I haven’t written about my Minnesota Twins in a while. Blame it on 2016, the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. On top of a stunning turn in politics, the Twins had their worst year ever as a Minnesota team. (They were the Washington Senators until 1960.)
They did okay in 2017 with a winning season (.525 win record) and the second American League Wildcard. Of course, they lost to, guess who, the damn Yankees. The year also capped a weird three-year over-under-over pattern in terms of their expected performance.
In 2018, the stats look closer to expectations, which is to say sad, but it’s possible 2019 will be much happier.
One certainly hopes so. One would very much like to see that.
If you know me, or this blog, you know I love baseball. I try very hard to catch all 162 Twins games each summer, plus all the post-season games, plus various others I may catch during the season. Easily 200+ games.
And, yes, it can get a little old come the fall, especially if it’s been a tough season for my team. (Post-season increases the excitement a bit. Or a lot depending.)
But after November, December, January, and into February, I begin to miss it and crave me some baseball.
(There’s the WBC every four years, and sometimes MLB shows games from Asian or Australian leagues.)
About now, actually, I’m thinking a baseball game would be nice. (In another month, Spring Training game start!)
Since that’s not possible, I have no choice but to talk about it…
While you might know how much I love baseball, you might not know that it’s a fairly recent addition to my life.
As with any American kid, I played it with my friends, or in scouts, or in school, but never really got into it. (Or any sport.)
But in 2010, looking for a way to detune my stressed out mind, I found baseball relaxing. And then interesting. And then really interesting. The more I watched, the more its fascinating complexity unfolded. There is so much to learn!
The irony — the bitter, terrible irony — is that 2010 is the last decent year the Twins had. After falling in love with the sport and the team, the very next year they tanked badly. And kept tanking, year after year.
The chart shows my pain. The 2000s were a much better decade for the Twins than the notoriously bad 1990s. Their success led to building a new ballpark, Target Field, in 2010.
I came along about halfway through the 2010 season. Part of the attraction may have been all the talk about the new park. No more Metrodome!
So I fall in love only to have the team fall off a cliff.
For four painful years.
Those years, 2011–2014, are among the worst dozen seasons the team has ever had (in Minnesota). Not to mention 2016, which was the worst (and it came after a surprisingly good season in 2015).
Run differential is considered a pretty decent predictor of team performance considering it’s a simple stat. Most of the better predictors are more complex.
The chart above tells the same horrific tale. Even in 2007, which was a losing year for the team (.488 win percent), the run differential is small.
But 2011–2013? Very ugly! You’d think 2016 would be worse, but it’s definitely down there with very, very bad. (In 2015 the RΔ was -4, so it doesn’t show up on the scale of the graph. The HΔ was -157, though.)
The real ugly is that, from 2010–2018, the run differential is -624, and the hit differential is -1,141. That’s how many more runs and hits the other guys got.
Let’s break down the batting:
Getting hits has definitely been a problem. What might compound this is players trying for the “three true outcomes (3TO).”
In all these charts, the black diamonds show the MLB average for the stat (which the Twins are often worse than). The smooth line is a cumulative average. Note, too, that the vertical scales are set to highlight relative differences.
Getting runs (the whole point) isn’t awful other than the 2011–2013 span. Truth is, some hitting issues aside, the Twins get runs. (The problem, as you will see, is the pitchers give up more.)
Home runs are even picking up (the influence of the 3TO, again; which if you didn’t follow the link is batters trying to only walk, strike out, or get a home run, all of which keep the ball out of play defensively):
Home runs are flashy and exciting, and fans love’m, but (as the Twins show), they don’t win ballgames when the pitchers give up more.
Striving for the 3TO also shows up, obviously, in strikeouts:
Which have really gotten bad in the last five years! As you can see, because of the 3TO, they’ve also been on the rise in general.
One might expect walk rates to reflect the 3TO approach, but they seem fairly stable (if jittery):
Walks are a small bit of goodish news. The Twins have been pretty good in this regard — typically better than MLB average. Something bad happened in 2011, but notice how good the awful 2016 is.
While batting isn’t great, it’s the pitching that been killing us. The team just can’t seem to field great pitching.
The pitching improved in the 2000s, but has gotten worse in the 2010s. And it’s never been as good as around 1970.
The thing is, ERA should be below 5.00 to be at least competitive; a truly strong team has an ERA below 4.00 (or even 2.00, if they’re being amazing). The World Series teams in 2018, the Red Sox and the Dodgers, had ERAs of 3.79 and 3.40, respectively.
Mariano Rivera, former Yankees ace closer (last player to wear Jackie Robinson’s retired #42), who just entered the Baseball Hall of Fame by unanimous vote (the first time that’s ever happened), has a lifetime ERA of 2.21 (which is phenomenal).
Here are the matching charts for Twins pitching, starting with Hits (given up):
Twins pitchers give up more hits than MLB average, but the last two years show serious signs of improvement. The Twins seem to finally be getting pitching.
Many of these charts illustrate my pain. Look at 2010. Then at 2011 and the three years following. And 2016, ouch!
Twins pitchers, no surprise, give up more home runs than average (2012 was extra bad). Home runs are on the rise all around; it’s the 3TO again.
Supposedly Minnesota never had a strikeout philosophy, but something called “pitch to contact” (allowing playable grounders). But the early years here show Twins close to MLB averages (above in 2007 and 2010).
Big problems getting strikeouts starting in 2011, but a recent rising trend. In 2018 they were at MLB average — a hopeful sign. I certainly enjoyed seeing the strikeouts from Twins pitchers last year!
As I mentioned above, the Twins have been good about walks, both taking them and not giving them away. They’re pretty consistently below MLB average, although 2018 had a lot of walking!
(Compare with the batting version to see the Twins didn’t join in the fun as much as they might have, which is a bit of a surprise given their history.)
Winning, obviously, boils down to doing better than your opponents.
Looking at performance alone has value; so does looking at comparative performance. I showed the run differential chart above; there are similar charts for the other stats.
For instance the hit differential:
Which is a little painful, all that red.
Note that, as with the stats charts so far, the vertical axis is percentage (of batters). The actual numbers, say home runs versus hits, have different scales, so even the percentages above require different scales.
The difference charts allow better comparison between stats and give a better idea of success rate (or lack thereof). Other than the scale, one does end up with an identical chart.
Compare the run differential chart just above to the first one shown. This is another chart that shows my 2010-2011 pain.
[sigh] Twins never hit more home runs than their pitchers give up. I remember seeing all those ball fly away in 2011 and 2012.
Apparently Twins pitchers did used to strikeout more batters. Then not. But there’s a glimmer of green hope at the end.
Once again, the Twins are a-okay in the walks department. (except for my rude awakening year, 2011, and whatever happened last year).
Since this is a post containing charts, all the charts, I’ve got more.
I like these next ones, except for how they show the pain points. They’re about game outcomes.
The chart above shows number of “big” games per year (by the Twins and their opponents). A “big” game is when the team scores ten or more runs.
Once again, look at 2011. Also 2016. Twins allowed big runs in way more games than they scored big runs in those years (and others).
In these charts, it would be nice to see red and blue bars at least roughly equal, which would indicate balance. Ideally blue bars should be higher to indicate winning.
The one above is similar, except it counts “big wins” — games won by more than five points.
There is way too much red towering above the blue during the pain years, and 2016 was just awful. We don’t seem back to the glory days, but there does seem improvement.
This last one shows number of games won or lost by one run. I include it because of the 2010-2011 contrast and 2016. And not much improvement here.
The Twins noticeably lost a lot of close games last year.
So, here in January, what to expect from 2019?
Manager Paul Molitor was given his walking papers, so we’ll have a new manager and some new staff.
There was talk that Molitor didn’t find a good connection to his younger players. One wonders sometimes what that might be code for. The new guy is younger and presumed to do better.
Much will depend on players such as Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Max Kepler, doing better than they have — living up to their potential, actually. The first two have been plagued with injuries, and I have yet to be sold on Sano.
There are some new players on the Twins; how it all works out remains to be seen.
This got long (hope you enjoyed the pretty pictures). I leave you with one of my favorite baseball quotes, due to one George F. Will (from Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball, 1990):
“Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona.”
Stay on base, my friends!