After the Tigers and Royals battled it out for the division last season, some thought they might be the teams to beat in the Central again this year. Others thought the Indians had a lot of promising potential, or that the White Sox with their aggressive off-season would be ready to make a move. Virtually no one expected the Minnesota Twins to be a factor in the Central Division. Yet here we are, in the second week of June, and the Twins are in first place. How?
The Twins had an outstanding month of May, going 20-7, and they now stand 33-23 with the second-best record in the league. They have been terrific at Target Field, going 19-9, including taking two of three from the Royals earlier this year, the first series loss for Kansas City after their hot start. They have out-performed their pythagorean record by three games and have played one of the easier schedules in the league. But the Twins are no doubt better than many expected them to be and they very well could be a contender all summer.
The Twins are averaging 4.45 runs per game, fourth in the league and just ahead of the Royals. They are third-from-last in walks and slugging percentage and are fourth-from-last in home runs. However, they are tied for the Royals for tops in the league in batting average with runners in scoring position, hitting .298/.369/.451 in those situations. Sequencing!
Minnesota recently demoted struggling starting shortstop Danny Santana. The Jeff Franceour clone was hitting .217/.235/.291 with just two walks and 48 strikeouts. Eduardo Escobar will take over at shortstop, and replacing Santana on the roster is slugger Kennys Vargas, back up from AAA after struggling to begin the year. The Twins offense is primarily carried by Brian Dozier, Trevor Plouffe, and Torii Hunter, all of whom posted an OPS over .900 in May.
Minnesota's 3.91 ERA is fifth-worst in the league and they are by far the worst in baseball at striking hitters out with just 5.8 strikeouts-per-nine innings. The Twins do walk the fewest hitters in the league, so their pitchers match up well with the free-swinging Royals. Phil Hughes has not followed up on his remarkable 2014 season, and has struggled out of the gate, allowing the most hits in the league. His walk rate has increased and his home run rate has spiked back up to where it was when he pitched at Yankee Stadium. Hughes has historically pitched poorly against the Royals with a 5.06 ERA in 13 games.
Right-hander Trevor May has performed better than his ERA would suggest with a solid strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.59. May has improved his walk rate significantly and has gotten better results from hits two-seam fastball thus far. Mizzou grad Kyle Gibson has been the inverse of May, pitching much worse than his ERA, with an underwhelming strikeout rate. The groundball pitcher has been lucky with BABIP and has a high Left-On-Base Rate of 82.5% suggesting the ball is about to bounce against him soon. However, Gibson has allowed just six hits in two starts against the Royals with a 2.25 ERA in 12 innings.
Twins relievers are also the worst in baseball at striking hitters out, with the fourth-worst ERA at 3.76. However All-Star closer Glen Perkins has been perfect in all 20 save opportunities this season. The lefty has a 1.73 ERA and has walked just three hitters in 26 innings. Right-hander Ryan Pressley has a 2.95 FIP, but has walked 4.4 hitters-per-nine innings. The rest of the pen has suffered from high FIP numbers and lefty-specialist Brian Duensing is allowing lefties to hit .444/.545/.556 against him in 22 plate appearances.
The Twins have played well this year, winning all but four series this season. They've been a bit lucky this year, but so were the Royals last season. The Twins play a much different game however, with a defense that is third-worst in the league in Defensive Runs Saved. The Royals don't stand to walk much this series, but their strategy of putting the ball in play and getting some lucky bounces could work in their favor.