Monday, June 20, 2011
The Minnesota Twins were 16.5 games out of first place on June 1st. Even though we were barely a third of the way through the season, that deficit seemed insurmountable at the time. The Twins -- and I don't think there is any better way to say this -- sucked. They had allowed nearly 100 more runs than they had scored. They won all of nine games in April, and eight games in May. Their 17-37 record was the worst in major-league baseball, and they were the only team in the American League more than ten games below .500.
Eight games out of first in the middle of June, though? That's nothing. That seems pretty doable, especially for one of the best teams in the American League. Yes, you read that right. Okay, well, maybe not on offense. In the month of June, the Twins are towards the middle of the pack in: runs scored (71, 6th in the AL), wOBA (.310, 9th), wRC+ (95, 8th), with a not-terrible .265/.320/.382/.702 slash line. Of course, mediocre is a vast improvement for a lineup that was hitting like a National League pitcher for the first few months of the season, but it is the pitching staff that has been the real catalyst for the Twins' sudden surge in the standings. The starting rotation leads the league in ERA (1.89), FIP (2.91), and xFIP (3.34); they are second in tERA (3.71) and innings pitched (110.1); they are fourth in strikeouts (76), and they've given up the fewest walks (20). The bullpen has been doing it's job as well, with a miniscule 1.65 ERA and a 21/9 K/BB ratio over 32.2 innings; a decent 3.56 FIP, 4.23 xFIP, and 3.48 tERA; their 1.24 WPA is second only to the Yankees in the AL.
Though they've gained 8.5 games in the standings in just a few weeks, and though the AL Central race remains wide open, I am skeptical that the Twins will be legitimate contenders. Baseball Prospectus thinks it will take 85.5 wins to capture the division title, which means the Twins will have to win about 67% (or 55) of their remaining games to have a shot at making the playoffs. Somehow, I don't think that is realistic; after all, the Twins will have to go 50-42 the rest of the way just to finish at .500, and that seems rather optimistic for a team whose run differential has improved to -57 after outscoring its opponents by 33 runs in the last 16 games. For the first 54 games of this season, the Twins were the worst team in baseball. 54 games certainly isn't a large sample size, but it is much larger than 16 games in June, and it can't be ignored just because the Twins are currently riding a hot streak.