Twins continue to make projections look silly

After finishing 70-92 last year, things didn’t seem hopeful for the Minnesota Twins’ 2015 campaign. I couldn’t find a single projection system or writer that believed the Twins would even come close to finishing with a .500 record this season.

It’s not like they’ve been entirely fortunate either. Ricky Nolasco was injured right from the get-go and performed badly before undergoing ankle surgery in July. Ervin Santana was suspended 80 games for substance abuse before the season even started.

If you told me before the season that the Twins would be in the playoff race in September, I would have hard time figuring out how. I would guess that Joe Mauer was having a renaissance season, that Byron Buxton came up and lit things up, or maybe that their starting rotation became good for some strange reason. None of those things happened, yet somehow as of September 16, the Twins are 75-69, 1.5 games behind the second wild-card spot.

It’s kind of hard to explain exactly how the Twins are still in the playoff race. As of today, the Twins have scored 624 runs total, and given up 625 runs. For those bad at math, that’s a run differential of -1. Here are some of their league rankings on the season.

26th in team fWAR (10.3)

23rd in wRC (91)

24th in wOBA (.306)

20th in defensive rating (-8.4)

21st in FIP (4.15)

22nd in WHIP (1.34)

In almost every team statistic I could find, the Twins were below average. They aren’t exceptional in any particular way, the only word to describe the current team would be ‘mediocre’. They don’t get on base, they don’t play amazing defense and they don’t have a great staff or bullpen.

So, what are they good at? They have to good at something, right?

The Twins certainly up their game with runners in scoring position, where the team batting average rises to .280, OPS to .792 and BABIP to .331.

Most of their regulars, including Mauer, Trevor Plouffe, Brian Dozier, Torii Hunter, Miguel Sano and Kurt Suzuki have positive clutch stats, meaning they all perform better than usual in high-leverage situations. 

I think it’s safe to say the Twins wouldn’t be in this position if not for Glen Perkins. They are sixth in save percentage at 76%, and Perkins has only blown 2 saves in 34 chances.

Dozier and Sano are the only hitters one could classify as exceptional. The all-star second baseman improves every year, although he’s been in a huge slump since June. Even so, he has 27 home runs and his 3.3 WAR makes him the best player on the team and top-10 at his position.

Sano is absolutely blowing away projections, hitting better in the majors than he did in AA without even needing to play in AAA. His .290 ISO, sixth in the league, puts him right next to sluggers like Mark Teixeira and Jose Bautista. His .276/.389/.567 line is already elite, although his extreme .412 BABIP and 37.3 K% suggests that his performance has been somewhat fraudulent. I have no doubt that he will be an incredible hitter for years to come, but his numbers this year are higher than they should be. He’s a big reason why the Twins are beating expectations.

And then there’s the guys you never hear about who post decent numbers and play every day. Plouffe is an above-average third-basemen with 20 home runs and good defense, posting a 2.6 fWAR so far. Eduardo Escobar is statistically an above-average shortstop. The 26-year-old’s 107 wRC+ is seventh-best among shortstops, and the Twins are paying him a grand total of $532,500. Kyle Gibson has slowly put together a solid season. His 3.71 ERA, 2.2 fWAR and ability to stay healthy makes him the ace of the staff.

Nobody in their lineup is truly “elite”, but nobody is absolutely awful either. They aren’t fielding Mike Trout or Paul Goldschmidt but they aren’t sending Pablo Sandoval or Stephen Drew out there every night either. All of their current lineup has a positive fWAR…except for Kurt Suzuki, who is sitting exactly at 0.

Most teams have a glaring hole in their roster, but the Twins seem to have everything covered by someone who is at least competent. Their balanced roster is an uncommon sight in today’s game.

Fangraphs projects the Twins to go .453 the rest of the season. Perhaps statistical analysis just isn’t friendly to “balanced” rosters such as Minnesota’s, or maybe the Twins’ clutch factor has rendered projections useless. Either way, even with Phil Hughes and Perkins back for the stretch run, the Twins will have to continue to beat the projections to make the playoffs.

Statistics from Fangraphs and Baseball Reference