We’re more than halfway through the 2019 MLB season, and the Cleveland Indians are ten games above the .500 mark (48-38). For you time-hoppers that saw no baseball at all between April and July, this isn’t all that surprising. After all, the Tribe had a similar record on July 4th in each of the past three years.
The main difference is that this season, that record has them trailing the division-rival Minnesota Twins (54-32) by six games in the standings. At this juncture, they’ve won more games than every American League team except the Yankees (56) and Astros (55). The Twins have stormed to the top tier of ESPN’s July 1st power rankings by breaking offensive records, while a Jose Berrios-led rotation has succeeded in preventing opposing offenses from fighting back. For Minnesotans, it’s and incredibly exciting (and stunningly sudden) reversal of last year’s script, a year when they finished the season in second place 78-84.
Wait, what? Wouldn’t that mean that the Twins are on pace to finish with 24 more wins than last season? Wow! You’d think they must have added some serious talent to their roster during the offseason. After all, 24 wins is like two and a half Mike Trouts, from a WAR perspective at least.
Here are the juggernaut superstars the Twins added to their roster this offseason: Nelson Cruz, Marwin Gonzalez, Jonathan Schoop, Martin Perez, Blake Parker, and C.J. Cron. Needless to say, that doesn’t look like two and a half Mike Trouts’ worth of talent.
Something smells fishy near the Great Lakes.
How We Got Here
This is the story from my perspective: the Twins were a bad team last year. This winter, they brought Cruz into the fold, along with several other people who have been league-average players or below in terms of career production. Then, in the first half of the season, the club rampaged to a 102-win pace because, with very few exceptions, each of their everyday players is having either the best season of his career or very close to it. Meanwhile, the Indians have struggled to stay in the picture, in part because Jose Ramirez has provided literally a tenth of the fWAR that he’d given them to this point last season, and also in part because Corey Kluber, Mike Clevinger and Carlos Carrasco have pitched just 125 total innings with a combined ERA above 5.00.
Before I dive into any of the above phenomena in-depth, I want to warn you all that I don’t plan to painstakingly analyze each player individually in order to try and explain what I think he’s likely to do moving forward. Today, my focus is more on the whole than the parts it’s made of.
Baseball, much more than most sports, is a game of statistics. As such, the following statements hold true in most cases…
1) When projecting a player’s performance for the next three months, the most probable outcome is that, barring injuries, his performance will closely reflect his true talent level.
2) When looking at past performance, a three-year sample size is generally more indicative of a player’s true talent level than is a three-month sample size.
It is important to note the italicized qualifiers. Thanks to the wacky nature of player development, there are plenty of exceptions to the above statements. However, if any of you play fantasy baseball, accepting these statements as truth would help you make the smarter trade or add/drop decision more often than not.
With that in mind, take a look at this chart. It lays out some offensive statistics of 12 Minnesota Twins, comparing their performances between 2016 and 2018 with their performances in 2019.
The Twins’ Offense: Then and Now
There’s so much to unpack here that it took me ten minutes of staring at my computer screen in order to decide where I should start. Then I noticed something fascinating in the wRC+ columns: from 2016-2018, half of these guys were below-average hitters. This season, all but two are suddenly at least 8 points above average in terms of wRC+. That’s wild. Looked at another way, the average wRC+ of these hitters between 2016 and 2018 was about 102. In the first half of 2019, it’s suddenly 118!
Obviously, part of the Twins’ success has come courtesy of production from Cruz and Cron that’s in line with their career norms. Good job, Twins, great investment! Heck, even though Schoop and Gonzalez have seen some decline, they’re still pretty close to average hitters, which is a step above what Minnesota would be getting from the next guy in line at Triple-A.
But these wild breakouts from Byron Buxton, Jason Castro, Jorge Polanco, Max Kepler, Miguel Sano, Ehire Adrianza and Mitch Garver all at once? With the exception of Garver, we’ve got about three times the plate appearance sample size to draw from for each player in the ’16-’18 columns as we do in the ’19 column. We’ve seen the Indians play against those first six guys for years. There’s a significant major-league performance sample to draw from. And now we’re just supposed to believe each of those six guys is suddenly the 2019 version of himself as opposed to something closer to his 2016-2018 counterpart? That those hitters are, on average, 28 wRC+ better than they’ve shown themselves to be in the past?
I call shenanigans.
The Twins’ Rotation: Then and Now
It gets even more outlandish when you consider that all of Jake Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson, Perez and Berrios are also on pace for the best seasons of their careers. Here’s the pitching version of the hitter chart I showed you earlier.
For the record, I have always believed that Berrios has a good ceiling. But to think that all four of these pitchers will continue to put up numbers they’ve hardly dreamt of before seems entirely ridiculous to me. For good measure, I’d like to point out that Berrios and Odorizzi each have an xFIP that’s nearly a run and a half higher than his respective ERA.
So, What, I’m Just Supposed to Believe This?
More than half of this club’s lineup and rotation is suddenly performing leaps and bounds above everything we’ve seen from them across their entire careers. That’s led to Bovada, a major online gambling site, ranking the Twins as a massive favorite in the division race (though 5Dimes and Opening actually both give the edge to the Indians at the moment).
For my part, I just don’t believe the Twins are actually a better team than the Indians. I’ve been fully prepared to die on this hill for the entire 2019 season so far. Maybe I sound like a madman by this point, but come on, am I supposed to just believe that after years of mediocrity, all six of the aforementioned Twins hitters have just suddenly transformed into superstars at the same time? Am I supposed to believe that four Twins starters are all enjoying true breakouts, all at once? Am I supposed to just believe that after back-to-back MVP-caliber seasons, Jose has lost all his talent without warning? Am I supposed to just believe that the Indians will continue to get below-average production from three Cy Young-caliber starters? And am I supposed to believe that none of this will regress to the mean in the second half of the season?
Because I don’t.
I can’t necessarily guarantee that this will all come crashing down, or that the Twins won’t somehow keep their grip on the division. But based on everything I know about baseball, the odds are in the Tribe’s favor.