The American League Central was predicted to be competitive in the offseason. The Detroit Tigers had won the division the last four seasons, but the Kansas City Royals were coming off a World Series appearance. Despite that, many thought the Cleveland Indians, led by Cy Young winner Corey Kluber were actually the best in the division and the Chicago White Sox had just made a big splash in the offseason to build around rookie of the year Jose Abreu.
There was one team that nobody gave a chance in the Central, the Minnesota Twins. Knowing the nature of baseball, it shouldn’t be a surprise that those Twins are currently tied for the lead in the Central division with the third best record in baseball. Only two months into the season the Twins have raised their projected win total from 74 (third worst in MLB) to 81 (tied for 16th in MLB).
The catalyst behind their sudden charge is the offense — the Twins are eighth in MLB in runs per game with 4.42 runs. That’s made all the more impressive by the fact that only five Twins batters have accumulated enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title and of those five, only three have a wRC+ above 100, or league average. If the bar is lowered to just 20 plate appearances, that still only adds two more hitters with a wRC+ above league average among 15 players.
Overall, the Twins have a 90 team wRC+, which ranks 21st in MLB and they’re not getting any help from their running game. On the basepaths the Twins are two runs below average by FanGraphs base running runs above average, 20th in MLB. So, here we have an offense that is borderline in the bottom third in the league by overall offensive metrics and has exactly two good hitters in Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe but has the 11th-most runs in MLB.
Things are just as strange on the pitching side. The Twins rotation has two starters with good FIPs but bad ERAs (Trevor May, Ricky Nolasco); two starters with bad FIPs but good ERAs (Mike Pelfrey, Kyle Gibson); and one pitcher who was one of the better pitchers in baseball last year with neither a good FIP nor a good ERA (Phil Hughes). Altogether that makes up a rotation that is 13th in MLB in ERA and FIP.
Where the Twins bread is buttered is in the bullpen. Closer Glen Perkins has had a big impact in the early goings, as his 1.88 ERA and 2.81 FIP have led him to 19 saves in 19 chances. With Perkins leading the way, the Twins bullpen has the highest win probability added among bullpens in MLB, adding 3.75 wins. Along with Perkins, relievers Blaine Boyer and Aaron Thompson are among the top 25 relievers in win probability added. The other big surprise team of 2015, the Houston Astros, is the only other team with three relievers in the top 25.
Unsurprisingly, the Twins have been great in one run games, their .647 winning percentage only trails the Washington Nationals in all of baseball. When expanded to all games within three runs, the standard delineation of a save situation, they have the best record in baseball at 21-10, just ahead of those same Astros.
So far the Twins have combined a good bullpen with some great luck to rocket to the top of the Central. And their luck hasn’t only been during the game, they have also benefited from a relatively easy schedule in such a tough division, with 30 of their 50 games coming against teams currently below .500. Their lack of good individual hitters and a mixed up rotation will likely hold them back in the long term. BaseRuns, an estimate of how many runs a team should have scored and allowed based on component offensive statistics, shows a team that should be closer to 21-28 and 22nd in runs per game, rather than 30-20 and fourth. With their hot start, the Twins can probably avoid their worst preseason projections, but a playoff bid still seems like a pipe dream.
Stats from Fangraphs