On August 1st, our Playoff Odds gave the Twins a 3.6% chance of winning one of the two AL Wild Card spots. The team had briefly flirted with contending, acquiring Jaime Garcia from the Braves, but then they flipped him to the Yankees a week later when the team began to struggle. They also traded away closer Brandon Kintzler to the Nationals, acknowledging that the team’s strong first half was probably not going to end with a postseason berth.
But despite the front office’s rational evaluation of their team’s abilities, the Twins have actually gotten better in the second half, and with their strong play the last six weeks, have now put themselves in prime position to capture a Wild Card spot.
How have the Twins turned their season around after selling at the deadline? By finally not hitting like the Twins.
The Twins of the last 20 years have been notable for a couple of primary philosophies; they amassed a bunch of average-stuff strike throwers for their rotation, and they built their offense around contact hitters. From 1997 through 2016, the team was 29th in home runs — ahead of only the Royals, who play in a park that kills HRs — and 28th in ISO, just a few ticks ahead of the Royals and the Padres, the latter of whom doesn’t get to use a DH.
This lack of power unsurprisingly meant that the Twins usually didn’t have very good offenses. Over that 20 year span, they rank 29th in wRC+. They found some good contact hitters over the years, but rarely had enough to put a good line-up together, and their success hinged entirely on getting some of those strike-throwing pitchers to perform at very high levels.
With the hiring of a new front office last year, the Twins began to move away from some of the long-held ideas about what Twins baseball looked like, and are working to build a winner by finding the best players, rather than just the best players that fit a certain mold. But it takes a while to change an entire organization, and in the first half of the year, the Twins offense looked much like what we’ve come to expect over the years. Before the All-Star break, the team ranked 23rd in homers, 22nd in ISO, and 21st in wRC+. Miguel Sano gave them the kind of thumper they usually hadn’t had before, but mostly, this was still a below-average offense.
Since the break, however, the Twins have gone bananas.
That’s right; the Twins lead the Majors in ISO in the second half of the year. They are second in home runs, only to the Orioles. They are also second in non-pitcher wRC+, behind only the Cubs. Since the break, their position players have equaled Cleveland in total WAR, and you might have noticed the Indians doing some good things on the field lately.
Byron Buxton has gotten the most attention, and rightfully so, but this power surge isn’t just about Buxton. Yes, he’s tapping his power again and looking like the superstar he was supposed to be, but nearly everyone on the roster has upped their power in the second half.
|Name||1st Half ISO||2nd Half ISO||Difference|
Gimenez is the only guy to significantly lose power since the break, but he’s the back-up catcher, and we’re talking about 80 plate appearances, so his downturn doesn’t matter much. Sano has lost a little bit of his power as well, though he hasn’t been entirely healthy, and even while struggling, he’s still running an ISO over .200.
But look at all the big power spikes up top. There’s Buxton, of course, but Polanco, Rosario, and Dozier are all slugging at elite levels the last few months too. And most of the role players are up some too. This isn’t a line-up being carried by one guy. The whole team is hitting for power the last few months.
So, of course, that brings up the obvious question; what changed? Did the new front office spend the four day break showing everyone powerpoint slides that finally convinced everyone that home runs are good? Did everyone spend their break working on their launch angles?
Probably not. Because while the results have been significantly different, the process looks mostly the same.
|Twins||Exit Velocity||Launch Angle||Distance (in feet)||xwOBA|
During this second half power surge, the Twins aren’t hitting the ball any harder, they aren’t hitting it in the air more, and they aren’t hitting the ball any farther than they were in the first half. So what’s different?
Their line drives are finding gaps.
|Twins||Line Drive%||LD BA||LD SLG||LD wOBA|
MLB has a .674 wOBA on line drives this year, so the Twins got a little unlucky with their results on liners in the first half, but they’ve gotten far more production than you’d expect on line drives in the second half. For a guy like Buxton with crazy speed, you could award part of that difference to his ability to turn singles into doubles and doubles into triples, but by and large, this isn’t a team of burners. Realistically, this probably won’t last.
The good news for the Twins is that their offense was better than it looked early in the season, and guys like Buxton, Rosario, and Polanco are young enough that some real improvement could be taking place. And at this point, they’ve banked enough wins that they’re probably going to make the Wild Card game, even if they got some of those wins on the backs of an overachieving offense. Once you’re in the postseason, anything can happen, and the Twins look interesting enough to give the Yankees a run in the play-in game.
The bad news is this probably won’t last forever, and the Twins probably aren’t the best slugging team in baseball. But after 20 years of trying to bunch singles together, I’m sure Twins fans have enjoyed watching the ball go over the fence with regularity. And given the age of some of the pieces in place, this could be the start of a pretty different kind of offense than we’ve gotten used to seeing from the Twins.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.