The 1987 and 2017 Twins bear a certain resemblance to one another, with their new young executives (Andy MacPhail and Derek Falvey), home run power and surprisingly good play (World Series champs vs. first place on June 5).
Those 1987 Twins were actually outscored during the regular season (806 to 786) but won the division anyway. These 2017 Twins are charting a similar early course despite being outscored 265-246 so far.
In one area, though, the comparisons come to a screeching halt and instead turn into exact opposites: the 1987 Twins were amazing at home and dismal on the road. The 2017 Twins, nearly a third of the way into the season, have been magnificent on the road but subpar at home.
How do we explain what happened 30 years ago in the context of what is happening now? Well, it helps to talk to Roy Smalley — who played for the 1987 Twins and now works as an analyst on Twins broadcasts on Fox Sports North.
“Let me start in 1987,” said Smalley, who hit .275 with eight home runs for the Twins that season, his final year in the majors. “I think a couple things were going on. In sports, especially a stupid game like baseball, you can’t underestimate how closely tied the physical and psychological are both individually and as a team.”
Smalley was somewhat of an anomaly on that team in that his home and road splits were nearly identical. But when a team goes 56-25 at home compared to 29-52 on the road (including 13-36 in its final 49 road games), something is clearly going on.
“There was something about our team in that place. We still played on that old, hard turf. There were big hops, teams would lose balls in the roof. … We had guys who could hit the ball over the baggy and the ball carried really well,” he said. “On the road, we didn’t have the psychological edge and our pitching got a little exposed. We tended to outslug people at home and get outslugged at home. All those things factored into that.”
Thirty years later, the Twins play at Target Field, not the dome. But that doesn’t explain why they’re 12-18 at home this year and 17-6 on the road after taking three of four against the Angels.
Still, Smalley sees psychology playing a role in this disparity as well and thinks the Twins are pressing while playing at home. Miguel Sano, who is hitting .357 on the road and .255 at home (with .774 vs. .457 slugging splits away vs. home) is a prime example.
That said, overall hitting isn’t necessarily the problem. The Twins as a team actually have a higher OPS at home (.755 to .743) at home this season, but their clutch hitting (on display again against the Angels) has been better on the road. More telling: their team ERA is more than a full run lower on the road (5.18 at home, 3.85 on the road).
“They want to play well for the fans. They know what happened last year and that it’s been one winning year in six,” Smalley said. “They go on the road and they take a sigh of relief and play ball. There’s none of that subconscious hoping that they can show up well for the home fans.”
A greater explanation, Smalley said, could be simpler than psychology: the schedule. Arguably the four best teams the Twins have faced this season are Houston (no doubt), Colorado, Boston and Cleveland. Minnesota is 2-10 against those teams at home but has only faced Cleveland on the road (going 2-1 in that series).
“My recollection is that they’ve played way better teams at home than on the road,” Smalley said.
With the Twins nearly one-third of the way into their season, it’s likely the home/road disparity will shrink over the final four months. But if they do pull a 1987 in reverse, nobody would complain as long as they won when it mattered. They won two ALCS games on the road and then took full advantage of their home field by winning all four World Series games at home.
“We felt so good about ourselves in the Metrodome,” Smalley said. “We expected to win every game and sensed the frustration other teams felt coming in there.”