The Minnesota Twins managed to avoid last place in 2013, even though they lost the same number of games that they did in 2012. Consecutive 96-loss seasons don’t leave much room for optimism and the Twins are now mired in a three-year slump during which they have accumulated 291 losses. This comes after a string of six division titles in nine years during the 2000s.
Even though the Twins won the AL Central title in the inaugural season at Target Field, the new ballpark took away the Twins’ advantage. Teams all over Major League Baseball are tailored to their home ballpark. The Twins have had some decent power guys in recent memory like Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel, but the lineup relied on scoring runs with little things. The team was full of contact, slap hitters that could steal bases and use the Metrodome’s FieldTurf to their advantage. The “baggie” on the right field wall and the wide gaps made the Metrodome one of the best triples parks in baseball. The Twins and their collection of speed and contact were able to play to the park.
Target Field is a different animal. A very high, limestone-covered wall in right field suppresses power for lefties and turns doubles into singles because of the violent ricochet off the wall. The cooler conditions through April, May, and September prevent a lot of carry to the baseball. The park plays better for the opposition because the Twins haven’t been able to turn their roster over quick enough. Over the last three years, the Twins have scored 959 runs in 243 games at home, less than four per game. Road teams have scored 1,223 runs in 243 games at Target Field, good for over five runs per game. Over that span, the Twins are 51 games under .500 at home.
Park factor isn’t the only reason the Twins have been bad, as they are nearly 100 games below .500 over the last three years, which means that they have struggled on the road as well. Pitching has clearly been an issue. Over the last three seasons, the pitching staff has posted ERAs of 4.55, 4.77, and 4.60, with FIPs of 4.23, 4.66, and 4.30. American League averages in that span are 3.99/3.97, 4.09/4.14, and 4.08/4.05.
The formula for losing isn’t always this cut and dry, but the Twins don’t score enough runs and give up too many. There aren’t many anomalies in this three-year trend that would point to bad luck. The Twins have lost 89 games by five or more runs over the last three seasons, so, simply put, this has just been a bad baseball team.
Projections aren’t real optimistic for this season either. 5Dimes.eu, Bovada.lv, and BetOnline.ag all have the Twins win total at 70.5 with varying vig. 5Dimes has the over at -120, while Bovada has the under at -125. BOL is -115 on both sides. BetDSI.eu has the total posted at 70, with the standard -110 on both sides.
Key additions: Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes, Kurt Suzuki, Matt Guerrier, Jason Kubel, Jason Bartlett
Key losses: Ryan Doumit
The oddsmakers expect the Twins to improve by a few games because of the additions to their starting rotation. Not listed in the key losses are P.J. Walters, Andrew Albers, Liam Hendriks, and Cole de Vries, all guys who started for the Twins last season. The reason they’re not listened is because they’re all extremely replaceable. One look at the overall numbers for the Twins rotation in 2013 will tell you that.
Ricky Nolasco seems to be one of the better value signings of the free agency period. Nolasco signed long before most of the free agent starters and got a four-year, $49M pact from the Twins. It’s the same money that Matt Garza and Ubaldo Jimenez got, minus one million dollars. Nolasco was 13-11 with a 3.70 in the National League last season.
Phil Hughes, once a very highly thought of prospect, gets a fresh start with a new team leaving the high-pressure environment of the Bronx for the much more relaxed Twins organization. Injuries and gopher balls have really stunted Hughes’s development. He’s gone over 150 innings in a season just twice since joining pro ball in 2006 and has allowed 112 home runs in 182 appearances.
The signing of Kurt Suzuki will allow the Twins to move Joe Mauer to first base on a full-time basis. Suzuki is not an offensive threat in any way, but the Twins have clearly placed an emphasis on pitching and a good defensive catcher is an extension of that.
Jason Kubel, Jason Bartlett, and Matt Guerrier all come home as those three guys made their Major League debuts with the Twins last decade. Ryan Doumit was traded to Atlanta to open up more playing time in the outfield for Oswaldo Arcia, Alex Pressley, and Josmil Pinto behind the plate.
Why bet the over?
The Twins rotation was historically awful and the upgrades in Nolasco and Hughes will pay dividends in making them better. The Twins rotation struck out just 4.93 batters per nine innings last season. Only Hughes is projected to be above average in strikeouts, but Nolasco strikes out enough hitters to get by and will certainly record more strikeouts than the others did last season. Twins starters gave up the fifth-most home runs per nine innings, which, combined with a large number of baserunners due to balls in play, was their biggest downfall.
About the only thing that saved the Twins from being even worse last season was that their starters walked just 7.1 percent of batters that they faced. That was just outside the top 10 for lowest walk rate. Nolasco fits nicely into that category with a career walk rate well above average at 5.5 percent. While Hughes struggles with command, his control helps him throw strikes. A similar walk rate from the rotation with an increased strikeout rate is going to be a big help.
Samuel Deduno gets no press because he’s not a strikeout pitcher, but think of him like the zone defense of pitching. It’s not a flashy profile at all, but Deduno gets by with a 59 percent ground ball rate and a way of inducing weak contact. He keeps the ball in the park and frustrates hitters with his heavy reliance on a curveball. Among pitchers with at least 100 innings last season, Deduno threw the sixth-highest percentage of curveballs. He’s a guy to keep an eye on, especially against aggressive teams that will allow Deduno’s stuff to play up.
Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey return from last season’s rotation and will slot into the middle or back-end of the rotation. For Pelfrey, there’s a sabermetric case to be made for improvement with a 5.19 ERA and a 3.99 FIP. Pelfrey had a .339 BABIP against last season, indicating that he may have gotten a little bit unlucky. It’s surprising that he doesn’t miss more bats with a fastball that can sit 94-95 on a good day and a downward plane at 6’7”, but he just doesn’t strike hitters out. He was coming off of Tommy John surgery in 2012, so he’ll enter 2014 with a clean bill of health. Correia remains a Major Leaguer because of his durability and craftiness.
Beyond these five, Kyle Gibson has had success at the minor league level that could show up in the Majors at some point. He got beat around due to bad command in 10 starts last season, but it was a learning experience for the kid. Vance Worley has shown the ability to get Major League hitters out before and could provide a nice depth starter.
The bullpen is a strength of this team. Glen Perkins went from matchup lefty in 2011 to very solid closer in 2013. He was terrific in every category, striking out over 32 percent of batters with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.88. Only Mike Pelfrey managed a better fWAR than Perkins among the pitchers. Jared Burton built off of his 2012 success and had another fine season with a 3.88 ERA in 71 appearances. Former starter Brian Duensing fared pretty well in his 61 innings with a 3.98 ERA.
As a whole, the Twins bullpen with other contributors like Anthony Swarzak, matchup lefty Casey Fien, and Caleb Thielbar had a solid season with a 3.50 ERA and a 3.62 FIP. If this team gets some leads, there’s talent here to protect them.
Joe Mauer continues to be one of the best hitters in baseball. In 113 games last season, Mauer accumulated 5.2 fWAR. His final stat line pretty much mirrored his career averages, so expect another five WAR season from Mauer to lead the Twins. Brian Dozier was a big surprise last season. From the end of May through the rest of the season, Dozier slugged almost .460 and hit 17 of his 18 home runs. For a guy with a little bit of speed, his BABIP of .278 should go up with a little more contact and fewer home runs on balls he makes contact with. There’s reason to believe that Dozier, who was also one of the team’s better defenders, can repeat his 2.8 fWAR season, if not exceed it with a better start to the season.
Josmil Pinto’s slow climb to the Majors culminated in a 21-game stint last season that saw the soon-to-be 25-year-old put up a .342/.398/.566 slash line in 83 plate appearances. It’s a small sample size, so tread carefully, but Pinto has hit at every level in the minors and should be an above average offensive contributor at his position. If his defense comes around, Pinto could be around a 2.5 fWAR player, which would definitely add value to the Twins.
One of the bigger strengths of the Twins lineup is how they work pitchers. Twins hitters struck out 23 percent of the time last season, the second-highest percentage in the league, but also were in the top 10 in walk rate. The Twins had the highest percentage of takes on pitches in the strike zone at 40.9 percent and fifth-best chase rate at 28.1 percent. That has value in the sense that it builds a starter’s pitch count and can wear out a bullpen late in a series.
Why bet the under?
Something that doesn’t seem to get a whole lot of consideration in these win totals is team defense. Sure, Nolasco and Hughes are upgrades to the rotation. However, the Twins were -10 defensive runs saved last season, had the fifth-fewest plays completed that were outside of a player’s designated range that led to the fifth-lowest Ultimate Zone Rating. In terms of Range Runs Above Average, the Twins were the worst team in the American League.
While those concepts may be foreign to you, apply them in a practical fashion. Even with Nolasco and Hughes, the Twins rotation will be well below average at striking hitters out. Balls put in play with a defense that lacks range are going to fall for hits more frequently than they would with another team.
Between the defense, a league change, and a better park for hitters, you have to expect Nolasco’s numbers to go up. The American League has an extra hitter with the DH and much more lineup strength overall. Nolasco has never been in the American League. He’s also pitched in Miami and Los Angeles, two parks that suppress home runs and extra base hits. Target Field has spacious alleys and may not give up a lot of home runs, but better hitters are simply going to hit more home runs. Nolasco’s not going to be the pitching staff savior that some people think he will.
Hughes hasn’t been able to put it all together. While Target Field will help his home run numbers a lot more than Yankee Stadium, he’s still a below average starter for where he’s slotted in the rotation. The depth behind him is marginal at best and if he’s not that good, this rotation has the potential to be pretty close to last season’s production.
Normally, the first place that you would look for improvement with a rotation that bad is at a pitching staff’s BABIP against. The .324 mark for the Twins was .013 points higher than any other team. The expectation would be that it would regress into the standard .290-.310 range, but not with a defense like this. The entire Twins outfield is below average. The infield defense is pretty decent, but Deduno is the only guy with a sharp ground ball split and Nolasco is slightly above average.
Help could have come from below as the Twins have one of the game’s best minor league systems, but third baseman Miguel Sano had to undergo Tommy John surgery, leaving the team’s biggest hole unattended to for 2014. Alex Meyer may come up to help the starting rotation, but scouts project him to eventually wind up in the bullpen. Eddie Rosario may be a late season call-up, but his impact will be small for this season. One of the game’s top prospects, Byron Buxton, has not played above A-Ball yet. The Twins will let these guys develop at their own pace, even if it means another awful season in the standings
Pick: Under 70.5 (5Dimes)
This will be a low average offense with a decent on-base percentage and a below average slugging percentage. Ron Gardenhire pushed this team to three more wins than their Pythagorean Win-Loss would suggest, partially because of how many times they were blown out skewing the run differential numbers. The Twins were 33-71 against teams .500 or better and the American League looks stronger as a whole this season. They were just 29-47 in the AL Central and that looks pretty likely again this season.
A five-win improvement shouldn’t be that hard with Nolasco, Hughes, and a full season of Mauer at first base, but somebody has to lose games in the American League and the Twins are one of the team’s operating at a major talent deficiency. This rotation will again be one of the worst in baseball. With a shift to pitching dominating hitting with the crackdown on PEDs, you can’t win if you can’t pitch. The Twins can’t pitch.
Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.