By Marc Normandin
Here's the thing about the 2013 Twins: they weren't supposed to be any good. And true to expectations, they aren't. But the path they have taken to get there is surprising, even though the destination was assumed -- surprising in the sense that the Twins have taken the things they already weren't any good at to extremes.
They aren't hitting. The team's OPS+ is just 92, third-worst in the American League and tied with the Houston Astros, who have been accused of intentionally trying to lose in order to bolster their draft quality while they rebuild. What's fascinating -- or infuriating, if you're a Twins fan -- is that the hitters aren't all great defenders who are making it up elsewhere: this is a team full of bad hitters who can't field, and it's eliminating any of the good from the players who can do any of either.
Defensive Efficiency is a Baseball Prospectus defensive statistic, and it's the simplest one to understand -- even simpler than the so-simple-it's-pointless Fielding Percentage, except without the "pointless" bit tagged on. Defensive Efficiency measures the percentage of balls in play that are converted into outs. That includes errors, which, as you're aware, are not outs, so it penalizes teams for not only the balls they don't get to, but also the ones they muff. The Twins, who can't hit, also rank third-to-last in Defensive Efficiency, in both the AL and the majors as a whole.
The Twins used to be about pitching and defense, which is why, even now, you sometimes hear baseball announcers for opposing teams talking about the "Twins' way" and "the little things," and acting surprised when Minnesota messes up defensively. They shuttered that tactic a few years ago, back in the time of Jim Thome's Dinger Show, for a lineup that could out-slug the opposition. The problem is, a few years later, they have lost the offense, but haven't fixed the defense -- in fact, it's worse than it was since both Ben Revere and Denard Span were shipped out. And now they also have a pitching staff incapable of picking up the slack.
It would be easier for the Twins' pitching to succeed if they were missing bats, given how few balls in play the gloves behind them are effectively taking care of. The Twins don't strike hitters out, though, making things that much worse. They are dead last in strikeout rate, at 5.8 per nine -- they are the only team with fewer than 6.5, well below the current league average of 7.6. It's not the bullpen's fault, as they're punching out a decent enough eight batters per nine, but the rotation is at -- brace yourself -- 4.4 strikeouts per nine. That's bad without context, but let's make sure we all realize how terrible it actually is. There are 99 pitchers who qualify for the ERA title in 2013 as of Thursday. Only two of them have personal strikeout rates per nine innings lower than what the Twins have received out of all of their starters as a unit.
The Twins strike out so few batters that their closer, Glen Perkins, leads the team in strikeouts. He's the only Twins pitcher with more than 30 (34), and has reached that mark in 21 ⅔ innings. Twins starting pitchers as a whole have punched out 145, but it took them over 299 innings to get there - if you gave Perkins 299 innings at his current strikeout pace, he'd be at nearly 470 by now.
Getting back to that list from before: The lowest-ranked pitcher on it is a Twin, Kevin Correia. Correia's 4.09 ERA is higher than his 3.7 strikeout rate, and his FIP (5.24) is even loftier still. Since he doesn't induce an inordinate amount of grounders, is stranding 82 percent of base runners despite giving up 1.7 homers per nine while pitching home games in a neutralish park, and has had control above and beyond what we normally expect out of him in the season's first two months, you can expect his ERA to slide back towards that FIP with time. That's bad news for the Twins, who don't have any more room for bad news in their rotation.
By the way, Correia leads all the Twins' starters in strikeouts.
Combine their propensity for allowing contact with the defense behind them, and you get the cumulative .324/.369/.506 line Twins' starters have allowed through 56 games. Were that line the property of a single hitter, said hypothetical Twins killer would rank 25th in the majors among qualifiers. They're essentially turning every hitter into the 2013 versions of Adrian Beltre, Carlos Santana, and Ryan Braun, and that's no way to win baseball games.
Especially when, as mentioned, they can't hit.
Not all is lost, though. The Twins have botched 2013, and it's going to be difficult to fix that without a complete roster overhaul, but they do have some young players worth paying attention to this season, though. Aaron Hicks has had trouble, but he's also a 23-year-old rookie who probably shouldn't have begun the year in the bigs. It hasn't been pretty overall, but he has managed a 722 OPS since May 1 thanks to six homers and 13 extra-base hits overall in that stretch. If not for the .234 batting average on balls in play he's currently sporting, he'd look far more impressive: that's the kind of thing that time can fix. Even better, Hicks is a high-quality defender, one of the few the Twins possess.
There is also Oswaldo Arcia, who has basically been Minnesota's utility man this year. The 22-year-old arrived in the majors in mid-April, and has hit .255/.318/.449 since. There's work to be done, obviously, but he's still a kid in the baseball world, and Baseball America ranked him the No. 43 prospect in the game heading into the season -- that's about 30 spots higher than they had Hicks.
Trevor Plouffe is 27, but he's also not a free agent until 2018 at the earliest, and is outhitting everyone on the roster besides Joe Mauer and Josh Willingham. He's part of the problem defensively, but he could always switch over to DH over the life of his deal.
And while he's not on the roster yet, Byron Buxton began the year as Baseball America's 10th-ranked prospect, and the 19-year-old is currently dominating the Midwest League to the tune of .348/.444/.578. When he's ready for the majors, the 2012 draft pick should be able to help the Twins out on both sides of the ball. If he could only pitch, too.
To be fair, there is some good news on the pitching side, too. Scott Diamond is 26, and while he hasn't been great in 2013, he's still a slightly above-average pitcher in his 44 career starts, thanks to wonderful control and a career grounder rate over 50 percent. He's not going to win championships for you by himself, but Diamond could be a solid cost-controlled piece helping to keep the Twins in a game. It doesn't sound like much, but they lack anything like that outside of Diamond at the moment.
The 2013 season is going to continue to be rough. The Twins can't miss any bats, and the few pitchers they have attempted to bring in to the mix to do so aren't very good. They can't defend, they can't hit in more lineup spots than they can hit, and the team, while featuring a few intriguing young players, is mostly made up of those killing time until better ones can be acquired. It's a depressing state they're in, but it's what happens when you spend the winter magnifying already apparent weaknesses.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written forBaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.