Twins in the 2000s: The 2011 Season
Image courtesy of Brock BeauchampWe're running a 20-part series in which we look back at each Minnesota Twins season of the 2000s. A rotation of different writers will highlight key moments, unearth forgotten details, and share nostalgic tales from the past two decades leading up to the present. This installment covers the 2011 season.
Team Record: 63-99
Finish: 5th Place in AL Central
All-Star: Michael Cuddyer (OF)
The 2011 Twins were not supposed to lose nearly 100 games. They entered the season with their splashy new infield acquisition, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, garnering big excitement as a high-profile international signing. He was to strengthen a lineup that included Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Danny Valencia (finished third in 2010 ROY voting), and Delmon Young coming off a breakout year. Carl Pavano and Jim Thome, veteran cornerstones in 2010, were back. This Twins team was supposed to finish first or second in the division, not fifth. So what happened?
Injuries happened. By the end of the season, the Twins had seen 16 different key players land on the disabled list for extended time. This list included stars like Mauer and Morneau along with the hopeful Japanese star Nishioka, who had his season derailed early by a broken leg suffered on a takeout slide. The Twins scored their fewest runs in a season since moving to Minnesota. They tied for fewest wins in franchise history, and gave up the most runs since 2000. From any angle, this season was a disaster.
Injuries hit the lineup hardest. Just three players (Cuddyer, Valencia, and rookie center fielder Ben Revere) played 100 games, and both Revere and Valencia had a wRC+ under 85. Mauer and Morneau played only 151 games combined, as Mauer dealt with leg issues following offseason knee surgery, and Morneau dealth with a litany of ailments, including the continuing after-effects from his 2010 concussion. Nishioka missed two months with his leg injury, and looked completely unequipped for Major League Baseball upon returning, finishing with a .527 OPS. Thome battled back problems and Young's performance fell off a cliff; both were traded to division rivals in August.
The 2011 Twins also had just two position players over 2.0 fWAR. Mauer was one (2.1), and he only played 82 games. The other was Cuddyer (2.5), the lone bright spot on the offense. Cuddyer reached the All-Star Game as a reserve in a season where he hit .284/.346/.459 (.805) with a team-high 120 wRC+. Overall the Twins offense ranked bottom-three in home runs, wRC+, fWAR, and OPS. Literally the opposite of the 2019 squad that would later round out the decade.
Moving on to the pitching, this too didn’t exactly go as planned. The Twins “ace,” Francisco Liriano, lost control with a 5.09 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, and career-high 5.0 BB/9. This came just one year after finishing in the top 15 for Cy Young. Carl Pavano, re-signed to a two-year contract shortly ahead of spring training, also experienced his worst season in Minnesota, finishing with a 4.30 ERA and just 4.1 K/9. Brian Duensing, so excellent in his first two seasons, was awful. Mashed by right-handers, the southpaw finished with a 5.23 ERA and 1.52 WHIP. The only bright spot in the rotation was Scott Baker, but even he got hurt and could only start 21 games. Collectively, the rotation finished in the bottom five for ERA, K/9, WHIP, and fWAR. Not great.
Well, maybe the bullpen was okay? Also no. In fact, it was worse than the rotation. In his return from Tommy John surgery, Joe Nathan struggled out of the gates and was replaced at closer by Matt Capps, who also was not very good. The previously reliable José Mijares fell off. Glen Perkins ended up being the only reliable reliever on the team, and was just getting started in his reign of bullpen dominance – a rare bright spot to carry forward from this unit. The Twins relief corps was the worst in baseball, finishing last in ERA and second-to-last in fWAR.
To recap everything I just said, this Twins team was easily one of the three worst in baseball, rating poorly in all phases of the game. Despite entering their second season at Target Field with high expectations and big fan support, they were never competitive, losing 10 of their first 14 games and finishing May 15 1/2 games out of first place in the Central.
To give you an idea of the "throwing stuff against the wall and nothing sticking" dynamic of this season, here's a list of hitters to receive 100-plus plate appearances: Drew Butera (.449 OPS), Luke Hughes (.627), Matt Tolbert (.518), Rene Tosoni (.618), Jason Repko (.555), Reneé Rivera (.418).
Among the 24 pitchers to appear: Phil Dumatrait, Chuck James, Dusty Hughes, Kyle Waldrop, Eric Hacker, Jim Hoey. Oh, and Cuddyer.
Despite all that, it may not even be the worst Twins season of the last decade! Stay tuned for Total System Failure in five years.
Team MVP: Michael Cuddyer (RF/1B)
Other Contenders: Scott Baker (SP), Carl Pavano (SP), Glen Perkins (RP), Joe Mauer ©
While far from spectacular, Cuddyer was the Twins MVP for the 2011 season. Baker was close with his 3.14 ERA, and Baseball-Reference's WAR calculation gives him an edge, but he only started 21 games. Cuddyer was the Twins' lone All-Star and hit .284/.346/.459 (.805) with a team-high 2.5 fWAR. He led the club in home runs (20), RBIs (70), and runs scored (70), and he even went 11-for-12 on steals.
Perkins had a nice breakout season, but Pavano and Mauer are just here because I needed five. While a case can be made for Baker, overall I think Cuddyer had the best season front-to-back for the Twins in 2011. This would unfortunately be his final season playing in Minnesota, as he'd sign with Colorado during the ensuing offseason, but Cuddyer left on a high note.
3 Most Pivotal Games
April 1st: Lost @ Toronto Blue Jays, 13-3
I chose Opening Day as one of the three most pivotal games because it summed up the entire season in one game, and showed us all what we were in for. The game started with the Twins going down quietly in the first, followed by a four-run first inning for Toronto against Pavano. The Jays would continue to pile on hits until eventually Pavano was lifted after four innings and eight runs allowed.
The onslaught continued in an eventual 10-run loss that was never competitive. If you were to sum up the season in one game, this might do it.
May 16th: Lost @ Seattle Mariners, 5-2
This isn’t a game anyone remembers and that’s because it completed a nine-game losing streak that effectively ended Minnesota's season in May. Before this streak the Twins were 12-18 and building momentum to recover from a slow start, but then the bottom dropped out and everything just went wrong. During this losing streak the Twins were outscored 61-23. There was even a game that went eleven innings but the Twins somehow lost 9-3. At the beginning of the streak the Twins were eight games out of first and at the end they were 14 out.
In this loss against the Mariners, Young went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, dropping his average to .192, and Seattle's Michael Pineda held the Twins to three hits over seven scoreless innings.
September 3rd: Lost @ Los Angeles Angels, 10-6
Despite managing to score six runs in five innings against prime Jered Weaver, the Twins were beaten handily with Duensing, Dumatrait and Lester Oliveros combining to allow 10 runs in 5 1/3 innings. This opened a stretch where Minnesota went 1-16.
The Twins were eliminated from playoff contention right as this horrible streak got going, which just added to the misery. The weird thing is that nine of the 16 losses were by just one run, but I guess the good teams win close games, and by now this was anything but a good team. An unsightly 6-20 September served as the final blow in this depressing season.
Francisco Liriano Throws No-No Against White Sox
One of the few great moments of the 2011 season came on May 3rd when Liriano no-hit the hated Sox in Chicago. It was a chilly evening and it wasn’t exactly clean, as Liriano walked six and only struck out two, but he got the job done.
This was the fifth no-hitter in Twins history and their only one in the 2000s. It took Liriano 123 pitches to get it done, ending on a lineout off the bat of Adam Dunn to Tolbert.
Bert Blyleven Gets Circled by Hall of Fame
Former Twins pitcher and current broadcaster Bert Blyleven was elected into the Hall of Fame on January 5th and inducted on July 24th. He reached the 75% mark on his 14th year on the ballot. Blyleven had a career 3.31 ERA and finished in the top 5 for Cy Young voting three different times. He was a two-time World Series winner and two-time All-Star at the major-league level.
Jim Thome Hits 599th and 600th Home Runs on Same Day
The Twins were a part of MLB history on this night, as Thome became just the eighth player to ever reach the 600-HR mark. He did this against the Detroit Tigers and both teams stopped play to honor the legend as he touched home plate. He'd be traded to Cleveland 10 days later.
Joe Nathan Overtakes Franchise Saves Record
Before the season began, Rick Aguilera held the Twins career saves record at 254, but Nathan – who eventually rounded back into form as an effective closer – ended the 2011 season with 260, recording his final save at Cleveland on September 25th. He later retired with 377 saves, eighth-most in MLB history.
Nathan finished his Twins career with four All-Star nods, a 2.87 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and 9.4 K/9. He was elected to the Twins Hall of Fame in August of 2019.
One Detail You Probably Forgot
Late in the year, we saw two Twins top prospects debut on the same day. That’s right, Joe Benson and Liam Hendriks, both regarded as top-10 talents, arrived on September 6th in what was obviously an exciting look at what we could expect in the future! In case you forgot, Hendriks would play with the Twins until 2013 and never got his ERA below 5.59. (He would however reemerge as an elite closer in Oakland down the line.) Benson played 21 mediocre games with the Twins and we never saw him again.
On June 22nd, the Twins tied a major-league record for hits to open a game with eight straight against a young Madison Bumgarner. Minnesota stringed four straight singles and then four straight doubles, which soon led to Bumgarner being pulled from the game in the first inning.
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