Anyone who knows me, knows that I HATE the Minnesota Twins with every fiber of my being. So the last week was very tough to stomach as the White Sox got bludgeoned by my sworn enemy. It pains me to type this but, I feel confident that the Twins will be AL Central champions. Hopefully, they take sole possession of the longest postseason losing streak in history (currently at 13) later this October.
So we have to wonder, how did the Twins go from a team that won 78 games a year ago to a division winner? More importantly, can the Sox steal some ideas from their rivals to help build a contender this winter? So let’s take a look at how the Twins improved this season.
The offense has been the biggest story for the Twinkies this year. The team is on the verge of setting an all-time record for home runs in a season, but how did they do it? They made some low-key, smart decisions in free agency to compliment their existing roster and cut some significant dead-weight. Here’s a side-by-side of the team’s offensive rankings in 2018 vs. 2019:
|wRC+||95 (19th)||116 (3rd)|
|HR||166 (23rd)||262 (1st)|
|OBP||.318 (16th)||.338 (6th)|
|SLG||.405 (18th)||.502 (1st)|
|BB%||8.7% (15th)||8.0% (20th)|
|K%||21.6 % (9th)||20.7 (4th)|
As you see above, they’ve had significant improvement across the board in all categories except for BB%. The one area that this team is garnering the most focus is with the long ball. There were 8 players that homered for the Twins in 2018 that are no longer with the team, and they were replaced (for the purpose of this exercise) by 4 off-season acquisitions that have already out homered the group:
|2018 HR||2019 HR|
Adding 4 players (Cruz, Schoop, Cron, Gonzalez) netted the Twins 28 additional home runs with 4 weeks to go in the season! But it’s not just external acquisitions that have led the Twins power surge. They’ve seen significant upticks in power from players already on the roster:
|2018 HR||2019 HR|
So the Twins gained an additional 82 home runs from internal improvement and development from their existing players. This coupled with the +28 from off-season acquisitions accounts for 110 home runs! It’s now pretty clear why this team is in first place. But how did the Twins existing players see such a jump? Looking at some Statcast data, there appears to be a noticeable change in the way these players are swinging the bat, as you’ll see below:
|Average Exit Velocity||Average Launch Angle (in degrees)|
The data above shows a drastic change in Exit Velocity and Launch Angle from the existing core. James Rowson has served as the team’s hitting coach since 2017, so it can’t be attributed to a change in messaging. Perhaps it’s the use of additional data (oh no, scary analytics!) that has helped the players optimize their swing paths leading to improved results.
One thing is clear, however, the Twins are hitting the ball harder and in the air more frequently. I recently talked about the Sox’ need for changes in philosophy to get into the modern age. The Twins provide a clear blueprint as to how the boys at 35th/Shields can make a quick turnaround.
On the pitching side of the equation, things are somewhat mixed as you look at the Twins rankings from the last two seasons:
|FIP||4.39 (22nd)||4.09 (4th)|
|K/9||8.59 (16th)||8.75 (15th)|
|BB/9||3.57 (24th)||2.78 (3rd)|
|HR/9||1.23 (23rd)||1.22 (5th)|
|GB%||41.6% (26th)||42.0% (T-21st)|
Two numbers really jump out for the Twins, the improvement in BB/9 and HR/9. While the HR/9 is only slightly lower than a year ago, their team ranking is a function of the super bouncy ball environment of 2019. Regardless, the pitching staff has done a solid job of keeping the ball in the park. The biggest change has been the team is not allowing free passes in 2019.
They’re walking almost a batter less per game, which is very significant given the run scoring environment. The staff as a whole still doesn’t strike out many hitters, although Jake Odorizzi and Kyle Gibson have both seen improvements in this area. But by allowing fewer baserunners via walks, the team isn’t opening itself up to big innings due to multi-run homers.
Overall, this pitching staff is still largely comprised of players that were on the team a year ago. But the group’s ability to limit free passes and home runs are the driving factors to their success in terms of run prevention this season. It would behoove our Sox to take a page from the Twins’ book and bring in some pitchers that throw more strikes and can keep the ball in the park (thanks Captain Obvious).
Look, the Twins proved last winter that you can address areas of weakness and turn them into strengths in one off-season. It will take some savvy acquisitions via trades, and more than likely, free agency to see a similar turnaround at 35th/Shields. The Twins provided a blueprint and showed that you don’t have to break the bank on one player to do it.
The question remains, do the Sox have the brainpower in their front office to identify and recruit the types of players that can lead to this type of turnaround? We should know in the next 5 months before the team reports to Glendale.
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