Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Schedule Tipping in Twins' Direction

By Matt Tschida

The Twins just needed a little more AL Central and a little less AL East in their game day diets.

Based on how they'd performed over the last five seasons, when the Twins looked at their 2011 schedule they had to know they were in for a tough battle early. Add key injuries to a heavy dose of the AL East, and you're left with a putrid 9-15 start and a 7.0-game deficit.

Looking at the past five seasons, the Twins have dominated against the AL Central (.560 winning percentage), against NL Teams in interleague play (.678 winning percentage), and to a lesser extent the AL West (.550 winning percentage). It’s the AL East that they’ve struggled against--they've only won at a .449 clip. It’s been no secret that the AL East has been the best division in baseball for the past five years, as their division has had a team in the World Series three of those years, including two championships. While the Twins, like many teams, haven't figured out how to beat the AL East, they've still managed to finish with at least a tie atop the AL Central (through 162 games) in four of the last five years.

So why are the surging Twins still 7.5 games out of first place in the AL Central? Well, Cleveland obviously played out of their minds for the first couple months, building a nice lead, but they've come back to the pack. Their young pitching staff will continue to have ups and downs, which will likely cost them any real shot at the division title. Injuries have also been an obvious contributor to the hole the Twins find themselves in, as they've only had their “A” lineup on the field for a handful of games. With that said, they've played their best baseball lately with nobody in their lineup hitting over .300. In my opinion, the biggest reason the Twins are still playing catchup is the balance of their schedule.

Now, I’m not one who makes excuses based on schedule, because it’s something you can’t control, and with the exception of some interleague games, the competition is playing the same teams. However, the Twins started out playing 14 of their first 19 games, and 17 of their first 24, against the AL East. In those first 24 games they only played four games against AL Central teams. Their record in those first 24 games: 9-15, including a 5-12 mark against the AL East, and a 3-1 record against AL Central. If you were to swap just one April AL East series with a June/July AL Central series (the Twins play just one series against the AL East in June and July combined), odds are they'd be 2.0-4.0 games better and only be 3.5-5.5 games out. Would they have made the same mental mistakes early in the season? Probably, but the margin for error against teams such as the Royals, Indians and White Sox is much greater than that of the Yankees, Rays, Red Sox and Blue Jays.

It's far from an exact science, but if you apply the division winning percentages outlined above to the remainder of the schedule, the Twins project to 28-21 against the AL Central (41-31 overall), 9-7 against the AL West (18-15 overall), 6-9 against the AL East (12-27 overall), and 7-5 in interleague play (10-8 overall). This would put them right at .500, which would likely put them in the 2nd-3rd place range. In order for the Twins to make the playoffs, they'll likely need to find another five or six wins above projection, and the easiest place to find them will be within the division. This would put them at around 88 wins, which should be right around where the division champion ends up. The extra five or six wins against the AL Central is not out of the question, considering that they finished the last two seasons with 47 and 46 division wins. It's still improbable, but it's no longer impossible.

If the team can field a healthier lineup over the final 92 games, and continue to take care of business against the teams they have been successful against in the past, it could lead to another exciting summer of baseball at Target Field.

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