The 2017 American League playoff field may be the most hellacious in history. It will include the already historic Cleveland Indians, who were incapable of losing a single game for nearly a month; the Houston Astros, whose high-powered offense ranks among the greatest ever; and both the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, those eternally big-spending AL East rivals.
Oh, and there will also be a fifth playoff team, one that will presumably serve as cannon fodder.
But although it won’t be a surprise if that second wild-card team is in over its head come October, it is surprising who that team will most likely be: the Minnesota Twins. According to FiveThirtyEight’s playoff odds, Minnesota, with its 78-73 record, is a pretty solid favorite to land that final spot. The Twins’ 1.5-game cushion over the Los Angeles Angels in the wild-card race gives them a 66 percent chance of earning the franchise its first playoff appearance since 2010.
Most teams would be frustrated if their first playoff bid in seven years put them on the most difficult path ever. But then again, the Twins weren’t even supposed to be here. In spring training, the consensus was that a successful Minnesota season would see the club make some incremental improvements based off of its young talent base. Our preseason projections called for the Twins to win about 74 games — which is not many, but it would have been a big upgrade over 2016, when the team had just 59 wins.
The Twins’ best returning veterans were a 29-year-old second baseman coming off an out-of-nowhere 42-home-run season (Brian Dozier), a 34-year-old starter on his fourth team in six years (Ervin Santana) and a 33-year-old catcher-turned-first-baseman struggling to maintain some semblance of his early-career form (Joe Mauer). So it was pretty clear that Minnesota’s kids would need to make some strides simply to offset regression by their elders, much less sustain a real playoff bid. And those young players had a lot of work left to do: Of Minnesota’s 10 regulars aged 25 or under in 2016,1 none cracked 2.0 wins above replacement,2 which is the general benchmark for an acceptable major-league starter. Six of the 10 had a measly 0.6 WAR or fewer, and three were below the replacement level outright.
But more than simply assisting the vets in keeping the team afloat, Minnesota’s young core has come into its own in 2017. Of those 10 young regulars from a year ago, all but one (Danny Santana, who was traded to Atlanta in May) have been mainstays for this year’s squad, and seven of the nine have improved their WAR — in some cases, dramatically so.
Twenty-three-year-old righty Jose Berrios, who was the eighth-worst pitcher in baseball last season by WAR, has made incredible strides this year. He has sliced his rate of home runs allowed per nine innings nearly in half, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is more than double what it was a season ago. Few starters in the game have a better fastball-curve combo than Berrios, whose nasty breaking pitches have helped him become the eighth-most improved pitcher in baseball this season according to WAR.
He’s not the Twins’ only big breakout of the year. Outfielder Eddie Rosario’s on-base plus slugging is up 129 points this season thanks to improved plate discipline and a steeper power stroke. Third baseman Miguel Sano — who, sadly, appears to be out of commission for the playoffs because of a leg injury suffered in August — has been a fixture atop the exit-velocity leaderboards, the result of mammoth moon shots like this one from July. Shortstop Jorge Polanco has been steady, improving Minnesota’s production at the position from among the worst in baseball to roughly average.
And last but not least, there’s 23-year-old center fielder Byron Buxton, who has officially made The Leap to stardom this season. Buxton, who was the No. 1 prospect in baseball a few years ago, was always ridiculously fast and a slick fielder, but this season, he has taken his outfield exploits to new heights.
According to an average of Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating,3 Buxton has been baseball’s best outfielder this year (edging out Boston’s Mookie Betts and Toronto’s Kevin Pillar) and its second-best fielder, period, behind Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons. He also leads MLB in a fancy new Statcast metric called Outs Above Average, which is derived by comparing an outfielder’s actual plays made to the number we’d expect an average fielder to make using the catch probability of every ball hit in his direction. Buxton, for instance, has gotten the out 133 times in 135 chances (99 percent) on balls where the average fielder had at least a 26 percent of recording an out. (He has also snagged 2 outs in 31 chances where the odds of a catch were 25 percent or less.) For Buxton, all but the most improbable of catches are basically a sure thing.
And Buxton’s hitting, a dreadful weakness in his first two MLB seasons, has improved to nearly reach the league-average mark. Buxton still strikes out too much. But his approach at the plate is getting more refined, and he’s a big threat on the basepaths. If he keeps progressing as a hitter, Buxton’s career path might be less Corey Patterson — another fast, “toolsy” prospect who never quite put it all together — and more Andre Dawson (or at least, say, Reggie Smith or Tommie Agee).
All of these long-awaited developments have helped put Minnesota on a path back to the postseason. Of course, it also helped that the Twins were never as bad in 2016 as their 59-win record suggested. Statistically, they looked more like a 71-win team that suffered some of the worst luck in baseball. (That luck has repaid itself a bit this season, with Minnesota currently running three games better than the record we’d expect from its underlying stats.) The Twins have also been fortunate that the AL’s pecking order by talent drops off significantly after the league’s fourth-best team — that fifth playoff spot has to be filled by somebody, and Minnesota has played the best out of a group of probably equivalent teams that also includes the Angels, Rangers, Mariners and Rays.
Making the playoffs by default, then facing possibly the toughest bracket ever, doesn’t exactly sound like an enviable accomplishment. But given where the Twins were a season ago — and where they appear to be headed — this season has been nothing less than a rousing success in Minnesota. And despite the daunting path, the bookmakers are giving the Twins a 33-to-1 shot at winning the World Series. As always in a sport like baseball, stranger things have happened.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.