Offensive regression hit the Minnesota Twins in a big way in 2020. A drop-off was to be expected. After all, the Twins set the all-time record for home runs and had the second-highest slugging percentage of all-time in 2019. There was only one way to go and that was down.
The Twins went from second in batting average to 18th, from sixth in on-base percentage to 20th, from second in slugging percentage to 14th, and from second in weighted on-base average (wOBA) to 15th.
Caveats and grains of salt based on the schedule, but they still played to a 97-win pace in a 162-game season. That would seem to be a pretty good indication of how healthy the Twins organization is at this point in time. I discussed their recent hires at length in last year’s introduction, including GM Derek Falvey from the Indians, manager Rocco Baldelli as a new-school thinker in the dugout, an outside of the box hire in Wes Johnson as pitching coach, and Josh Kalk, the creator of PITCHf/x, in the front office.
Johnson never had any pro ball experience, but was held in high esteem at the collegiate ranks. Falvey was part of an Indians organization that has strongly embraced analytics for over two decades and has seen many of its analysts, apprentices, and assistants hired for big gigs with other teams. Baldelli played and coached within the Tampa Bay Rays organization, which has been about as cutting edge as it gets.
There are still a lot of people out there that scoff at analytics and hate that Ivy Leaguers that “never played the game” hold such important, high-ranking positions within organizations and I just don’t get it. It is very hard to find teams that have gone all-in with analytics and have not seen pretty immediate results and improvements.
That being said, the Twins haven’t won a playoff series since 2002. I get it. There is a negative sentiment attached to that. If you don’t shine when the lights are the brightest, the larger sample size is rendered meaningless. The Twins are 137-85 over their last 222 games. They’ve now made the playoffs in three of the last four years, even if those appearances were over in the blink of an eye. Hell, they haven’t won a playoff game since 2004, going 0-15 in the process.
That’s fine. That’s no longer just an elephant in the room. It’s an elephant in every room. It shouldn’t cloud your judgment or impact your thinking as far as the regular season goes.
As supportive as I am of this organization, the hires, and the overall decision-making process, the Regression Monster is lurking. We already saw the offense take a big tumble in 2020. Eddie Rosario is gone. We only saw 28 games and 102 plate appearances from now 35-year-old Josh Donaldson. The offense does have some potential holes, but the hope would be that guys like Luis Arraez and Alex Kiriloff continue to bloom.
The pitching staff shouldered the load last season. How trustworthy is a rotation headlined by Kenta Maeda, who has exceeded 155 innings once in his MLB career? Will Michael Pineda stay in tact? What does 38-year-old J.A. Happ bring?
The Twins are one of the most interesting teams for me this season because there are a lot of questions. I’ll attempt to find the answers.
2021 Over/Under Season Win Total Odds
Odds To Win AL Central
|Team||Odds To Win|
|Chicago White Sox||-143|
|Kansas City Royals||+4000|
|BaseRuns Run Differential||+45 (4.54/3.80)||+184 (5.75/4.61)|
|3rd Order Win%||34.4-25.6||96.7-65.3|
|Record in One-Run Games||9-5||23-12|
Additions: Andrew Romine, Matt Shoemaker, Alex Colome, Keon Broxton, Andrew Albers, Alex Colome, Andrelton Simmons, J.A. Happ, JT Riddle, Hansel Robles, Tzu-Wei Lin, Rob Refsnyder, Derek Law, Luke Farrell, Glenn Sparkman, Shaun Anderson, Kyle Garlick, Ian Hamilton, Ian Gibaut, Brandon Waddell
Losses: Fernando Romero, Eddie Rosario, Matt Wisler, Alex Avila, Ehire Adrianza, Marwin Gonzalez, Tyler Clippard, Cory Gearrin, Trevor May, Zack Littell, Rich Hill, Homer Bailey, Jake Odorizzi, Sergio Romo, LaMonte Wade Jr., Sean Poppen
The Twins made lots of moves over the winter. They let go of more Major League caliber players than they brought back, but I don’t have an issue with what they did over the winter. In the year of the non-tender, they let Eddie Rosario walk, which was a little bit of a surprise, but none of their other moves were particularly stunning. Teams like the Twins are smart enough not to roll the dice too many times with relievers, which is why you see guys like Tyler Clippard, Trevor May, and Sergio Romo as losses.
Alex Colome was inked late in the process to give some protection to Taylor Rogers as the closer. The Twins are likely to roll out relievers in all sorts of different capacities and I’d be surprised if they had a well-defined closer. I’m a huge proponent of using your best reliever when you need him and worrying about the rest later. So is Rocco Baldelli.
The Twins let Rosario go because Alex Kiriloff is just about ready. Not listed as an addition is Nelson Cruz, who returned to the Twins when the universal DH was shot down. It limited his landing spots and the Twins were always the favorites.
|Batting Average (BA)||.242 (18th)||.270 (2nd)|
|On-Base Percentage (OBP)||.315 (20th)||.338 (6th)|
|Slugging Percentage (SLG)||.427 (14th)||.494 (2nd)|
|Weighted On-Base Avg (wOBA)||.319 (15th)||.347 (2nd)|
|Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+)||101 (16th)||116 (3rd)|
|Batting Avg on Balls In Play (BABIP)||.283 (18th)||.300 (13th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||24.4% (19th)||20.9% (4th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||8.6% (21st)||8.2% (20th)|
There was nowhere to go but down for the Minnesota Twins offense, but I truly did not see it going down that far. The Twins dropped 28 points in batting average, 23 points in OBP, and, most importantly, 67(!!) points in SLG and 28 points in wOBA. They went from being a well above average offense to merely 1% above league average. A massive K% increase was a big part of the reason why.
What the hell happened? How did the Twins go from setting the all-time record in home runs to finishing sixth in the shortened season? A few different things. The Twins had 11 players that hit at least 10 homers in 2019 and eight players that hit at least 22 home runs. One was CJ Cron. Another was Jonathan Schoop. They both left via free agency.
Primarily, Twins batters struck out more. Nelson Cruz’s K% went from 25.1% to 27.1%. Miguel Sano went from 36.2% to 43.9%. That also coincided with a big BB% drop for Sano, which is concerning in a season that saw the highest BB% in over 15 years. Max Kepler struck out more. He also walked more, so there were fewer balls in play for him. Mitch Garver went from 31 HR in 2019 with a .404 wOBA and a 155 wRC+ in 359 plate appearances to a .232 wOBA and a 41 wRC+ in 81 plate appearances of a lost season.
Collective regression hit virtually every player on the roster. Jorge Polanco regressed in a huge way.
Guys struck out more and made lower-quality contact. Interestingly, the Twins continued their organizational push to hit more fly balls and actually hit a higher percentage of fly balls last season, but fewer went for home runs. Hitting fly balls is a good thing. Hitting ground balls is not. The Twins do a lot of good things with their approach to hitting.
However, with reports that MLB will be deadening the baseball for the 2021 season, my optimism on the Twins having a bounce back offensive season is diminished slightly. They’ll be better than they were last season. They’d have to be. They were still among the league leaders in exit velocity and contact quality and some guys even hit the ball harder last season while still suffering a drop in slugging percentage.
The Twins go from facing the Central Division a ton to now facing all three divisions in the American League plus their interleague games. I have to think that increased familiarity for the pitchers in the ALC was a big factor in the K% increase. Also, it was just a strange season in a lot of ways to begin with. The Twins were fourth in OPS with two strikes in 2019 with a K% of 41.4%. They were 14th in OPS with two strikes in the shortened 2020 season with a K% of 44.7%. League average was a K% of 43.2% with two strikes.
The Twins were first in OPS in 2019 when behind in the count. They were 12th in that split last season. Had I considered some more of these factors going into 2020, I would have seen more of the regression coming, but, again, it would have been hard to project the team for such an enormous drop-off across the board.
It stands to reason that a team with hitters as talented as the Twins would find a way to regress towards somewhere in the middle. With increased power production likely, in spite of the changes to the ball, and a likely regression in the strikeout department, the Twins offense should be much closer to a top-10 unit than last season’s showing.
There simply aren’t weaknesses to this lineup. Jorge Polanco was second in plate appearances and posted an 80 wRC+. He’ll have diminished playing time. Marwin Gonzalez was fifth in plate appearances and hung a 66 wRC+. He’s gone. Jake Cave was forced into 123 plate appearances. He’s now a bench player.
Byron Buxton proved his 2019 breakout was no fluke by following a .340 wOBA and 111 wRC+ with a .345 and a 118. Nelson Cruz simply doesn’t age and remains elite in the contact quality department. Max Kepler has excellent bat-to-ball skills and works a lot of walks at the top of the order. Josh Donaldson can still swing it. Andrelton Simmons is about a league average hitter, but arguably the best defensive shortstop of all-time. I can’t imagine what we saw from Mitch Garver in an injury-riddled season is his baseline. Even if he struggles, prospect Ryan Jeffers is ready to take over and cult hero Willians Astudillo is always around.
The Twins can mix and match the lineup in a lot of ways and have some versatile players in reserve roles. I would fully expect improvement across the board.
|Earned Run Average (ERA)||3.58 (4th)||4.18 (9th)|
|Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)||3.79 (3rd)||4.03 (4th)|
|Adj. Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP)||4.15 (9th)||4.27 (5th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||25.1% (6th)||23.4% (12th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||8.0% (7th)||7.2% (2nd)|
|Left On Base Percentage (LOB%)||76.8% (3rd)||71.8% (18th)|
With a high floor for the offense, it will be the pitching staff that defines the ceiling for the Twins. Last season’s gains on the pitching side are why the Twins were able to withstand such a dramatic decline in offensive production. It all started with Kenta Maeda.
The Twins are doing this really smart thing that all other teams should figure out. They are instructing their pitchers to throw their best pitches more often. Crazy, right?! Well, it does take buy-in on a player level in order to do that and the right means of communication, but it should come as no surprise that the Twins isolated Maeda in trade and then took his skill set to another level. Maeda was a good pitcher with the Dodgers even before the Twins got a hold of him, but he saw career-bests in K%, BB%, BA, BABIP, LOB%, ERA, FIP, xFIP, GB%, exit velocity, and Hard Hit%, where he ranked in the 98th percentile. He only allowed 24.7% of batted balls to be hit at 95+ mph.
What did the Twins do? Maeda’s four-seam fastball usage fell to a career low at 18.8%. Instead, he threw his slider 38.6% of the time for a career high and his changeup 29.4% of the time for another career high.
This is common sense, but fastballs are the most hittable pitches. Maeda surrendered a .280 BA and a .517 SLG on his fastball in 2019. It was .291 and .500 in 2018. Where did Maeda excel those two seasons? With the slider and the changeup. What did the Twins do? Had Maeda throw the slider and changeup more. This isn’t rocket science and more and more teams are figuring this out, but the Twins targeted Maeda because they knew that they could unlock this potential. They did.
By the way, with the new look, hitters had a .086 BA and a .114 SLG on the fastball against Maeda and he actually threw it slower than he had any other season. The Twins also shelved his curveball, which had been a below average pitch each of the previous three seasons.
More teams are doing this with their pitchers and we’re seeing less fastball usage than ever. Some teams are just ahead of the curve. Using the all-encompassing FB% from FanGraphs, last year’s fastball rate of 50.5% was 2% lower than 2019, 4.4% lower than 2018, and more than 5% lower than 2017. This trend is not going away. Slider and changeup usage increases have been a story the last few seasons as well. The Twins are just ahead of the curve on this.
So, for example, another player who threw fewer fastballs last season was Jose Berrios. He added velocity under the “Czar of Velocity” Wes Anderson, but still threw fewer heaters. His K% bounced back to his 2018 numbers, but I’m looking for a career year from Berrios. He doesn’t have the command profile of Maeda, but decreased fastball usage should help. He actually threw harder last season, but had less command of the fastball. If the Twins can unlock the total package here, Berrios is in line for a bump.
Beyond Maeda and Berrios, there are a lot of questions. Michael Pineda is hurt a lot and he only made five starts last season over 26.2 innings. When he was out there, he was effective and he can be a good middle of the rotation arm, but I don’t know what we’re going to get from him and neither do they. I can’t help but wonder that free agent addition J.A. Happ is a square peg in a triangular hole. Maybe the Twins can cut off one of the corners and get it to fit, but Happ is an EXTREME fastball guy. His career FB% is over 68%.
Maybe the Twins have isolated something here. If so, I’m not smart enough to see it. He’s been effective throughout his career, but now at 38 years old with over 1,700 innings to his name, I’m not sure I grasp this one. I could make sense of Rich Hill. I can’t make sense of this.
Rec Specs Randy Dobnak rode a sinker/slider combo to a pretty decent season. He did increase his changeup usage, but the pitch remains a work in progress. Dobnak is an extremely extreme ground ball guy with a 62.1% mark last season. He misses very few bats, but opposing hitters just beat the ball into the ground and Dobnak has always exhibited the ability to avoid home runs. He’s a fun pitcher to handicap. One that is pretty BABIP-dependent and dependent on sequencing, but grass-stained baseballs are the best kind these days.
It is possible that Matt Shoemaker slides into the rotation over Dobnak. Expect a ton of splitters from him as he looks to rehab his career with the Twins.
The Twins had a strong bullpen last season and I’d expect the same again here. Tyler Clippard did lead the team in fWAR and he has departed as a free agent, but everybody else is back plus the addition of Alex Colome. I’m not a huge Colome guy, but there are a lot of workable pieces here and Baldelli is very smart when it comes to managing his relievers. I don’t know if I’d put the Twins down for a top-five bullpen, but they should remain in the top 10.
Positives & Negatives
Minnesota checks a lot of boxes for me. They’ve gone all-in with analytics. They’ve made some smart hires like Baldelli and Anderson. They’ve done a lot of advance scouting work and internal analysis to perfect game plans and tailor individual plans for the sake of improved production and development. Teams that do those things are able to get the most out of their players.
This is an older team. We haven’t seen any signs of age from Nelson Cruz yet, but Josh Donaldson is on the wrong side of 35 and he’s been hurt. Kenta Maeda and Michael Pineda are 32. J.A. Happ is 38. Four of the primary relievers are over 30. The Twins don’t have a ton of MLB-ready position player depth and are lacking starting pitching depth as well.
Minnesota Twins Pick & Prediction: Over 88.5
I lean over here with the Twins, who I do think will be the AL Central champs. Given that the White Sox win total is 91.5, I certainly have to lean over with the Twins if that is the position that I want to take. I do have the White Sox as a team I think could fall just short of expectations.
There are some worries with the Twins. Maybe the offense simply doesn’t bounce back as expected. Maybe some of the pitcher gains regress backwards. The Twins were the best in baseball with the bases empty with a .284 wOBA against. That limited the number of opportunities that teams had with runners in scoring position against them. That could regress and, like I’ve talked about already, sequencing is a big deal in baseball.
When I look at the Twins, though, I see a team consistently doing things the right way. They’re adding velocity to their pitchers while making smart, calculated decisions with pitch usage. I think the offensive outage was a one-off to some degree. This is an older team, but a team with a lot of proven track records on offense and some exciting young players to plug and play to replace guys they felt they could afford to lose.
This is not a strong opinion and not a bet, but I do believe the Twins are the best team in the Central Division and it will take more than 88 wins to win this division.