The Minnesota Twins will cap off a stunning regular season when they clinch the playoffs this week. As many waited for them to fade, they have gone from last year’s league-worst record to a wildcard spot. I have picked against them throughout the wildcard homestretch, but they have stayed comfortably in position as the second wildcard and are destined for Yankee Stadium and the American League Wildcard game. For many, that will be the first time they have seen the Twins play this season.
Baseball’s season is notoriously long. Its a 162-game slog where moments struggle to break through until late in the season and the post-season. It’s hard for any Cinderella Story to really jump out when there are more games than characters in a tweet. This is especially true when the slipper is in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Yet, the Twin Cities have seen a team do what very few have done before. They have gone from 59-103 to a wildcard spot and are only the 13th team to go from 100 losses to a winning record. FiveThrityEight had them with just a 7% chance to make the playoffs before the season and virtually no one saw them coming. That may include the Twins, who were sellers at the trade deadline.
Paul Molitor’s squad is a unique combination of established stars overachieving and a young core coming into its own. Joe Mauer has been around long enough to see the Twins’ last run to the postseason and his uptick in performance has helped spur this team on. His batting average climbed from last year’s .261 to over .300 this season, and his adjusted OPS has climbed from 104 to 116. Brian Dozier is one of the only Twins who was better last year, but a slight decline from his 42 home run season still has him leading the team in dingers, while being second in adjusted OPS. Then there is Ervin Santana. He pitched well last season (he actually had a lower ERA and FIP last year), but maintaining that another season while the team has improved in the lineup and behind him on the mound, has led to an ace-caliber W-L record for him. The Twins’ established players have done enough to allow a young core to lift them to the postseason.
That young core is headlined in the lineup by Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco and Eddie Rosario. All aged 25 or younger, each of these players has a WAR greater than 1 and Buxton leads the team at 5.1. Buxton’s bat has not been as hot as the Twins would like, but the 2012 second overall pick is far and away the team’s best fielder and gives them an asset in center field that few can match. He has also stolen 23 bases in a row without being caught. Meanwhile, Polanco and Rosario are near the top of the team in Offensive WAR and help give the Twins a lineup that can be dangerous 1-9.
On the mound, the youth revolution is led by 23-year old Jose Berrios. He leads the rotation in FIP and averages almost a strikeout per inning. He has been so impressive, there are some calls for Berrios to get the start against the Yankees.That will probably be Santana, but Berrios could be the Twins top pitching weapon if they can get to the ALDS.
Meanwhile, the bullpen is another case of youth and experience combining to elevate the Twins. Veteran closer Brandon Kintzler picked up 28 saves before going to the Nationals in a deadline deal and paving the way for youth to step up in the pen. While 37 year old Matt Belise has gotten the bulk of save opportunities since Kintzler’s departure, a young three-headed monster is emerging. Taylor Rogers, Alan Busenitz and Trevor Hildenberger are maturing when needed most. All three are just 26 and give the Twins different strengths. Rogers is deadly as a lefty specialist and has been called on more than any reliever in Molitor’s pen. Busenitz is emerging as a setup man late in the season with a sub-1.5 ERA. The best of the trio may be Hildenberger who has the team’s best FIP and averages 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings. The Twins should feel good about their relievers as the season wraps up and should feel great about next year’s bullpen.
The Twins have flown under the radar all season because there’s no dramatic explanation for this team’s success. They have just improved up and down the roster from one year to the next and that wide-scale incremental improvement has been just enough to earn a date with the Yankees. The Yankees are the Twins’ polar opposite–nothing they do flys under the radar. A perfect microcosm: the Home Run Derby is remembered for Aaron Judge’s fireworks display, but you know who took second? Miguel Sano of the Twins. In fact, Sano is currently injured, but may be a factor for the Twins postseason hopes if he can get healthy.
This team has the pieces to make a run. The starting pitching is good, the lineup is deep and the bullpen has multiple weapons. They even have the presence of Bartolo Colon. They went 2-4 against New York in the regular season and 6-10 against their likely ALDS opponent–and division rivals–the Cleveland Indians. Few will believe in the Twins, but few have all season. The Twins will wrap up one shocking result this week and all attention will turn to their next opportunity: the October 3rd match-up with Aaron Judge and the Yankees.
I’m picking the Yankees.