Heading into this season, many saw the Minnesota Twins as potential challengers to the Cleveland Indians atop the AL Central. The Tribe did not do much to improve their team during the offseason, while the Twins aggressively made moves to shore up a club that finished a distant second, at 78-84 in 2018. In came C.J. Cron, Nelson Cruz, Marwin Gonzalez, Martin Perez, Jonathan Schoop, and Blake Parker to help support a young nucleus, one that the Twins front office hoped would take a step forward and bring the Twins closer to contention.
Long story short, they have the best record in baseball on May 10.
The Twins have certainly fattened up on mediocre competition so far — they are a combined 10-0 against the Tigers, Royals, and Orioles — but this doesn’t seem to be smoke and mirrors. Minnesota’s +44 run differential trails just four other MLB clubs, and they have outperformed their pythagorean expected win-loss record by just one game. They rank third in the American League in fWAR, and have done so in well-rounded fashion (both the rotation and offense are top-three units in the AL).
While some advanced metrics still prefer the Astros and Rays in the American League, the Twins appear to be in the driver’s seat in the AL Central. No team has improved their playoff odds so far this season more than the Twins, and their current 3 1⁄2 game lead over the Indians might be more significant than it appears. Baseball Prospectus’ third-order win standings have the Twins atop the division by four games over the second place... Royals? The Indians, meanwhile, are considered a .428 club after their first 36 games.
Will Minnesota keep it going? I don’t see why not. They have already proven themselves capable of beating up on bad teams, and have even held their own against the best of the best in the American League through April and early May. Continuing to pad their lead against struggling competition — like the offensively challenged Tigers, for instance — just pushes them closer to dethroning Cleveland atop the division.
Statistical comparison: Tigers vs. Twins
|Batting (wRC+)||81 (13th)||116 (3rd)||Twins|
|Fielding (DRS)||-16 (12th)||14 (t-4th)||Twins|
|Rotation (ERA-)||86 (4th)||78 (2nd)||Twins|
|Bullpen (ERA-)||130 (14th)||96 (8th)||Twins|
|Total fWAR||4.6 (13th)||12.7 (3rd)||Twins|
Game times, TV listings, streaming info, etc.
Game 1: Friday, May 10, 8:10 p.m.
Game 2: Saturday, May 11, 2:10 p.m.
Game 3: Saturday, May 11, 8:10 p.m.
Game 4: Sunday, May 12, 2:10 p.m.
Venue: Target Field, Minneapolis, Minn.
SB Nation site: Twinkie Town
Media (all games): Fox Sports Detroit, fuboTV, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
The Twins have sported one of the best offenses in the American League so far this season. Seven of their nine regulars have produced at a league average rate or better (per wRC+) while reserves like Jason Castro and Willians Astudillo have also chipped in. Minnesota ranks third in the league as a team with a 116 wRC+, and have scored 5.31 runs per game, also third in the AL. Shortstop Jorge Polanco has led the way with a 179 wRC+ through 34 games, and is just behind some guy named Mike Trout with 2.1 fWAR on the year. Catcher Mitch Garver has also been worth more than a full win already, while several others are on the cusp of joining that group. Six different Twins hitters have produced as much value as Ronny Rodriguez, who leads the Tigers at 0.8 fWAR on the season.
The above lineup is exactly how Minnesota will line up for Friday’s series opener, and don’t expect much adjusting throughout the series. Sure, there will be some rotation throughout the doubleheader — Jason Castro will almost surely start against righthander Spencer Turnbull — but flipping Kepler and Garver might be the only tweak the Twins make for Sunday’s series finale against lefthander Daniel Norris.
Game 1: RHP Tyson Ross (1-4, 5.34 ERA) vs. RHP Jake Odorizzi (4-2, 2.78 ERA)
Jake Odorizzi has found a way to significantly increase his strikeout rate without affecting his walk rate all that much. This has resulted in a 2.78 ERA that would be his best to date. He is throwing slightly harder than last year, but like most pitchers, is relying on his heater less often than ever before. There isn’t One Big Thing that Odorizzi is doing differently to get more strikeouts. He uses five different pitches at least 12 percent of the time, and has actually gone away from using his splitter in two-strike situations — lefties are getting a two-seam fastball more than twice as often as the splitter in two-strike counts this season.
Game 2: RHP Spencer Turnbull (2-2, 2.31 ERA) vs. TBD
The Twins have not yet announced their starters for Saturday’s doubleheader, but righthander Michael Pineda is almost certain to get one of those starts. The big righthander has returned from Tommy John surgery with lower velocity than he had previously, and it has showed. He has a 6.09 ERA through his first seven starts, and has made it through the sixth inning just once — a 4-3 win over the Tigers at Comerica Park on April 13. Pineda has given up home runs at an alarming rate this year, and has allowed a 45.9 percent contact rate. There aren’t many positive signs here either; his strikeout rate is down, and he isn’t generating nearly as many ground balls as he used to. It’s early, but things don’t look good for the 30-year-old.
Game 3: LHP Gregory Soto (0-1, 2.03 ERA in Double-A) vs. TBD
Gregory Soto, Detroit’s reported call-up for the other half of their doubleheader, is a hard-throwing lefthander with electric stuff. Unfortunately, he doesn’t always know where said stuff is going. Soto has racked up 491 strikeouts over 453 minor league innings since 2013, but has also walked over five batters per nine innings during that span. He seemed to have gotten things under control during a dominant 2017 season at the Single- and High-A levels, but took a step back with 70 walks allowed in just 113 1⁄3 innings last year. He has only made four starts in 2019 following a mysterious 20-game suspension to open the season.
Game 4: LHP Daniel Norris (1-1, 3.81 ERA) vs. LHP Martin Perez (5-0, 2.83 ERA)
Daniel Norris has looked solid as a starter so far despite fastball velocity that has declined precipitously since his earlier days in a Tigers uniform. Meanwhile, lefthander Martin Perez has pulled a 95 mile-per-hour heater out of nowhere and is dominating his American League competition. Perez was previously a touch-and-feel lefty in the Texas Rangers organization that struck out 462 batters in over 760 innings before coming to Minnesota. Since the move, he is striking out nearly a batter per inning while throwing harder than ever. The Twins have won his last four starts, and he has allowed just a 1.64 ERA since moving to the rotation in mid-April.
What we’re rooting for: a strong start to a rough stretch
The Tigers lost two of three against the Angels this week to open up a stretch of 14 games in 13 days. Though only the next four are on the road, the competition gets rather stiff from here. First up are the Twins, whose credentials have already been listed throughout this article. Then come the Houston Astros, who should be 30-8 according to Baseball Prospectus’ third-order win percentage. The Oakland Athletics follow next weekend; while the A’s have struggled so far, they won 97 games last year for a reason, and have always played the Tigers closely.
If the Tigers aren’t careful, things could fall apart quickly for them. Their -42 run differential, while skewed by their last game, is the second-worst in baseball right now. They are outperforming their pythagorean expected record by four games, and don’t appear to have the offense to reverse that trend anytime soon. Getting outfielder Christin Stewart back will help, but they are still one of the worst hitting teams in the majors.
Here’s hoping their pitching can come through yet again.