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Every day until Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus authors will preview two teams—one from the AL, one from the NL—identifying strategies those teams employ to gain an advantage. Today: the mainstream fundamentals of the Twins, versus the hipster indie-ball scouting of the Diamondbacks.

Week 1 previews: Giants | Royals | Dodgers | Rays | Padres | Astros | Rockies | Athletics | Mets | Yankees

Week 2 previews: Nationals | Tigers | Pirates | Mariners | Brewers | Indians | Marlins | Orioles

MINNESOTA TWINS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

PECOTA Team Projections
Record: 71-91
Runs Scored: 701
Runs Allowed: 805
AVG/OBP/SLG (TAv): .259/.319/.400 (.260)
Total WARP: 15.8 (1.9 pitching, 13.8 non-pitching, including 0.1 from pitchers)

In the years leading up to and following the publication of Moneyball in 2003, two franchises stood out for their ability to be continually competitive despite maintaining a small payroll: the Oakland Athletics and the Minnesota Twins. Here's a chart that I produced for the Cardinals chapter of Baseball Prospectus 2011, showing the teams with the most wins from 2001-2010:

Table 1: Ten Winningest Teams of the Aughties

Team

Wins

Losses

Attendance (millions)

Payroll (millions)

Payroll/Win (millions)

Attendance Rank

Payroll Rank

Payroll/Win Rank

NYY

973

644

38.4

$1,783.60

$1.83

1

1

30

BOS

924

695

28.7

$1,249.50

$1.35

8

2

28

STL

904

715

32.7

$875.10

$0.97

3

10

17

LAA

898

722

30.7

$934.50

$1.04

5

6

21

MIN

888

730

22.1

$584.80

$0.66

21

22

4

ATL

888

733

25.4

$929.30

$1.05

12

7

23

PHI

882

737

28.2

$889.70

$1.01

9

9

20

OAK

880

739

19.2

$545.70

$0.62

25

24

3

LAD

856

764

35

$1,007.00

$1.18

2

4

26

SFG

850

767

31.4

$835.20

$0.98

4

12

18

During that span, the Twins and A's were tremendously successful, and the amount they paid per win was miles ahead of anyone else. The Twins suffered through only one losing season, claimed six AL Central titles and never finished below third place. The A's had three losing seasons and claimed three AL West titles.

Of course, it's a common belief that the Twins and A's achieved this success using radically different approaches. While describing the A's 2002 season in great detail, Moneyball laid out the story of a fashion-forward franchise with an innovative, analytics-driven approach. The book added fuel to what was presumed to be a raging—and, at least in most baseball front offices, mostly apocryphal—debate about the value of "scouts vs. stats," with the A's at one end of the spectrum and "old school" organizations at the other. And no one has been considered more "old school" than the Twins: stolid, taciturn, Midwestern, with a stereotypical belief in scouting, player development, and teaching "solid fundamentals" that were seemingly at odds with the newfangled book-learnin' the A's were endeavoring to employ.

The 2002 A's season ended with a first-round playoff loss to a Twins team that actually had a smaller payroll. As much hype as there may have been about the radical differences between these two franchises, in the most important aspect by far—employing players who produce on the field—they achieved their success in surprisingly similar ways. Here's a list of every two-win player on either team that year:

2002 A's WARP Leaders

2002 Twins WARP Leaders

Player

WARP

Acquired

Player

WARP

Acquired

Miguel Tejada

6.4

Intl. FA

Jacque Jones

6.7

Draft

Eric Chavez

4.8

Draft

Corey Koskie

4.0

Draft

Barry Zito

4.2

Draft

Torii Hunter

3.6

Draft

Scott Hatteberg

2.6

FA

Johan Santana

3.3

Rule 5 Draft

Mark Mulder

2.4

Draft

Bobby Kielty

2.7

Amateur FA

Eric Milton

2.7

Trade

A.J. Pierzynski

2.1

Draft

With very few exceptions, the most valuable players on both teams were products of the club's own player development system. Even Milton, acquired via trade, joined the Twins as part of the return for Chuck Knoblauch, a home-grown Twins star. Pierzynski would soon be traded to make room for top draftee Joe Mauer; Francisco Liriano and Joe Nathan, two-thirds of the return, would also become Twins stalwarts.

The same thing is true the vast majority of the time a small-market team succeeds; in fact, it's true the vast majority of the time any team succeeds. Some clubs, like the A's, may seemingly commit to identifying every small, unidentified market inefficiency and leveraging the hell out of it until the rest of the league catches on. That's a very good thing to do, and especially valuable when those small advantages add up to the 10 runs and one win that make the difference between a playoff spot and an October spent on the links. It's also pretty clear that's something the Twins don't do. But more often than not, success for teams that can't commit to an upper-tier payroll comes primarily from the long, painstaking work of identifying talented young players, acquiring them, developing them, and deploying them before they become too expensive to keep.

Which is a long walk to say this: the Twins have no Moneyball. They're committed to building the next great Twins team the same way they built the last one. That's not to say analysts haven't tried to identify Minnesota's Moneyball. Our own Matthew Trueblood wrote a wonderful piece a few weeks ago on how the Twins, under the tutelage of hitting coach Tom Brunansky, have joined the Red Sox as the team most likely to take the first pitch (which, as it turns out, has become a less-than-optimal strategy). Dan Weigel of Beyond the Box Score recenty ran down Minnesota's dominance in signing players from Australia and New Zealand, although the Twins haven't realized massive returns on their investment. Scott Lindholm of Beyond the Box Score, in the wake of Ron Gardenhire's dismissal, attempted to quantify the Twins' commitment to minimizing on-field mistakes and how that correlates to winning, but with the Twins losing at least 90 games each of the last four seasons it's hard to picture that as a talisman of success.

When you talk to GM Terry Ryan, it doesn't sound like any of those things are part of a master plan. He doesn't describe their efforts in Australia as an attempt to corner an underutilized market; it's because they happen to "have a full-time scout who's lived there many years." Brunansky's commitment to patience and power seems more like a personal preference than an organizational direction. Ryan says that the Twins are invested in many of the new approaches other clubs have adopted, such as "mental coaches, shifting, and analytics." But it's clear that, in the Twins' eyes, those things are merely gravy; player acquisition and development are still the meat.

Can the Twins pull themselves back into contention by doing the one thing every other team tries to do, only better? Of course. Minnesota's farm system is currently rated no. 2 overall by our prospect gurus, and if Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano and Alex Meyer and Kohl Stewart and Jose Berrios and Nick Gordon and Nick Burdi turn out to be really, really good, the Twins will become a leviathan that no amount of shifting, analyzing, or inefficiency-leveraging by their opponents will be able to stop. If not, they'll pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again. It's the Minnesota way.

Thank you for reading

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therealn0d
3/27
Ken, either you don't write enough, or I don't read what you write enough. I dig your style my man.
kenfunck
3/27
Much appreciated. Both halves of your OR condition might be true, although the first part clearly would lead to the second part.
therealn0d
3/27
See what I mean?
BCermak
3/28
I found this to be a quite enjoyable read. I'm glad you didn't take the easy route and jot down 500 words on how the Twins hate strikeouts.
kenfunck
3/28
Thanks. I wouldn't say the Twins hate strikeouts, they just absolutely loathe walks, and most of the walk-averse pitchers they've employed don't strike anyone out. Couple that with bad defense, especially in the outfield corners, and you have a recipe for a lot of runs allowed.
hotstatrat
3/28
Aaron Hicks to the minors in favor of a Schafer / Robinson platoon - could someone explain that for me, please?
kenfunck
3/28
Ummmmm ... no.