Even though I'm not a Minnesotan, nor do I live in this beautiful state, I've been observing you guys for years. I see a lot of pessimism when it comes to sports. And who can blame you? Few fans in America love their teams as much as you do and, at the same time, have endured such traumatic playoff moments with the Vikings and Wild or such long playoff draughts with the Twins and Timberwolves. You have the right to be – in the words of our Twins Daily own Parker Hageman – dead inside when it comes to sports. Well, maybe it's time to believe again.
I don't live in the US and I haven't set foot there since May 2013. I'm from a country where most people literally have no clue of what baseball is. I met the game of baseball in 2008, at age 16. So, it's nearly impossible for me to have access to any publication (or clothing items, memorabilia, sports gear...) about the sport. But, miraculously, one of my students gave me a very special gift some weeks ago.
Having taken an exchange programme to the USA in 2015, he was hosted by a Kansas City family during his time there. He knows nothing about baseball himself, but his family did and they gave him a Sports Illustrated 2015 World Series Commemorative Issue. He kept that, only to, almost four years later, give that as a present to his all-time favorite teacher. I was thrilled. I almost didn't even care about the fact that the Royals are a Twins division rival. Afterall, it was the first baseball publication I ever laid hands on.
The magazine sat on my desk at home for some days. In the meantime, the Twins flourished as the team with the best record in baseball. I would be lying if I said I saw that coming, but I can't say I'm shocked by that either. But a lot of people are, indeed, shocked. I lost count of how many people on social media are doubting the Twins. “Enjoy 'em while you can, 'cause they won't last”. And that's not even from people outside of Minnesota only. Like I explained on the first paragraph, many Minnesotans don't believe their Twins are for real. That made me a little mad. And then, the magazine spoke to me.
In the midst of so much pessimism and disbelief coming from every which way, I started browsing through that $12.99 SI issue from November of 2015 and I thought to myself: why can't the Twins be this year's version of the 2015 Royals? And believe me or not, I found a lot of similarities between the two teams. I'm not saying here that Minnesota will win the World Series. All I'm saying is that it's OK to believe in it – like I do right now.
Even though we've had our hearts broken by the Brett Favre interception, the Gary Anderson and Blair Walsh missed field goals, the Jimmy Butler fiasco, the Joe Nathan blown save in the '09 ALDS and, well, the whole Wild playoff history, you might not be a fool to let your guard down for this Twins team. If you don't believe me, let us go through some of the things these two great ball clubs have in common.
A couple of underdogs
When experts started predicting what would happen that season, almost none of them believed the 2015 Royals would even make the playoffs. Which, in retrospect, is kind of odd, considering they had just been to the World Series less than six months earlier. In his opening piece, Jay Jaffe wrote about how the Royals were picked by specialists to make it to the postseason in only 13 of 149 predictions.
Maybe this year’s Twins are not as much discredited as the Royals were then. Per that year’s PECOTA, Kansas City was expected to have a 72-90 record. Instead, they had a 95-67 one. This year’s PECOTA, at first, predicted an 81-81 record for the Twins, but a number of specialists considered them when predicting which team would win the AL Central.
A month and a half into the season, with over 25% of games played, Minnesota has the second best in baseball, after holding the best one overall for over a week. The Twins are on pace to win almost 105 games. I don’t actually believe they will reach triple digits in wins, but at this point it’s plausible to believe that they will surpass the 90-win mark. Curiously enough, after 43 games, the 2015 Royals and the current Twins owned an identical record of 28-15.
Another aspect that those teams have in common is the small Opening Day payroll. On that same Jaffe opening piece, he wrote that the Royals were the first team since the 2003 Marlins to win a World Series, even though they were at the bottom half of all MLB payrolls (17th, at $112.9 million). Per Spotrac, the Twins had the 18th payroll in the league on Opening Day, at $122.1 million, almost $12 million below league average.
Even their track record leading up to their World Series success is somewhat similar to the Twins. Between 2004 and 2012, Kansas City had nine losing records, never winning more than 75 games and with an average of 66 wins per season on that span. Then, they won 86 and 89 games in the two seasons before their championship year. In the six seasons that follow their last division title, the Twins won an average of 67 games each season, including a 59-103 record in 2016, the worst one in club history. They went on to win 85 and make the playoffs for the first time in seven years in 2017 and came close to an eighty win season again last year, finishing with 78.
I don’t believe in coincidences nor am I saying that all of these will have any effect on the outcome of this season. They won’t. But it’s fun to look at those facts, especially when basically no one believes smaller market teams can actually win a title. Let’s not buy into the notion that a team can only win a ring with a $200 million payroll.
A steamroller offense
Tom Verducci wrote, on that same SI issue, a piece entitled ‘Postmodern Swing’, which broke down the main strengths of that Royal offense. According to him, one of the most important features of that offense was its aggressiveness. The Royals saw the fewest pitches per plate appearance that year, with 3.71. Their philosophy was to chase after hittable pitches early and not give up easy strikes. Still, they were the team that struck out the least in MLB that year, with a 15.9% strikeout rate. They also average an MLB 7th best 4.4 runs per game. Which team has done something similar this year?
Some weeks ago, Aaron Gleeman wrote this great piece explaining how the Twins have added power and, at the same time, have been striking out much less. They have been the team that struck out the third least in MLB, currently with a 19.5% strikeout rate. In comparison with the ‘15 Royals, Minnesota is also scoring more, with a 5.4 runs per game average, and has much more power, as they lead the MLB with .236 ISO, against .144 of those Royals. In terms of pitches per plate appearance, Minnesota also doesn’t see a lot of pitches, with an average of 3.78.
Both these Twins and those Royals have something else in common. They both swing a lot and get good contact. Here is how they rank:
Contact% - 81.9% (1st in MLB)
O-Contact% - 68.8% (2nd)
Swing% - 47.6% (9th)
O-Swing% - 32.5% (5th)
Contact% - 77.5% (6th in MLB)
O-Contact% - 63.2% (7th)
Swing% - 48.1% (4th)
O-Swing% - 32.3% (6th)
And one last nice coincidence that these two offenses have. In 2015, the Royals had Alcides Escobar as their leadoff man, even though he had a low OBP, contradicting modern tendencies. Escobar finished the season with a .293 OBP. He also saw very few pitches, with an average of 3.49 per plate appearance and swung at 51.3% of pitches and managed to make contact in 83.8% of them. Looking at Minnesota’s current leadoff man, Max Kepler, we also have an aggressive hitter (51.5 % Swing% and 82.2% Contact%), who sees fez pitches (3.56 per PA) and has a not so high base occupation (.308). According to Verducci’s piece, Escobar ‘set the tone’ for the rest of the Royal lineup, making opposing pitchers aware of the fact that they wouldn’t get any easy strikes.
When we talk about the Royals pitching from that World Series campaign, the first thing that comes to our minds is their extraordinary bullpen. Then, one might think that here would lie the biggest difference between the two teams. Yes, that Wade Davis led group of relievers was no match for this current Minnesota ‘pen, but when comparing the two pitching staffs overall, we can find more identical features.
Believe it or not, but the two pitching staffs have virtually the same numbers, with an inversion. Kansas City had a lights-out bullpen and a below average rotation, resulting in the 10th best ERA in the MLB. The Twins on the other hand, don’t have a stellar rotation nor bullpen, but both those groups are among the ten best in baseball.
Overall: 3.74 ERA (10th), 4.04 FIP (15th)
Starters: 4.34 ERA (22nd), 4.32 FIP (21st)
Relievers: 2.72 ERA (2nd), 3.56 FIP (10th)
Overall: 3.88 ERA (9th), 4.13 FIP (13th)
Starters: 3.66 ERA (6th), 4.23 FIP (13th)
Relievers: 4.31 ERA (19th), 3.96 FIP (9th)
Davis was out of this world that season. If there has been a reliever more deserving than him of winning the first Cy Young award in the AL since 1992, I really believe he was the best candidate. Not only did he finish the regular season with a 0.94 ERA in 61 ⅓ innings pitched, but he also neared perfection during the postseason, posting a 0.00 ERA in eight games.
I don’t see anyone within this Twins pitching staff (so far) with the ability to be what Davis was for that Royals team - but there’s no need for it. Up until now, Minnesota’s pitchers have done a decent job. The overall bullpen numbers are a bit tainted because of bad outings from young arms tested out of Rochester and because of slumps from, mainly, Trevor Hildenberger and Adalberto Mejía. But, as of this moment, six of the eight bullpen arms in the 25-man roster have an ERA of 2.76 or lower. Newcomer Austin Adams hasn’t pitched this season yet.
Their rotations can’t be compared. At least until this moment, Twins starters have done an outstanding job. Maybe we’ve set the bar too low after years of bad rotations, but things have looked extremely nice. Which, with this whole exercise of comparing these two teams can be very exciting. The Royals were world champions even though the four starters they’ve used in the postseason combined for a 4.96 ERA in 16 starts.
Deadline additions: a blueprint for the Twins
To help end the 30-year World Series drought, the Royals traded for two key-pieces near the trade deadline. They traded Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb and Cody Reed for Reds’ superstar starter Johnny Cueto and sent Aaron Brooks and Sean Manaea to Oakland in exchange for veteran super utility player Ben Zobrist. Those proved to be vital additions to their goals.
Zobrist had a solid last portion of the regular season with the Royals, slashing .284/.364/.453 (.816). During the postseason, he performed even better, hitting .303/.365/.515 (.880) and with five multi-hit games. But he also provided a much needed boost that might have made a big difference.
Before his arrival, Royals second basemen slashed .231/.251/.319 (.570). In 35 games starting at that position in the remainder of the regular season, Zobrist hit .275/.348/.457 (.805). He also played 18 games as a LF, a position in which Kansas City had a good production, with .273/.383/.467 (.850). But Zobrist managed to top even that, hitting .299/.392/.463 (.855).
Cueto on the other hand wasn’t as dominant as Zobrist, but he was still essential to the Kansas City success. He had a 4.76 ERA in 13 starts for the Royals during the regular season and a 5.40 ERA in the postseason, but those numbers alone can be very misleading. In four playoff starts, he had a mediocre outing (6.0 innings, 4 ER) in game 2 of the ALDS, a terrible one (2.0 IP, 8 ER) in game 3 of the ALCS, but two amazingly good ones to compensate. He pitched a on run complete game in the World Series, helping the Royals to open a 2-0 lead in the series.
So what’s the lesson the Twins can learn out of the Royals shopping in the 2015 trade deadline? It’s hard to imagine, at least based on this first quarter of the season, that Minnesota is going after big names to help their offense. I mean, all help is welcomed, but if they had to invest top prospects in one area, I don’t believe the offense would be their priority.
But when we look at their pitching staff, you can see a lot of room for improvement. As well as the rotation has pitched so far, the Twins would benefit a lot from a better arm to fill the gap Michael Pineda has been leaving until this moment. He currently has a 5.85 ERA, the worst among starters. The bullpen also could use some help - even more than the rotation. Bottomline is, it doesn’t matter how well the arms might be doing, with their clear exceptions, of course, shopping for one or two dominant arms could make a difference between a World Series victory and a quick visit to the postseason.
And who could be the best candidates? Well, if you’re talking about bringing in a starter and a reliever, one can only consider signing the two biggest unsigned names in the last offseason: former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel and superstar closer Craig Kimbrel. But this would also represent a great risk, given the fact we don’t know in what shape they would show up. Also, there’s very little, if any, indications that Minnesota would be willing to pay them. I mean, if there’s any interest, why didn’t they pull the trigger yet?
Since that’s the most unlikely option, we should look at what possible options they could go after via trade. For rotation help, I believe the best choices that they would have would be Madison Bumgarner or Stephen Strasburg, MadBum being my favorite. For the bullpen, my favorite candidate would be old friend Liam Hendriks. But there are many more options around and I’m sure the Twins front office has a keen eye for that job.
In conclusion, smaller market teams will always raise more suspiscions than inspire confidence among non-fans. They will always doubt those teams. But the 2015 Royals are the closest example we have that this dream is doable. And, as shown during this article, they have a long list of common features with this year’s Twins. So, it’s OK to believe.