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So, how does a team go about improving by 26 wins?
That’s exactly what the Minnesota Twins pulled off in 2017 by actually making the playoffs and rebounding from a putrid 59-103 season in the year before. Needless to say, a lot of things need to change from season-to-season to make that happen. Here’s what was different.
No 1.: Luck
This is probably the most obvious factor, and maybe the most significant as well. Both Base Runs and Third Order Wins felt that the 2017 Twins were an 81-81 team, four wins shy of their 85-77 record. Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs don’t maintain archives of these statistics publicly (though if this can be found somewhere, please let me know!), so it’s a little tougher to come up with such an estimate for 2016. This might be clunky, but using straight Pythagorean estimation, the Twins under-performed by about 5 wins in 2016. I feel comfortable enough treating that as a median estimate for the “real” number.
Difference: 9 wins
No 2.: Competent Catching
Relative to league average, Jason Castro had his worst framing season in four years. Still, he was a little above-average and brought some OBP to the position. In 2016, Kurt Suzuki, J.R. Murphy, and Juan Centeno combined for -1.9 WARP. Castro (plus a strong season from backup Chris Gimenez) led to a 4.4 WARP improvement from Twinkie backstops. We’ll round it down.
Difference: 4 wins
No 3.: Jose Berrios
The Twins’ biggest problem in 2016 was that while Ervin Santana was strong at the top of the rotation, he had essentially zero help behind him. In particular, Jose Berrios was really bad, logging an ERA of 8.02 over 14 starts. Last season, however, Berrios started to flash his considerable potential, and much went right in his age-23 season. He upped his curveball usage and got more whiffs, his control dramatically improved, and he started to get more of a vertical movement spread between his fourseam and his frequently-used sinker. Berrios figures to be a tough customer moving forward.
Difference: 3 wins
No 4.: Lord Byron Breaks Out
Last year, I surmised that we might be calling Byron Buxton the best player in the division before the end of the year. I might have said that coming into this season, but an extremely cold start somewhat tempers those expectations. Buxton is the best defensive center fielder in the game and possibly the best defender in all of baseball. He’s still a work-in-progress at the plate, but he got closer to average last season despite whiff problems. If he irons those out in his age-24 season, we might start saying his name in the same breath as Mike Trout.
Difference: 3 wins
No 5.: Removal of Position-Player Waste
The Twins had remarkably few replacement-level sinkholes in 2017, compared to several problems from the year prior. Minnesota effectively phased out John Ryan Murphy, Oswaldo Arcia, and Danny Santana, while utility guy Eduardo Escobar took a massive leap forward by hitting 21 home runs. White Sox fans are familiar with sinkhole players demolishing a team and know full well what a big deal it is to get rid of waste.
Difference: 4 wins
The rest of the difference (about 3 wins) can be attributed to assorted other things. Joe Mauer had a weird bounceback that saw him cut his strikeouts and hit .300 for the first time since 2013. Third baseman Miguel Sano improved by about a win due to a probably-unsustainable .375 BABIP and defensive metrics feeling a little better about him. Even Ervin Santana managed to find another gear by inducing more weak contact and found himself on the All-Star team for the first time in nine years.
The Twins have reloaded a bit for 2017 in hopes of pushing towards a repeat Wild Card berth. They snagged 2017 breakout star Logan Morrison to a cheap 1-year deal in hopes he can come close to repeating his magical 38-homer season. Similarly, Lance Lynn had to settle for a 1-year deal with Minnesota despite a long track record of average-or-better performance when healthy. I touched on Jake Odorizzi a bit in the Rays preview, but before a down 2017, he showed the ability to eat innings of number-three-starter quality. The new additions have provided the Twins with much-needed depth at a couple of historical problem positions and should help to make them an interesting player in the Wild Card race.
What’s probably more pertinent to White Sox fans than the 2018 Minnesota team is knowing where the Twins will be in the future. Many key players on this year’s squad (Mauer, Lynn, Brian Dozier, Escobar) will be gone after 2018 and others (Ervin Santana, Addison Reed, Castro, Morrison, Odorizzi, and fifth starter Kyle Gibson) will be out the door after 2019. That’s a lot of key pieces to replace, and the Twins teams that will face the White Sox at their presumed peak will take on a different look. Still, Buxton and Berrios should be able to keep the team relevant, and they have a deep cast of prospects led by speedy shortstop Royce Lewis that should help to fill in the holes. While there’s some risk that 85 wins and a Wild Card Game exit will represent a high watermark, the Twins have plenty of hope that last season’s surprising success was all prologue.
Probable Starting Pitchers
- Thursday, April 12: Jose Berrios vs. Lucas Giolito
- Friday, April 13: TBD vs. Reynaldo Lopez
- Saturday, April 14: Lance Lynn vs. Miguel Gonzalez
- Sunday, April 15: Jake Odorizzi vs. Carson Fulmer
Probable Starting Lineup
- Brian Dozier – 2B
- Joe Mauer – 1B
- Miguel Sano – 3B
- Eddie Rosario – LF
- Logan Morrison – DH
- Eduardo Escobar – SS
- Max Kepler – RF
- Byron Buxton – CF
- Jason Castro – C
- SP1: Jose Berrios – RHP
- SP2: Jake Odorizzi – RHP
- SP3: Lance Lynn – RHP
- SP4: Kyle Gibson – RHP
- SP5: TBD, in Ervin Santana’s absence
- CL: Fernando Rodney – RHP
- RP1: Addison Reed – RHP
- RP2: Ryan Pressly – RHP
- RP3: Zach Duke – LHP