There are some contenders for biggest local surprise this summer, up to and including the Wolves being legitimately intriguing and my inability a couple of weeks ago to finish a helmet full of nachos at a baseball game. (Seriously, anyone who has ever watched me eat, and particularly ever watched me eat nachos, knows that when I’m finished all that usually remains is shame. But this helmet — a regular-sized helmet, not one of those mini-helmets — was so large and teeming with ‘chos that I couldn’t do it. Or at least I didn’t do it. Either way, it was a surprise to everyone).
But let’s be real: the nachos aside, the biggest local surprise this summer has to be the Twins. In spite of losing their last two games in Oakland, Minnesota is 50-42. If the Twins went 20-50 the rest of the way — which they are not going to do — they would finish with the same record they had a year ago. They are on pace for 88 wins, which would mean going 38-32 the rest of the way — hardly an absurd thing to consider.
Since 1996, no MLB team has claimed a Wild Card spot with fewer than 88 wins. That is the magic benchmark, and it has become an even more magic number since the expansion to two wild card teams per league in 2012; in that time, the “second” wild card team, out of a combined six total (three in each league), has had exactly 88 wins.
But every year is different; this particular year in the American League is very different because it is filled with so much mediocrity. The Twins, with their 88-win pace, are currently the first wild card team; the Astros are essentially tied with them (fractions of a point behind with one more win and one more loss) as the second wild card. And literally every other non-division leading team — 10 of them — is somewhere between 3.5 and 8 games behind in the chase for one of those two spots.
So the simple question is this: what are the odds that the Twins make the playoffs this year?
We’ll start with the place we should probably stop: the math. According to Baseball Prospectus (via MLB.com), the Twins currently have a 38 percent chance of making the playoffs — an 8 percent chance of winning the AL Central and a 30 percent chance of being a Wild Card.
That tells us that the math is crouching in a corner hiding, not unlike pessimistic Twins fans, still waiting for the other shoe to drop on what has, so far, been an unexpectedly nice season. (The math likes Houston as a playoff team at a full 67 percent, though part of that comes from a better chance to win the division).
The math also tells us that it’s not so much a lack of belief in the Twins as it is a logjam of teams within striking distance since so many still have a puncher’s chance. Even if the Twins keep up their pace, it wouldn’t take unreasonable efforts from other teams to overtake them.
The math liked the Twins a lot more (48 percent) just two days ago, before the two losses to Oakland, so we also know this is a very volatile thing. If I had written this post on Saturday instead of today, the glass would almost be exactly half-full with math only.
But what about beyond the math? Is there such a thing? This is loosely defined as, “Does this feel like a playoff team?” The answer to that question, too, is volatile. At a lot of points this season, the Twins have felt like a playoff team — good starting pitching depth, hot stretches that have boosted the record and the requisite resiliency both within games and within dry spells to not fall apart.
Other times, you wonder if it might be next week before they score another run, and you still hold your breath when the game is close and late and anyone other than Glen Perkins is pitching. Those are the times you remember to be thankful, at least, that the Twins will almost certainly be playing meaningful games deep into the season even if there’s a voice that says “this is the current group’s version of 2001,” a season with a great start but a wilted finish that nonetheless paved the way for postseason to come.
The intangible nonsense, in my mind, tempts me to arrive at a conclusion that is slightly higher than what the math wants to say. It tells me Paul Molitor will keep stealing a game here and there by dialing up a nice combination and that the offense will find a rhythm again (at least when Miguel Sano stops stepping on baseballs).
I’ll put the odds squarely in the middle: 50 percent. Maybe that’s too simple, Chuck Klosterman math — Everything is 50-50. Either something will happen, or something will not — but in the case of the Twins I also believe it’s real.
And we have 70 games to find out if it is or if it isn’t.