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Better know your wild card enemy: Minnesota Twins

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It's been a rollercoaster season for the Twins, but can they ride Miguel Sano's bat to the Wild Card game?

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

This might very well be the year of the second wild card. Without it, the American League playoff picture would likely be set, with no second place team within three games of their division leader, and with either New York or Toronto firmly in control of the first wildcard, four and half games ahead of the next contender.

But because there's a second wild card spot, five more teams are very much in the race, under three games back.

The Rays are one of those teams, and tonight they begin a series against another, the Minnesota Twins. Winning this series would do good things for the Rays chances, and losing it would dampen the still-surviving hopes. We'll preview each of the competing wild card teams, but lets start things off with the ex-domers.

Minnesota Twins

Record: 63-61, 1.5 games behind Texas Rangers for second AL Wild Card

Wild Card Odds as of August 24: 7.5% (Baseball Prospectus)

Remaining games vs. teams above .500: 19

Remaining games vs. teams below .500: 19

Final 10 Games: At Detroit Tigers for 3 games, September 25-27

At Cleveland Indians for 4 games, September 28-October 1

Vs. Kansas City Royals for 3 games, October 2-4

This Year

The Minnesota Twins were supposed to be in this position—contending for a playoff spot in late August—in 2017 or 2018. The team has arguably the best prospect in baseball (Bryce Buxton), a 22 year old who has burst onto the scene hitting 288/.397/.582 with 11 home runs in 44 games (Miguel Sano), and more stud players on the way (Jose Berrios, Jorge Santos, Nick Gordon). The future looked bright in the Twin Cities, and the present (2015) appeared to be something that needed to be endured to get to that exciting tomorrow.

So, how did the Twins find themselves in the thick of the playoff race with a roster in transition and a first-time manager (Paul Molitor)? On Opening Day, the Baseball Prospectus predicted the Twins to win 74 games, with a 1.7% chance to win the AL Wild Card.

It's not too hard to figure out why they had little faith in Minnesota. At no point this season have the Twins had a league-average offense. The starting pitching has been possibly the worst in the AL. The bullpen is so-so, but their closer has been awful (pitching through injury) in the second half. The team's veteran core has barely sniffed league-average production since the All-Star break, and the team headed into Baltimore this past weekend on a 9-20 stretch.

And yet, defying all odds, the Twins peaked at 50-40 on July 22. They were just four games behind the Royals in the AL Central, in control of a Wild Card spot, and outplaying their pre-season expected win percentage by 100 points. They had a 32% chance of winning the wild card. And while they had stumbled mightily, the Twins have played their way back into the race by sweeping four games at the Baltimore Orioles. Are the Twins a threat to the Rays? Let's break down how baseball's biggest overachievers in 2015 stack up for the remainder of the reason.

Pitching

In the season's first half, Twins starting pitchers were near the bottom of the league in ERA (3.86, 11th), ERA- (97, 13th), WHIP (1.33, 11th), and strikeout rate (16.1 percent, 12th). Somehow, those numbers have only gotten worse in the second half. The Twins starting pitchers have the worst ERA (5.26), WHIP (1.45), and strikeout rate (14.3 percent) in the AL. Only the Rays starters have thrown fewer inning since the break.

Staff leader Mike Pelfrey has been pretty good in the second half (2.93 and 73 ERA-), but he has failed to make it out of the fifth inning in three of his last four starts. In the second half, Phil Hughes, Tommy Millone, and Ervin Santana, all have at least a 5.20 ERA, 130 ERA-, and 1.32 WHIP. Put simply, the Twins starting pitching is atrocious.

The Twins bullpen has been overworked and under-performing in the second half. The team's relievers have thrown the fourth most innings in the AL since mid-July, while ranking bottom five in ERA (4.81), ERA- (121), and left on-base percentage (68.7%). All-Star closer Glenn Perkins has struggled, posting just three saves with a 7.36 ERA and 2.09 WHIP. He has blown two saves and surrendered four home runs.

Old friend Kevin Jepsen, though, has been very good since arriving in Minnesota. Jepsen's made 12 appearances, posting a 1.69 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, and 25 percent strikeout rate. He has even picked up two saves. Trevor May (2.57 ERA and 32.6 percent strikeout rate) has also been solid. Despite Perkin's and the bullpen's second half difficulties, Jepsen, May, Brian Duensing, and Casey Fien could provide the Twins a solid core down the stretch.

Offense

Even when they owned one of the AL's best records, the Twins were a poor offense. The team masked some deficiencies by being adequate at drawing walks and hitting home runs. In almost every other category, though, the Twins have been among the worst in the AL:

Category


AL Rank

wRC+

89 wRC+

13th

Strikeout Rate

22.5%

14th

Walk Rate

7.1%

7th

Batting Average

.238

13th

On-Base Percentage

.293

13th

Slugging Percentage

.397

12th

OPS

.690

13th

ISO

.160

10th

Home Runs

38

7th

Entering Sunday's games, 91 AL players had received at least 100 plate appearances in the second half. Miguel Sano ranks first in walk rate (15.7%), ninth in SO (.279), and 19th in wRC+ (147). It is not pretty to imagine what the Twins offense would be without Sano's incredible arrival. Below is how the Twins five players with the most plate appearances in the first half have compared to the second half  with their across the board regression:

Brian Dozier:


wRC+

K%

BB%

AVG

OBP

SLP

1st Half

129

19.8%

8.7%

.256

.328

.513

2nd Half

86

28.2%

8.5%

.213

.282

.392

Joe Mauer:


wRC+

K%

BB%

AVG

OBP

SLP

1st Half

94

16.1

9.0%

.271

.336

.370

2nd Half

90

17.0%

8.9%

.260

.326

.358

Trevor Plouffe:


wRC+

K%

BB%

AVG

OBP

SLP

1st Half

112

18.1%

8.2%

.259

.320

.449

2nd Half

96

17.8%

5.4%

.221

.264

.59

Torii Hunter:


wRC+

K%

BB%

AVG

OBP

SLP

1st Half

107

16.5%

7.2%

.257

.312

.444

2nd Half

45

23.6%

5.5%

.168

.227

.307

Kurt Suzuki:


wRC+

K%

Walk%

AVG

OBP

SLP

1st Half

63

11.4%

6.3%

.235

.291

.313

2nd Half

73

10.9%

6.9%

.250

.303

.315

Since the All-Star break, the team's best players have walked less, struckout more, reached base with less frequency, and hit with far less power. Only Kurt Suzuki has seen an improvement, though it is just slight and still well below league average production. As a team, they have increased their strikeouts (19.% to 22.5%), and decreased their OPS (.707 to .690) and wRC+ (93 to 89).

While the Twins were not a great offense in the first half, it is not as if they rode unsustainable luck in approaching league average numbers. Their .298 BABIP was just slightly above the league average (.294). It has regressed in the second half (.282), but not to the point you would label them unlucky. I just think the 2015 Twins are not a good offense.

Has it shown signs of improving, though? The team scored 15 runs on Thursday at Baltimore, but scored just 11 runs combined in the final three games of the series. In past seven days, Plouffe (.310/.355/.552), Suzuki (.375/.400/.417), and Eduardo Escobar (.438/.471/.813) have looked as if they could be breaking out of prolonged slumps.

The Hunter Dilemma

Torii Hunter is a first ballot, Hall-of-Very-Good player (2,422 hits, 349 home runs, .794 OPS, 110 wRC+, 9 Gold Gloves). Through June 30, Hunter was, once again, very good and a borderline All-Star:

PA

BB%

K%

AVG

OBP

SLP

BABIP

Extra-

Base Hits

290

7.2%

16.2%

.272

.328

.464

.288

27

Since July 1, though, Hunter has posted the following numbers:

PA

BB%

K%

AVG

OBP

SLP

BABIP

Extra-

Base Hits

153

5.9%

22.2%

.164

.222

.307

.167

8

He's been even worse  the first three weeks of August, hitting .127/.210/.273. The Twins, however, continue to play Hunter damn near everyday. After Sunday, he had played 39 of 46 games, starting 36. Entering the series opener at Baltimore, 382 of his 430 (88.9%) plate appearances have come batting 2nd, 4th, or 5th in the lineup. Hunter was moved down to sixth and seventh over the weekend, but he remains a huge black hole in the middle of an already suspect offense attempting to contend.

With Buxton hitting .400/.441/.542 at Triple-A Rochester before being recalled last week, will Molitor sit the 40 year old Hunter in favor the future face of the franchise?

Conclusion

The Twins close with a relatively soft schedule, playing seven games against Tigers and Indians teams that project to be eliminated, and then three games against a Royals team that might clinch the AL Central before I finish typing this sentence. The offense has some power, but struggles to reach base. The starting pitching is the worst in the American League. While the team's closer situation is in flux, Jepsen's arrival has provided Molitor with flexibility and options late in games. The Twins have some of baseball's most exciting young players, but several veterans with well below league average production. On paper, you wonder how in the hell is this team two games above .500. Now, after being left for dead a week ago, the Twins have moved ahead of the Rays and remain contention. Man, baseball is a weird game.