Can the Pirates replicate the Twins’ turnaround?

The Pittsburgh Pirates limped to 75 wins this season. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Twins won 26 more games in 2017 than they did in 2016. What lessons can the Pirates learn from Minnesota’s quick turnaround?

The Minnesota Twins lost in the American League Wild Card game last night. Though the club and its fans would have obviously liked to see a different result, they should not lose sight of the fact that the club won 26 more games year-over-year. That is a remarkable feat, and one that the Pittsburgh Pirates should take notice of.

That type of turnaround in a single year is highly uncommon.  And that is especially true for the 2017 Twins, who have the “distinction” of had the most losses the year prior while making the postseason.

The Twins went 20-10 in August, their clubhouse galvanized by the changes swirling about them.

One would have to think that for a team to pull off such a feat, they would have to bring a considerable amount of talent in. Or perhaps they would have several impact prospects take developmental leaps great enough to carry a team to the playoffs.

None of that happened with Minnesota. At least, not to the degree you would think.

No, their amazing turnaround was partly organic, partly expected and partly surprising. There are some lessons to be learned from their 2017 season, and teams like the Pirates — close enough to contention to conceivably make the postseason in 2018 — should be paying attention.

Defense defense defense

Byron Buxton is a star in the making. Photo credit – Keith Allison

The Twins were a horrific defensive team in 2016, with a defensive runs saved rating of -49. They quickly rebounded to a +17 rating in 2017. For their part, the Pittsburgh Pirates also rebounded from bad defense, going from a -17 DRS in 2016 to a +15 rating this season.

Even though the Pirates too have improved defensively, they can still learn something from how the Twins went about their everyday play. A quick look up and down the Twins roster shows a cabal of players who have made modest defensive improvements.

Byron Buxton grabs the headlines with a 21-run improvement, but others like Robbie Grossman (-18 in 2016; -3 in 2017), and new-for-2017 catcher Jason Castro (+7 DRS against previous catcher Kurt Suzuki‘s -7) have turned in solid improvements.

The Pirates can easily do the same thing. One would have to think that a full Spring Training with Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen in their familiar haunts of left field and center field, respectively, could have a positive effect on the club’s overall defensive numbers. Add in expected improvement from Josh Bell at first base, and the Pirates could conceivably continue to get better in the field, maximizing their talent in the process.

UPDATE: As this piece was originally posted on October 4th of last year, obviously the McCutchen note above no longer qualifies, but the point is the same. Though he rebounded somewhat from his 2016 -28 Defensive Runs Saved rating to post a -16 rating in 2017, McCutchen’s departure may amount to addition by subtraction in regards to defense.

Come out of the blocks well and then weather the storms

The Twins got off to a surprising 12-11 start in the season’s first month. That’s a modest win total, but not for a club that lost 103 games the year prior. 12 wins in the season’s opening stretch emboldened the Twins with the mindset that they could surprise more than a few people.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are traditionally a slow-starting club. It did not help that a huge curveball was thrown their way in April with the Marte suspension. However, the fact remains that Minnesota’s quality start to the season was a monumentally positive factor in shaping the rest of their season, while the Pirates’ was anything but.

The Twins then had to deal with some rain clouds of their own in the form of middling May and June months, leaving them at 40-38 entering July. The summer’s apex did them no favors either, as their 10-15 record showed. They then began to sell, giving away their closer Brandon Kintzler and flipping starter Jaime Garcia after acquiring him just a week earlier.

Most clubs would have folded nearly on the spot. The Twins didn’t. They went 20-10 in August, their clubhouse galvanized by the changes swirling about them.

There’s something to be said for how the Twins went about their business after disappointment and challenge. Contrast that to the Pittsburgh Pirates, who seemed to let the distractions seep into the clubhouse, both at the deadline — when the club clearly did not do enough to address a team that could still contend — and later in the summer when Juan Nicasio slipped through the cracks.

Hang around, then get hot

If you look at the Twins’ offensive numbers year-over-year, you will see a ton of similarity. Though the club did walk more often while taking less strikeouts, the end result of their work with the sticks in 2017 was an improvement of about 93 runs. Certainly a welcomed improvement, but that would translate to about 9-10 more wins, a far cry from the 26 game jump the Twins enjoyed. How do we explain the gap between expected record improvement and what actually occurred?

Back to that August for a second. On the first day of that month the Twins were holding on to postseason hopes. Barely. Here is what the American League looked like on that day, courtesy of Baseball Reference:

At 50-44, the Twins were behind eventual pretenders in the Royals, Rays, Mariners, Orioles and Angels in the Wild Card race.  They rattled off 20 wins over August by exploding for 177 runs in those 30 games, an average of 5.9 runs per game. Previous to the summer’s dog days, the Twinkies’ previous high for runs in a month came in May when they brought 125 runners home.

The Twins certainly had the bats to do it — Brian Dozier and Eddie Rosario each tailled nine homers for the month; Byron Buxton tagged eight, and Max Kepler taillied seven — and they made up considerable ground as a result.

The Pittsburgh Pirates seemingly have the bats to get hot at any given time. They certainly have talent up and down their everyday roster, with Marte, McCutchen and Bell headlining. If they could only get more out of the third base position — Jung Ho Kang, anyone? — coupled with more consistent production from the enigmatic Gregory Polanco, This club’s big-name bats could get hot at any point in the season.

UPDATE: Obviously, Colin Moran has the inside track to a starting third base nod, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ run production can heat up in a hurry. The other points still stand, however, as Polanco and Marte will have to step up to replace McCutchen’s production.

Putting it all together

You’ll notice that I did not go much into many statistical facts in this post.

None of that happened with Minnesota. At least, not to the degree you would think.

The reason for that is simple: statistics (other than the defensive metrics listed above) simply do not tell us much about this Twins team, or at least how they manufactured such an amazing turnaround.

Minnesota ranked 8th in the 15 team American League in home runs, ditto for wRC+. That figure was even below average with a 98 rating. Ditto again for offensive fWAR, coming in at — you guessed it — 8th with 36.6.

On the pitching side, there was nothing to write home about in particular. A quick glance at how their hurlers rank among the AL leaves the reader with an unimpressed feeling. The club ranked 14th in K/9, 11th in BB/9, and tied with the Texas Rangers for dead-last in pitching fWAR with 18.4.

The Minnesota Twins turned their fortunes around with solid defensive play and getting hot at the right time, all while maintaining a tight clubhouse. Sure, they got boosts from a prospect panning out in Jose Berrios, a career year from utility man Eduardo Escobar and they wrung every last drop of talent form their pitching.

But it was other factors that led them to a 26-game improvement. There is nothing about how they went about it that is not repeatable.

If the Pittsburgh Pirates took notice, they might find that they are closer to pulling off what the Twins did that they might think.

Image credit – Flickr Creative Commons

Jason Rollison

Jason Rollison has been analyzing baseball and the Pirates in one way or another for 4+ years. Jason's previous stops include, Pittsburgh Sporting News, Call To The Pen and several print publications. He also covers the State College Spikes for the Centre County Gazette (State College, PA) When it comes to analyzing baseball, he likes to take a middle-of-the-road approach, with one foot on the analytics side of the fence and the other on the old-school side. Having said that, he is a sucker for pitchf/x. Jason has appeared as a phone-in and in-studio guests in numerous outlets, including Trib Live Radio and 93.7 The Fan (CBS Sports Radio)