There’s been an affectionate meme that pops up in baseball circles whenever the Twins start losing, where the “win” in the Twins logo is erased, leaving just the letters T and S. Not to be confused with the Oakland A’s, the T’s are not an actual MLB team, though it may appear that way when Minnesota takes the field sometimes, especially this year. Even the team’s own promotional campaign doesn’t believe they can win:
I was putting off writing this article for a long time, as I was holding on to the slim chance the Twins could right the ship and become a competitor in the AL Central again. Even now, they’ve won 8 of their last 12 against teams not named the White Sox and do not seem to want to give up just yet. However, if you look at the big picture, they’re fighting for fourth in the division and are 13 games back of the second wild-card spot. Things are not looking great.
Despite that, it’s not all bad for the T’s. As mentioned before, they’ve strung a few wins together and now they’re starting to get some key players back from injuries, which is part of the reason for their streak. In this article, I’ll go over the good, the bad, and the ugly of this Twins season that has earned them their undesirable nickname.
Fresh Faces in Twinkie Town
Let’s start with the good. Thanks to a plethora of injuries (that will be covered in more detail later), we have been graced with the presence of new players in the Twins clubhouse. New prospects like Nick Gordon, Trevor Larnach, and Alex Kirilloff have already made their mark in the major leagues, and additions like Rob Refsnyder and Kyle Garlick have paid off surprising dividends.
Starting with the young guys, the two most impressive new faces this year have to be Larnach and Kirilloff. Slashing .263/.359/.436 and .263/.300/.447 respectively, these players have definitely risen to the occasion while getting lots of quality time in the starting lineup. Particularly, Kirilloff is within the top 10 in the league in xBA and top 20 in xSLG and Larnach is top 30 in xwOBACON and has a max exit velocity of 116 mph. Very impressive numbers for such young guys.
In terms of signings, Rob Refsnyder has been electric when he’s been healthy. After years of mediocre play on many different teams, he has finally come into his own with the Twins. Slashing .321/.371/.500 in 62 PAs, as well as taking up a new position, getting him as an outfield replacement has proved useful for this team. His 137 wRC+ is the highest of his career and his .306 xBA is tied for 11th in the majors among players with at least 50 PAs. If he could stay off the IL, which seems to be the problem for most Twins players this year, he can provide a much-needed boost for this squad now and in the future.
For me, my favorite new face has to be Gordon. Although he hasn’t had as many chances as Larnach and Kiriloff (only 61 PAs), this rookie has taken advantage of his opportunities, slashing .281/.328/.368 and swiping 5 stolen bases in 5 attempts. He’s had to adjust to a new position in the outfield for the first time in his career and he looks like a natural, notching 27 putouts in 27 chances. I like his speed, I like his adaptability, and I know he can hit, so I hope he gets more playing time in the future.
In my opinion, the craziest thing about the Twins is that despite all the losing, they are still the bomba squad. They’re second in the American League in home runs (119), boast the top barrel % in the majors (10.4%), the second-highest hard-hit % (42.3%), and maintain top 8 in average and top 6 in OPS as a team. So, if they’re hitting the ball hard, why are they still losing? Well, despite being one of the top home run hitters, the Twins are around league average for both runs (13th) and RBIs (14th), showing that their long bombs aren’t worth much in terms of runs on the board. In fact, they are 16th in runs scored and RBIs when there are runners on base and are second in the league in solo home runs (74, over 62% of their total home runs!). Basically, lots of bombas mean nothing if no one’s on base to enjoy them.
Even worse, when the Twins do get these runners on, they cannot capitalize. They currently own the seventh-worst average in the majors with runners in scoring position (.236) and have left 553 runners on base, leaving them as one of the seven worst teams in the American League in that regard.
I can complain about missed opportunities at the plate being the downfall of this team all I want, but if we’re being honest, the biggest problem they face is their pitching. They’re 3rd-worst in the league in ERA (5.04), FIP (4.78), and opponent average (.259), while also tying the Orioles for the most home runs given up this season (126). They’re dead last in hard-hit %, exit velocity, and xSLG and are tied for last in barrel %, the complete opposite of their hitting in those four categories, which are all top 4 in the league. Looking at Baseball Savant, it’s staggering to see the reds turn to blues for the Twins in the Statcast section as you go from hitting to pitching. Their wins above average for all pitchers is a whopping -10.0, the worst in the league, and if it wasn’t for Jose Berrios they’d be near last place in strikeouts and strikeout rate too.
Speaking of Berrios, he’s been a rare bright spot for this rotation. His 3.52 ERA is the lowest among starters on the team and is also the lowest of his career. He’s also tied for the lowest WHIP (1.14) with the second-lowest opponent average (.238) and his 96 strikeouts are one and a half times more than the next closest pitcher on the roster. The Twins are 10-6 when he starts compared to 24-42 when anyone else is on the bump, so it’s safe to say he is not a part of the problem with this staff.
On the other side of that coin is the bullpen. They have been the crux of this season and are a big reason this team has blown leads in 30 of their 48 losses this season, which is by far the most in MLB. They have the most losses in relief in the American League (21) and their inherited scored percentage is 58%, meaning 58% of the runners left on base when a new pitcher comes in have scored, which is 14% more than the next highest team in the majors. In my opinion, this is one of the most important stats for bullpens to keep down, so seeing how high it is for the Twins shows the struggles relievers have had this season. After all, Randy Dobnak is in the bottom 2% of pitchers in the entire league in exit velocity and the bottom 1% in xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA. Along with that, Hansel Robles is in the bottom 4% of the league in hard-hit % and bottom 10% in exit velocity, Tyler Duffey is in the bottom 2% in those same categories, and Alex Colome is in the bottom 8% in xSLG and xwOBA. Those pitchers make up 4 of the top 7 relievers on the team in terms of innings pitched, so they are obviously underperforming for how much they get in the game.
Now, the ugly part of this Twins season has got to be in the injury department. For reference, here is their lineup from April 8th (game #7) against the Mariners:
And here’s their lineup from June 15th (game #67), also against the Mariners:
As you can see, things have changed since those first few games. In fact, every player from that April 8th game besides Polanco and Cruz have spent time on the IL, and both Polanco and Cruz have been playing through injuries anyway. Another thing you may notice is that the entire outfield was replaced from one game to the next, including starting middle infielder Nick Gordon in center field. This year was the first time Gordon has roamed the outfield in his professional career, showing just how serious the injury problem is when a rookie is allowed to take over the most important outfield spot for the first time ever at the highest level he’s ever played at. Another reason I like him so much. More importantly, two games after coming back from a leg injury that kept him sidelined for over a month, the best player on the team (Buxton) gets drilled in the hand by a 94 mph fastball and is back on the IL. Truly just an unlucky team.
It appears to be a tale of two teams this year. The ball is hit well for the most part, but the pitching has failed to come through. Once the Ts can fix that aspect and start driving in some runners that get on base, they can earn the rest of their name back. Getting some players back from injury will help them achieve that, but some new acquisitions have definitely made their presence felt in those absences.
Life in Minnie is pretty grim at the moment, and now you know the reason why.
Stats obtained from Baseball-Reference, Baseball Savant, and FanGraphs and are current as of July 4, 2021.