The Brewers traveled to my former stomping ground of Minneapolis for an inter-league series against the Minnesota Twins this weekend, taking two of three for a nice series win. While the Brewers walked away winners this weekend, there is no team in Major League Baseball that has been a bigger surprise thus far than the Twins. In 2014, the Twins were the second worst team in the American League, posting a 70-92 record that cost long time manager Ron Gardenhire his job after 13 years with the Twins. That was the Twins fourth consecutive season with more than 90 losses. Just one year later, they sit in first place in the AL Central at 33-23, almost half way to their win total of last year through just 56 games.
I’m not here to gush about my second favorite baseball team- quite frankly, I’d trade 20 Twins World Series wins for just one Brewers World Series appearance. What I find so interesting about the Twins, however, is how they were able to turn an off-season with minimal transactions and parlay into a wildly successful 2015 campaign. This is exactly the type of approach the 2015 Brewers took, and yet the results have been the polar opposite. What did the Twins do right, and more importantly, how did the Brewers go so wrong?
To the dismay of some Twins fans, Minnesota began the 2015 campaign with a starting lineup that returned seven of eight position players from last year. The only difference was 38 year old Torie Hunter, a fan favorite, but many years past his prime (or so we thought). The thought process behind the similar starting lineup was that the Twin’s hitting was actually a strength during the 2014 season. They finished 5th in the AL in total runs, and second in doubles and on base percentage. Sound familiar?
The Brewers opened the 2015 campaign with only one new face in the starting lineup, first baseman Adam Lind. Why? Because the Brewers also claimed hitting to be a strength during the 2014 campaign. They finished 6th in the NL in runs, third in doubles, fifth in home runs, and fourth in slugging. While these aren’t championship caliber numbers, they were better than the league average. This “above average” mentality lent itself well to the thought process that Adam Lind could have been just what the Brewers needed to become a championship caliber hitting team. The Twins took a nearly identical approach.
Quite obviously, it hasn’t played out well for the Brewers. Their hitting numbers in nearly every major category are worse than last year. They are second last in the league in runs, dead last in the Majors in batting average and second worst in on base percentage. So one would assume that if the Twins have nearly twice as many wins as the Brewers, their hitting has drastically improved, right? Actually, that’s not the case at all. Last year they were second in the AL in doubles and on base percentage, but this year they’ve dropped to ninth in doubles (89) and 11th in OBP (.303). They are getting on base less often, but are fourth in the majors in batting with runners in scoring position. Still, the hitting numbers have been pretty much on par with last year’s Twins team. So how are they winning so many games?
The biggest statistical difference between the Twins and the Brewers this year is the starting pitching. Last off-season, the Brewers took the same approach with their pitching staff as they did with their hitters. They believed the pitching staff had what it took to get them to the playoffs, and that 2014 was proof of that. Brewers starters threw 103 quality starts in 2014, good for third best in the major leagues. This led the organization to be so confident in their starting pitching that they actually traded away a key piece of that rotation in Yovanni Gallardo, who threw 20 of those quality starts, to make room in the rotation for top pitching prospect Jimmy Nelson. Because Nelson was the bonafide 6th starter last year, the rotation was nearly identical to that of 2014, sans Gallardo.
The 2014 Twins pitching staff was nothing short of a disaster. They were injury ridden all year and ranked dead last in the Major Leagues in ERA and second last in quality starts. The decision to improve the pitching was an easy one for Twins organization – it could not have been more obvious given the numbers. However, they didn’t completely blow up the roster; they returned three of five from the 2014 campaign in Phil Hughes, Kyle Gibson, and Ricky Nolasco, and got a definite boost from Mike Pelfrey’s return from injury (Pelfrey held the Brewers scoreless through eight today, and is 5-2 on the year). They did make a major off-season signing with the right handed Ervin Santata, a 30 game starter the past five season with a sub 4.00 ERA in four of those five seasons. However Santana won’t appear in a Twins uniform until after the All Star break, as he is currently serving an 80-game suspension for steroids. The Twins also obtained J.R. Graham in a Rule 5 pick, who has been outstanding in 15 appearances. With only one new face and the return of an injured player, the Minnesota bullpen does bare a striking resemblance to last year.
All in all, both the Brewers and the Twins made only a couple of small moves in the off-season. So how is it that the Twins are the hottest team in baseball and the Brewers are in the middle of their worst season in franchise history? I’ve got two ideas.
The first is age of the returning pitchers. Take a look at the ages three starters that returned in the Twins rotation, Hughes (29), Gibson (27), and Nolasco (32). Compare that to the Brewers top three healthy starters in Lohse (36), Garza (31) and Fiers (30). With the stress put on the arm by major league pitching, a team is much more likely to see year over year improvement with a younger group compared to the trio of thirty year-olds the Brewers have. Yes, Peralta and Nelson represent a younger generation of pitchers, but Peralta is hurt, and Nelson is a rookie. The Twins are working with experienced pitchers who are entering the prime of their careers.
The second thing I can point to is the decision to hire Paul Molitor during the off-season. I’ve already recapped how the timing of the decision to fire Ron Roenicke in May made no sense, and I firmly believe that Minnesota’s success if in part due to their willingness to pull the trigger on a new manager last November. Molitor’s hiring sent a message that the organization was turning over a new page. It gave him time to bring in his own coaching staff, and to begin to craft is own message in the locker room from scratch. He had a winter to familiarize himself with the players, prepare for spring training, and start to get the trust of the players in the club house. You can’t really quantify this with numbers, but the overall results don’t lie; the Twins are playing different and better baseball with a roster that is relatively the same as it was last year, and they’re doing it without a starter batting over .290. They’re playing clutch team baseball and finding ways to win ball games, and I think the manager has everything to do with that.
The Brewers and Twins are two organizations with similar 2014 off-seasons, with as different of a result as numerically possible in 2015. While firing Ron Roenicke last October would not have solved all of the issues with this team, I certainly believe it would have led them to a better record than where they sit now. Even though the Brewers won two of three in Minneapolis this weekend, it is the Twins who are the clear winners thus far in the 2015 season. While Twins fans are beginning the summer with their eyes on October, Brewers fans are left to wonder if they’ll see a playoff berth this decade.