Remember when the Twins were running away with the AL Central? On June 2, they were a major league-best 40-18, a season-high 11 1/2 games ahead of the Indians (29-30). Ten weeks later, after a wild final two innings of Sunday’s game to cap a series in which the Indians took three out of four, the two teams were tied atop the AL Central at 71-47, and after Cleveland’s walk-off win against the Red Sox on Monday night, the idle Twins find themselves a half-game back.
With Cleveland beating Minnesota in the first two games of their series on Thursday night (7-5) and Friday night (6-2), the two teams actually entered Saturday sharing the division lead as well, that for the first time since April 26, when the Indians were 15-10 and the Twins 14-9. With Jake Odorizzi and friends holding Cleveland to one run on Saturday, Minnesota had edged ahead again, but on Sunday, the Indians touched up José Berríos for two first-inning runs, and carried a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth. An Eddie Rosario double and two singles, all off of Indians closer Brad Hand, trimmed the lead to 3-2. With one out, Marwin Gonzalez bashed a ball off the base of the left-center wall. Luis Arraez scored easily from second base to tie the game, but Tyler Naquin made a perfect barehanded grab of the ball after it caromed, then relayed to Francisco Lindor, whose peg to Kevin Plawecki cut down pinch-runner Ehire Adrianza, the potential winning run, at the plate:
The Twins challenged the call on the grounds that Plawecki blocked the plate without the ball, but the call on the field stood; the play was kosher. Carlos Santana’s grand slam off Taylor Rogers in the top of the 10th inning provided the margin of victory in the 7-3 win. It was a Santana homer in the bottom of the ninth that lifted the Indians over the Red Sox on Monday as well.
So there they were, and now here they are:
The AL Central Race, Through June 2 and Since
Pythagorean winning percentage via Baseball-Reference.com. Won-Loss splits are through June 2 and since, while playoff odds are through games of June 2 and August 12.
The won-loss records and relative standings are splits for the period, the Playoff Odds are as of June 2 and today. As you can see, despite the Indians putting up the majors’ best record over that 10-week span (the Yankees, at 41-21, .661, are next-best), the Twins are still more or less 54-46 favorites to rebound and win the division, largely because they have a much softer schedule remaining (.459 cumulative winning percentage, versus .492 for the Indians). One big difference is that Minnesota still has 10 games remaining against the woeful Tigers (35-80,.304) and seven against the Royals (43-76, .361), while Cleveland plays those two teams just six times and three times, respectively. The Twins also have five games remaining against NL contenders (two at Milwaukee, three hosting Washington) compared to nine for the Indians (three apiece at New York and Washington, and three hosting Philadelphia). The two teams will square off in a pair of three-game series in the first half of September.
For as reassuring as that may be, the reality is that the Twins have been outplayed by their division rivals lately, and in retrospect, they probably didn’t do enough at the July 31 deadline to bolster themselves for the stretch run. Thanks in no small part to better production from José Ramírez, Jason Kipnis, and their outfield (including callup Oscar Mercado and July 31 acquisition Yasiel Puig), the two teams are basically even in terms of park-adjusted offense since that June 2 date, with the Indians having the tiniest edge in raw scoring within that timeframe (5.33 runs per game to 5.32) and both teams owning a 109 wRC+. The pair are 1.4 WAR apart in that span (11.8 for Cleveland, 10.45 for Minnesota), with the difference attributable to 15 runs of fielding in the Indians’ favor.
While any small-sample defensive split such as that should be taken with a grain of salt, the defensive difference has shown up on the pitching side of the ledger:
Team Pitching Since June 3
The two teams are 0.36 runs per nine apart in FIP, but a full run apart in ERA — and 1.42 runs per nine in terms of overall runs allowed; the Indians have yielded 12 unearned runs over the past 10 weeks, the Twins 38. The Indians have held the advantage both in the rotation, which has pitched deeper into games than that of the Twins, and the bullpen:
Team Pitching Splits Since June 3
Despite the losses of Corey Kluber (fractured ulna) and Carlos Carrasco (leukemia) for this entire period, and Mike Clevinger (back strain and left ankle sprain) for part of it, the Indians have simply gotten better work from their rotation, as Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac, and Aaron Civale — a trio all in their age-24 seasons, with Bieber the only veteran — have risen to the occasion, a situation that no doubt played a major role in the team’s willingness to trade anger-driven long-toss champion Trevor Bauer to the Reds just before the deadline.
By comparison, the Twins’ starters have sputtered in this span:
Twins’ Starting Pitching Splits
|Jake Odorizzi||Through 6/2||64.1||1.96||2.87||28.0%||8.4%||2.2|
|José Berríos||Through 6/2||77.0||3.27||3.77||22.6%||4.4%||1.9|
|Kyle Gibson||Through 6/2||62.1||3.75||3.99||24.1%||5.8%||1.3|
|Martín Pérez||Through 6/2||52.1||3.10||3.81||21.8%||8.8%||1.2|
|Michael Pineda||Through 6/2||59.0||5.34||5.27||20.3%||4.5%||0.3|
Pineda is the only starter who has clearly improved since the start of June; unfortunately, he went on the IL on August 3 due to a triceps strain, and won’t be back until later this month. Berrios, now the staff ace, has held steady, but both Odorizzi and Pérez have been dreadful over their past 11 starts, giving up far too many homers and missing fewer bats (Dan Szymborski has a look at the decline of the latter’s cutter). Kyle Gibson has taken a turn for the worse as well, with his K-BB% shrinking from 18.3% to 12.8%. Even with these downturns, Berrios, Odorizzi, Gibson, and Pineda all rank among the league’s top 23 in WAR. Each starter has a full-season ERA- and FIP- below 100, with Pérez (102 ERA-, 100 FIP-) the only pitcher average or worse in either metric.
Even given that, as the deadline approached, none of the starting five had an ERA- or FIP- higher than 91, one can certainly argue that the Twins should have added a starter. Chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine did try, and they were hardly alone in coming up empty; among contenders, both the Yankees and Cardinals failed to fill significant needs. Per The Athletic’s Dan Hayes, they pursued Bauer, Zack Greinke, Marcus Stroman, and Noah Syndergaard. The Blue Jays asked for shortstop Royce Lewis or right fielder Alex Kirilloff, the team’s top two prospects, but were rebuffed, and never called back before agreeing to a deal with the Mets, one in which they got a pair of less impressive prospects, both outside our Top 100.
For Syndergaard, the Mets wanted both Lewis and Kiriloff, and they also asked for Byron Buxton, according to the Star-Tribune‘s La Velle E. Neal III. Bauer they could have gotten only via a three-team deal, since the Indians weren’t going to directly help their division rival. Greinke would have had to waive a no-trade clause to come to Minnesota; the Astros, who aggressively pursued and ultimately landed him, weren’t on his no-trade list. The Twins weren’t on Madison Bumgarner’s no-trade list, but it hasn’t been reported whom the Giants asked for; like Syndergaard, he ultimately stayed put. So did Mike Minor and Robbie Ray, two starters the Twins considered but ultimately shied away from due to durability concerns.
Perhaps the Twins should have been more aggressive, but to the point of dealing Buxton, or both of their top prospects? It’s difficult to ding them for an unwillingness to do so, or to argue that the lesser starters traded in July — Homer Bailey, Andrew Cashner, Jordan Lyles, Jason Vargas — would have been better bets to help them down the stretch than Pérez, the man presumably on the bubble before Pineda went down. As it is, rookie lefty Devin Smeltzer, who’s pitched to a 3.66 ERA and 4.43 FIP in 32 innings covering four starts and two starter-length relief appearances, has out-pitched that quartet.
As for the bullpen, its top four pitchers in innings (closer Taylor Rogers, setup men Ryne Harper and Tyler Duffey, and middle man Trevor May) have all declined during the Twins’ slide, and Blake Parker, who began the year as the team’s closer, pitched his way onto the waiver wire and was lost to the Phillies. The team did add both Sam Dyson and Sergio Romo, each for three live bodies apiece. Dyson, whom colleague Craig Edwards anointed “the best reliever traded at the deadline,” has had a hard time living up to that tag, allowing six runs while retiring just two hitters in his first two appearances as a Twin, then hitting the injured list due to biceps tendinitis; one has to figure those situations were linked, and that he’ll likely pitch better than that once he returns. Given that teams such as the Dodgers and Red Sox came up mostly empty-handed in their pursuit of bullpen upgrades, that the likes of Ken Giles, Felipe Vázquez, and Kirby Yates weren’t dealt, and that Shane Greene’s peripherals are way behind his ERA (which, one might note, is now 11.25 in four innings for Atlanta), it’s tough to fault the Twins for upgrading and irresponsible to judge their new acquisitions based upon less than two weeks of post-deadline work.
Where I’m less inclined towards a charitable view is their failure to upgrade at first base, where they’ve received a total of 0.2 WAR, which is actually 0.3 less than they’d accumulated when I placed them on my Replacement Level Killers list. C.J. Cron has hit just .263/.318/.483 for a 104 wRC+ overall, propped up by an insane 18-PA, 339 wRC+ showing at DH. What’s more, he’s managed just a 77 wRC+ in any capacity since that June 2 point. The Twins had multiple paths to upgrading. They could have traded for a first baseman such as the Brewers’ Jesús Aguilar (who was dealt to the Rays) or the Astros’ Tyler White (who was DFA’d and landed with the Dodgers), or they could have moved Miguel Sanó across the diamond and added another infielder or outfielder while using some combination of Gonzalez and Adrianza at the hot corner, where either would be a defensive improvement on Sanó. Either move would certainly have been less costly than acquiring one of the aforementioned frontline starters. Playoff spots are won and lost every year thanks to teams’ ability to avoid such Killers; if the Twins wind up in the AL Wild Card game instead of atop the division, it will be worth remembering this non-move.
The good news for the Twins is that they’re still in a playoff position, and heavy favorites to reach the postseason. Nonetheless, if they come home with anything besides the AL Central crown, or fail to reach the Division Series, the lead they squandered will live in infamy, and they’ll be reminded of what could have been.