Is Improved AL Central to Blame for Twins Recent Struggles?

Photo: Paul Sancya-AP


For the Minnesota Twins, their start to the 2020 season has been anything but normal. From euphoric highs to what some feel are historically bad lows. It has been a roller coaster first few weeks. The Twins went from a franchise-record 10-2 to losing four straight, including a sweep to the lowly Kansas City Royals. Nothing has seemed to completely go according to plan for Rocco Baldelli and co.

With the offense struggling and the bullpen showing some warts after a few superb starts, it brings up numerous question marks with the season already more than a fourth over.

Who is to blame? Do fans point to the play on diamond? Managerial decisions? What about their own preconceived ideas on the team?

All are valid questions to ask and dive into, but there are two that seem to be flying under the radar. Is the AL Central better than anticipated? Or are the Twins regressing after putting up video game numbers last year? While pundits believe the Twins are still an elite group, let’s dive a bit deeper.


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AL CENTRAL OFFSEASON MOVES

Let’s start with the easiest thing to look at. The offseason acquisitions in the AL Central. When looking at who was scooped up within the division, it is easy to see one team trying to vie for contention while others are just trying to maintain the course.

For the likes of the Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, and Kansas City Royals, it seems those clubs were content going into 2020 with their projected outlooks. For the Indians, it was trying to reclaim the Central title and make it back to the postseason. While also trying to do so by signing the likes of Delino DeShields, Cesar Hernandez, and Domingo Santana. As for the Tigers, it was picking up former Twins CJ Cron and Jonathan Schoop. The Royals resigned Alex Gordon and picked up Greg Holland and Maikel Franco.


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Nothing really sticks out among that trio of teams with regard to offseason moves. None of those players are going to be in contention for major accolades or be massive threats in the field or in the box.

The White Sox did the exact opposite of the rest of the division. They pushed all their chips to the middle of the table to build towards a postseason push in 2020 and beyond. The White Sox signed eight players during the offseason that can make immediate impacts. From the likes of Yasmani Grandal and Edwin Encarnacion to signing former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel and resigning Jose Abreu. The Sox are all in.


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TWINS OFFSEASON MOVES

What about the Twins? If you haven’t followed the team, they made a slew of moves throughout the offseason to push for a deep postseason run, if not a championship. The Twins signed slugger Josh Donaldson to a $92 million deal while adding the likes of Kenta Maeda, Homer Bailey, and Rich Hill. In addition to those moves the Twins resigned Jake Odorizzi and brought in Tyler Clippard and Alex Avila.

Those moves have, at times, looked like absolute steals. As Kenta Maeda has become the best pitcher in the rotation while Tyler Clippard and Alex Avila have seen ample playing time.


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The moves have yet to completely pay off however. Injuries have stalled the impacts of Donaldson, Hill, Odorizzi, and Bailey. All players the Twins were banking on making immediate impacts were lost within a week. Donaldson alone was brought in to offset any regression other players on the team may have.

IS THE AL CENTRAL ACTUALLY BETTER?

Looking solely at acquisitions is a slippery slope. Seeing high-profile names on a given team can lead to preconceived notions as to how a team is going to perform. Just look at Twins and White Sox fans prior to the season’s start. Twins fans, myself included, who thought we would go 60-0 while White Sox fans believed in making it back to October baseball for the first time since 2008.

So why does it seem like the AL Central is more competitive than in past years? It is simple, it is that bad of a division that all the teams seemingly beat up on each other at some point.

Which should be great news for the Twins. Coming into the season, they had the easiest schedule in the majors based off 2019 records. And while that is how the season started, beating up on the White Sox and Indians, this past series sweep to the Royals has fans in full-on panic mode.


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So no, the AL Central isn’t better than last year. At least not in a noticeable manner. If anything, the streaky nature of baseball has hit at the most inopportune times for some while at the most opportune times for others. Just look at the comparisons from last year to this year, at least so far from Baseball-Reference.com.


2019 AL Central Statistics – Baseball-Reference.com

2020 AL Central Statistics (as of 8/10) – Baseball-Reference.com

BUYING INTO HINDSIGHT

Looking at the early comparisons from this year to last year, you can see that while there are some improvements in the division (i.e. Slugging, OPS+, ERA+), they are not that drastic. Instead the Twins have seemingly come back to earth and are regressing. Something fans and pundits alike probably should have taken more into account. Look at how the Twins OPS+, slash line, and walks allowed have all gone in a negative direction. That could be due to a slump, but may be more indicative of what this team actually is.


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But hindsight is always going to do that. This team is still one of the best in baseball, at least when healthy, and should come back. With the Brewers and Royals up to bat on the schedule, not even including the likes of the Tigers and White Sox, the Twins have a chance to brush away the last few days and refocus on beating crappy and middling teams.

BALDELLI’S MISMANAGEMENT

If anything, Baldelli is likely managing for October baseball knowing his club still has a 98.4% chance of making the playoffs and the fourth best odds to represent the AL in the World Series. He is focusing on keeping the roster healthy and acclimated rather than risk injuries en masse just for the number one seed. That may be a tough pill to swallow, and could be considered a questionable move. But he and his staff know more about his guys than most.


Baseball-Reference.com

Look at how he has managed close games over the past week. He has left the team’s best relievers in the pen anywhere from three days to a week. When games are close, a manager should utilize he high-leverage relievers. Add in an overuse of analytics (yes, that is a thing) and it leads to misplaced players in situations they shouldn’t be in. Managers should always put their players in position to succeed, but it seems that Baldelli is managing like this is a 162-game season and not a 60-game one.


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But Baldelli has shown to know his players and staff better than anyone. People just need to give him a little more leniency until it really hits the fan. I know I will…at least until this losing streak continues and we lose to the Yankees in the playoffs again.


Jack Kewitsch | Minnesota Sports Fan