When the Minnesota Twins burst into the playoffs with 101 wins in 2019 — hitting an MLB-record 307 home runs — they were one of baseball’s most pleasant surprises. When they followed that up with the league’s fourth-best record during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, it seemed to announce that Minnesota was here to stay as a contender. Across those two seasons, the Twins went 137-85, notching the second-best winning percentage (.617) in any pair of consecutive seasons in franchise history, trailing only the 1932-33 Washington Senators.
But in 2021, the Twins have gone from revelation to ruin. After Wednesday’s loss to the Chicago White Sox, Minnesota owns the second-worst record in the game (14-27), and its playoff odds in our forecast model have dwindled from 64 percent in the preseason to a mere 7 percent today. According to our Elo ratings, the Twins are the most disappointing team of 2021 so far:
Others have made their own bid for the top spot. The perennially disappointing Los Angeles Angels have had both Mike Trout and now Shohei Ohtani playing at an MVP level … and are still fourth in the American League West, six games under .500. The Yankees and Braves are still contenders, but both started the season off slowly. And with Christian Yelich in and (more often) out of the lineup, the Brewers’ 2020 offensive struggles have carried over into 2021 thus far.
But when it comes to missed expectations this season, let’s be honest: Nobody is really close to Minnesota. So what the heck happened in the Twin Cities?
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It might be tempting to point to the Twins’ reduced power output and conclude that a team so reliant on the long ball (51 percent of Minnesota’s runs in 2019 and 2020 came via homers) will naturally struggle if that power starts to fade. And it’s true that Twins hitters have been going deep less and less: Minnesota has gone from a home run on 4.8 percent of plate appearances in 2019 to 3.6 percent in 2021.
The problem with that explanation is that the league as a whole has experienced a big power drain since the lively ball days of 2019, with reductions in home runs per game (down 18 percent), slugging percentage (down 10 percent) and isolated power (down 14 percent) across the sport over the past two seasons.
Relative to the league, then, the Twins still have one of the better offenses in baseball. They rank seventh in OPS, ninth in batting average, fifth in slugging, third in isolated power and seventh (in a tie with Tampa Bay) in the all-important weighted runs created plus (wRC+). They also have the second-highest average exit velocity of any team, according to StatCast, tied with Atlanta and Boston. Granted, a lot of that was thanks to the scorching hot start (224 wRC+!) enjoyed by talented-but-fragile center fielder Byron Buxton, who has been out with a hip injury since May 6. But designated hitter Nelson Cruz (137) and third baseman Josh Donaldson (136) have also been among MLB’s top 50 hitters by wRC+ so far this season. And although a number of Twins are hitting slightly below their usual levels, the only truly terrible hitter among Minnesota’s regulars has been outfielder Jake Cave (43), who’s currently on the 60-day injured list.
Instead, the Twins’ biggest offensive problem has simply been poor timing. According to FanGraphs, they are the worst clutch-hitting team in the league, producing 2.9 fewer wins than we’d expect from their context-neutral stats simply by underperforming in high-leverage situations. This includes everything from Minnesota’s comparatively anemic .648 OPS with runners in scoring position and two outs (down 20 percent from their overall norm) to the team’s .668 mark late in close games (down 16 percent). With a chance to turn the tide in big moments, the Twins have done themselves no favors at the plate.
If that were the Twins’ only problem, their situation might be manageable. Not exactly a minor issue, of course, but something that could potentially be offset by strong pitching. However, far worse than any flaws with the offense have been the team’s pitching woes, which have completely tanked a staff that once ranked among the game’s steadiest.
How bad have Minnesota’s hurlers been? The team currently owns the league’s worst fielding-independent pitching (FIP) mark and fourth-worst ERA. No team is allowing more home runs per nine innings. (So much for that dejuiced ball.) According to wins above replacement, Twins starters have been the second-worst in baseball (ahead of only the Cubs), while Twins relievers have also been the second-worst in baseball (ahead of only the Diamondbacks). Overall, Minnesota ranks dead-last in pitching WAR, putting them on pace to become just the fifth team in the expansion era (since 1961) to drop to last place in pitching value a year after finishing among the top 10.
|Pitching WAR Ranks||Prev. Season Ranks|
This season contains some parallels from the last time Minnesota was on that list. In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, the Twins had built one of the best and deepest pitching staffs in baseball — the team had five pitchers post at least 2.0 WAR in 1980, for instance. But in 1982, despite returning almost all of the staff that had ranked seventh in WAR the season before, Minnesota’s pitching completely collapsed, finishing 26th out of 26 teams in pitching value. All of the pitchers the Twins were counting on just underperformed, all at once.
Similarly, the 2021 Twins have returned most of the same staff that drove last season’s ninth-ranked WAR performance. The team lost starter Rich Hill to the Rays and said goodbye to a couple of effective relievers, but they seemed to come out about even after adding J.A. Happ to the rotation and Alex Colomé to the bullpen. Instead, almost every single member of the Twins’ staff — save for starter Michael Pineda and little-used lefty Lewis Thorpe — has failed to meet his established level of WAR (per 162 games) from the past few seasons:
|WAR/162 by season||2021 season|
And just like on offense, Minnesota has saved some of its worst pitching for the worst possible moments — ranking second-worst in clutch pitching, fourth-worst in OPS allowed with runners in scoring position and two outs, and fourth-worst in the share of baserunners left stranded at the end of innings. Between that and their untimely hitting, the Twins have easily been the worst clutch team in baseball — as much worse than No. 2 Colorado as the Rockies have been worse than the 10th-ranked Yankees.
If there’s any good news for the Twins in this, it’s that some of these performances have been so aberrant that they’ll probably even out a bit over the rest of the season. And we know that past clutch performance is not very predictive of future clutch performance. In that and many other ways, the Twins have been MLB’s unluckiest team so far this season — for example, they are also an absurd 0-7 under baseball’s controversial new(ish) extra-inning setup this year, while no other team is worse than 0-3. In the long run, some of those bad breaks will surely turn around.
But for now, the Twins are suffering the third-worst year-over-year decline in winning percentage in modern MLB history (since 1901), ahead of only the 1915 Philadelphia A’s and 1935 Boston Braves. Bad luck or not, Minnesota’s pitchers have been legitimately terrible. And while Buxton — the team’s best and most dynamic player — is progressing toward full health, he isn’t coming back anytime soon. Every so often in sports, there’s a season where everything that can go wrong for a team does. A few teams are experiencing that feeling this year, but nobody has borne the full weight of it like the Twins have so far.
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