Midway through the 2015 season the Minnesota Twins remain a surprising contender. For anyone that has watched this team for the previous four seasons, it is difficult to wrap your head around how this has happened. While some may point to Paul Molitor’s leadership or Torii Hunter’s veteran presence as positive influences over what is largely the same roster, it is hard to say how much impact they have actually had. Here are five measurable differences between this season and last season which has resulted in a winning record so far in 2015.

The Twins Have Been A Really Good 2-Strike Hitting Team

With two strikes, the outcome significantly favors the pitcher as hitters have posted a collective .177 batting average and strikeout a whopping 40% of the time when the count hits 2-strikes in 2015. The Twins, however, have refused to go quietly without a fight.

They have hit 32 home runs with two-strikes (5th most in MLB) and own a .295 slugging percentage (3rd highest). Brian Dozier and Torii Hunter each have five two-strike home runs while Trevor Plouffe added 14 two-strike doubles (most in MLB). In fact, Plouffe’s 18 total extra base hits in 2-strike counts is tied the Washington Nationals’ baseball destroyer Bryce Harper while only Cincinnati’s Todd Frazier (20) and Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt (19) have had more.

Succeeding In RISP Situations

The Twins batted .250 with runners in scoring position in 2014 but are now hitting a robust .283 this season. Hence, the additional scoring. While there are obvious contributors like Joe Mauer, many might not notice the value that Kurt Suzuki has provided in those situations as well. The much maligned Twins catcher has hit just .235/.291/.313 overall but in 79 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, Suzuki has hit .288/.346/.394 (that said, his -1.54 wins probability added is the worst on the roster). In addition to the improved batting average, Minnesota also leads baseball with 11 triples with RISP. Mauer, Eduardo Escobar and Danny Santana have two each while Shane Robinson, Brian Dozier, Trevor Plouffe, Chris Herrmann and Aaron Hicks each have one.

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Shifting More Frequently

Up to the All-Star Break last year, the Twins had shifted in a total of 806 at-bats, which was 23rd out of 30 teams. This year they have shifted in 1,089 at-bats which is 11th out of the 30 teams. As you may have noticed, the Twins have used the shift more liberally in 2015, often moving players in the middle of specific counts to gain an advantage. Has the increased use of the shift worked? Opponents are hitting .200 versus the Twins in shift formation -- 26th out of 30 teams -- but that is well-below the overall .269 average the Twins pitchers have allowed.

Turning More Fly Balls And Line Drives Into Outs

As a unit, the Twins’ outfield has been surprisingly improved in 2015. It was anticipated that Torii Hunter’s addition to the outfield in a group with Oswaldo Arcia would create heartache for the pitching staff who watch as would-be outs fell untouched to the Earth. Arcia hasn’t seen much time in the outfield (or on the Major League roster for that matter), replaced instead by the superior defender in Eddie Rosario. Rosario has been a significant upgrade in left field. Meanwhile, Aaron Hicks’ third tour of center field has gone swimmingly in the field as well while Hunter has not been the liability that some Twins Daily blogger made him out to be. The results have been more outs and a happier pitching staff.

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Scoring Early

The Twins offense has been brilliant shortly after batting practice but as the game wears on, the lineup has grown stagnant. In the first three innings, the Twins have scored 153 runs -- second only to the potent Toronto Blue Jays lineup (168). So that’s not significantly better than the output from the first-half of the season last year (145) but it is improved nonetheless. The quick leads have allowed the starting pitchers to take the mound comfortably and have given the bullpen plenty of opportunities to preserve the game in the later innings (this is where area ball-thrower Glen Perkins has come in handy). The downside is that the bats grow cold in the later innings and the runs have come few and far between. In innings seven through nine, the Twins have scored just 90 runs -- the third fewest among all teams. Last year, the Twins were one of the better late-inning run producing teams with 133 runs scored (4th).