If you’re looking for feel-good stories this baseball season, it’s tough to top the Minnesota Twins. Picked by our model — and others — to finish a distant second in the American League Central, with only a 36 percent playoff probability, the Twins instead dominated the division for the majority of the season. Our predictions think they’ll finish the year with 101 wins, which would rank second in franchise history (trailing only the 1965 team, which won 102). Along the way, Minnesota broke the all-time MLB record for most home runs in a single season, sitting at a jaw-dropping 301 dingers as of Friday.
In other words, this Twins season has been nothing short of magical. And when the playoffs start, Minnesota is hoping that magic can counteract the apparent curse placed on the franchise by its likely AL Division Series opponent: the New York Yankees.1
Saying the Yankees have thrived against the Twins in the postseason this century is like saying the Harlem Globetrotters have tended to do pretty well against the Washington Generals. Fifteen of Minnesota’s last 18 playoff games (dating back to 2003) have come against the Bronx Bombers, and the Twins are 2-13 in those games. They’ve lost 13 straight playoff games overall,2 and 10 of those were against the Yankees alone. New York ended the Twins’ season in 2003, 2004, 2009, 2010 and 2017.
So it would be fitting for the first playoff test of Minnesota’s charmed 2019 season to be those same New York Yankees. If the Twins can make it against them, they can make it against anybody.
Minnesota’s expectation-shattering season has been an incredible team effort. Take its home run totals: Despite breaking the single-season record, only one Twin — designated hitter Nelson Cruz — eclipsed 40 on the year. Instead, eight separate members of the Bomba Squad have hit at least 20 homers (the most on one team ever), and 11 have hit double-digit dingers (tied for the fourth-most all-time).
Beyond just the home runs, the overall depth of contributions Minnesota has gotten this season is astonishing. Let’s take a look at the sheer number of raw victories each Twin has been responsible for by converting their wins above replacement3 into an absolute figure (where zero represents no wins, above replacement or otherwise) in the manner of Bill James’s Win Shares.4 (This helps us compare the distribution of total production without having to worry about all those pesky negative WAR.)
As of Sept. 20, the Twins as a whole had 299 of these Quasi-Win Shares (QWS), prorated to 162 team games, which equates to about a 100-win team by season’s end. But they were built very differently from the typical team that meets that description.
Shortstop Jorge Polanco leads the team with 25 QWS, which means he generated a little over eight total wins this season. That’s an All-Star-type season, to be sure, and easily the best of the 26-year-old’s career to date. But at the same time, it is an extremely low figure to lead a 100-win team. Since 1901, only one team with at least 299 total QWS — the 1931 St. Louis Cardinals, paced by Chick Hafey’s 24 QWS — was led with fewer QWS than Polanco’s 25.
|Year||Team||Total QWS||Best Player||QWS|
|1931||St. Louis Cardinals||313||OF Chick Hafey||24|
|2019||Minnesota Twins||299||SS Jorge Polanco||25|
|1988||New York Mets||304||P David Cone||25|
|1947||New York Yankees||299||OF Joe DiMaggio||25|
|2008||Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim||299||P Ervin Santana||26|
|1941||St. Louis Cardinals||300||1B Johnny Mize||26|
|1953||New York Yankees||316||OF Mickey Mantle||26|
|2019||New York Yankees||314||2B DJ LeMahieu||27|
|2017||Los Angeles Dodgers||309||SS Corey Seager||27|
|2003||New York Yankees||301||P Mike Mussina||27|
|1994||New York Yankees||307||P Jimmy Key||27|
|1979||Baltimore Orioles||309||RF Ken Singleton||27|
|1971||Baltimore Orioles||307||3B Brooks Robinson||27|
|1951||New York Yankees||309||C Yogi Berra||27|
|1986||New York Mets||320||1B Keith Hernandez||27|
This trend continues as you move down the Twins’ Win Share rankings. No. 2 Max Kepler (21 QWS) is also tied for the second-fewest for a player of his rank on a team with at least 299 QWS, trailing only Joe Saunders (20) of the 2008 Los Angeles Angels. No. 3 Nelson Cruz (19) is tied with Torii Hunter of those same Angels for the fewest by a qualifying team’s third-best player. No. 4 Jose Berrios (18) is tied for the second-fewest by a qualifying team’s fourth-best player, trailing only Chone Figgins (17) of, you guessed it, the ’08 Angels. (And so forth.) Hundred-win teams like the Twins are usually driven by star performances, but Minnesota’s season has been built on depth.
You can see this most clearly if you map out the Twins’ pecking order by QWS against the average for all 204 teams since 1901 that had between 290 and 310 total QWS. Minnesota’s distribution of wins created has been far flatter — i.e., more egalitarian — than a typical team as good as the Twins have been:
This is yet another way in which Minnesota has delighted its fans throughout this charmed season — a team with a different hero emerging every night is especially easy to fall in love with. But what does it mean for the Twins in the playoffs? Do teams constructed on depth (instead of star power) tend to do better or worse in the postseason than we’d expect?
Our past research has suggested that a team’s roster balance (or imbalance) has no bearing — good or bad — on its future regular-season performance, after controlling for overall record. That study didn’t look specifically at the postseason, however, so for this story, I ran another quick test trying to predict a playoff team’s odds of winning or making the World Series depending on its total QWS, the share of QWS by its top five players and the size of the playoff field, using data since 1995. The logistic regression I ran found that teams with more balance — i.e., a smaller share of wins created by their top five players — were more likely to win a championship, but the effect was nowhere close to statistical significance.
That’s not exactly bad news for the Twins, mind you, if our prior was that teams with less star power would do definitively worse in the playoffs. But mainly it’s inconclusive about whether a team like Minnesota would gain any kind of extra advantage from its depth in the postseason.
Besides, the Yankees themselves have been far from the usual pinstriped powerhouse in terms of who has been leading the team to victory. New York’s QWS leader is former Rockies second baseman DJ LeMahieu, whose own tally of 27 is also among the lowest by the top player on a team with at least 299 total QWS. (New York has 314 QWS as a team.) The Yankees’ own relatively flat Win Share distribution looks more like that of the Twins than of the typical 100-game winner.
Of course, a big reason for this is the historic plague of injuries the team suffered earlier in the season, limiting the impact of stars Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton (both of whom exceeded 30 QWS — an MVP-type level — as recently as 2017) along with countless others. Many of those players will be available for the postseason, so the Yankees’ regular-season stats are probably underselling their true star power by the time the playoffs begin. For the Twins, though, the group they’ll take to the playoffs is the same one they won so much with all season long — sans a few names like Byron Buxton and Michael Pineda. It’s one lacking in top-line star power but exceptional in its depth.
Will that be enough to lift Minnesota’s Yankee hex? On the one hand, these Twins are better than usual: Minnesota went into its previous playoff encounters against New York with an average Elo rating of 1529, while this year’s team is currently rated 1544. Then again, the Yankees are also better than usual, sporting a 1584 rating against their usual average of 1560 against the Twins. So Minnesota will be an underdog again if it does end up facing the Yankees. But one thing is for sure — nothing would help add to the dreamlike quality of this Twins season like getting playoff redemption against the franchise’s longtime postseason nemesis.
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