If we ran a poll, I’d imagine most people would tab the Yankees or the Rays as the best team in baseball. They have identical records at 78-48, and their .619 winning percentages are #1 in the game. However, neither of them lead MLB in WAR – that distinction belongs to the Minnesota Twins.
At +43.2 WAR, the Twins grade out as the top team to date using measures that don’t take contextual performance into account. As you probably know, WAR is mostly built on the foundation of wOBA, UZR, and FIP as the three main variables, representing offense, defense, and pitching, respectively. The Twins grade out well in each area.
Offensively, they have a team wOBA of .342, trailing only Boston and New York in offensive production. That is even more impressive than it sounds because of how pitcher friendly Target Field appears to be. We can’t make a declarative statement about exactly how the park plays with less than a partial season of data to work with, but all of the subjective evidence lends itself to the idea that it favors pitchers. Despite playing in a lower run environment, the Twins have still been able to put up some serious offensive numbers.
Their position players aren’t just lumbering oafs, either. Well, a few of them are, but they’re overshadowed by some high quality defenders, particularly on the infield. The Twins have posted a UZR of +24.3, 8th best in baseball. Their outfield isn’t much to write home about, but the quality around the infield is staggering. The Twins rank 2nd in UZR at first base, second base, and shortstop, and come in all the way down in 4th place at third base, two-tenths of a run away from a tie for second at that position as well.
Their run prevention isn’t just the defense, though – the pitching is legitimately good, too. They rank 6th in baseball in FIP, and all five teams ahead of them are National League clubs who don’t have to contend with a designated hitter. Their biggest strength is their annual refusal to walk anyone, as they have the lowest BB/9 (2.24) of any team in baseball. They are an evenly balanced staff, as well, as the starters FIP (3.83) and relievers FIP (3.80) are nearly identical.
So, if the Twins have performed well in nearly every aspect of the game, why don’t they have the best record in baseball? Well, the one area they haven’t been great at is the main thing that WAR excludes: situational performance.
As a team, the Twins are hitting .279/.342/.439 with no one on base. When they get someone on, then they’re hitting a nearly identical .280/.355/.428, and with runners in scoring position, it’s a similar .283/.365/.407 line. The problem is that most teams perform better with men on base and runners in scoring position than they do in bases empty situations, so the Twins offensive performance in run scoring situations is worse relative to the rest of the league than it is with no one on base.
The good news for Twins fans? That’s not really the kind of thing that is predictive in nature. That the Twins haven’t hit as well in those situations so far says little to nothing about how they’ll do in those situations going forward. If they begin to get the normal bump that teams see with runners on base, their offense could become even more efficient.
The Yankees and Rays are good teams. The Rangers are, too. But don’t sleep on the Twins – you can make a pretty good case that they’re the best team in baseball this year. I certainly wouldn’t want to play them in October.