The Braves, Twins, and Preparing an Early-Season Grave

Inevitably, after just a week and change’s worth of games, we find players on teams that have gotten off to slow starts saying things about how it’s just April, and win-loss records don’t matter too much. Outward optimism is sort of a prerequisite if you’re a professional athlete — whether you truly feel it or not — but there’s no doubt the majority of players who make these comments most likely believe them. It is early, and there’s plenty of time left in the season. But, as Jeff pointed out this week, the games matter! Playoff odds have changed. For the Braves, they never really had a shot to begin with, so starting 0-8 doesn’t change too much. But for the Minnesota Twins, their longshot campaign to make the playoffs this season has taken a faceplant.

Let’s talk about the Twins first, as they’re the big story here, and the American League Central is likely to be one of the most competitive divisions in baseball this season. Though our projections liked (and still like) Cleveland’s team this season, the Royals have declared war on those projections, and the Tigers and White Sox have built interesting teams with upside. That is true to some extent for the Twins as well: they’re building for the future, sure, but they also have some intriguing breakout candidates who could theoretically propel them into contention in a division that doesn’t have a clear-cut top dog. Those are the makings of a potentially great four- or five-way division battle throughout the season! Or else, that was the idea until now, eight games into the season, when the Twins find themselves 0-8. Here’s what that has done to their potential playoff odds (click on the image for a larger version):

AL_Central

Bad things. We projected the Twins to have a shot — albeit a long one — at making the playoffs out of the Central this year. On Opening Day, that probability was just below 15%. Today, eight games later, it’s 4.3%. That could happen at any point during the year, but everything tends to take on a different quality at the beginning of the season: there’s such a hard delineation between non-baseball and baseball, and it’s juxtaposed against the sometimes elastic start and end points we create to compare individual and team performance when we’re in, say, July or September. The Twins have been woeful for every baseball game they’ve played in 2016, and we can see it right there in the playoff odds.

Minnesota got here largely by way of the futility of their offense in the early-going. They’ve only scored 13 runs in eight games, and that’s been fueled by an almost 30% strikeout rate. Not only have they been terrible overall at the plate, but they’ve been most terrible when it counts: we don’t put much predictive value (or any) into stats like batting average with runners in scoring position, but the Twins have hit .082 with RISP in 2016 — driven in large part by a .132 BABIP in those situations. That will change for the better, obviously, but they can’t get those situations and games back in which they’ve underperformed. Those are the sort of stats that lead to -2.56 offensive Win Probability Added, which is worst in baseball by over half a win (already!). Whether through some poor fortune or not, the Twins’ offense has been more or less non-existent this season.

Their bullpen (already a weak spot) also just lost closer Glen Perkins, and reports of a frayed labrum will most likely dash any hopes of a minimum disabled-list stay. That leaves Kevin Jepsen and Trevor May to handle end-of-game duties, though the latter is likely to eventually rise to the top of the heap if Perkins is out for an extended period. Nevertheless, the bullpen has been the other big reason for Minnesota’s struggles, as they have run a second-worst (only to the Braves) reliever -1.44 WPA through eight games. Lack of timely hitting and a bad bullpen is basically the fundamental recipe for losing games.

But all is not lost, right? Surely we can look at the history of teams that start a season 0-8 and find some solace for the Twins’ chances? Maybe not. On 28 occasions since 1871 a club has begun the season with an 0-8 record, and, well, all 28 of those teams failed to make the postseason. That doesn’t mean the Twins won’t do it, it just means that there’s no historic precedence for it. The most recent team to go 0-8 to start a season was Houston in 2010, who ended up finishing 76-86; the team to finish with the best record after going 0-8 was also Houston, this time in 1983, with a record of 85-77. With the new playoff format, 85 wins wouldn’t necessarily put the playoffs out of reach, should the Twins be able to make it to that mark; the Astros qualified for a Wild Card berth with just 86 wins last season, after all.

For the Braves, we might not have expected this, but we could imagine it. Teams are never supposed to go on eight-game losing streaks, but it makes some sense given where the team currently finds itself. At the beginning of the season, we projected the Braves to be the worst team in baseball; so far, they’ve met those expectations. Their starters have been poor; their bullpen has been the worst in the majors; they’ve also had the worst position players by WAR in baseball. None of that is too out of line, whereas for the Twins, this feels like underperformance.

If we think of baseball season as a marathon, the Twins are basically still at the starting line while the best teams are already over a mile down the course. They can make that up, but they’re starting with a severe disadvantage, and they simply might not have the tools to do so. If we set a baseline goal of 85 wins for the Twins, they have to play .552 baseball for the rest of the year — technically doable, but probably a stretch unless some of those aforementioned breakout candidates take the next step. And, to be fair, those breakout candidates were always going to have to take the next step for the Twins to make the playoffs this year — even before they lost the first eight games of the season. Minnesota isn’t out of it yet. But the odds — and history — aren’t on their side.

We hoped you liked reading The Braves, Twins, and Preparing an Early-Season Grave by Owen Watson!

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Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.

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OddBall Herrera
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OddBall Herrera

I think people missed that this was the Twins’ month by month breakdown last year:

April 10 12 86 100 .455
May 20 7 139 104 .741
June 11 17 103 121 .393
July 12 13 106 109 .480
August 14 14 130 137 .500
September 15 13 125 113 .536
October 1 3 7 16 .250

That looks a lot like a cruddy->mediocre team for all but a short stretch May. They basically coasted into contention on the strength of that one streak, and they would’ve been much better off counting their blessings from last year and acting like a rebuilding team by doing things like starting Buxton in AAA.

OddBall Herrera
Member
OddBall Herrera

FYI the headers on that graph are
Month, Wins, Losses, Runs for, Runs Against, W%

Jetsy Extrano
Member
Jetsy Extrano

Historically, does “last year win% after removing an outlier month” predict this year better than plain “last year win %”? Or worse?

OddBall Herrera
Member
OddBall Herrera

I don’t think it’s a reach at all to say that players or teams can go on a hot streak that is not representative of their true talent level, and that if teams make decisions based upon those hot streaks they are making a mistake. The fact that the Twins mostly had a summer of mediocrity with one really good stretch in it (let’s not get overly attached to the calendar month thing, it’s not the point) that inflated their win %, looks a lot like an example of said hot streak. This is simple stuff, but thanks for the snark anyway.