By Flint Wheeler
No matter how successful the Minnesota Twins are, there’s always the whiff of the underdog to them. Since 1987, they’ve made the playoffs nine times (more than the big-market Mets, Phillies, and Astros) and won two World Series (more than perennial contenders like the Braves, Dodgers, and A’s). But even their successes come in the shadow of failure. The 1991 World Series team had finished dead last in the seven-team AL West the year before, and after nearly being contracted after the 2001 season, the Twins responded by going 94-67 and winning the AL Central in 2002 to kick off a stretch of six playoff appearances in the next nine seasons. The best baseball movie of all time, Little Big League, is about an underdog Twins team that broke new ground in both sabermetrics and montages.
That underdog reputation isn’t going away anytime soon, either—just to make the divisional round, the Twins have to go on the road to face not just any favorite but the actual Yankees. If they go further they’ll have to navigate an unusually tough playoff field: First, the Cleveland Indians, who have been the best team in baseball in the second half. Then, the 101-win Houston Astros, and perhaps after that a Dodgers team that was at one point on pace to tie the all-time MLB wins record.
On July 24, the Twins were 49-49, 3.5 games back of the division lead, and traded for Braves lefty Jaime García, who won his first start for Minnesota. It was the Twins’ only win in a five-game stretch that seemed to convince their front office, led by first-year chief baseball officer Derek Falvey, to punt on the season. So, just six days after acquiring him, Minnesota flipped García to the Yankees. The next day they sent All-Star closer Brandon Kintzler to Washington, effectively waving a white flag on the season.
By August 5, the Twins sat at 52-56, seven games out of the AL Central lead with six teams to climb over before they could grab the second wild card. Even that middling season looked like a vast improvement over the 59-103 campaign of 2016, but since then they’re 32-21, good enough to rise out of a cesspool of mediocrity in the AL wild-card race.
But the most important change has come courtesy of Byron Buxton. Drafted second overall in 2012 behind Carlos Correa, Buxton was the jewel of the Twins’ farm system for years. MLB.com, Baseball America, and Baseball Prospectus all ranked Buxton as the first- or second-best prospect in baseball in 2014, 2015, and 2016, but since arriving in Minnesota full time last year, he’d struggled to hit consistently. This year, Buxton’s in-season batting average didn’t reach .200 until May 31, and his OBP didn’t hit .300 until August 12, but he stayed in the lineup because he’s so fast, and so good defensively in center field, that he doesn’t have to hit to be valuable.
It’s unbelievable that a baseball player can be as fast as Buxton. And in the past three months, he’s been red hot at the plate too. Since the break, Buxton is hitting .300/.347/.546, with 11 home runs, 13 stolen bases in 13 attempts.
Baseball Prospectus has Buxton as a four-win player in 2017 even after he hit like a pitcher for three months. If the Twins beat the Yankees, Buxton will be a near lock to be this year’s postseason Javy Báez–style one-man highlight reel, but he’s also contributing much more than Báez did offensively last year.
Good as Buxton, Sanó, and Dozier are, and fun as the underdog reputation is, there are several reasons that the Twins are the least likely of the 10 playoff teams to win the World Series. Absent the departed Kintzler, no Twins reliever with more than 40 innings pitched has an ERA below 3.00. They’re ninth among the 10 playoff teams, and 22st overall, in team DRA. If they’re going to make a run, they’ll have to do it the way a 12th-seeded Missouri Valley Conference basketball team would make a run in March Madness—rely on their stars, try to grind out close games, and don’t make any mistakes.
But the reason everyone loves March Madness, gambling notwithstanding, is that every year some Midwestern school that nobody’s ever heard of gets hot at the right time and punches Duke in the mouth. Seldom has the MLB playoff bracket been so full of Dukes to punch, and there is no scrappier underdog in this year’s playoffs than Minnesota.