It’s still too early to call it, but the Twins are running out of time and chances
The Twins entered May at 9-15 and six games behind Chicago in the AL Central division standings. Their terrible month of April had done a number on their playoff outlook and the team’s chances for October were down to 31.4%, per FanGraphs’ models (about half what they were at the start of the season.)
I wrote about all that then and suggested that May presented some reasons for optimism that they could turn things around. The schedule was a big driver in that hope. The month included consecutive winnable series against Kansas City, Texas, and Detroit, home and home series with Chicago, and closed out with two favorable series with Kansas City and Baltimore. The games against weaker competition and the head to head matchups with Chicago would give the Twins great opportunities to pick up ground.
They did play better in May (especially at the end of the month), but they decidedly did not take enough advantage of the opportunities on the schedule. Overall, they finished the month of May 13-16 and have an overall season record of 22-31. They currently are 10.5 games behind Chicago in the Central and 7 games behind Cleveland and Houston for the final Wild Card spot.
In May, they went a disappointing 4-6 in the early month stretch against Kansas City, Texas, and Detroit. Those missed opportunities were compounded when they dropped five of the six matchups with the White Sox. Finally, a road series win in Cleveland and a home sweep of Baltimore breathed some life into the season towards the end of the month but it was not sustained when they dropped a home series to Kansas City.
With another month of the schedule complete, it’s a good time to update the end of season outlook.
Using FanGraphs’ models, the Twins are now projected for 79.7 wins. At the end of April, that projection was 83.5 wins. The change from the beginning of the month to the end of the month is the fourth largest (in absolute terms) in the American League, trailing Tampa Bay (+10.4 win gain) and Los Angeles (-5.8 project win decrease) and Baltimore (-5.2).
The losses to Chicago in the middle of the month were responsible for most of the damage to the Twins’ win projection. Entering the first set with the White Sox, they were treading water at 82 projected wins, but after a sweep and losing two of three to the White Sox (with another series loss to Oakland in between), the projection bottomed out around 78 wins. The short winning streak and series wins toward the end of the month helped the month end number tick back up.
The optimists among us can take some solace in the fact that the American League does not appear to be composed of juggernauts. Chicago’s 91.3 projected wins are tied with Tampa Bay for the most in the AL, with the Yankees (90.2) and Red Sox (89.4) and Astros (89.0) close behind. At least so far, there does not seem to be a heavy favorite, 100+ win monster team in the league.
That might make it more tolerable for the Twins to stay patient and let things play out for another few weeks before making their decisions about the trade deadline.
If not for the Los Angeles Angels doing their (now annual) routine of underperforming despite having the best player on the planet (Mike Trout) and maybe the most talented individual player, too (Shohei Ohtani), the Twins would have the distinction of being the team that caused their playoff chances to decline the most of any team for the second month in row.
They entered the month with about 31.5% chances of a playoff berth. Those were the second best chances in the division behind Chicago. Now, those chances sit at just 8.3% and Cleveland has surpassed the Twins to be the best alternative to Chicago. For a brief stretch in the middle of the month, the Twins even trailed Kansas City in playoff chances, before jumping back in front of them to close out the month.
Minnesota’s chances check in as the 10th-best (of 15) in the American League, better only than Kansas City, Seattle, and the all but already eliminated Texas, Baltimore, and Detroit.
There’s not much to say about the AL Central division race. At 4.6%, the Twins chances of a three-peat in the AL Central are on life support.
The Major League schedule is long and it’s easy to get lost in the daily grind and lose sight of the big picture. It’s worth noting that 53 games is still not quite a third of the season (32.7%, to be precise). With 109 games still to play and no major decisions to be made for at least another four to six weeks, it’s still too early to be definitive about the Twins’ end of season outlook in 2021.
Like May before, the June schedule presents some opportunities to make up some ground. Six more games with Baltimore and Kansas City start the month with a good chance to start a winning streak. Tough series with New York and Houston follow, but they are at least at Target Field. Eight mid-month games with Texas, Seattle, and Cincinnati are another chance to make some gains against middling competition before the month closes out with important divisional matchups with Cleveland and Chicago.
Also on the side of being optimistic is that the Twins no longer rank as the unluckiest team in baseball. Instead, they are tied with five other teams as the second-unluckiest team. Their Pythagorean win-loss record per Baseball Reference is 25-28. FanGraphs’ BaseRuns approach is even friendlier and suggests 26-27.
I wrote a few weeks ago that the best explanation I had been able to find to explain why the Twins actual results had deviated so far from their expected results is consistent failures in the most critical spots. Since May 15, that has started to turn around. The Twins have positive clutch scores in both batting and pitching over the past 17 games and are no longer the least clutch team for the season.
Clutch scores are an outcome of performing in high leverage situations, which the Twins have finally started to do. In high leverage spots since May 15, Minnesota hitters have produced .402 wOBA (ranked 4th in that span) thanks to a .231 / .354 / .619 triple-slash line that blows their previous .193 wOBA (ranked 30th) in such situations out of the water. They’ve done better here on the mound, too. In the same stretch, the pitchers have yielded .295 wOBA (ranked t-12th) behind a .247 / .296 / .384 slash line in high leverage spots.
This production in the clutch has been a big reason why they finally won two extra inning games (now 2-8) and improved their season long record in one-run games to 8-9.
All in all, you can find lots of reasons to think the Twins’ record should be better than it is. You can also find plenty of reasons to think their record is reflective of how good they actually are. However you choose to look at it, those Pythagorean and BaseRuns projected records would qualify as disappointments compared to our pre-season expectations. But they would also feel quite a bit different than the current actual position does. Hovering near .500 with more than two-thirds of the season to go would likely not be cause for loud calls to be trade deadline sellers, but instead for patience in hope of a June or early July hot streak (or a long Chicago losing streak).
I think it’s still too early to call it definitively. But the 2021 Twins are running out of time and chances to make up for their poor start. The month of June should give us some definitive answers. Hopefully, they’ll play well enough that I’ll have a reason to write another of these month end looks at their postseason chances on July 1. If they don’t, then we’ll be at the point where we can call it a lost season and move on to the trade deadline and 2022.
What do you think, Twinkie Town?
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.