Pitching coach Garvin Alston was upbeat and smiling as he strode through the Twins clubhouse before their 7-5 loss to the Blue Jays on Monday.
You might forgive Alston if he had a more sour mood, given how the Twins have struggled — mightily — of late.
But Alston had just found a statistic that gave him hope that fortunes might change. He couldn’t remember where he found it, but according to Alston, it said: “the teams we faced and batters we faced so far … there’s a ranking 1 through 30, we’re at the very top.”
The Twins and their fans are looking for any reason to hope that their recent slump of 10 losses in 11 games is more aberration than statistical reality. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of evidence to suggest the Twins are getting unlucky. They’ve just been bad.
There are a few metrics you can look at to see if a team has been getting unlucky. One is called Pythagorean win-loss record. You might recognize the term “Pythagorean” from your nightmares about high school math.
In baseball, this concept is rather simple. Noted statistician Bill James developed it, using how many runs a team scored and how many runs it allowed in a formula that produces an expected win-loss record. It can show if a team is underperforming or overperforming relative to run differential.
The Twins’ record entering Tuesday was 9-15. Their Pythagorean win-loss record was also 9-15.
What about the hitting? Maybe the Twins are getting unlucky and hitting the ball hard into a bunch of outs? Batting average of balls in play will help tell you that. BABIP tends to be constant across all teams in the .290s or low .300s. The Twins’ BABIP this season is .295, not all that far off from their .306 mark in 2017.
When it comes to pitching, there’s a difference between earned-run average and a popular metric called expected fielder-independent pitching (or xFIP). It attempts to calculate a pitcher’s ERA if you removed defense from the equation, using plate appearances in which defense isn’t a factor (walks, strikeouts, home runs) to come up with a figure. It can show if a pitcher has benefited from good or bad defense.
The Twins’ ERA as a staff is 5.29, the xFIP is 4.45. The good news is that the Twins staff might be about 0.84 runs better than it is showing. The bad news is that a 4.45 xFIP is fifth worst in MLB.
One reason for that number is the Twins’ pitchers’ struggles with fastballs. The website FanGraphs assigns a “pitch value” for every pitch thrown using a complicated formula. Twins starters have a value of -0.83 runs per 100 pitches with their fastballs, according to FanGraphs. That’s 24th in the league. When fastballs aren’t effective, it can throw off an entire at-bat. Alston recognizes this, saying the Twins need to have better command of all pitches, especially fastballs.
“That’s the No. 1 thing,” Alston said. “If you’re able to have fastball command and move the ball around, you’re able to get ahead and use your other pitches effectively, also.”
Maybe that will lead to a chain reaction for the Twins in a positive direction, because for the past two weeks they’ve been spiraling the wrong way.