The Twins are 43-21 and even after losing 2 of 3 to the Cleveland Indians, Minnesota holds a commanding 10 ½ game lead in the American League Central.
This column presents 5 thoughts on what has them in that favorable position.
The Twins are hitting with such routine dominance that it’s a scramble to find stats that do justice to the story. This one’s a start.
As a team, the Twins entering Monday with a .515 slugging percentage. Slugging is a well-known stat, although maybe not a perfect one. It does the job for these purposes. You know the SLG story. How many bases did you earn with your personal trips to the plate? Home runs help you out quite a bit; and your slugging percentage would be pretty dang good if you just doubled every time you went to bat. The all-time leaderboard will look familiar to you. Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Barry Bonds. (Nelson Cruz is 64th on the all-time list.)
The 2019 Minnesota Twins, as a team, have a .515 slugging percentage. Last year, the World Series Champion Red Sox ranked first in team slugging at .453 for the year. For the 2018 season, the Twins’ current team slugging percentage would have ranked 10th in the American League. One spot behind Francisco Lindor and just ahead of Giancarlo Stanton and Nelson Cruz.
Harmon Killebrew had a .509 career slugging percentage.
The Twins on Sunday tied the all-time franchise record for most homers before the break, when Eddie Rosario hit No. 125. That ties the mark set in 1964 on a slugging club with Harmon, Bob Allison, Tony Oliva, Jimmie Hall and Zoilo Versalles. (The next year they won the A.L. pennant.)
This year’s squad will set a new mark. The club has 25 games to go before they take their midsummer break. And given that they’re still leading the world by hitting an average of 1.95 home runs per game, they have a halfway decent chance to get there. Nonzero, anyway.
He’s certainly got the offensive credentials to fit the mold. Will he make the all-star game? Will he be the starter? That was a fun topic of conversation this week, with the Twins playing the Indians, and with Francisco Lindor putting on a show.
Polanco has 10 home runs in 275 plate appearances, and he’s hitting .333/.393/.569. That translates to a .399 Weighted On-Base Average, in a league when a .400 wOBA mean’s you’re in the top echelon of hitters. Polanco leads all A.L. shortstops in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. And while Lindor has a decided advantage with the glove, that triple crown ought to get Polanco some votes.
Ultimately it will be a popularity contest, and Lindor is a more established star. Not to mention the game will be hosted in his home ballpark. If he didn’t start the game, which other Indians player is going to crack that lineup? So you’d have to guess advantage Lindor. Polanco’s play, though, will give him a shot.
He may not lead in Wins Above Replacement at the end of the year and he may not overshadow his powerful teammates in many offensive categories. When you watch him play most days it’s just hard to ignore how much he impacts games.
One example jumped out over the weekend. It came in the bottom of the 2nd inning Saturday, with Kyle Gibson on the mound. Brandon Dixon smoked a ball to the right-center gap. If it was just Some Guy standing out there in center field, we would have been saying that Dixon ripped a leadoff double to the right-center gap.
Instead, Buxton photocopied a page out of Randy Moss’ book and went into the graceful acceleration and cruised under the flight path of the ball to haul it in for an out. The power and grace is something to behold.
Beyond that, think about what he accomplished single-handedly in that moment. Buxton by himself turned what everyone would have guessed was a double and converted it to an out. He didn’t dive or crash into a wall, so you won’t see it on nightly highlights replays. It seemed like it should have been a tough play and Buxton made it look routine. The point is, with a lot of outfielders standing in his place, there’s a runner hanging out at second base, waiting for the next pitch to his teammates, and nobody out in the inning. They’re likely to score. (Leadoff doubles score about 60% of the time, according to research from Tom Tango.) Meanwhile, what happens to a team that has nobody on base and one out? The odds are stacked against them. And Buxton made up that entire difference in one route.
Kyle Gibson’s ERA will thank him. The Twins’ overall record will thank him. His skills are electric. He’ll get noticed but he won’t get noticed enough. We must continue to recognize moments when the Twins’ peerless centerfielder impacts games, and his glove is worth its weight in gold.
Granted, great teams win a lot of series because they win a lot of games. But my point here is that I also think there’s an art to a 3- or a 4-game series that separates good teams from great teams. I don’t have any proof but this isn’t a college math class it’s just a column about baseball.
I think there’s something to be said for not only being better than the opponent on a given night; anybody can pull that off once with the right pitching matchup. What’s more challenging is to be prepared for everything a team can present in a series, and to be able to top whatever they throw out there on a given night. Now, sports are sports and there’s a lot of variance — and as is often pointed out in good times and bad: those guys in the other dugout are getting paid, too. Winning games in the big leagues is hard. Winning series is harder. It means you have the right balance of starting and relief, your pitching as a whole is up to the task; or your offense can overcome anything the other guys try to accomplish; or you get timely and consistent contributions from role players like Luis Arraez and Ehire Adrianza. (Note: how many 2019 Twins could we consider “role players.” The term wouldn’t do justice to the contributions of guys like Jason Castro or Marwin Gonzalez, to name a couple.)
Anyway, games versus series. For a team to win at the rate the 43-21 Twins have won games this year, they’d need to win 108 games in a full schedule. That’s winning more than 2 out of every 3 games, and so you’d end up with a lot of series wins. Even if you threw in the odd number of sweeps, it’s hard to make the math work to find a lot of ways to lose series.
The Twins are 13-6 in series, and I counted a 2-game sweep in there for good measure, ignoring the pair of 2-game splits. The teams that have beat them over 3 or 4 games in a week are the Yankees, Tigers, Indians, Astros, Blue Jays and Phillies. I have to admit that I don’t follow the time-honored cliché of thinking about baseball One Game At a Time, but I do try hard to think about it one series at a time.
Just direct your focus toward winning a series, rinse and repeat. Then count the wins and collect the awards at those banquets at the end of the year.