If everything is relative, the Twins of early 2016 are making progress compared to the Twins of early 2015. Last year’s squad had its doors blown off in an awful, almost comical first three games in Detroit — losing by a combined score of 22-1 on the way to a 1-6 start to the season. The problems in the first week last year were so varied that I declared it to be the worst of all the bad Twins teams; then things turned around, of course, to the tune of an 83-win season that fueled optimism heading into this season.
A soggy 0-3 start in Baltimore has dampened that enthusiasm a bit, though the final scores (3-2, 4-2, 4-2) of the games leave those of us evaluating the team doing more nitpicking than outright worrying. After all, it’s just three games. After all, they were all on the road (the Twins, playing outdoors now in a cold climate, have started six of the past seven season on the road. In the last five of those seasons, they have gone a combined 6-18 on their opening road trip, with three left to play this season).
Still, the troubling thing about these three close losses is that they have reinforced in many ways some of the biggest questions being asked about this team even before spring training began. And in losing by close margins, the little things become glaring. Here are five of them:
1) The Twins have already struck out 35 times, a whopping sum even for a team poised to whiff a lot this season. More troubling to me, though, is a continued downward trend in the number of walks the Twins take. In 2014, when the Twins ranked 7th in the major leagues in runs scored, they walked 544 times — the second-highest total in baseball at 3.36 walks per game. Last year, they dipped to the 13th-ranked offense and walked only 439 times — 20th in MLB at 2.71 per game. This year they have walked six times through three games, exactly two per game. Again: very small sample size, but if your offense is built around deep counts, big swings and not being afraid of the strikeout, getting free base runners is a big deal.
2) Overall, the bullpen ERA of 3.09 through three games is more than fine, particularly considering the ‘pen was stretched by Monday’s rain-shortened start by Ervin Santana. But if you went into the season thinking the Twins were one arm short of the right pecking order, nothing you’ve seen has dissuaded that opinion. With a better performance by Casey Fien and/or Kevin Jepsen in Game 1 and Trevor May in Game 3, the Twins could have won either of those games. What the Twins have is a collection of pretty good arms in the back end of the bullpen, but not a single pitcher who at this moment gives you supreme confidence that a clean inning is a near-certainty. While reinforcements could arrive from the minors quickly, losses in April do count just the same as losses in September.
3) The same thing could be said about the starting rotation: a collection of capable pitchers but no bona fide stopper. Santana gets a free pass because of the weird Monday rain situation. Kyle Gibson’s start wasn’t encouraging. Phil Hughes was very good through six innings Thursday before running into trouble in the seventh — progress after a disappointing 2015 season, but still short of dominance.
4) Miguel Sano in right field has already cost the team a run with his misadventure on a shallow fly ball Wednesday. And while it’s far too early to draw conclusions about what impact playing the outfield is having on Sano at the plate — something Jack Morris brought up earlier this week — he doesn’t have an extra base hit yet in three games.
5) The Twins so far this season are just 2 for 21 with runners in scoring position (with a dismal .303 OPS and 9 strikeouts in those at bats). This is a stat that’s bound to improve, of course, but it’s still noteworthy since some of their relative offensive success last season (particularly in their hot month of May) was predicated on the often fickle notion of clutch hitting. The Twins last year as a team hit .280 with a .791 OPS with runners in scoring position, compared to .227 and .660 with the bases empty. Those who were worried about a regression in those clutch stats negating any other offensive progress the Twins were set to make this season have, at least for three games, looked smart because two runs a game isn’t going to cut it in any league.
Again, a lot of these areas of concerns are small and bound to improve at least somewhat as the sample size broadens. But these areas are also, in many cases, factors that influence who wins or loses close games.
The Twins are already 0-3 in games decided by 1 or 2 runs. Last year they were 40-34 in such contests — but just 4-7 in 1 or 2 run games against the Royals, the masters of winning close games thanks to success in many of those areas mentioned above.
That’s who the Twins will face next, starting Friday night. While we can draw zero conclusions after three games, and still won’t be able to when the weekend (or even the month) is done, the trends still warrant monitoring. As the Twins get closer to a time when they will be serious about contending, the little things matter more and more.