The surprising, unorthodox Twins have the best record in baseball. Here's how.
MINNEAPOLIS — Ever since Target Field opened in 2010, with its sweeping, open-air views of the Minneapolis skyline, baseball officials, with a tinge of gallows humor, have braced themselves for the possibility of late-October/early-November playoff games in a city where the average lows for those months are 40 and 26 degrees, respectively. One year, it stood to reason, the Minnesota Twins were going to be good enough to make it happen.
That year may have arrived. The Twins returned home this weekend - on the heels of a 16-7 win Thursday at the Los Angeles Angels, in which they tied a team record with eight home runs - with the best record in baseball, at 33-16, and the largest division lead, eight games over American League Central rival Cleveland, of any first-place team.
A World Series at Target Field? It could give you the chills just thinking about it.
"I would love to see what it feels like to be bundled up at Target Field in late October," laughed Thad Levine, the Twins' senior vice president and general manager. ". . . We're just now able to shed the parkas in late May."
Nearly two months into this season, the Twins may be baseball's best story, pairing the highest-scoring (5.9 runs per game), highest-slugging (.516) offense in the majors with a pitching staff that ranks sixth in ERA (3.89) - more than half a run better than in 2018 (4.50) - and that's with a payroll ($121.2 million, according to Spotrac.com) that is barely half that of the Boston Red Sox.
If the Twins' ascendance to the top of the AL - with its goliaths in Boston, Houston and the Bronx - is a bit a surprise, the fact they have surged past the fading Indians in the weak Central Division certainly isn't. It was only two seasons ago the Twins, coming off 103 losses in 2016, were an out-of-nowhere playoff team, losing to the Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game. Though 2018 appeared to be a step backward, with the Twins going 78-84, their management has a more generous view of the past two years.
"I think there's a little bit of a narrative of what an amazing year 2017 was, and what a disappointment 2018 was," Levine said. "It's undeniable one was better than the other, but we look at it with a more tempered view. We were still [in 2018] two years removed from having the worst record in baseball. If you told us in two years we'd go from 59 wins to 78, our fans would be very happy. It was the step in between, those 85 wins [in 2017], that kind of colored the perception." But there was also enough dissatisfaction on the part of Minnesota's management at the end of 2018 to prompt some sweeping changes that, taken as a whole, appear to signal a shift in philosophy.
They fired manager Paul Molitor and replaced him with Rocco Baldelli, who had no prior managing experience and who, at 37, is the youngest skipper in the game. For a pitching coach, they plucked Wes Johnson, 47, out of the University of Arkansas, making him the first pitching coach in history to jump straight from the college ranks to the majors. Johnson, who has a master's degree in kinesiology, may have been an unknown in MLB's mainstream, but in the analytics world he was well-known as an early advocate - dating to 2012, when he was at Dallas Baptist - of using data from Trackman tracking systems to boost pitchers' velocity and spin rates.
"What was so appealing [about Johnson] was his ability to channel biomechanics and analysis in such a way that it would allow our pitchers to embrace it, by tailoring a program to the individual," Levine said. "The intelligence he expressed in that space was significant."
For the Twins' front office, there was one other significant - and painful - driver of change. On July 27, 2018, the team traded right-hander Ryan Pressly, a talented but unspectacular reliever with a 3.75 career ERA and 1.303 WHIP in Minnesota to the Houston Astros for two prospects - only to see Pressly blossom in Houston into arguably the most unhittable reliever in baseball. He has an 0.41 ERA and 0.519 WHIP since the trade and a major-league-record 40 consecutive scoreless appearances, dating to last August.
Among the changes the Astros made to Pressly's arsenal after the trade was to dramatically increase the usage of his elite curveball as an overall percentage of his pitches by roughly 50%, while reducing his overall fastball usage and getting him to elevate that fastball more often.
"This is no knock on the Twins," Pressly said in October, "but seeing the time [the Astros' analytics staff] put in, and the scouting reports you're given, it's like, 'Whoa.' It's a different level."
The blunt, public airing of the their failures with Pressly burned the Twins' front office, but Levine insisted the failure wasn't in recognizing Pressly's potential or constructing a plan for his optimum usage - but in executing that plan.
"We had uncovered some of what Houston implemented," Levine said. "I think the biggest difference was their execution of a plan. . . . Certainly, that was something we reflected upon. Not unlike any other move we make, we try to assess what transpired, good, bad and indifferent, from every move. There was a lot to be learned from that one."
The numbers behind the 2019 Twins tell a curious story about how they have squeezed so much improvement from largely the same roster they used in 2018 (they spent less than $50 million overall on free agents Marwin Gonzalez, Nelson Cruz, Jonathan Schoop, Martin Perez, Blake Parker and Ronald Torreyes).
In this age of high velocity and strikeout rates, the Twins' pitchers haven't seen significant improvement in either category - boosting their average fastball velocity from 92.4 mph in 2018 to 92.8 in 2019, still slightly below the MLB average of 92.9, while raising their strikeout rate from 21.9% of all plate appearances to 22.7%, 18th-best in the majors - but instead have made huge improvements in command. Most notably, the Twins' staff ranked 28th in the majors last year in percentage of first-pitch strikes (58.5) - but this year they rank sixth (62.4).
On offense, the Twins' attack is highlighted by their major-league-leading 98 home runs (through Thursday), which puts them on pace for 324 - which would shatter the record of 267 by the 2018 Yankees. What the Twins have done better than any other team in the majors is hit the ball in the air. Their flyball rate of 42.2% of all batted balls ranks first in the majors, up from 38.3% a year ago. And not surprisingly, their average launch angle of 15.4% (up from 13.9% in 2018) also leads the majors.
But interestingly, the Twins have done this while striking out at one of the lowest rates in the majors - 19.4% of their plate appearances, better than every other team except the Astros and Angels - and down from 21.9% in 2018.
"Our analytics team and hitting coaches have worked tirelessly on game-planning," Levine said. "And we're exceptional at maximizing the skill of our players as a team. Rocco is literally rotating 12 guys through the lineup, sitting guys every day who are major league players, keeping guys fresh, keeping them engaged. We're not playing guys eight, 10, 12 days in a row, getting them ground down. We haven't seen that natural attrition where guys get fatigued and have ebbs and flows in their production."
Summer baseball at Target Field, once the weather has turned from frigid to exquisite, has always been one of the sport's underappreciated joys. But deep in October? Nobody really knows. Since moving out of the Metrodome and into Target Field nine years ago, the Twins have hosted just two playoff games - Games 1 and 2 of the 2010 Division Series, held on Oct. 6 and 7, with first-pitch temperatures at 63 and 73 degrees, respectively.
But the way the Twins are playing, 2019 has the look of what could be a long, cold fall at Target Field.
This article was written by Dave Sheinin, a reporter for The Washington Post.