It took four straight losing seasons for Ron Gardenhire to be removed from the Minnesota Twins dugout. For the first time since 2001, a different person will be making pitching changes and taking the lineup card out before the game. The Twins opted to go with former player Paul Molitor for the job and he’ll have some big shoes to fill. Even though things didn’t go as planned for Gardenhire over the last four seasons, he still won over 1,000 games for the Twins and finished third or higher in AL Manager of the Year voting seven times, including a first-place win in 2010.
It was clear that a change was necessary. The Twins have not been able to put together a winning formula since they moved into Target Field in 2010. The Twins rode the wave of the new ballpark to a Central Division title and their last winning season, but they are just 265-383 in the four seasons since. In that span, they have finished at least 20 games out of first every season.
Changes were made and Molitor is tasked with navigating the ballclub through the time it takes for their top prospects to graduate to the Major Leagues. The surprising thing is that the Minnesota Twins were actually pretty good offensively last season. They just failed in every other area of the game. This is not a contending team, but they certainly have the opportunity to be a lot better than people think. GM Terry Ryan made some decent free agent signings and the Twins underachieved by five wins last season by Pythagorean Win-Loss.
Given the changes in Chicago and win totals in the 80s for Detroit, Cleveland, and Kansas City, the Twins come in with the lowest number in the American League at 68.5 wins per the opening number at Atlantis Sportsbook in Reno. Westgate Superbook posted the Twins at 71.5, which is the same number that BetOnline opened offshore.
Key additions: Ervin Santana, Tim Stauffer, Torii Hunter
Key losses: Jared Burton, Anthony Swarzak
There’s not a whole lot to write home about for the offseason for the Twins, but the signing of Ervin Santana is certainly an interesting move for a team with no postseason chances. The Twins were desperate for starting pitching and a guy that could miss bats with some regularity. Santana is a good fit in that regard, though it’s fair to be worried about his elbow health with the massive amount of sliders that he throws.
Torii Hunter makes his return to the Twins as a veteran presence with dwindling skills and faulty defense. Tim Stauffer is a nice bullpen arm that should be able to replace Jared Burton’s innings.
All in all, the biggest change in Minnesota was the one in the dugout with Paul Molitor in place of Ron Gardenhire. Gardenhire usually got the most out of his severely-flawed teams, so it will be interesting to see if Molitor can do the same.
Why bet the over?
If somebody asked you who the top offenses in the American League were by wRC+, who would you name? Of course you would name the Tigers and the Angels. You would probably think it over for a minute or two before saying the Blue Jays. Would you be surprised to know that the Twins tied the Indians for fifth with a wRC+ of 102? The Twins stood alone in fifth place in wOBA at .316. Only the Athletics had a higher walk rate than the Twins and only the Royals and Indians generated more baserunning value than the Twins.
Overall, this is a very underrated offensive club. Part of the reason that they are underrated is because they are more of a sabermetric darling. They don’t hit for a high average, they strike out a lot, they walk a lot, and they hit for a fair amount of power. Brian Dozier is a great example of this. Dozier hit 23 home runs and stole 21 bases at a very bad offensive position. His offensive contributions are second base were huge compared to the average performance. Dozier only hit .242, so he’s kind of an afterthought. But he walked 12.6 percent of the time and posted a .345 OBP. He also underachieved from a BABIP standpoint with a .269 BABIP. For a guy with 20 stolen bases, his BABIP should definitely fall into the standard range of .290-.310. There’s a realistic chance that Dozier improves again next season.
Trevor Plouffe is not a household name, and he shouldn’t be, but he wound up posting a pretty good 2015 campaign. He banged out 40 doubles and 14 home runs, walked at an above average rate, struck out at a better than average clip, and rated slightly above average on defense. Plouffe improved across the board in just about every important category and at 28 with three full seasons worth of at bats, he’s hitting his prime. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more underrated third baseman.
Oswaldo Arcia is one of those players that people overlook on the Twins roster. He hit 2 home runs in just 410 plate appearances last season, but he also struck out 31 percent of the time and he walked at a league average rate. He’s not the type of player that draws a lot of attention because he’s a low-average, high-strikeout hitter that has devastating power when he gets fortunate enough to run into a ball. Given some of the walk rates ahead of Arcia from people like Dozier, Plouffe, and Joe Mauer, mistakes thrown to Arcia can wind up in multiple runs.
What is Joe Mauer? His season was a tale of two different years as he showed some signs of wear and tear from the concussion he suffered in 2013 and then he strained an oblique and missed a month. When he came back, he batted .287/.397/.408 over the final two months and posted a 32/26 K/BB ratio. At first base, the thought is that Mauer can regain some lost power from not being in the crouch all the time, but that remains to be seen. In any event, he’s a high-contact, high-OBP guy surrounded by some unheralded players with a bit of power.
Slap-hitting speedster Danny Santana is a regression candidate, but even with that in mind, there’s still value in him as a player. Santana posted a .319/.353/.472 slash line with a .362 wOBA that he won’t repeat. That was over a 430 PA sample size and he posted a .405 BABIP, which is one of the highest over the last 25 seasons. The high slugging percentage won’t be there, but if the at bats are, Santana’s probably a .280 player capable of 25-30 stolen bases and, more importantly, he’s a first-to-home guy on extra base hits.
Kennys Vargas has some upside a power hitting bat who hits the ball really hard. He could be one of those BABIP overachievers because of the sheer velocity on balls he puts in play. He doesn’t have a lot of speed and plate discipline is not his forte, but there’s some thunder in his switch-hitting approach and the Twins have a few guys that can punish mistakes.
It’s safe to say that the biggest surprise in baseball last season was Phil Hughes. Like Corey Kluber, Hughes had the unfortunate job of pitching with one of the league’s worst defenses behind him. As a result, Hughes posted a 3.52 ERA with a 2.65 FIP. Hughes issued 16 walks in 209.2 innings of work and managed to strike out 186. That’s an incredible amount of control. Getting away from Yankee Stadium didn’t hurt as Hughes cut his home run rate by more than 50 percent. Regression is certainly possible, but not that much, and he is a good bet at the top of this rotation.
The biggest problem for the Twins last season was that they didn’t miss enough bats. That problem was exacerbated by a horrible defense. That’s why the signing of Ervin Santana was so big for this rotation. Santana should be around league average in strikeouts, which would be a huge upgrade for the Twins rotation. More importantly, he will give them over 30 starts and probably 200 innings. Middle relief is an area of weakness and the best way to hide that is to accumulate starters that can work deep into games. Santana is that guy.
Kyle Gibson has some middle of the rotation upside, despite his low strikeout rates. He makes up for it with a high ground ball rate and there should be some positive regression in his number if the Twins improve defensively. Gibson posted a 3.80 FIP and a 3.99 xFIP, but his ERA was 4.47 thanks to some cluster luck and the Twins bad defense. For those that aren’t familiar, cluster luck is a concept suggested by Joe Peta in the book Trading Bases. Basically, the theory is that hitters and pitchers experience cluster luck, where they perform at a much higher rate with people on base compared to without or vice versa. Gibson only stranded 66.3 percent of baserunners. With men on base, Gibson pitched to a .267/.344/.412 slash line. With the bases empty, Gibson was much better at .247/.294/.333. There could be a mechanical flaw from the stretch or it could simply have been bad luck. We’ll see this season, but there’s some hope for him to perform better in that area.
Ricky Nolasco was the biggest victim of the Twins defense and so there’s hope that he can bounce back. He posted a terrible 5.38 ERA, 4.30 FIP, and 3.97 xFIP. Nolasco’s BABIP against was .351, which should definitely come back to earth this season. Nolasco was limited to 27 starts, so it could have been even worse for him, but a discrepancy that big between ERA and FIP should regress almost naturally, though Nolasco has always been a guy that has posted a much higher ERA than FIP. It may just be a trend, but his ERA should fall by a decent bit this season.
The closer’s role is in good hands with Glen Perkins, who posted a great K/BB ratio and good advanced stats. His 3.65 ERA was a byproduct of the bad defense behind him, but his 3.10 FIP was solid and his control stats were very impressive. Casey Fien made 73 above average relief appearances and Caleb Thielbar was an adequate option. Tim Stauffer is a nice addition to the bullpen after posting a 3.50 ERA and a 3.02 FIP over 44 appearances with the Padres. Stauffer couldn’t stay healthy as a starter, but has put together a good strikeout rate as a reliever.
Why bet the under?
If you believe in the numbers that oddsmakers came up with, the other four teams in the AL Central are supposed to win 80 or more games. That means that somebody has to lose. That somebody would default to the Twins, who are clearly the weakest team from a pitching and likely defense standpoint. The Indians will improve defensively with Jose Ramirez and less David Murphy, so that likely leaves the Twins all alone, especially with the addition of Torii Hunter, who is no longer a good defender. It’s clear by the ERA-FIP discrepancy, which was the biggest in the league last season at 0.60 runs, defense matters a great deal.
The Twins are also hampered by having starters that are on the fringes of league average. Hughes is great, though some mild regression is to be expected. Frankly, who saw Hughes’s breakout coming? In that respect alone, you have to be a little bit skeptical, even if the statistical profile seems sustainable. Past Hughes, there’s Santana, who should experience some regression with the league change, Gibson, who will never pitch up to his advanced metrics with the Twins defense, Nolasco, who is just not a very good pitcher, and whoever the fifth starter may be.
The bullpen is not strong outside of Perkins and Fien and average pitchers will continue to look worse because of the bad defense. I know I’m really driving home the defense point, but defense is often unaccounted for in these projections and that’s where the value lies on some of these teams. Similarly, atrocious defense, which cost the Twins seven wins last season doesn’t really factor into how low a team’s floor might be. The Twins could very well reach that floor with some offensive regression and a continuation of bad defense.
The Twins had the fifth-most value as an offense against fastballs last season. Astute teams are going to see that and start to prey on the team’s weaknesses. The Twins were 13th against sliders, and 29th against cutters. Pitches that tail away from hitters are kryptonite for guys that swing and miss a lot. Teams will adjust and the Twins hitters will have to adjust as well. Many of the guys that had unforeseen success last year were either young players or players that had never put up the numbers that they did. That means that they will see different sequences of pitches this season. Guys with a lot of holes in their swings cannot adjust to those changes as quickly as the pitchers can adjust to the scouting reports. That puts a lot of pressure on the Twins to repeat last season’s offensive performance.
The Twins were 60-20 when they allowed four runs or less, which is pretty good. However, the number to focus on is that the Twins gave up at least five runs in more than half of their games. With an AL Central that should be better offensively, specifically with the White Sox adding some offensive pieces, why would the Twins pitching staff do any better? Amazingly, the Twins outscored three of their four AL Central foes in head-to-head matchups and had a winning record against the Tigers. They still fell short (or pushed) last season’s win total. That’s probably about the best that they can do against the division and it still wasn’t good enough.
It’s hard to bet on a team that’s going nowhere. The Twins often overachieved under Ron Gardenhire because he got the most out of his players. That may not be the case with Paul Molitor, a first-time manager whose sole job is to bide his time until top prospects like Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Alex Meyer.
Pick: Over 71.5
I have to do this because I think the value side is the over. The pitching staff has major problems once again and the team may even be worse defensively this season. They’re a lock for being a bottom five defensive team and have a very good chance of being the worst since the Indians project to be a bit better defensively. Defense tends to be the overlooked element in these win totals, which was evident with teams like Baltimore and Kansas City going over in the American League last season. The Twins are this low for a reason and that reason is because their starting rotation is bad.
However, the offense is good enough to push them to 70 wins and the addition of Ervin Santana may be enough to get them over the hump. Alex Meyer should be in the rotation at the start of the season or close to it and Miguel Sano will show up at some point during the season. Things had gotten stale with Gardenhire at the helm and I don’t think he was a particularly patient manager when it came to losing. That’s why he had so much success pushing this team to overachieve when they were winning Central Division titles every season.
For bettors, the best-case scenario probably would be a bad season from the Twins because it will create value when their top prospects graduate to the next level later this season or at the start of next season. However, I think they’re going to be a little bit better than expected. They won’t play with the big boys in this division, but they’ve got a shot to avoid 90 losses.
-END OF 2015 PREDICTION-
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.