Looking back at a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad month
Much like the pitch that hit Luis Arraez in the photo at the top of this post, the Twins’ April was painful. A disappointing 9-15 record was, amazingly, just a small part of a roller coaster story that includes the death of bench coach Mike Bell, a rash of COVID infections, other generally minor player injuries, a postponement out of concern for social unrest, and multiple games played in falling snow.
The month was so topsy turvy that I am sure something else bad or unusual is missing from that list. At one point the team had six days off in a 16 day stretch — something unheard of in the usual daily grind of a major league schedule.
Now that the calendar has thankfully turned to May, the roster seems to be returning to health and the names we expected to see in the lineup everyday are as available as they have been at any point thus far. The end of the season’s first month is a good time to take a look back and see how the Twins’ start to the season has impacted their overall outlook. It’s worth saying: 24 games is only about 15% of the season and the Twins have 138 non-April games remaining to turn things around.
But, all the games count equally in the end and the results in the bank have made an impact on this team’s odds of reaching October.
FanGraphs’ playoff odds models had the Twins pegged for 88.2 wins on March 31, the highest projected total in the AL Central. After the team won five of its first seven games, that projection nudged up around 90 projected wins:
Then came the losing streaks. By April 20, after the Twins dropped both ends of a double header to the Athletics, the Chicago White Sox overtook Minnesota in the projected standings. By April 27, after losing the first two games of a road series in Cleveland, the Twins projection had fallen to 82 wins.
Now, thanks to two wins to close out April, the end of April number is back up to 83.5 wins, placing Minnesota second in the division, about 5 games behind the White Sox projection (88.7 wins), and about two games in front of Cleveland (81.7) and upstart Kansas City (81.7).
The Twins’ 4.6 projected win change from the preseason estimates is the 2nd-largest change (positive or negative) among the 30 major league teams, trailing only Detroit’s 5.5 projected win decline.
Back on March 31, FanGraphs’ models gave Minnesota a 48.6% chance of winning the AL Central and a 63.3% chance of making the playoffs with that 88.2 win projection. By April 8, their division title chances peaked at 55.1% and by April 9 the playoff chances peaked at 72.2%:
Much like the projected wins charts in the first section above, these projections dropped steadily throughout the Twins’ losing streaks before creeping back up at the end of the month. In both of these graphs, the double header losses at Oakland were the inflection point where Chicago surpassed the Twins.
Now, after April, the Twins’ division title chances are 19.9% and their chances of making the playoffs are 31.5%. Chicago, despite currently sitting in second place in the standings with their own 14-11 April record, has become the clear favorite in the AL Central (55.8% chance of winning the division) and the clear most likely team to make the playoffs from the division (66.9%).
Unsurprisingly, much like with the projected wins above, the Twins’ change in likelihood to win the division (-28.7 percentage points) and make the playoffs (-31.9 percentage points) are the largest changes of any team from the preseason projections.
A big factor in the major declines in the Twins’ postseason outlook are a handful of games that looked like wins, before turning south in the late innings. Minnesota went 0-5 in extra inning games in April, the most such losses, and tied for the most extra inning games played of any team. Additionally, the club was just 2-6 in one run games. Those tight losses are another huge component of why April felt so frustrating for everyone interested in the Twins.
Somewhat unbelievably, the Twins lost three different games in which they, at one point or another, had at least a 95% win probability.
The #MNTwins have lost games this year in which they had win expectancies of 98.3%, 98.1% and 95.5%.
The odds of the Twins losing all three of those games were 0.0015%. pic.twitter.com/DX0FL6IWxP
— Matthew Taylor (@MatthewTaylorMN) April 22, 2021
The first of those was opening day against Milwaukee, when they took a 5-2 lead into the 9th inning. The second was the Sunday afternoon series finale against Seattle when they had a 6-0 lead in the 6th inning. The third was the bonkers midweek series finale in Oakland when leads were blown in both the 9th and 10th innings of a 13-12 loss.
On the flip side of that ledger, the Twins have yet to complete a comeback and win when they’ve trailed after the 6th inning of play. Taking that further, they’ve only won twice when they’ve faced a deficit at all, at any point in a game. Data points like these make it seem as if, if they did not have bad luck, they would not have any luck at all. At least so far.
That poor luck bears out in other numbers, as well. By Baseball Reference’s Pythagorean Winning Percentage formula, which relates a team’s runs scored and runs allowed to derive it’s expected winning percentage, the 2021 Twins were the unluckiest team in baseball in April. With their 111 runs scored and 109 runs allowed, Minnesota *should* have had a 12-12 win-loss record.
The Twins’ minus-3 game gap between that projected record and their actual results was tied for the largest in baseball. By that method, Chicago projected 15-10 (-1 game gap) and Kansas City (+3) and Cleveland (0) were both also 12-12. The Royals’ plus-3 game gap also tied for the largest in MLB.
It certainly would have been preferred to get off to a better start. But, all 162 games count equally in the standings and there are prior examples of teams turning it around after bad Aprils. This franchise even has one of its own to look to. In 2006, the Twins finished April 9-16. After 50 games, that team was still just 23-27. Of course, you’ll recall those Twins finished 96-66 and won the Central division title. That’s the glass half full view.
The half empty view says the 2006 example is the exception, not the rule. The vast majority of teams to play this poorly in April fail to recover. Consider, just 35 of 750 teams (less than 5%) to have winning percentages less than .425 in April have gone on to make the playoffs. Those chances improve slightly — all the way up around 7% — if you consider just the wild card format era (post-1995), when there have been more playoff bids up for grabs.
That’s bad news for the 2021 Twins and their .375 April winning percentage.
Reasonable people can come down on either side of this and no one can know for sure, right now, which point of view will turn out to be correct. Certainly, there were enough abnormal factors surrounding the Twins in April that anyone could have ground to stand on in waving it away as a fluke that is going to turn around. But, there were also more than enough concerning red flags to be justified in taking the Twins’ April results as reality.
In either case, there’s no denying that the poor start has made the hill to climb steeper. Maybe they can do it. Maybe they can’t. We don’t know. I suppose that’s where the old sports adage, “That’s why they play the games” comes from. We’ll find out over the next five months.
John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnFoley_21.