With the abrupt end to the Wild’s season a few days ago, a number of fans have expressed this sentiment: Thank goodness for the Twins.
In years past, this would have represented gallows humor as the baseball team slid into the depths of 90-loss seasons. This year, though, there is genuine optimism over an 18-14 start mixed with genuine wonder: Just how is this team winning, particularly after such a dismal first week?
Unexpected performances can sometimes explain such things, but in this case no one pitcher or hitter has carried the Twins. Rather, it is a series of factors — including these three, which might have flown under the radar through the first one-fifth of the season:
• The Twins entered Monday sixth in MLB in runs scored (151) despite being only 19th in OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) at .698. In fact, they are the only team in the top 15 in runs scored with a team OPS lower than .700.
So how has the offense been so good, particularly in this stretch of play in which the Twins have gone 17-8? The short answer is good clutch hitting. The Twins are hitting .308 with runners in scoring position and an MLB-best .313 with two outs and runners in scoring position. The poster boy for this is Joe Mauer, who is hitting .375 with a .927 OPS and 16 RBI with runners on base and only .212 with a .534 OPS with the bases empty.
• The bullpen, which many thought would be a weakness entering the season, ranks 12th in baseball with a 3.33 ERA. The relief group has been particularly good lately, thanks in part to a revamped ’pen that includes three relievers who didn’t make the team out of spring training: Ryan Pressly, Michael Tonkin and Aaron Thompson. That trio has combined for a 2.60 ERA.
It should be noted, too, that Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham, pitching in low-leverage situations, has a 1.54 ERA after looking lost early on and that Glen Perkins (1.26 ERA) has been lights out.
• Defense, another presumed weakness going into the year, is decidedly middle-of-the-pack according to FanGraphs’ metrics. While describing something as “average” won’t get anyone to turn cartwheels, the Twins’ defense ranked 27th and 25th the past two seasons in the same metrics so an improvement to 15th this year is notable.
In particular the team’s outfield defense, a major weakness in recent seasons, hasn’t been nearly as bad as it has been — or as bad as many feared it would be.