The Twins are eight games over .500 at 26-18, and even more impressively they are 25-12 after an awful 1-6 start. Most of us who watched them play in the first week — and even since they have started winning — are scratching our heads trying to figure out 1) what happened? and 2) can it be sustained?
David Schoenfield, who writes for ESPN.com’s Sweet Spot blog, does a very nice job investigating both questions in a recent post that both praises the Twins and investigates just how exactly they are winning. Basically, they don’t have a great overall offense or pitching staff, but they have done both things exceedingly well when it matters most: hitting with runners on base and holding leads in the late innings. His overall summary is consistent with what has been noted with the eye test (this point was apparently written before their most recent victory over Boston):
If there’s one word to describe the 2015 Twins, it’s “clutch.” Timely hits, timely relief pitching. FanGraphs keeps track of a stat they call BaseRuns — the number of runs a team would be expected to score and allow given all the bases it has gained or allowed. Entering Monday, the Twins had outperformed their BaseRuns win total by seven — 25 wins as opposed to the “expected” total of 18.
This gets to a notion that’s been floating around in my head: their success is easy to define, but it’s hard to explain. And whether you think it’s sustainable really depends on what you think of “clutch” being a real thing vs. a small sample aberration.
Some key points noted by Schoenfield:
*They’re walking less. Second in the majors in walk rate in 2014, they’re 24th in 2015.
*The Twins are clutching up with runners in scoring position, hitting .294/.369/.438, versus .257/.311/.388.
*The Twins have the lowest strikeout rate among pitching staff in the majors, so they have more balls in play than the average pitching staff. What the Twins staff does do is limit walks — it has the second-lowest walk rate in the majors.
*The overall bullpen ERA is 3.97, 21st in the majors. It has the lowest K rate among relief corps. It’s 22nd in home run rate. It’s 21st in left on base percentage. And yet, the Twins have yet to blow a game they’ve led in the ninth inning, as closer Glen Perkins is 16-for-16 in saves. They’re 24-1 when leading entering the eighth — in fact, they’ve lost just once when leading entering the fifth inning or later. So give the bullpen a lead and it’s lights out. We can measure that in something called Win Probability Added. The Twins rank third in bullpen WPA, behind only the Cardinals and Astros.
So based on all this, the Twins should have a losing record … but instead they are one of the best stories in baseball. Logic dictates that things will start to even out. They’re sure to blow a late lead or two, fail to get clutch hits, etc., and when they do those 4-3 wins will turn into 4-3 losses.
But it’s also worth noting that confidence can be a self-sustaining thing and that performing well in the clutch is not all coincidence. The ability to be at your best in important situations is a skill, too, fostered by a combination of individual focus and collective environment.
Time will tell how much of this with the Twins is sustainable. For now, fans should enjoy it — and any national exposure that comes along with it.