Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Are The Twins Really Banking On Luck?

 

With the 2016 Major League Baseball slate set to get underway (or at least the tune-up games that is), the Twins enter the season with a fresh sense of hope. Really, every team does at this point of the year, but Minnesota is looking to take the next step. After narrowly missing out on the playoffs a season ago, playing for October is once again the goal. For Paul Molitor's club though, luck seems to be a large deterrent towards that effort.

A season ago, the Twins finished at 83-79. Coming in second place in the AL Central, Minnesota was said to have a good bit of fortune that went their way. Whether that be clutch hitting, timely runs, or big scoring outputs, the Twins saw added benefit in the win column. The question is, to what significance can that be attributed?

First, let's take a look at what the luck actually produced for Molitor's squad a season ago. With runners in scoring position, arguably the easiest place to start, Minnesota batter .280/.352/.440 with 36 home runs and 491 runs batted in.

Then there's the base runs breakdown. Base runs are an estimate of the number of runs a team "should have" scored given the culmination of their offensive statistics. The metric puts the Twins at +10, or third highest in the big leagues behind just the Cardinals and Royals (both +11). Outproducing their suspected run total by double-digits no doubt put the Twins in advantageous situations. The "luck" helped to bolster a Twins run differential that landed at just -4 on the season, well above the -75 mark that base runs projected the output to be worth.

A look at the Pythagorean expectation for the wins and losses Minnesota should have experienced in 2015 isn't kind either. Invented by Bill James, the formula estimates how many games a team "should" have won based upon the number of runs scored and surrendered. Computing based on their output, the Twins finished just slightly above their projected 81-81 finish.

For a team that ended the season compiling an 11.5 fWAR (5th worst in MLB), ahead of only the White Sox, Phillies, Rockies, and Brewers, the results are no doubt on the extremely positive side. That brings us to the counter argument however, and asking how much it all matters.

In 2015, the Twins beat projections across the board. They were seen unfavorably from the get go, and their production throughout the 162 game slate suggested they should have finished with a worse record than they did, except that didn't happen. The fact that it didn't happen remains a key point looking at the 2016 season.

Once again, the Twins are being somewhat discounted in the year ahead. Looking at Vegas odds, the best over/under total puts Minnesota at 78.5 wins. Fangraphs ZiPS projections have Molitor's squad pegged for regression with a final 77-85 record, and a run differential of -35. What we must wonder is regardless of luck, how do the Twins end up there?

For 2016, the most major roster turnover is in the removal of Torii Hunter, and the expected additions in the bullpen. Hunter was worth a paltry 0.5 fWAR a season ago (no doubt more valuable in the clubhouse), and a defense liability. He is being replaced by Miguel Sano, who regardless of his defensive acumen (though he could succeed), will far outweigh his predecessor on the offensive side of things. Regardless of the Twins not spending on their pen, they got creative with Fernando Abad, and have a multitude of internal options that should spell a heightened level of production in comparison to a season ago.

Giving Molitor full season's of Eddie Rosario (at least defensively), Byron Buxton in his sophomore tour, and Sano for 162 games, a trio of youth should spell positivity for Minnesota. Byung Ho Park provides opportunity to push the Twins run total out even further, and the supplements of players like Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco should be welcomed by Twins Territory.

On the mound, Minnesota can pitch. No doubt without a true ace, the Twins have three strong big league starters in Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, and Kyle Gibson. Whether Tyler Duffey holds serve, or Tommy Milone continues to be steady, the Twins have depth options in the likes of top prospect Jose Berrios, and even in likely pen candidate Trevor May.

What the situation boils down to is the fact that for almost virtually ever argument against Minnesota, the organization has some sort of an answer. Unproven and without the ceiling of other veteran-laden teams, Molitor still has to be happy about what he has at his fingertips. Good fortune or luck not playing out to the same accord, Minnesota should be able to force plenty of positive situations in the year ahead.

Due to the nature of youth and unproven commodities that will be relied upon at Target Field in 2016, it all could crash and burn. More than any other AL Central team however, the Twins seem constructed with the ability to take the division, or end up in the cellar. With luck as their biggest deterrent to falter this season, a better narrative should probably be crafted when looking for potential regression.

As stat-driven as baseball has become, the reality is that the numbers rarely cancel out. Minnesota isn't simply going to regress because of creating good fortune a season ago. With a clean slate, the group that will head north from Fort Myers should be equally if not more capable of producing at the clip the 2015 club did, and there's no luck in that.

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