Clutch hitting at center of Twins' emergence
Nearly flawless work from bullpen another key factor in run to AL Central lead
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Twins have been one of the biggest surprises in the Majors this year, 28-18 and tied for the American League Central lead with the Royals after completing a three-game sweep of the Red Sox on Wednesday.
The Twins have won seven of their past eight series, 19 of their past 25 games and 12 of their past 14 home games. They bounced back from a 1-6 record and have been the hottest team in the Majors over the last month, as their 22-8 record since April 25 is the best in the Majors in that span.
But the question is: How are they doing it?
On the offensive side, the Twins don't have an everyday position player hitting .300, while the club's .310 on-base percentage was 20th in the Majors entering Thursday and its .389 slugging percentage was 17th. And while Minnesota's pitching has undoubtedly been better than during the past four seasons, the club's ERA of 3.94 is the 16th-best mark in the Majors. On the defensive side, advanced metrics paint the team's defense as below average, as it's tied for 23rd in the Majors with minus-13 Defensive Runs Saved.
So while those raw numbers might not be overwhelming, here's a look at five reasons the Twins have been so successful early this season:
With nobody on base, the Twins are hitting just .238/.281/.368, but once they get runners into scoring position, they're batting .299/.375/.443. Joe Mauer (24 RBIs), Torii Hunter (24) and Trevor Plouffe (23) have all been a big part of that, as they rank among the top nine in the AL in RBIs with runners in scoring position. It's led to several big innings -- Minnesota has scored at least four runs in an inning 15 times this year -- and has helped the club score 212 runs, the eighth-highest total in the Majors.
The Twins have scored more runs (103) than any team in the Majors through the first three innings of games, including 25 first-inning runs. They are nearly unbeatable (20-6) when they score first. Teams win roughly 65 percent of the time when scoring first, so it's a good formula for success.
A lights-out bullpen
Minnesota's bullpen has a 3.85 ERA that ranks 19th in the Majors, but like the offense, the relievers are getting it done in clutch situations. The Twins have just one loss all season when leading after five innings -- a 6-5 loss to the Royals on April 21 -- so when they have a lead, they simply don't lose it. Blaine Boyer and Aaron Thompson have emerged as top setup relievers, while closer Glen Perkins is 18-for-18 in save opportunities, leading the Majors.
Improved starting pitching
It's no secret Twins starters struggled last year, as their 5.06 ERA was the worst in the Majors by a wide margin. But this year, they've been much better, as they've combined to post a 3.99 ERA that ranks 13th in the Majors. With an offense that's kept it up after finishing seventh in the Majors in runs scored last year, Minnesota's starters have 22 wins, which is tied for the most in baseball. And they've done it without right-hander Ervin Santana, who is due to return from his 80-game suspension on July 4.
It's not something that is measurable, and it's hard to say how much of an impact it's truly had, but it's obvious the Twins are a confident group and they're having fun while winning. Torii Hunter has helped loosen up the clubhouse with postgame dance parties at Target Field, with the player of the game dancing in front of his teammates in a fog-filled room. Minnesota manager Paul Molitor has been a calming influence and held a team meeting after the club's 1-6 start to assure his players it wasn't time to panic. Since then, the Twins are 27-12, including 17-6 at home over that span, which has led to plenty of dancing in Minnesota's clubhouse.