Today's Free Picks for
Posted on March 19
Minnesota under 82½ -106
Last year at this time PECOTA (a sabermetric system for forecasting Major League Baseball player performance) was predicting a massive improvement from the Minnesota Twins, projecting them for 78 wins following a season in which they had the worst record in baseball. No projection system was higher on Minnesota than PECOTA. The most prominent Las Vegas odds-makers pegged the Twins for 72-75 wins, and the notion of the team approaching .500 seemed to shock even optimistic fans. The analytics projected the Twins to go from 59 wins to 78 wins, for an MLB-high improvement of 19 games. In reality, the Twins went from 59 wins to 85 wins, making the playoffs as a Wild Card team just three months after making the no. 1 overall pick in the draft. Minnesota’s year-to-year improvement of 26 games was the largest in American League Central division history and one of the 10 largest by any American League team since the 162-game schedule was adopted by both leagues in 1962.
So what does analytics expect from the Twins as an encore? They lost zero impact players since the end of the season, and of particular note, the young offensive core that drove the second-half turnaround and led the lineup to the fourth-most runs in the league remains entirely intact, with a late addition of slugger Logan Morrison coming off a 38-homer breakout year. They missed out on Yu Darvish, but made several useful additions to the pitching staff in Addison Reed, Jake Odorizzi, Fernando Rodney, and Zach Duke. Surely, if analytics liked the Twins so much last February, it must like them even more now, right? Maybe so but but history says the Twins are in for regression and so do the numbers.
Minnesota improved by 26 games over the previous season. Going from the worst record in baseball to 85 wins is a helluva story that takes us to previous teams that made huge improvements from one season to the next. Limiting the pool of teams to post-1962, which is when the 162-game schedule was adopted MLB-wide, here are the teams that had the 10 biggest year-over-year improvements:
1999 Diamondbacks 100 wins for a +35 improvement
1989 Orioles 87 wins for a +33 improvement
1993 Giants 103 wins for a +31 improvement
2008 Rays 97 wins for a +31 improvement
1980 Athletics 83 wins for a +29 improvement
2004 Tigers 72 wins for a +29 improvement
1991 Braves 94 wins for a +29 improvement
2011 Diamondbacks 94 wins for a +29 improvement
1967 Cubs 87 wins for a +28 improvement
2013 Red Sox 97 wins for a +28 improvement
Focusing strictly on the year after each team listed above had their huge improvement, here’s what happened next:
2000 Diamondbacks 85 wins for a -15 decrease
1990 Orioles 76 wins for a -11 decrease
1994 Giants 77 wins for a -23 decrease
2009 Rays 84 wins for a -13 decrease
1981 Athletics 95 wins for a +12 improvement
2005 Tigers 71 wins for a -1 decrease
1992 Braves 90 wins for a -4 decrease
2012 Diamondbacks 81 wins for a -13 decrease
1968 Cubs 84 wins for a -3 decrease
2014 Red Sox 71 wins for a -26 decrease
Note that the 1994 Giants and 1981 A's are projected for full 162-game seasons, as their follow-ups were strike-shortened years but there is no doubt that regression was in full bloom.
Of the 10 teams that improved the most, nine declined the following year and six declined by double-digit games. Surely at the time each of those fan bases thought it would be the start of an extended run, but regression to the mean takes no prisoners. Billy Martin, Rickey Henderson, and the A’s are the big outlier, following their 29-game improvement in 1980 by improving the equivalent of 12 games in 1981 (an AL-best 64-45 in the strike-shortened schedule). On the most basic level, it makes sense that the youngest of the most improved teams would be the least likely to suffer follow-up declines, and the 1980 A's, 1967 Cubs, and even 1991 Braves support that theory (albeit somewhat subjectively). In total, 63 different teams improved by at least 20 games (or the equivalent, in strike years) since 1962 and 50 of them failed to improve again the next season. The regression monster is so powerful that we’re going to apply it to the Twins this season but that’s not the only thing that makes this wager so reasonable.
Logan Morrison had a .294 True Average last season and is projected for .265 this season, which is both a bigger projected drop than any of last year’s regulars and still ranks third-best on the team. He’ll likely be getting most of his playing time at the expense of Eduardo Escobar, Robbie Grossman, and Kennys Vargas, who combined for a .254 True Average last season.
Each of the other seven regulars are projected to be at least slightly worse. Regression to the mean is to blame for some of that, and gaining or dropping a few points is also no big deal, but Brian Dozier, Joe Mauer, Eddie Rosario, and Eduardo Escobar projected to lose 14-16 points of True Average apiece is notable. Mauer is 35, which is an age at which declines are almost always projected. Even still, his projected .258 average is very much in line with his 2014 (.261), 2015 (.258), and 2016 (.259) marks. Dozier is 31, and while a .266 average is a big step down from his 2016 (.291) and 2017 (.280), it’s higher than his 2015 (.260) and in line with his .269 career mark. Similarly, the projected .257 average for Rosario is higher than he’s had in two of his three seasons and just a couple points off his .259 career mark. Escobar’s projected .241 is also just two points off his .243 career mark and 32 points higher than he managed in 2016. You get the idea and so will many Blue Jays fans who saw almost every player in 2016 have a career year before regressing to the means set in last year. You can apply that some theory to the Twins this year.
Lineup depth and Buxton’s otherworldly defense were Minnesota’s primary strengths last year and that figures to be true again, but is the pitching staff any better? Last season the Twins shaved 101 runs off their allowed total and still ranked just ninth in the league, which speaks to just how brutal their pitching was for the previous six seasons. Combined from 2011 to 2016, the Twins allowed 300 more runs than the next-worst team in the league, ranking last or second-to-last in five of the six years. The front office made no secret about plans to upgrade the rotation and bullpen, talking about it publicly in a way that the previous regime never would have (and perhaps raising expectations too high in the process). They made Darvish a five-year contract offer in excess of $100 million—likely twice as much as the largest free agent signing in team history, $55 million for Ervin Santana three winters ago—and predictably fell short, instead completing lower-wattage moves that are sound individually but underwhelming collectively. And then they learned that Santana needed finger surgery, likely sidelining him until May.
Assuming the Twins go with a 12-man staff to open the season, the favorites to claim each spot seem fairly straightforward. The five-man rotation: Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson, Adalberto Mejia, and either Anibal Sanchez or Phil Hughes filling in for Santana, with prospects Fernando Romero and Stephen Gonsalves waiting in the wings. The seven-man bullpen: Fernando Rodney, Addison Reed, Trevor Hildenberger, Zach Duke, Ryan Pressly, Tyler Duffey (could end up as a starter) and Taylor Rogers, with Alan Busenitz on the outside looking in thanks to having a minor-league option left.
Make no mistake, this is not a great staff. It lacks upside and high-end talent, save for Berrios and perhaps Romero around midseason, and the 35-year-old Santana is a poor bet to duplicate last season’s All-Star performance even before the surgery. What the Twins have successfully done—in part with a busy offseason of solid but unspectacular moves, but also through trades for depth pieces and prospect development—is raise the overall water level of pitching throughout the organization. It’s difficult to overstate just how much of a mess the Twins’ pitching was five years ago, or even two years ago but there’s a lot of space between “improved and no longer a mess”. None of the Twins’ top nine starter options, including Santana, are projected for an ERA under 4.00, and only Berrios (4.11) and Romero (4.24) are under 4.50. It’s a similar story in the bullpen, where no one projects for a sub-3.50 ERA but nearly everyone is in the 3.75-4.25 range. When you can’t get guys out, it can make for a long season.
This is more or less the same Twins team that earned PECOTA’s preseason love and then won 85 games last year but let’s not fool ourselves here. Minnesota had a great year because so many players had career years. Typically teams that have such huge year-to-year improvements were playing at the peak of their ability or got more than a little lucky, and that tends not to carryover. A lot of things will have to go right for the Twinkies to repeat last year’s success but the pitching staff plus normal regression likely isn’t going to allow that to happen. The entire baseball world is very high on the Twins this year, which also influences the number, as this season win total has been bet up from 81 to its current mark of 83. Pitching isn’t everything but this pitching staff is among the worst in MLB and that makes it very difficult to win more than half your games. We’re betting the Twinkies won’t.
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Minnesota under 83 -106 (Risking 3.18 units - To Win: 3.00)