In Celebration of the Brewers and Twins

Last Monday, I wrote this:

If you went to bed on the eve of the season and woke up today, you’d think everything was in order in the American League Central.

At that time, the Cleveland Baseball Club had compiled a 2.5-game lead on the Minnesota Twins. Cleveland had won six in a row and seven of their last 10, while Minnesota had lost four straight, and lost seven of their past 10. The preseason narrative looked to be crystallizing. Unfortunately, Minnesota wasn’t much interested in that narrative. The Twins proceeded to run off five wins in six ballgames, including three on the road in Cleveland, to take back control of the division.

Down south, the Brewers salvaged their week with a 7-0 win in their series finale with the Atlanta Baseball Club. Zach Davies pitched a very odd game, in which he tossed seven shutout innings, allowing just five baserunners (four hits and a walk) and didn’t strike anyone out. It was just the fifth time such a game had been pitched in the 2000s, the sixth time in the Wild Card Era, and the 129th time in baseball history.

The Brewers have been pretty disruptive to the main narrative, as well. When the Chicago Cubs won the 2016 World Series, Dave wrote a piece entitled “This Is How Dynasties Begin.” I nodded along, as it seemed, on that night, that the Cubs would be a force with which to reckon for some time to come. Today, I still believe that, but there have been cracks in the facade, certainly. Since May 17, the Brewers have been in sole possession of first place for every day save four — they spent two days 0.5 games back and two days tied for first place. They’ve had a tenuous grasp on the lead, as they haven’t pulled more than 2.5 games ahead, but they’ve been in first place nonetheless.

Will either team end the season in first place? The odds are still stacked against them, to be sure. But whether they win the division is immaterial at the moment. We all can think of a team that was in first place as July dawned that ended up not winning their division. In fact, two of the six division leaders on July 1st of last season didn’t end up winning their division, and both had at least a four-game lead. So we know that, even as we draw near the season’s halfway point, that things can and will change.

The great thing about both teams is that they’re making this season fun. The Houston Astros and Washington Nationals, and the other eight teams “competing” in their respective divisions, are doing their absolute best to suck the drama from the season. Not in the Central divisions. So far, the Twins are 23-9 on the road. They’ve only lost two road series all season. At home, they’ve gone 16-25 and been outscored 251-187. On the road, they’ve outscored their opponents 151-125. Miguel Sano has been crushing the ball on the road; at home, not so much. Which is interesting to me, because Target Field hasn’t been tamping down right-handed batters this season. In fact, according to StatCorner, Target Field has been the second-best AL park for hitting home runs this season:

Select 2017 AL Park Factors
Park Name BB R 1B 2B 3B HR
Yankee Stadium 99 104 104 90 48 126
Target Field 94 107 101 103 106 111
Oriole Park at Camden Yards 100 98 101 90 91 110
Angel Stadium of Anaheim 98 94 99 85 66 110
Progressive Field 115 105 106 112 56 108
U.S. Cellular Field 109 97 106 95 80 106
Fenway Park 94 120 110 113 88 104
Minute Maid Park 93 84 97 93 107 103
Comerica Park 96 102 97 99 158 101
Safeco Field 104 96 97 92 79 100
Rogers Centre 102 103 94 118 109 99
Globe Life Park in Arlington 108 112 107 104 108 97
Tropicana Field 103 90 102 90 102 91
Oakland Coliseum 95 93 93 105 111 80
Kauffman Stadium 101 108 99 123 117 74
SOURCE: StatCorner

And yet, Sano is hitting much better on the road. He’s hit 11 road homers to seven at home, and entering play Sunday, he had a .355 home wOBA vs. a .448 road wOBA. Here’s a scary thought: is Sano going to get better? Probably not — those splits will likely even out eventually. But it’s interesting to think about.

The Brewers are also playing better on the road than they are at home, though the splits aren’t as pronounced. Speaking of things that don’t stick out right away, did you know Travis Shaw already has seven stolen bases? Last season, he stole five bases in six tries, but the Red Sox aren’t the running-est team out there, and over the course of 145 games, you don’t notice five stolen bases. But for a third baseman to have seven steals through 67 games? That’s notable. Only Eduardo Nunez has more steals as a third baseman this season, but Shaw is the only player to have at least five steals without being caught while playing third this season. In addition, only seven third baseman got to double digits in steals last season, and Shaw is well on his way to getting to that club this season. And that’s, like, the fifth-most interesting thing about Shaw’s season.

Miguel Sano has made this trip past third base 18 times this season. (Photo: Keith Allison)

The Brewers are actually full of interesting players. As Ben Lindbergh wrote last week at The Ringer, the Brewers are rebuilding on the fly. One of their key pieces is Domingo Santana. I have become quite the Domingo Santana fan/apologist. In his first full season playing, he’s hit that plate-discipline sweet spot of lowering his strikeout rate while raising his walk rate. His 116 wRC+ ranks 15th among NL outfielders.

I also very much want to believe in Byron Buxton. I wrote back in mid-April that Buxton needs to play if he’s ever going learn to be a serviceable hitter, and while he hasn’t fully turned it around, he’s been better. At the time of that piece, he had a -50 wRC+. Since, he’s posted a 72 wRC+. Not great, but he doesn’t need to be a great hitter to be a good player. But what I find most interesting is that his strikeout rate has dropped each month. Maybe he hasn’t figured everything out quite yet, but I’m encouraged by this.

Byron Buxton 2017 K%, by Month
Month PA K K%
April 78 29 37.2%
May 80 25 31.3%
June 79 22 27.8%

That is delightful, and hopefully he will improve. But even players who might not improve can provide delightful moments. In the opener of the Minnesota-Cleveland series on Friday, Minnesota’s odds of winning were just 35.9%. They sent Adalberto Mejia to the hill. To that point in the young hurler’s career, he had compiled a 5.65 ERA/5.93 FIP/5.45 xFIP in nine career major-league starts. He has had prospect cachet in the past, but his first nine starts painted a very bleak picture. So of course, he pitched five scoreless innings on Friday, en route to a shutout win for Minnesota. He walked more hitters than he struck out, but none of them crossed the plate.

Look, I get it. As baseball analysts and/or learned fans, we want to be right. And, if FanGraphs’ staff is any indication, everyone thought of Cleveland and Chicago as division winners and no one thought the same of Milwaukee and Minnesota. They are screwing with the narrative. Kyle Schwarber was supposed to be hitting all of the home runs, and John Lackey wasn’t supposed to be allowing all of the home runs. The best one-two starting pitcher punch in the NL Central was supposed to be Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta, not Jimmy Nelson and Chase Anderson (or Carlos Martinez and Mike Leake). But that’s what makes baseball fun. Yes, the Rockies and Diamondbacks and Yankees are great stories. But so are Milwaukee and Minnesota, even if they’re not among the very best teams in baseball. Hopefully they can keep it up all summer.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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Brandon Warnemember
5 years ago

This delights me as someone who was widely panned for writing “The Twins will win 80 games this year” — in January.