor to ride a hot hand to bridge the cap from starter to closer. Hopefully he'll be back soon, because with the additions of Neal Cotts and Kevin Jepsen this club almost has a semblence of a serviceable bullpen.

New pitching coach Neil Allen gets a lot of the credit here. Any Twins pitcher who can throw a changeup has been encouraged to use it differently, meaning that pitchers will throw it regardless of which side of the batter's box the hitter stands in. Pitch sequencing has also become a bit more scientific, and again we go back to changeups - it means guys aren't afraid to string two or three of them together. Coaches get too much credit when a team wins and too much blame when it loses, but there's been a real, marked difference in how Twins pitchers have attacked hitters this year. Better pitchers certainly help, and the Twins have that too, but there seems to be a lot more planning going into pitch sequencing which is allowing Minnesota to reap rewards from their starters even if they aren't rolling up strikeouts.


5: Is there a player or two on the Twins’ roster who you would say is a key to their success as they make a push for the final playoff spot?

I've been asked this question repeatedly, and I have a hard time narrowing it down. Brian Dozier is one of the league's best second basemen on both sides of the ball, and he needs to keep hitting. Trevor Plouffe is fighting off a cold streak and hit a pair of home runs this weekend, and he needs to play well. Joe Mauer has reached base in 33 consecutive games, Miguel Sano's power has been must-watch TV, Ervin Santana's big games have been impressive, Eddie Rosario, Trevor May, Aaron Hicks, Byron Buxton, Kurt Suzuki, Tyler Duffey...I really can't narrow it down. If the Twins are going to keep this going, they really do need to have as many players as possible clicking at the same time.


6: Brad Ausmus is in his second season as Tigers’ manager and his job is very much in jeopardy. Paul Molitor is in his first season as Twins’ manager and seems to be faring much better. Both took their jobs with no managerial experience. What would you say have been some attributes that make Molitor successful as a  manager?

A big part of it is talent, certainly. The Twins have one of the best minor league systems in baseball, and so I imagine that when your rookie talent is Trevor May, Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, and Miguel Sano - your job is probably a little bit easier. Paul has also brought a new look to Minnesota - in terms of clubhouse presence and style, certainly, but also in his willingness to embrace advanced metrics and enhanced scouting reports, and in the necessary fallout from doing so - better communication, implementation, getting players on board and buying into the philosophy. Molitor is so attuned to detail it's unreal. He's willing to play hot hands, he's willing to platoon; there are just a lot of things he's doing that are different from what Ron Gardenhire did, and perhaps that's why it's easy to talk about the things he does as helping lead the Twins to a successful season in his first campaign as a rookie manager.

Maybe part of Molitor's success when compared to Ausmus is because he's been away from the game longer as a player. Maybe it's because Molitor was a better player. Maybe it's because Molitor took over a terrible team at the right time, and Aumus took over a Tigers team that might be searching for ways to keep their competitive window open. It's really hard for me to say.

I know that the Tigers had a lot of faith in Ausmus when they brought him in, and as an outsider I can only go back and say what I mentioned earlier - managers get too much blame when things go wrong. That doesn't mean you don't replace the manager when you need to - see: Gardenhire, Ron - but I'm also not a fan of knee-jerk reactions. Whether Ausmus is in over his head or is just a victim of circumstance...that's a debate I had about Gardy many, many times over the years. All I can say is that I wish him well, and for Tigers fans looking to oust him to be careful what you wish for. Detroit very well could end up with Gardy, and I know lots and lots of Twins fans who would love for that to happen, for all the wrong reasons.

And just so I touch on the subject - I don't think Gardy is a bad manager. But he is old school. That should matter when discussing his pros and cons.

★★★


Many thanks to Jesse and the rest the Twinkie Town staff for taking the time to answer our questions. You can read the other half of our Q&A on their website.  You can check out Twinkie Town here for the latest on the Twins and their quest for the playoffs.