Among my friends, I’m known as being a bit of a Minnesota sports optimist. I’m the type of person who, when it’s at the end of the NFL season and the Vikings hold a 11% chance of making it to the playoffs IF the Vikings beat the Packers at Lambeau, the Washington Football team beats the Eagles, AND the terrible, tanking Texans beat the Niners, I’m all in on following those scenarios.
Next week sounds like it will feature a marathon of bargaining sessions as the MLB and its owners and the MLB Players Association work to iron out differences in their CBA proposals. However, unless things really begin to pick up, we might be looking at the reality of a shortened regular season. But could a shortened season be good for the Twins on multiple fronts? Here is a look at a shortened season through an optimistic lens.
1. Smaller sample size
One of the truths of baseball is that most things tend to even out to their natural state by the end of the season in a theory called "Regression Towards the Mean." In all sports, there is certainly some luck involved. However, in baseball and its gauntlet of a 162 game regular season, over the long run most things average out, including batting averages, pitching performance, and wins for a team. But what happens if the season is short enough that things can’t regress to that mean? What if the Twins start hot and then just stay hot?
Twins leadership has maintained they anticipate being competitive in 2022 despite trading José Berríos to the Toronto Blue Jays at the MLB trade deadline last season and not pursuing any flashy free agent starting pitchers before the lockout commenced (we hardly ever do). I am not saying that I do not anticipate the Twins being competitive this season, but our favorite ballclub certainly has their work cut out for them once the lockout ends, including a pressing need to sign two starting pitchers, a starting shortstop, and a late-inning reliever.
Thus, with such an uncertain rotation, glaring roster holes, and the jury still out on the future of some of their prospects like Royce Lewis, maybe the smaller the sample size for the Twins, the better. It seemed that last season was a perfect storm for the Twins in which the majority of their players were slumping or injured all at the same time. It is feasible the opposite could happen- multiple players could have career seasons. Maybe less games in 2022 would be beneficial to the Twins and if they started hot, would not allow them to regress to a mean which included statistics like finishing the 2021 season with the 17th best batting average at .241 and the 26th best ERA at 4.83. A somewhat anecdotal example illustrating sample size- do you favor the Twins' odds more in a one game playoff with the Yankees or a full series? ("Neither" is not an acceptable answer, thank you very much). There's sample size for ya.
Another note- the last time the Twins won the division it was in a small sample size 60-game season. More on that later.
2. Less injuries for star veterans
A shortened season would also benefit the Twins because less games means less wear and tear on their injury-prone stars. Josh Donaldson has struggled with recurring calf issues throughout his career- in a July 2020 Instragram post, Donaldson acknowledged that he’s torn “both of my calves a total of seven times in two years.” Calf issues held him to 28 games in 2020 and forced him to sit out of the playoffs that year. During the full 2021 season, Donaldson got in 135 games but was bothered by hamstring issues. He will be 36 for the 2022 season, and while he still can bring the rain, there is little doubt less games would be of great benefit to him.
The most evident beneficiary of a shorter season is Byron Buxton. To be clear, I was incredibly excited about the Buxton extension and did not remotely believe his injuries were a reason to not resign him, as many of his injuries have stemmed from somewhat freak occurrences like getting hit by a pitch (2020 and 2021) or fouling a ball off his toe (2018). To me, it is unfair to label him as being "made out of glass" from these instances of bad luck that could happen to anyone. Regardless, in looking at his game log through his entire Twins career- he has played triple digit games only once- 140 games in 2017. It is inarguable that the Twins are a much better team when Buxton is in the lineup; since the beginning of 2019, the Twins have played at a 99-win pace when Byron Buxton is in their starting lineup and an 81-win pace when he isn't. Therefore, less games would mean less wear and tear on their star centerfielder's body, which hopefully would result in him being in the starting lineup more regularly. More Buxton starts, more wins.
3. Games (almost) solely against AL Central teams
In 2020, the MLB faced another shortened season with only 60 games played due to the pandemic and boy, did it work out well for the Twins. During this season, the Twins played 10 games vs each of their four AL Central opponents and 20 games against NL opponents. The Twins won the American League Central division title for the second year in a row and had winning or .500 records against each of their AL Central opponents. The Twins were 13-7 in the 20 NL games they played. Maybe they just do better when avoiding beatdowns from the likes of the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, and Athletics- if you can imagine that (sarcasm). A shortened season would probably follow a similar model; with little time to waste, divisional games would be prioritized.
If you dig into this 2021 wins matrix, you will see that despite the Twins having a decidedly disappointing season with their 73-89 record, the Twins played disproportionally well vs each of their AL Central opponents with the exception of the White Sox, who ran away with the AL Central title and had their most wins as a franchise since the 2005 season. Despite landing in last in the AL Central rankings, the Twins went 11-8 vs the Cleveland Guardians, 11-8 vs the Detroit Tigers, and 9-10 vs the Kansas City Royals. Of all the other AL teams the Twins faced, the only other AL series the Twins won were vs the tied-for-league-worst Baltimore Orioles, the Houston Astros, and the Texas Rangers. Every other AL series the Twins lost, thus making the fact that the Twins won or were almost .500 vs all their divisional opponents (yes, except the White Sox- but the Twins were 5-5 vs them in 2020 and we'll get 'em next year) significant. Nothing says they couldn't perform similarly well vs their division opponents in 2022.
Even though there is nothing more I would like to do more than try to beat my personal record for number of home games I attend during a Twins season, I take heart knowing that a shortened season could very well shake out in the Twins' favor. Just a little optimism for you on this windy, spring training-less day.
Feature photo: Fireworks Friday after a 6-4 loss to the Astros on June 11, 2021
Photo: Byron Buxton warming up in the on deck circle during an extremely hot and muggy game I attended on June 10, 2021. Buxton went yard twice and returned to the outfield in what was the first game of his Saints rehab stint.