Minnesota: Land of 10,000 Pretty Solid Starting Pitchers

Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s take a look at the AL Central. (Audience turns away like a child in a high chair trying to avoid being fed creamed peas.) No, I’m serious. I don’t think the division is going to be good — quite the opposite, in fact. Teams like the Diamondbacks or Orioles, likely cursed to be no-hopers this year by the vicissitudes of geography, would be quite competitive in the AL Central.

But within that mediocrity comes unpredictability. We project the entire division to be covered by a spread of just 12 wins, the lowest total for any division. The top three teams are separated by just three projected wins, and each has its own particular idiosyncrasies that turn the division race into a truly intriguing game of rock, paper, scissors. This year’s AL Central race is like the 2006 action thriller Smokin’ Aces: Is it good? Not as such. But is it fun, with a loaded cast? Absolutely.

Projected AL Central Standings
Team Wins Losses Pct. Rdif RS/G RA/G
Guardians 83 79 .515 23 4.32 4.18
Twins 83 79 .510 15 4.34 4.25
White Sox 80 82 .494 -10 4.31 4.37
Royals 73 89 .453 -73 4.24 4.69
Tigers 71 91 .441 -88 3.97 4.51

Each team has its own distinct flavor. The Guardians have a clever front office and some prodigious individual talents, but an ownership group that either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that while playing as the poor guy gets you triple points in Oregon Trail, that’s not the case in baseball. The White Sox built a team fit for juggernaut status two years ago, and have watched the whole enterprise go to pot since. The Tigers are… participating, as are the Royals, if you’re feeling generous.

It’s the Twins who interest me most. Getting to the playoffs isn’t a huge problem; Minnesota has won the AL Central eight times in the 21st century. But the Twins are on an 18-game postseason losing streak; they haven’t won a playoff game since 2004 and haven’t won a series since 2002.

With a losing streak that long, the fathers of defeat are plentiful. If you’re looking for a specific game they threw away, consider Game 1 of the 2020 Wild Card series against Houston, when a ninth-inning error lead to three unearned runs and cost the Twins the game. The offense has also been woeful; not only have the Twins not won a playoff game since 2004, they haven’t scored more than four runs in a playoff game since 2004.

Bringing Carlos Correa back should help on both fronts. But the biggest reason for optimism in Minnesota is the starting rotation. The Twins haven’t really had a surefire no. 1 starter since Johan Santana, who to be fair has only one more postseason win for Minnesota than Randy Dobnak does. Nevertheless, it’s hard to make the playoffs without good — and deep — starting pitching.

In 2022, the top two teams in starting pitcher WAR were the Astros and Phillies, the two pennant winners. Minnesota was 21st. The only playoff teams to finish in the bottom half of the league in starting pitcher WAR were the Mariners and the Cardinals. Both of those teams made big deadline acquisitions to shore up their rotations (Luis Castillo for Seattle, Jordan Montgomery and José Quintana for St. Louis) and were substantially better than Minnesota anyway.

Dating back to the mid-2010s, there have been two kinds of Minnesota Twins rotations: A substantially above-average one and a mediocre-to-bad one. Here’s how the Twins’ rotation performance intersects with their overall team performance:

How Good the Twins’ Rotation Was, 2016-22
Year WAR K-BB% ERA- Record Playoffs?
2022 21st 17th 20th 78-84 No
2021 26th 20th 25th 73-89 No
2020 6th 12th 5th 36-24 Yes
2019 7th 13th 8th 101-61 Yes
2018 18th 20th 20th 78-84 No
2017 24th 22nd 17th 85-77 Yes
2016 23rd 27th 30th 59-103 No

In the upset of the century, yes, the Twins tend to make the playoffs when their rotation is good, and tend to miss the playoffs when their rotation is bad. It’s that level of trenchant and groundbreaking insight that keeps readers flocking back to FanGraphs dot Com.

So how much better is Minnesota’s rotation set to be this season? Well, last year, seven pitchers made at least 10 starts for the Twins, and already you can see the makings of a pretty solid rotation based on who’s coming back and who isn’t:

Minnesota Twins’ 2022 Rotation
Name GS IP ERA FIP WAR Returning?
Dylan Bundy 29 140 4.89 4.66 0.7 No
Joe Ryan 27 147 3.55 3.99 2.1 Yes
Chris Archer 25 102 2/3 4.56 4.49 0.5 No
Sonny Gray 24 119 2/3 3.08 3.40 2.4 Yes
Devin Smeltzer 12 62 2/3 4.02 5.49 -0.2 No
Bailey Ober 11 56 3.21 2.92 1.4 Yes
Josh Winder 11 53 4.42 4.49 0.4 Yes

Out of all 782 2/3 innings thrown by Twins starters last season, only 60% were thrown by pitchers who are still within the Twins’ organization. Among the pitchers likely to be among Minnesota’s top six starting pitchers in 2023, that number drops to 43.3%. If you want to go by number of starts rather than innings, 58% of Minnesota’s 2022 games started are still with the team; 40.7% are likely to be among the team’s top six starters this year.

That obviously leaves, well, about half a season’s worth of starter workload to replace. And the pitchers who are in line to take over that workload are a marked improvement over who’s going out.

Kenta Maeda was the Cy Young runner-up in 2020, blew out his elbow in August 2021, and missed all of 2022. He made his first start in a Twins uniform earlier this week after an 18-month layoff. Maeda then had a second start on Thursday in which Tony Wolters’ PitchCom earpiece was apparently cranked up so loud Rays hitters could hear what was coming, and he still kept the Rays off the board for two innings. That seems like a good sign.

Maeda probably won’t be the second-best pitcher in the American League again. It’s worth remembering that his Cy Young campaign came in 2020; Maeda has thrown 160 innings in a major league season only once, in 2016. But even 20-odd starts of above-average pitching would make a huge difference.

Also returning from injury: Tyler Mahle, who came over from Cincinnati at the 2022 trade deadline and threw just 16 1/3 unremarkable innings before shoulder inflammation shut him down for the year. Mahle, who posted a quiet 180-inning, 3.8 WAR campaign in 2021, reworked his slider at Driveline this offseason and has returned to camp healthy.

But the biggest improvement should come from Pablo López, who turns 27 next week. López was underrated throughout his five-season tenure in Miami thanks to the Marlins being mostly bad and a combination of Sandy Alcantara and (briefly) Sixto Sánchez hogging what little spotlight filtered that far south. Expectations for López will be high, since the Twins had to trade away Luis Arraez to get him. But while Arraez’s contact skills make him a compelling hitter to watch, his lack of power or defensive value limits how much he can contribute. And ultimately, a starter of López’s quality is usually harder to find than a player who needs to win the batting title to be an above-average first baseman. Particularly for Minnesota, a team that does not want for internal solutions at first base.

What does all that mean in the aggregate? Well, look at what ZiPS projects for the Twins’ starting rotation, plus the first couple layers of depth at the Triple-A level:

Minnesota Twins’ 2023 Rotation (ZiPS)
Name Team ERA FIP K% BB% K-BB% AVG
Joe Ryan MIN 3.91 3.74 24.4% 7.1% 17.3% .223
Pablo López MIN 3.92 3.93 24.4% 6.6% 17.8% .236
Tyler Mahle MIN 3.78 3.65 24.6% 7.9% 16.7% .229
Sonny Gray MIN 3.80 3.83 23.6% 8.5% 15.1% .226
Kenta Maeda MIN 4.24 4.04 23.1% 8.3% 14.9% .239
Bailey Ober MIN 4.00 3.83 24.2% 5.1% 19.1% .248
Simeon Woods Richardson MIN 4.26 4.25 23.1% 10.5% 12.6% .239
Louie Varland MIN 4.19 4.02 21.6% 8.0% 13.6% .247

I don’t think there’s a Santana- or Frank Viola-type ace in there, but the Twins have at least five, maybe six pitchers who ought to put up average- to above-average rate stats in relatively high volume. Most of those pitchers have significant upside beyond that based on youth or the evolution of their repertoire. On paper, this isn’t an elite rotation, but it’s an above-average one with room to spare. And when the Twins have an above-average rotation, well, they tend to make the playoffs.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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Brandon Warnemember
23 days ago

have heard the same