While many of the division races in baseball look quite similar to those in 2018, the AL Central has gone topsy-turvy. The Indians, despite a lackluster offseason, looked to be the clear favorite, with the Twins the only realistic threat to their recent dominance. That has turned out not to be the case, with Cleveland hanging around .500 as we enter the third month of the season and Minnesota holding a 9 1/2 game advantage, the largest divisional lead in baseball. I’d like to say I saw this coming, but I did not, and if I claimed otherwise, readers would no doubt out me as a filthy, filthy liar.
What was my complaint about the Twins? While they were considerably busier in the offseason than their rivals on the Cuyahoga, I was disappointed that they didn’t do more. Nelson Cruz was a solid short-term addition, and players like Marwin Gonzalez, C.J. Cron, and Jonathan Schoop all improved the depth of the team’s talent base, but I thought they should have been even more aggressive in their winter investments. Joe Mauer’s contract came off the books, and in a division with only one real 2019 rival, my belief was that it would be a mistake to start the season with a lower payroll than in 2018. Just one year before, the Twins aggressively pursued Yu Darvish and while that would clearly not have been a boon for the team that season, it represented them really pushing chips with the high-rollers when the opportunity presented itself.
But it has turned out that the need for a Bryce Harper or a Manny Machado or a Patrick Corbin wasn’t so pressing after all. Jake Odorizzi‘s continued development and Martin Perez’s unexpected velocity have a lot to do with it as well, but the Twins wouldn’t be where they are if a change in their offensive philosophy hadn’t paid off in spades.
The 2018 Twins weren’t much of a power-driven offense, with Minnesota ranking 12th in the American League in home runs despite ranking 6th in overall runs scored. This was nothing unusual for the Twins; the last time the team finished in the top five in homers in the AL was all the way back in 1988, when their core was made up of players like Kirby Puckett, Gary Gaetti, and Kent Hrbek.
Regardless of how 2019 played out, the profile of their offseason lineup additions guaranteed that Minnesota would be more reliant on home runs than any Twins team in memory. Looking at the preseason ZiPS projections, the Twins projected to have the offense that was the third-most reliant on home runs.
|Team||Projected Offense Based on HR|
Add in baseball’s increased home run rate — the actual level of home runs is 113% of what ZiPS projected coming into the season — and you have a case of a team improving in just the right way at just the right time. To get there, the Twins also changed their approach at the plate, going from one of the most passive teams to one of the most aggressive. Waiting for your pitch is an important part of offense, but realistically, you can’t have a lineup full of prime Joey Vottos. You don’t acquire players like Cron or Schoop and try to turn them into .380 OBP players — you let them mash their way into forgetting their on-base percentages. Passivity can be a dangerous trap for a major league hitter, as seen by the regression of young players like Jeremy Hermida and Ben Grieve over the years. I enjoy both pro wrestling and classical music, but I don’t want to see Brock Lesnar conducting a Bruckner symphony. Actually, that would be entertaining, but you understand what I’m getting at. I hope.
The Twins swing at more bad pitches, but they’re also swinging at a lot more good pitches. Going from 24th to 1st in zone-swing rate is a significant jump and Minnesota’s leap forward in this stat is one of historical significance.
|Rank||Season||Team||Zone Swing Change|
Nor is this only from the players added in the offseason. Of players with 50 plate appearances for the Twins in both 2018 and 2019, Max Kepler, Willians Astudillo, Byron Buxton, Jason Castro, and Jorge Polanco have all been more aggressive in the zone. Eddie Rosario has stayed roughly the same — he was already an aggressive player — and only Ehire Adrianza and Mitch Garver have become more patient.
|Name||2018 Zone Swing||2019 Zone Swing||Change|
If we take all the players from 2018 who returned to the Twins and weight based on 2019 playing time, the group has seen their zone swing rate improve by 3.2 percentage points, enough to put them in the top 20 since 2003 without any of the new additions. Whatever the motivation, the change in approach is real.
Minnesota has hit so many home runs that like Baltimore’s pitching staff, the team has a realistic shot at pummeling their way into the history books, though the Twins are likely happier at the prospect than the Orioles are. At 106 home runs in 55 games, the team is on pace for 312 home runs, well over the 267 hit by the 2018 Yankees. Now, one obviously can’t quite go on with that in a projection, but based on the greater levels of league offense and the improved outlook from many of the team’s hitters, ZiPS believes the Twins will hit homers at a 260-per-season pace, up from 227 at the start of the season. That would put Minnesota at 278 home runs for the 2019 season, enough to give them the record (ZiPS has them at 58% to hit 268).
If fortune does in fact favor the bold, the Minnesota Twins have made their own luck, boldly bashing their way into first by taking just the right approach to scoring runs at just the right time in history. With ZiPS now projecting Minnesota as the 88%-12% favorite to win the division over the Cleveland Indians, the prey have become the predators.
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.