Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Why the Twins crashed out of first place and could finish below .500 in MLB’s weakest division

Although they remain mathematically alive, for all intents and purposes the Minnesota Twins were eliminated from postseason contention this past weekend. The Twins took a four-game deficit to Cleveland for a five games in four days series with the AL Central leading Guardians, and lost four of five. Minnesota lost eight times in nine tries against Cleveland this month and just got swept by the fourth-place Royals.

“I’m not ready to talk about the season like it’s behind us,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli told MLB.com following Monday’s loss, which put his team seven games behind the Guardians with 15 to play. “I don’t think that’s appropriate. We still have guys in that clubhouse that are ready to work and that are ready to play, and we still have games to play.” 

The season started well enough for the Twins, who landed prized free-agent shortstop Carlos Correa on a team-friendly short-term contract thanks to some shrewd tradecraft (i.e. dumping Josh Donaldson’s contract on the Yankees). They were 4 1/2 games up on July 13 and tied for first place as recently as Sept. 9. Then the bottom gave out.

The harsh evaluation of the 2022 Twins says they may not finish .500 in MLB‘s weakest division, and when presented with the opportunity to reclaim first place and take the Guardians down themselves these last two weeks, they wilted. Even with Correa, there is a lack of championship-caliber resolve, and that’s not even getting into the postseason losing streak.

A more forgiving evaluation of the 2022 Twins acknowledges they dealt with a ton of injuries (the Twins have put an AL-leading 31 players on the injured list) and their hitters really underperformed in important situations. “Clutch” is a stat that measures players against themselves. It compares their performance in high-leverage situation to their performance in all other situations, and:

30. Cubs: minus-8.85

29. Twins: minus-5.06

28. Angels: minus-4.98

Simply put, Twins hitters failed to meet the moment time and time again this season. Injuries played a part in that because inferior hitters were taking those high leverage plate appearances, but we can’t be surprised when guys like Byron Buxton and Max Kepler and Alex Kirilloff get hurt. They’ve visited the injured list frequently enough in recent years.

Beyond the injuries and lack of timely hitting, the larger issue is the pitching, and this has been an issue for several seasons now. The Twins hired Derek Falvey to run their front office in Oct. 2016 and, in his six seasons as their chief baseball officer, they’ve finished with a below league average pitching staff four times. Look at their league-wide pitching ranks:

2017

18th

24th

2018

22nd

122nd

2019

8th

4th

2020 (60-game season)

4th

3rd

2021

25th

25th

2022

20th

23rd

In Falvey’s six years the Twins have had an above-average pitching staff for one 162-game season and one 60-game season, and that’s it. It takes some time to turn things around and those 2017-18 clubs are more reflective of what Falvey’s predecessors left behind than Falvey himself, but the 2021-22 teams are all him, and they aren’t good enough.

Falvey has done his best work trading for starters (Sonny Gray, Kenta Maeda, Joe Ryan, etc.) rather than signing them as free agents (Dylan Bundy, JA Happ, Matt Shoemaker, etc.), though even the trades have been hit or miss. Chris Paddack and Tyler Mahle were acquired at different points this season and they threw a combined 38 2/3 innings before getting hurt. 

The Twins will not have a pitcher throw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title this year, and while that’s not automatically bad a thing (the Rays haven’t had a pitcher qualify for the ERA title since 2019), know it is intentional. Minnesota rarely lets its starting pitchers go through the lineup a third time, which is understandable seeing how most pitchers perform worse the third time through the order. Some numbers on Twins starters:

  • 20.1 batters faced per start (second fewest behind the Rays at 19.0)
  • 4.8 innings per start (third fewest behind the Pirates at 4.7 and Rays at 4.6)
  • 41 starts with no more than 18 batters faced (second most behind Rays with 47)

Again, the Rays show you can pull your starter early and still have success. All those short starts put a lot of strain on the bullpen, however, and Tampa seems to have a never-ending supply of effective power relievers who get shuttled up and down between Triple-A and MLB as needed. The Twins do not have that. Those short starts expose the weak underbelly of the bullpen.

It’s too late to salvage 2022 but not too late to improve heading into 2023, and something has to give. Either the Twins have to let their starters work deeper into the game (which would requiring bringing in better starters) or they have to improve their bullpen and overall pitching depth. There are other issues that must be addressed, like keeping players on the field, but below-average pitching has been a constant during the Falvey era. That has to change.

The good news for the Twins is the AL Central is baseball’s weakest division and they don’t have to do too much to get back into the postseason mix next year. Still, missing the postseason this year and possibly finishing below .500 in such a weak division raises concerns this deep into the Falvey era. The Twins keep running into the same problems each year, and those problems sank their 2022.

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