Breaking down the Twins' offense, position by position

John Foley

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Mitch Garver's struggles at the plate are a driving factor in the Twins' recent skidPhoto by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Through 23 games, the Minnesota offense has scored 102 runs, an average of 4.43 runs per game. That average ranks 11th in the Major Leagues. The team’s overall offensive numbers are more on the good side of average than clearly good or bad, but the season-long data hides the depth of the team’s recent struggles at the plate.

The Twins scored five or more runs four times in their first seven games this season. Since a 10-2 win over Seattle on April 8 that put the club at 5-2 in the standings, they’ve won just 3 of their next 16 games, falling to their current 8-15 record. In the span of that skid the team’s offense has scored more than five runs just three times and averaged 3.50 runs per game. That mark is even propped up by a 12 run outburst against Oakland last week and 10 run game against Cleveland earlier this week. The club has scored two runs or less in 8 of their last 16 games. If you remove the two high scoring games from the list, the average runs per game drops down to 2.43 in the other games over that span.

Correctly, much has been made in the press and social media of the Twins’ bullpen that has 8 losses, a combined 4.83 ERA, and is just 4 of 9 in converting save opportunities. But it is also true that no team is going to win with regularity with offensive output like what the Twins have produced the past few weeks.

With that in mind, I wanted to take a look at where these struggles with the bats are coming from. More specifically, which position groups and players are contributing to them most? And, are there any signs things could turn around?

I pulled the Twins’ offensive performance data by position group from FanGraphs. In particular, I looked at the statistic weighted runs created plus (wRC+), a rate statistic which attempts to credit a hitter for the value of each batting outcome (single, double, home run, etc.) rather than treating all hits or times on base equally (like batting average or on base percentage do). wRC+ is set relative to the league average of 100. Any point above or below 100 is a percent above or below average.

The table below shows the Twins production by this measure so far in 2021 for each position group:

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Twins wRC+ by position group, 2021Data sourced from FanGraphs.com

By these measures, you can see the team’s overall data is on the good side of the middle of the pack so far in 2021. For some historical context, the 2020 Twins collectively posted 101 wRC+ (ranked 16th). That represented a major decline from the 2019 “Bomba Squad” team that delivered 116 wRC+ (t-2nd).

Third base, Center Field, and Designated Hitter (green shaded cells) are the only spots that have clearly held their own at the plate, largely due to the strong performances of Josh Donaldson (141 wRC+), Luis Arraez (113), Byron Buxton (295), and Nelson Cruz (192) at those positions so far. The rest of the lineup has mostly struggled, thanks to a combination of poor performances and injuries and illness necessitating that backup players take more plate appearances than was planned.

Let’s dive in on the three biggest trouble spots, shaded in red in the table above -- catcher, left field, and right field -- and the players who covered those positions so far. All data below was sourced from FanGraphs.com through games completed on April 28 and the individual player stat lines shown are batting average / on base percentage / slugging percentage.

Catcher (54 wRC+, 25th)

Mitch Garver: 78 wRC+, .172 / .213 / .431

Ryan Jeffers: 15 wRC+, .147 / .216 / .176

Heading into the season, the Twins appeared to be in an enviable position behind the plate. Garver had established himself as one of the best Twins’ offensive catchers in recent memory with a breakout 31 home run, 155 wRC+ 2019 season and Jeffers impressed (119 wRC+) in a 26 game debut campaign in last year’s abbreviated season. Jeffers’ success resulted in him making several top 100 prospect lists this past offseason.

Given the rare outlook of having two, quality offensive catchers Manager Rocco Baldelli described the Twins as having “two regular catchers” before the season and intimated Garver and Jeffers would split playing time about equally. Thus far, the starts have been just slightly split toward Garver’s favor, but neither catcher has hit enough to justify a change in the playing time arrangement. Collectively, (and surprisingly) catcher has been an offensive black hole so far in 2021.

The pair of backstops have combined to strike out in 45.9% of their plate appearances, a rate that is far and away the worst of any catching group in baseball. At one point in recent games the two combined to strike out in nine straight plate appearances. It’s hard not to wonder if the timeshare is impacting both players in a negative way.

If you squint hard enough, you can say the signs of optimism include Garver’s two home runs Wednesday against Cleveland and the simple truth that the law of averages and the two players' pedigrees mean the two catchers’ numbers will almost certainly improve from these depths with more plate appearances as the season goes on. That said, the lack of contact by both players is alarming. Until that improves it will be difficult for this position to become productive.

Left Field (39 wRC+, 30th)

Jake Cave: 55 wRC+, .182 / .250 / .288

Kyle Garlick: 103 wRC+, .280 / .321 / .400

Brent Rooker: 0 wRC+, .103 / .133 / .241

Alex Kirilloff: minus-32 wRC+, .115 / .115 / .154

After letting long time Left Fielder Eddie Rosario go this past offseason, the Twins plan was to mix and match in left field. Left-handed swinging, veteran backup outfielder Jake Cave and right-handed swinging waiver claim Kyle Garlick were expected to platoon as the primary players in left for the beginning of the season, with utility man Arraez occasionally seeing time there, too. Injuries and illness quickly threw that plan out the window.

Cave’s role was quickly modified to cover innings in Center Field and Right Field thanks to injuries and illness with Buxton and Max Kepler. As a result, he’s only started six games in left field this season. Garlick has missed significant time thanks to illness, which has limited him to only five starts in left. Arraez has started four games in left and rookies Brent Rooker (2 starts and just returned from his own injured list stint) and top prospect Alex Kirilloff (6 starts) have covered the remaining.

Now that Garlick is close to returning to form the right-handed side of the platoon and Kirilloff seems to have been promoted to stay and take the majority of at bats from the left-side, the future in Left Field seems brighter than the results received so far.

Kirilloff’s numbers above shouldn’t be read into deeply. They’ve come in only 26 plate appearances since being promoted last weekend and he’s hit a number of balls hard that were unluckily caught by defenders. He's regarded as one of the top 25 propsects in all of baseball for his strong bat and his numbers figure to improve with additional playing time. Arraez and his high-contact bat still figure to see spot duty in left from time to time as well.

Right Field (57 wRC+, 30th)

Max Kepler: 89 wRC+, .234 / .315 / .362

Jake Cave: 55 wRC+, .182 / .250 / .288

Brent Rooker: 0 wRC+, .103 / .133 / .241

Long-time right fielder Max Kepler had gotten off to a slow start after a Spring Training slump before missing time with illness like a number of his teammates. Behind Kepler is the same cast of characters as Left Field, with Cave and Rooker picking up the bulk of the innings in Kepler’s absence. Kepler should return to the lineup this coming weekend and would figure to return to his every day role in Right Field, pushing Cave and Rooker back to spot duty where they stand a better chance of finding regular success.

Kepler’s return should bring the production the Twins get from Right Field back near or slightly above league average, which is where the team has ranked at that position the past two seasons (2020: 101 wRC+, 2019: 110 wRC+). Of the three position groups analyzed here, Right Field is the one to feel most confident about seeing a rebound, thanks to Kepler’s track record (career 102 wRC+).

Conclusion

Overall, the Twins offense has struggled to find a consistent, productive rhythm so far. The team’s schedule and roster has been disrupted in various ways by postponements, injuries, illness, and poor performance. It appears they are on the other side of many of those issues now and Twins fans can hope that a chance to settle into the consistent day to day grind of the Major League schedule with their best lineups will only help the team find consistency and improved performance.

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I analyze and write about the Minnesota Twins. My perspective has been developed from my lifelong fandom of the Twins, collegiate playing days as a pitcher, and graduate education in business and analytics. My goal is to use my experience in baseball and familiarity with its numbers and data to explain, inform, and educate about the events happening on and off the field.

Minneapolis, MN
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