It is easy to lose sight of the marathon length of the Major League Baseball season. 162 games, played in parts of six different months, present many opportunities to draw seemingly definitive conclusions from small samples and incomplete data. Ups and downs will invariably occur for players and teams over the course of a schedule that long. Yet, every year, long hot or cold streaks that deviate from expectations inspire sports media, analysts, and fans to make declarations with confidence about the value of players or teams. Invariably, many of those turn out to be wrong.
The Minnesota Twins’ start to the 2021 season has been, objectively, terrible. Pre-season projections had the Twins competing for the AL Central division title with the Chicago White Sox. Many outlets projected the Twins with the best chances to win the division and they were widely expected to be playoff contenders.
But that is not how it has played out, so far. Minnesota’s April was full of disruptions and challenges, including the death of bench coach Mike Bell, a rash of COVID infections, other player injuries, game postponements, and multiple games played in falling snow. The disrupted rhythm was compounded by miserable and improbable performances when the team was able to take the field. The failures often came in the most critical spots, which caused Minnesota to lose an abnormally high number of one-run and extra-inning games.
The result was a 9-15 record through April 30, putting the Twins 6 games behind Chicago in the standings. After the first month of play, the Twins’ postseason chances had absorbed a major hit. What once was a 63% chance to make the playoffs was cut in half to about 31% after just the first month.
Things did not improve immediately when the calendar flipped to May. The month began with consecutive series against Kansas City, Texas, and Detroit -- all teams expected to finish near the bottom of the standings. That soft schedule seemed like it would be an opportunity for the Twins to right the ship, but the team went just 4-6 in that stretch and continued to lose ground in the standings.
Three more series losses followed, including a road sweep at the hands of division rival Chicago. By May 20, the Twins were just 15-28 and 11.5 games behind Chicago in the AL Central standings. As a result, FanGraphs’ playoff odds models had cut the Twins’ chances to win the division to just 4% and their chances to make the playoffs at all had fallen to only 6.6%.
Thanks to their performance through that point, it became common to see headlines talking about the Twins having a lost season (the kinds of definitive declarations I mentioned at the top). These kinds of seasons lead to lots of public speculation about trading away current players at the mid-season trading deadline for future prospects. That July 30 event presents teams with their best opportunity to make something useful from their poor standing and make trades to acquire better, more cost effective talent for future seasons. In mid-May, many writers were starting to turn their attention to what the Twins might do as sellers at the trade deadline and to rumors of which players might be popular targets for opposing teams.
But, as I alluded to in the introduction to this article, May is too early to be certain about where the team might be and what it might do at the end of July. Minnesota has not yet even played a third of their scheduled games. Yes, the start has been very poor, but the season is far from over. The decision makers at the top of the organization are only just beginning to make their assessments and plans for the summer stretch.
What this means is the next 6 to 8 weeks are when the current roster must make their case to convince their bosses not to sell by giving them credible reasons to believe this team can compete for a playoff berth.
Before Wednesday’s game against Baltimore, Twins’ President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey said, “We know we need to punch above our weight for a period of time to get back where we need to be. There is no running from that.”
The good news, for Twins fans, is the team has started to show signs of being able to do that. Things finally seemed to start clicking over the past week. A road series win last weekend against division opponent Cleveland was followed by a 3 game sweep of Baltimore. Winning those five out of six games gave the Twins some momentum and breathed some life into their season. Heading into this weekend’s series with Kansas City, Minnesota was 20-29 and had cut their deficit to Chicago to 9 games.
Also in the positive column is the upcoming schedule presents some favorable opportunities to get back in it. The next three series are against Kansas City and Baltimore, two teams with poor records and current playoff chances that are even worse than Minnesota’s. Two tough home series against the Yankees and Astros come next before the Twins face another stretch of weak opponents, Texas and Seattle, through the middle week of June.
This upcoming stretch against mostly weak competition might present the Twins with their best opportunity to sustain their recent strong play and to recover from their poor start. If they want to save their 2021 season, they’ll need to make the most of it, now. If they miss their opportunity, like they did in early May, then we can make sweeping declarations about the 2021 season being lost.