The Minnesota Twins’ struggles have been well documented so far in 2021, as the 2019 and 2020 AL Central division champs are off to a 15-28 start to the season, following Wednesday’s game in Chicago. The Twins were the favorites to win the division once again, but they look nothing like a playoff team so far in 2021. Prior to the season, FanGraphs had their playoff odds set at 63.3%, which are now down to 7.0%. That begs the question: is it too early to give up on the Twins? Are the Minnesota Twins’ struggles cause for real concern?
Minnesota Twins’ Struggles: Success of the 2019-20 Twins
To make sense of the Twins’ early struggles, let’s first look at what made them so good in 2019 and 2020. In 2019, the “Bomba Squad,” as they were called, led the league in homers (and set the all-time record) and ISO, finished 2nd in runs, and tied for the second-best wRC+ in the league. Nelson Cruz finished tied for third in the American League in home runs, and Max Kepler finished tied for seventh. They had eight players finish the season with 20 or more home runs, six of which returned for the 2020 season.
The starting rotation of the 2019 Twins was nothing spectacular, but a corps of Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, and Michael Pineda gave them strong performances at the top of the rotation. Their bullpen, however, was spectacular. The trio of Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey, and Trevor May were all sub-3.00 ERA relievers. Overall, they finished 10th in ERA, 3rd in K-BB%, 4th in xFIP-, and 4th in SIERA.
After the 2019 season, the Twins got caught up in the Mookie Betts trade, when they dealt reliever Brusdar Graterol for Kenta Maeda. Maeda was a huge part of the success of the 2020 Twins, as he finished 2nd in Cy Young Award voting, finishing ninth in the league in ERA, 4th in K-BB%, and 3rd in SIERA. They also added former MVP 3rd baseman Josh Donaldson, on a four-year, $92 million deal, and he put up a 129 wRC+ and 0.9 WAR despite only playing 28 games.
In 2020, many of their major offensive producers from 2019 took a step back, especially Miguel Sano, Mitch Garver, Jorge Polanco, and Max Kepler. Despite that, they were still able to win the AL Central, and get swept out of the first round of the playoffs (as per usual).
The Positives of the 2021 Twins
Although the Minnesota Twins’ struggles have overcome their successes, there are still some positives for this team looking forward. They currently have a win% of .349, but they have a Pythagorean win% of .419, based on their run differential. So far, the Twins have gotten great performances from Byron Buxton (who is now on the IL), Josh Donaldson, Nelson Cruz, and Jose Berrios. Also, many of their losses have come in seven-inning or extra-inning games, which doesn’t actually mean anything but I thought I’d point it out.
For Buxton, 2021 was looking like the MVP year that everyone expected when he came up, as he’s finally been able to put it together at the plate after struggling to start his career. Buxton has always been an elite defender and baserunner, but his bat has really shown up since the start of 2019. His health is a major concern, as he’s never played a full season, as has only played 100 games once in his seven-year career. So far in 2021, Buxton has a 224 wRC+, 2.4 BsR, 7 DRS, and 2.6 WAR.
Nelson Cruz has been one of the most consistent hitters in baseball since his age-33 season in Baltimore and has been better than ever in his three years in Minnesota. Cruz’s offensive production is slightly down from 2019 and 2020, but what else do you expect from a 40-year-old DH? Despite that, Cruz still has a 138 wRC+ and .370 wOBA through 162 PAs in 2021. Josh Donaldson, their 35-year-old third baseman has also been quite consistent since his bounce-back 2019 season. He’s no longer an MVP-caliber player, but Donaldson has a 133 wRC+, while his wOBA is .361, and his xwOBA is .419, so he’s actually getting quite unlucky.
Four major pieces of the “Bomba Squad” from 2019 have all struggled so far in 2021: Jorge Polanco, Max Kepler, Mitch Garver, and Miguel Sano. Offseason acquisition and defensive wizard Andrelton Simmons has also gone ice cold since his great start to the year.
For Polanco, who was moved from shortstop to 2nd base this year, it has been an up-and-down start to the year. From April 1st to April 24th, Polanco had a 44 wRC+, .230 wOBA, zero home runs, and -0.2 fWAR. Since his freezing cold start, he’s gotten going at the plate. Since April 25th, Polanco has slashed .266/.344/.481 with a .355 wOBA and 129 wRC+, while putting up a 0.7 fWAR. For Polanco, putting the ball in play less but hitting it harder has been beneficial to his success. Before April 25th, he had a 32.8% HH% and 3.3% Barrel%. Since then, he has a 42.4% HH% and 13.6% Barrel%.
Max Kepler has had a similar start to the year, as he got off to a slow start to the year, including a stint on the IL due to COVID-19 complications. Up until May 5th, Kepler was slashing .197/.270/.303 with a 58 wRC+ and -0.1 fWAR. Since May 6th, Kepler is slashing .209/.340/.535 with a .371 wOBA, 139 wRC+, and 0.5 fWAR. Not only is this further proof that batting average doesn’t mean anything, but it also shows a major turnaround in Kepler’s production since coming off the IL. Kepler’s BABIP in that time stretch is just .143, meaning he’s been hot while being unlucky.
Mitch Garver has also gotten hot as of late (are you seeing a trend?), as he has a 147 wRC+ since May 2nd, after starting the year with a 68 wRC+ through May 1st. Miguel Sano’s is even more drastic, as he had a 67 wRC+ through May 17th, and since May 18th, he has a 380 wRC+ (which has brought his season’s average up to 107).
The Minnesota Twins’ Struggles
What’s concerning about this is that despite their best players getting hot, the Twins are still not winning games. Since May 4th, the Twins are 4-12, despite having a 100 wRC+ (13th in MLB). The problem? Their pitching. The Twins’ pitching has been the worst it has been in years, and it’s the main cause for concern regarding the Minnesota Twins’ struggles. Even when the offense is struggling, there’s hope, as the guys in the Twins’ lineup are great hitters. With the pitching, there’s a little more cause for concern.
Of their five regulars, Jose Berrios, Kenta Maeda, Michael Pineda, J.A. Happ, and Matt Shoemaker, only Berrios and Pineda have been productive in 2021. Michael Pineda has a 2.79 ERA (with concerning peripherals) in 38.2 innings, but he’s now on the IL. Jose Berrios has been a solid arm for the Twins for his entire career, and his age-27 season has been no different this year.
The real issue right now is Kenta Maeda, the 2020 Cy Young runner up who was expected to be great once again in 2021. Maeda isn’t generating nearly as many whiffs as he was in 2020, as his Whiff% on his slider is down from 33.2% to 27.5% and his splitter is down from 45.6% to 27.5%. His chase rate is also down significantly, from 50.5% to 34.3% on his splitter and 42.1% to 37.1% on his slider. Overall Maeda’s stats are worse across the board as his K% went from 32.3% to 19.4%, BB% went from 4.0% to 5.9%, his ERA went from 2.70 to 5.26, SIERA from 2.92 to 4.25, and WAR from 2.1 (66.2 IP) to 0.1 (37.2 IP).
Maeda has already allowed more hits and runs than he did in 2020, in just over half the innings pitched. His 21.1% HR/FB% is inflated, causing his xFIP to be about a run lower than his actual FIP. His SIERA is also about a run under his ERA, so there are some good signs, especially since Maeda has still been able to limit the walks.
Of course, the blame for a 1st place team falling to the worst in the American League can’t be blamed on only one pitcher, especially since that pitcher has some positive signs moving forward. The Minnesota Twins’ struggles are hard to dissect because overall, not that much has changed from last year. Trevor May and Eddie Rosario left in free agency, but they were replaced with Alex Colome and Andrelton Simmons.
Speaking of the bullpen, they’ve gone from one of the best bullpens in baseball in 2019 and 2020 to near league-average in 2021. They’ve gone from 1st in SIERA from 2019-2020 (3.80) to tied for 11th in 2021 (3.74). In K-BB%, they’ve gone from 1st (18.0%) to 10th (15.7%), and in ERA, they’ve gone from 9th (4.02) to 26th (5.07). Looking at specific players, Taylor Rogers and Hansel Robles have been reliable. Caleb Thielbar has been great, but his ERA doesn’t reflect his performance (4.96 ERA, 2.37 SIERA, 29.3% K-BB%). The same goes for Cody Stashak. Alex Colome and Tyler Duffey haven’t been their normal selves, but they could still bounce back.
Are the Minnesota Twins’ Struggles Reversible?
We’ve taken a look at the good, and we’ve taken a look at the bad. So, can the Minnesota Twins’ struggles be turned into successes? The answer is a little more complicated than yes or no, but I think it’s still very possible for Minnesota to surge back into the playoff hunt. A lot of this comes down to Kenta Maeda and J.A. Happ, Matt Shoemaker, or Randy Dobnak stepping up to give the Twins a solid four rotation options, but their offense has too much talent to stay close to league average.
Also, overall, the Twins’ team xwOBA is 19 points higher than wOBA (.318, .337), so they aren’t quite living up to their quality of contact. Josh Donaldson is the perfect example here, as he’s 12th in the league in xwOBA but 63rd in wOBA. The Minnesota Twins’ struggles have been due to a culmination of issues, but all three facets of the game, their offense, rotation, and bullpen, have been worse than expected. They could still turn it on, but they’re gonna need a super hot stretch to get back into the pennant race.
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