While many players have undoubtedly contributed to the Twins success, today we will look at the players who have done the most to help the Twins win. This is obviously subjective in nature, but to be as objective as possible we will use win probability added (WPA) to gauge which players have most increased the Twins ability to win ball games.
WPA is simply the difference in win expectancy between the start and end of each play that occurs in a game. So when Nelson Cruz stepped to the plate with the bases loaded in the fifth inning of Tuesday’s game against the White Sox with the score even at three apiece, the Twins had a 59.4% win expectancy. Cruz went on to double in two runs and the Twins win expectancy rose to 81.4%, an increase of 22%. Therefore, Cruz is credited with +.220 WPA on the play (and the pitcher is docked the same amount). WPA is cumulative, so the difference in WPA after each play is either added or subtracted from the hitter/pitcher and it builds up throughout the game and season (the winning team gains .500 WPA between its players, while the loser subtracts .500).
The nice thing about WPA is that it is a contextual statistic. In the aforementioned game where Cruz doubled in two runs with in the fifth inning, C.J. Cron also doubled with the bases juiced in the eighth inning, except Cron was able to clear the bases so he picked up an extra RBI. However, Cron’s base-clearing double came with the Twins already up 8-4 and a 98.8% win expectancy. With the Twins lead growing to 11-4, the expectancy went up to 99.9%, so Cron only gained .011 of WPA. Cruz’s double came in a big moment, greatly increasing the Twins chances to pick up the victory, and he was rewarded accordingly.
Before we move on, there are a few caveats with using WPA to determine how much a player helped the team win. All defensive plays either help or hurt the pitcher, so a fielder’s defensive efforts do not contribute to their WPA. This obviously diminishes the value of someone like Byron Buxton (who brings extraordinary value to the Twins as their center fielder) while increasing the value of Nelson Cruz. Also, WPA generally varies greatly for individual players from season to season and it is not a great predictor of future success. Good players tend to be good independent of the context and wins above replacement (WAR) is a better way to value a player overall. With that said, the top three MLB players in WPA in 2019 are Christian Yelich (6.40), Mike Trout (5.42), and Cody Bellinger (5.24) who are arguably having the three best individual seasons in baseball (also the top three in bWAR, though not in the same order).
Now that we have that out of the way, here are the Twins top six performers according to WPA:
6. Jorge Polanco – 1.43 WPA
Polanco has been one of the handful of younger core players to take a great leap forward in 2019. Offensively, Polanco has been very impressive, slashing.295/.358/.496 with a wRC+ of 121. He is tied for second on the team with 3.5 fWAR and the team friendly extension that he signed in the offseason (5yr, 25.75M with two club options) is looking like a real steal for the Twins. Polanco hasn’t been quite as good in the second half and his defense has looked rather shaky of late (he’s made some highlight-reel plays but botched several routine ones) but there is no doubt that he has been a big part of Minnesota’s success.
5. Luiz Arraez – 1.53 WPA
Anyone who has watched Arraez play cannot possibly deny his value in big moments. The rookie seems unshakable, working MLB pitchers into deep pitch counts and ending many of those battles with huge hits or walks. The 22-year-old didn’t make his MLB debut until May 18th and has only played in 61 games, making his inclusion on this list all the more impressive. Arraez has been good for 1.5 bWAR, hitting .341/.408/.445 with a wRC+ of 128. Like Polanco, Arraez seems somewhat limited defensively, but the two are quite the up-the-middle tandem offensively.
4. Jake Odorrizi – 1.69 WPA
Most Twins fans would probably guess Jose Berrios if they knew that only one starting pitcher would be included in this list, but it is Odorrizi coming in at number four (Berrios just missed with a 1.39 WPA). Odorrizi has been much improved in 2019. He was named to the all-star team and he leads the Twins rotation in K/9 (9.41), HR/9 (1.03) and has been the best Twins starter in stranding base runners (76.7% LOB %). Odorizzi trails only Jose Berrios amongst Twins starters in fWAR (3.5 to 2.8) and has the rotation’s best FIP at 3.78. Odorizzi becomes a free agent at the end of the season and it will be interesting to see if Minnesota tries to resign him.
3. Taylor Rogers – 1.80 WPA
While Odorrizi may be somewhat of a surprise as the top starter on the list, to expect any reliever other than Taylor Rogers to be the sole bullpen representative would be lunacy. Rogers has struggled a bit in the second half after being lights out prior to the All-Star break, but the Twins have been able to get their star reliever some more rest of late. Rogers forms a formidable late-inning trio with Minnesota’s trade-deadline acquisitions, Sergio Romo (2.04 WPA) and Sam Dyson (1.47 WPA). On the year Rogers has pitched to a 2.59 ERA (2.83 FIP), has stranded 86.8 % of base runners, and has accumulated a 1.7 bWAR.
2. Nelson Cruz – 2.43 WPA
Nelson Cruz will go down as one of, if not the best-ever Twins free agent signing. The now 39-year-old has been nothing short of amazing. He is currently hitting .303/.389/.662 with a wRC+ of 168. Cruz has been absolutely on fire in the second half hitting 17 home runs in 28 games (244 wRC+) and has shown no signs of rust since returning from his wrist injury. Cruz’s veteran presence has been noted in the clubhouse and his dedicated work ethic has undoubtedly had a positive effect on his younger teammates. But most importantly, he has been one of the best hitters in the MLB. Cruz is tied with Polanco and Berrios for second on the team with 3.5 bWAR despite being a DH and only playing in 90 games.
1. Max Kepler – 2.53 WPA
Of all the Twins young core players, perhaps none have taken as big of a step forward as Max Kepler has this year. After showing flashes but not quite reaching his potential in his first three seasons with Minnesota, Max Kepler leads the team in both WPA and bWAR (3.9). Kepler has hit plenty of big homers when the Twins needed a boost and leads the team with 34 long balls in 2019. Kepler and Cruz (33 HRs) both have a good chance of reaching 40 this year. Although it doesn’t show up in his WPA, Kepler has been great in right field and has provided invaluable depth in center while filling in for the oft-injured Bryon Buxton. Like Polanco, the Twins were able to extend Kepler for cheap (5yr, 35M with one club option) and he has paid the Twins back with interest by hitting .256/.337/.537 with a 123 wRC+. Kepler has hit leadoff when the team faces right-handed pitching and hasn’t buckled under the pressure. Kepler’s BABIP is just .241, so if it ever normalizes, watch out.
Overall, it is encouraging to see that so many of the Twins younger players have been able to shine when it mattered the most. There will be plenty of big moments to come as the Twins look to hold off the Cleveland Indians and win the AL Central for the first time since 2010.
What do you think? Which players were included or excluded from the list who you thought would make it? Who do you think has done the most to contribute to the Twins winning ways in 2019?