What They Did: 63-99, 5th Place AL Central. Worst record in AL.
Actual Runs: Scored 619 runs, Allowed 804.
Expected wins based on RS and RA: 62.0 (1.0 below actual)
Restated: Scored 592 runs, Allowed 787.
Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA: 60.4 (2.6 below actual)
The Minnesota Twins are going to win a greater number of games this year compared to last year, than any other team in baseball. I’m not sure how out-of-consensus that call is; I suppose the Anaheim Angels, Cincinnati Reds, and San Francisco Giants are candidates as well but I think it’ll be pretty easy for the Twins to capture that distinction. The reason is simply, health. The Twins’ starting lineup on Opening Day in 2011, in total, played just over 50% of all possible games over the entire season. That’s an extraordinary amount of injury time. It means that the entire Twins starting lineup was populated with replacements for just about half the season. A team full of replacements is thought to be capable of winning no more than 50 games in an entire season. The Twins won a total of 63 playing replacements half the time, suggesting they only have the talent of a 76-win team if entirely healthy. While that’s a big jump over last year’s win total, no one should conclude the Twins will be even an average team and win half their games.
In terms of talent lost, there is not much a team can do about the sort of injury run the Twins experienced last year. Teams can’t make players stay healthy. On the other hand, Minnesota could not have possibly been less prepared to credibly replace their best two players, both former MVPs, first baseman Justin Morneau and catcher Joe Mauer. In 2010, Morneau may well have been on his way to a second MVP award when his season ended due to a concussion he suffered after playing just 81 games. At the time, Morneau was having the best year of his career (.345/.437/.618 – batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) but even into 2011 Spring Training there were still questions about Morneau’s recovery. As such when he went down again in April and May, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to Twins’ management. Despite that unfortunately predictable development, the Twins spent the month of May replacing Justin Morneau with back-up shortstop Trevor Plouffe. While it’s true that Plouffe didn’t actually play first base, with Morneau out of the lineup, Minnesota shifted other players from one position to another. The ability to move players like Michael Cuddyer and Luke Hughes around the diamond like chess pieces may have some value from a flexibility standpoint, but the fact was often still the same: On the margin, the Twins were replacing their first baseman with a back-up shortstop.
Just how damaging is that to a team’s offense? This is a concept that fantasy baseball players will instantly grasp. The average MLB shortstop has a triple slash line of .263/.317/.380. The OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of .697 is the lowest of any position in baseball. The average replacement level first baseman, that is the 30th “best” (or worst starter) at first base in the majors (think Cleveland’s Matt LaPorta or Texas’ Mitch Moreland) is a little more productive as a hitter than an average shortstop. So think about the kind of offensive production a team would get from a replacement-level shortstop. The difference between that and an average first baseman is enormous. As such, when the Twins replaced an All-Star first basemen with a back-up shortstop the difference in expected production is about as big as you can possibly get between two different position players. Twins’ management has to take the blame for not having a better plan in place.
Believe it or not, they dropped the ball to nearly the same degree in lacking a credible replacement for Joe Mauer at catcher in the event he got hurt. Sadly, he too missed half the season. Of the 104 players who played catcher in the majors last year, by far, the least valuable, or put another way the man who destroyed the most value for his team was Twins catcher Drew Butera, who hit .167/.210/.239 in 254 plate appearances. His back-up Rene Rivera was actually worse (.144/.211/.202) but didn’t destroy quite as much value as Butera because he only came to the plate 114 times. Their combined performance is not that different from the hitting of NL pitchers last year (.144/.175/.183). In other words, the Twins had no better plan to replace, traditionally, the best hitting catcher in baseball with anything other than NL pitchers. That’s horrendous planning and combined with the lack of foresight in getting a back-up for Morneau probably cost the Twins a whopping 12-15 wins. Of course, good health will remedy that this year, but so will the addition of former Pirate catcher Ryan Doumit to the roster. An above-average hitting catcher is usually not something to get wildly excited about, but in this case it represents a huge pick-up in value, and frees up Mauer to play first base should Morneau be unable to play.
Although Morneau’s future has to be in doubt, between a restocked roster and simply better health from the starters that are returning, the Twins project to score at least 70 more runs than last year.
When a team’s bullpen performance over a season results in an outlying amount of value above or below the league average, it is almost never repeated from one year to the next. In fact, in doing research for my book, I found that the best way to predict a bullpen’s performance is to completely ignore not only its performance in the prior year but to ignore its members as well. Instead, the league average performance in the prior year is the best predictor of every team’s current year bullpen. (This was the number one factor as to why the Diamondbacks’ worst-to-first performance in 2011 wasn’t nearly as long a shot as it looked.) I won’t get too deep into the research but there appear to be a two main reasons for this: 1) Bullpen performance is the sum of a few pitchers’ small-sample-size performances in high-leverage situation and therefore subject to extreme fluctuations in results even without fluctuations in the underlying skill sets. 2) When there actually are talent deficiencies present, management can correct them easily and cheaply in the off-season.
The Twins had the worst bullpen in the American League last year, adding zero value above that of standard replacement level pitchers versus a league average of 3.0 Wins Above Replacement, or WAR. Therefore this year’s pen projects to a three win improvement over last year’s.
All those injuries not only crippled their offensive output, it resulted in a very poor defense as well. In terms of converting batted balls in the field of play into outs, the Twins were dead last in the American League. There were two areas of weakness – catcher defense and the left side of the infield. As mentioned above, the combination of a healthy Mauer and a new back-up catcher in Doumit will improve the damage Butera and Rivera also inflicted in the field. As far as the infield goes, at third base Danny Valencia was the one player who stayed healthy all year in 2010 so Twins fans can merely hope he improves with experience. At shortstop, Jamey Carroll brings what was once a consistently above-average glove to the Twins, having signed as a free-agent during the off-season. However, Carroll is 37-years-old now and last year, by some defensive measures, he performed at a below-average level for the first time in his career. Still, even at that level, the Twins would see some improvement in run prevention. In the outfield, a tentatively healthy Denard Span brings one of the best centerfield gloves in baseball, hopefully for more than the 67 games he started last year. Span, sadly, suffers from the same lingering concussion symptoms, many months after the trauma, as Morneau did last year.
Under the heading of “nowhere to go but up” for yet another aspect of their play in 2010, the Twins had the second worst starting pitching in the American League last year, allowing runs at a pace exceeded only by the Baltimore Orioles. Injuries weren’t the culprit here, lack of talent was. That may be a little harsh since a league worse defense and bullpen also has spillover effects on the results of the starting pitchers. The Twins replaced the rotation’s worst offender, in terms of allowing runs, Brian Duensing by signing Jason Marquis to a one-year free-agent deal. It’s not a switch to get excited about but Marquis generally pitches deeper into games – at least a full inning an outing – on average than Duensing. This puts less stress on the bullpen and allows Duensing to actually strengthen the quality of the Twins long relievers.
Although, I project Minnesota has little chance of contending for the playoffs, they should be a markedly better team than the one that probably should have lost at least 100 games last year. In terms of injuries and bullpen performance, Minnesota should benefit as much as any team in the American League from sheer regression to the mean output.
Oddsmakers’ expectations: The Twins are correctly viewed as nothing but long shots, given no more than a 5% chance to win the AL Central, and that’s almost certainly generous. However, simply by having the worst injury luck, the worst bullpen, the worst fielding and the next to worse starting pitching in the American League in 2011, they will be a much more competitive team in 2012 than the one that won just 13 games, out of 54, over the last two months of the 2011 season. Oddsmakers have listed the over/under for total Minnesota wins at 75. That seems right to me. While I’ve officially got them a bit higher, there is nothing to get excited about here. Injury risk is to the downside, as is the possibility of management selling anything that isn’t nailed down at the trading deadline should the Twins be far out of the race.
78-84 – Fourth in AL Central
685 Runs Scored 715 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.
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