“If you don’t take an opponent serious, they surprise you.” – Canelo Alvarez
Coming into the 2019 season, the Cleveland Indians did not take the threat posed by the other teams in the AL Central very seriously. The Minnesota Twins made them regret it. With the most home runs in baseball history, the Twins sent Cleveland reeling and won 100 games for the first time since 1965. While the Twins benefited from baseballs being designed in a perfect, Flubber-y way for their lineup, every good success comes sprinkled with a dash of good fortune.
Surprise is nothing new for the Twins. The 2017 team, still in the middle of its rebuild, shocked the American League by winning 85 games a year after going 59-103. That 26-game surge wasn’t caused by making dollars rain in free agency, but instead was mostly the work of the players the Twins already had. They even shocked themselves, and after losing six of seven games to enter the trade deadline below .500, they were sellers rather than buyers. Gone were the team’s closer, Brandon Kintzler, and Jaime García, a player they acquired just a week prior. Then they went 20-10 in August, enough to sneak into the second Wild Card spot. But the Yankees’ David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle shut down the offense for five and two-thirds innings in the Wild Card game, forcing Minnesota to make a characteristically quick postseason exit.
Regression to the mean is a cruel thing and the 2018 Twins, without wholesale changes, fell out of the playoff race quickly. An 11-3 run to end the season got the team’s record near the .500 mark, but it only shaved the edges off a disappointing season. Miguel Sanó and Byron Buxton, two hitters the team intended to build around, were injured and ineffective, and there weren’t enough pleasant surprises elsewhere. Brian Dozier’s OPS fell under .700, and with the exception of Zach Duke, none of the low-key offseason signings (Lance Lynn, Addison Reed, Logan Morrison) proved effective. The team became sellers at the deadline, trading Duke, Lynn, Dozier, Fernando Rodney, Eduardo Escobar, and Ryan Pressly.
The Joe Mauer Era ended with his retirement in September, leaving the Twins with a hole at first base. The Rays waived C.J. Cron, coming off a .253/.323/.493, 30 HR season, and the Twins swooped in to claim him. It was surprising how far down the the waiver priority list Cron got; even though one-dimensional sluggers aren’t particularly alluring for front offices anymore, players coming off league-average seasons don’t grow on trees. Similarly, the Twins landed Nelson Cruz on a team-friendly, one-year deal with a club option, banking on the fact that Cruz had shown only minor age-related decline in his late-30s. Also added was Jonathan Schoop, yet another one-dimensional hitter, a low-OBP slugger who struggled in 2018, but hit 32 homers in 2017. Jack-of-all-trades Marwin Gonzalez was signed to replace what they lost in Escobar.
The Twins were less active on the pitching side; their biggest move was reclamation project Martín Pérez. Pérez never fulfilled his early promise in Texas, but the Twins hoped that if healthy, he could be a reliable innings-eater at the back of the rotation.
Minnesota made a lot of smaller, interesting signings in the offseason. But there seemed to be a reticence to go after the big names in free agency. Perhaps the team was gun-shy after paying Mauer a lot of money to be an ordinary first baseman post-concussion, but the 2019 team projected to enter the season with a lower payroll than the 2018 squad. That felt like a mistake; with Cleveland’s lackadaisical approach to the offseason, 2019 seemed like the time to strike.
The ZiPS projections saw the team getting back over .500, with a 83-79 record. Despite my endless complaints, the Indians remained the projected AL Central favorites. I was personally a little higher on the Twins than ZiPS — I thought Sanó and Buxton would be better than their projections — but not so much more positive that I can truthfully claim I predicted the team would do what it actually did. You eat with your ears before your eyes or your mouth, and ZiPS didn’t hear the sizzle in the pan.
One of the keys to Minnesota’s success in 2019 was how smartly they designed their roster. Putting any dreams of Manny Machado or Bryce Harper or Patrick Corbin aside, the Twins fundamentally understood the conditions under which they would triumph and organized the team to make that a possibility. To pull off another shocking season, they would need Sanó and Buxton to excel, so rather than hem and haw about those players being possibly disappointing, they played them whenever they were available. They needed Pineda and Pérez to work out, so both were trusted in the rotation from Opening Day. The bullpen needed Taylor Rogers and Trevor May to dominate, so the Twins rode them in high-leverage situations.
And no one can say that the season didn’t work out marvelously. Cron wasn’t a star and struggled mightily in the second half, but he provided decent power at first base. Pérez had a dominating run in late April and May after learning a new cutter, but the pitch became inconsistent later in the season, and he fell out of the rotation. But almost everything else turned to gold. Buxton and Sanó didn’t stay as healthy as the team would have liked, but when they were present, both were significant contributors. Nelson Cruz, rather than showing additional aging, set a career-high for slugging percentage by more than 70 points. Mitch Garver, a former top offensive college catcher who didn’t shine early in the minors, became one of the best catchers in baseball. Garver’s move to a shorter, more compact swing paid off starting in 2017, and this year, he was third among catchers in average exit velocity, behind only Chris Iannetta (!) and teammate Jason Castro. He was 12th in baseball in barrel percentage.
When it came to the offense, the Twins again recognized their win condition. Adding a slew of power hitters to go along with their pre-existing ones, their approach at the plate matched their personnel. The 2019 Twins didn’t work counts before lining the eighth pitch of an at-bat into a gap for a double. Instead, they thrived by pulling balls into the cheap seats. Overall, the Twins went from 20th to third in pull-percentage, and all of their plate discipline stats (pitches per plate appearance, zone swing percentage, etc.) indicated aggression at the plate.
|Team||Home Runs Gained|
|1976-1977 White Sox||119|
|2008-2009 Blue Jays||83|
|1976-1977 Red Sox||79|
In the end, except for a brief summer lull, the Twins retained control of the division over the Indians. Outside of acquiring Sergio Romo and Sam Dyson to strengthen a solid-but-unspectacular bullpen, they had a quiet trade deadline. Unfortunately, it turned out that by the end of the season, the need for another starting pitcher (or two) was more apparent than at the end of July. Pineda was suspended in early September, removing him from the playoff roster. Kyle Gibson made the playoff roster, but after a late-season bout with ulcerative colitis, he was sent to the bullpen. Pérez, so important to the early part of the season, stayed healthy but pitched so poorly that he wasn’t even trusted to be the last man in the bullpen against the Yankees in the ALDS.
Randy Dobnak was an admirable fill-in, but the Twins entered the postseason with a decimated rotation that matched up poorly against those of the other playoff teams. It turned out not to matter as the offense disappeared, scoring just seven runs in the three-game sweep at the hands of the Yankees.
What Comes Next?
Minnesota’s exit from the playoffs — their 16th straight playoff loss — was a humiliating end to 2019, but I expect the team is smart enough not to dwell on this too deeply. The most anyone on the current roster has lost is four consecutive playoff games. Most of the 16 losses were from 2004-2010, and the Twins don’t retain a single player from the 2010 team (only four even played in 2019). The players are different, the front office is different, and Ron Gardenhire was two managers ago. It’s trivia that’s both sad and amusing — so naturally, an internet favorite — but not something the team can draw any lesson from.
This winter, the Twins have to address their pitching staff. Gibson, Pineda, and Pérez are gone, leaving three starter spots to fill. Jake Odorizzi is back after accepting his qualifying offer, but if the Twins enter the season with all of Odorizzi, Devin Smeltzer, Dobnak, and Lewis Thorpe in the rotation, it will be a grand failure of imagination. It would be better to add a free agent starting pitcher or two and see what shakes out from this trio in the spring, especially since I’m assuming the team has no interest in revisiting Trevor May in a starting role.
The Absitively, Posilutely, Way-Too-Late ZiPS Projection – Joe Mauer
I’m going to cheat a bit here and project Mauer, who is quite obviously not playing baseball in 2020. Mauer has been one of the most requested projections over the last year, with people wondering what would have happened if he had been able to stay behind the plate. In case you are somehow unaware, due to repeated concussions, Mauer’s career as a catcher ended after the 2013 season, except for one final inning at his old position in his retirement game. Ranking eighth in JAWS (my colleague Jay Jaffe’s system), I think there’s a convincing argument that Mauer’s peak merits significant Hall of Fame consideration. If he survives the 5% cutoff, I expect to be voting for him in late 2025 when I get my ballot.
The problem, of course, is that most voters don’t vote based on WAR, and few voters currently place a high value on peak performance over career totals. As a pitcher with 90% of Sandy Koufax’s peak, Johan Santana would have also earned my vote. Only 10 of the 422 voters agreed with me.
The below projection for Mauer is as of the end of 2013, assuming that he hadn’t been forced to change positions. For these purposes, I’m setting league offense at the 2014-2019 average:
The projections didn’t really do a bad job with Mauer overall; his lower-than-actual OPS+ has more to do with ZiPS giving him a longer decline before retirement than he actually had. But staying behind the plate is enough, even with similar offensive projections, to bump his WAR into the 60s. 2,406 hits would have pushed Mauer to third all-time among catchers, behind Ivan Rodriguez and Ted Simmons, and I think would have been sufficient to get him a slew more Hall votes than he likely will otherwise. If the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics turns out to be correct, it’s nice to imagine that somewhere, there is a Joe Mauer who got to finish his career catching.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.