Two years ago, the New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins appeared to be on a collision course for a major rivalry. En route to easily clinching their respective divisions with a pair of 100-win seasons, both squads featured dominant offenses powered by the long ball and above-average hitters at all nine spots in the order, a core of young talent under team control for multiple years, and pitching staffs that, while not the best in the league, were decidedly above-average.
Their regular season matchups were must-watch entertainment, and although the Yankees swept them three straight in the ALDS, there was every reason to believe that they would recreate the early-2000s and meet each other in the playoffs frequently over the next few seasons. In my first months at Pinstripe Alley, I even posed the question, “Are the Twins on par with the Yankees as a super-team?”
Then, something went very, very wrong. The 2021 Yankees season was widely considered a disappointment, due to the severely underperforming offense that led to “just” a 92-win season and an elimination in the AL Wild Card Game. The Twins, however, would have loved to be even within spitting distance of that performance, as the AL Central favorites instead fell to the division’s basement and were forced to sell at the trade deadline, ending the year with a 73-89 record (20 games behind the White Sox). How the mighty have fallen!
Here at Pinstripe Alley, we have been spending — and will continue to spend — quite a bit of time talking about this past season: what went wrong, what went right, and how the Yankees can plan this winter to put the team into a better position for 2022 and beyond. Amidst that, however, I think it’s worth taking a look at the Twins in order to see if there’s anything that we might be able to learn about the Yankees.
Now the common narrative surrounding Minnesota’s season has been that the offense had continued to show up, but the pitching staff was so dreadful that it held the team back. While that narrative may have been true early on in the season, by the end of the year, it was absolutely and demonstrably false: The Twins posted a 101 wRC+, identical to the Yankees’, and their 4.5 runs/game were seventh in the American League. (As a reminder, the Twins posted a 116 wRC+ in 2019 and scored 5.8 runs/game, while the Yankees had a 117 wRC+ and scored 5.8 runs/game). Despite deploying a number of the same players, the Twins offense was a shell of its former self.
Part of that offensive decline was the result of injuries. Catcher Mitch Garver, one of the league’s premier offensive backstops (his 137 wRC+ ranks third among catchers with at least 80 plate appearances), was limited to only 68 games this year due to a foul tip to the groin that required emergency surgery, put him on the shelf for more than six weeks. Lower back tightness then caused him to miss most of September. Byron Buxton, meanwhile, put up an MVP-worthy performance in a limited sample, posting a 169 wRC+ and accruing 4.2 fWAR/4.5 bWAR, but in just 61 games due to a hip strain and broken hand. And that doesn’t include the amount of time missed by everybody else. All told, the Twins only had one player in the lineup more than 135 times: Jorge Polanco.
Injuries, however, do not tell the whole story. The Twins’ Statcast numbers were, once again, absolutely fantastic, and in many ways similar to those of the Yankees. They ranked third in hard-hit rate with 39.6, 0.4 percentage points behind the league-leading Yankees and 0.2 behind the Red Sox. They led the league with a 9.3-percent barrel rate, 0.4 points above the second-place Yankees.
The Twins also got the ball in the air, hitting more fly balls than anybody else at 39.3 percent, two full percentage points above the ninth-place Yankees, and their HR/FB rate was fifth in the game at 17.7 percent. On top of that, they rarely put the ball on the ground, as their 38.6-percent groundball rate was best in baseball, and they hardly ever struck out — their 20.4-percent strikeout rate was third overall.
From these numbers, one might guess that the Twins’ problems offensively would be sequencing, and to some extent, that’s not wrong. FanGraphs’ BaseRuns, which removes sequencing from the equation and attempts to calculate how many runs a team should score based on the quality of contact, believes that the Twins underperformed their offensive output by 0.17 runs — a rather sizeable number compared to the other teams, many of which over- or underperformed expectations by 0.5 runs or fewer. But that amounts to only two additional wins, and even there, a large part of those two additional wins come from the pitching staff underperforming according to the system. Something else is at fault for the Twins’ offensive woes.
Unfortunately for the Twins, that fault is ultimately shared with the Yankees: a lack of offensive depth. Here are the stats for the 15 players with the most plate appearances for the Yankees and Twins, respectively:
The Yankees had two middle-of-the-order bats this year (Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton,) two above-average bats (well, one and a half, as Anthony Rizzo and Luke Voit hardly played at the same time), and a small army of hitters that ranged from perfectly average (DJ LeMahieu) to decidedly not (Rougned Odor). When this offense was on fire, they put runs on the board in bunches and won games in bunches — see that beautiful 13-game win streak in August — but for much of the year, there were landing spots aplenty for opposing pitchers looking to escape a jam.
Similarly, Minnesota’s lineup lacked big bats this year, especially once Buxton and Garver hit the shelf and Nelson Cruz was sent to Tampa Bay. They had a few thumpers — Josh Donaldson, Jorge Polanco, and Miguel Sanó are no slouches, and Luis Arraez is a very useful piece. The problem, however, was that once a pitcher got through that part of order — assuming they were all in the lineup at the same time, which wasn’t terribly common — he was confronted with the less scary faces of Max Kepler, Trevor Larnach, and Andrelton Simmons. The top of the order may have been deeper, albeit without players on the level of Judge and Stanton, but that was made up for by a bottom of a lineup that, in 2021 at least, would barely frighten a Double-A pitcher.
For both teams, these similar patterns resulted in offenses that contained many of the features that made them offensive juggernauts in recent years, but because they were contained primarily within the top part of the order, overall run production suffered greatly. In the end, that is, in my mind, the great lesson of the 2021 season: However many bats your lineup has, it can always use more — because you never know when injuries, underperformance, or regression might just wipe away your both your run-scoring ability and your playoff dreams.