Despite that, they only have a small lead over Cleveland.
As I sit here early on el Cinco de Mayo, the Minnesota Twins have the best record in baseball. They are sitting at 20-11, just barely in front of the Rays and Dodgers by win percentage points for best record in baseball. They have been one of the most surprising teams so far early in this season.
The Twins are currently two games up on Cleveland Indians, the team just about everyone saw as the prohibitive favorites to repeat as division champs. FanGraphs projected Cleveland to have about an 89 percent chance to win the division going into this season, while projecting the Twins to have only a 36 percent chance to make the playoffs at all. I wrote Cleveland’s 2019 team preview a couple of months ago, and while I fully acknowledged the team’s deficiencies and the improvements made by the Twins, I still found it very unlikely that they would lose the division.
The Twins deserve to be lauded for making real efforts to improve their team when a few organizations are either tanking or refusing to spend the money that they pretend not to have. That being said, I still believe that everything has to go wrong for Cleveland and everything go right for Minnesota in order to take the division (sort of like what happened with the Mets winning the division over the Nationals in 2015).
Well, that’s what has been happening so far.
Cleveland’s greatest strength in recent years has been their starting rotation. Last year their 3.63 RA9 and 3.46 DRA ranked third and fourth in the league, respectively. So far this year they have a 3.94 RA9, which is still good, but it barely cracks the top ten in baseball. They fare worse by Deserved Run Average, with a 4.49 DRA that is tied with the Yankees for fifteenth in the league.
It is no secret as to what is causing the starting rotation’s troubles. Corey Kluber, who has been one of the best pitchers in baseball for the past five years, has been terrible, as I discussed in a recent article. He has a shockingly bad 6.56 RA9, and though there was reason to be bullish that Kluber had some positive regression coming, he recently took a liner off of his right forearm and suffered a non-displaced fracture which is going to keep him out for months, not weeks.
Carlos Carrasco has also been struggling pretty badly. He was very good last year, but this year he has a 5.60 RA9 with a DRA that is not much better. His strikeout and walk rates have been excellent, but it looks like he has been a victim of the juiced ball, as he has given up home runs to 5.3 percent of batters faced (league average among starters is 3.5 percent).
Cleveland was always going to be in big trouble if anything happened to Francisco Lindor or José Ramírez, and they ended up having problems with both of them. Lindor missed the first 19 games of the season due to injury, but at least he is back now and looks more or less fine. Ramírez, on the other hand has been a far cry from his 2018 self that saw him as an MVP candidate. Even when considering all the strange things that can happen this early in the season, Ramírez’s performance so far has been jarring. He has actually been one of the worst hitters in baseball, hitting .188/.278/.282 to date, with a 49 wRC+ that is the 11th-worst among qualified hitters.
The Twins are benefiting from a lot of surprise performances, perhaps none more than that of Jorge Polanco. He is hitting .313/.385/.591, and his 156 wRC+ is tied with multiple players for the 12th-best in baseball. Oh, and he is doing all this as a shortstop. Nelson Cruz has turned out to be a great free agent signing so far, hitting even better than Polanco with a line of .298/.389/.606. It’s almost as if spending money in free agency to make your team better is a good idea!
The Twins are getting some nice surprise performances from other hitters, too, such as Jonathan Schoop (.282/.333/.505), Jason Castro (.229/.372/.543), and Mitch Garver (.333/.387/.719). It’s great to see some of their once noted prospects start the year off well, too. Max Kepler is hitting .257/.328/.514 with 7 HR, and Byron Buxton, a player that seems to be a favorite of baseball nerds everywhere, is hitting a solid .258/.310/.473. Although that is just an average level of offense, that would still make him a great baseball player if he can sustain it, thanks to his elite baserunning and center field defense.
Seeing as how there is likely a good deal of overlap between readers of this site and listeners of Effectively Wild, I would be remiss to not mention Willians Astudillo, who has hit .327/.340/.531 over his first 53 PA this season. He actually has one walk, and believe it or not, he has one strikeout. I think we were all saddened to see that. He is on the injured list right now, but is slated to return on Wednesday.
On the pitching side, my fellow boricua José Berríos seems to be getting even better. La Máquina has a 2.91 RA9, and he has made dramatic improvements over his command. His 4.4 BB% is nearly half that of his career rate, and it is tied with the rising Tyler Glasnow for sixth-best in baseball among qualified starters. Jake Odorizzi has been surprisingly good so far, as well, with a 3.03 RA9. Regression is likely coming for him, but even his 3.84 DRA is a big improvement over what he had been doing over the three previous seasons.
Despite the Twins excelling, they still are not the favorites to win the division. FanGraphs has them as having less than a 40 percent chance to win the division, because projections are inherently conservative, and it is hard to argue that this team is more talented on paper than Cleveland. On the bright side, they have done a lot to improve their chances to make the playoffs compared to when the season started. They have nearly doubled their preseason chances at about 75 percent! Now it needs to be said that playoff odds can fluctuate wildly this early in the season, but it is still worth mentioning how the Twins have impacted those odds.
So is this just a small sample size thing, or are the Twins actually doing something different here? Baseball Prospectus Editor-in-Chief Aaron Gleeman made a case for the latter. Their hitters are combining the league’s highest team ISO (.237) with some of the lowest strikeout rates in the league. Obviously that is a recipe for success. The Astros did that in 2017 on the way to their first World Series Championship.
I am sure Twins fans are loving this season so far, but despite all this good fortune for the Twins and bad fortune for Cleveland, they are only up two games at the time of this writing. Hopefully this season’s AL Central race will be a lot more exciting than last year’s snoozefest, where Cleveland won the division by 13 games.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.