Could Lynn Henning be on to something?


For those of you that haven’t read his column today on, the idea is this: the Twins can’t win playoff games much less playoff series because they lack the sort of pitching that can shut down a good offense. The Tigers have just such a staff, with Verlander and Scherzer – so while we’re chasing the model franchise in Minnesota, they’re setting out to get more like us.

I set out to put this idea to the test… is it really the case that the Twins pitching folds against good teams, and is it really the case that the Tigers shut them down? Do the Twins need to make major changes to their roster to win playoff games, or are they suffering from some combination of bad luck and jitters?

First of all, we have to acknowledge the fact that whether or not the Twins are uniquely ill-suited for the postseason, they are not entering a series with the Yankees on a level playing field. Their run differential is significantly worse than that of the Yankees and their schedule (thanks to the AL Central) is a good deal weaker. That said, they are an above-average team and certainly shouldn’t have less than 40% odds of winning any given postseason game based on their overall record.

The question is: are the Twins’ a team that can beat the Royals of the world, but can’t handle the big boys? And in particular, is it the Twins’ pitching staff that can’t keep good offenses off of the scoreboard? To test this I used a statistical technique called regression analysis to estimate the extent to which each AL team’s ERA increases as the potency of the opposing offense (as measured in total runs scored over the season) increases. As good as a staff might be in the clutch we’d never expect to see that their ERA was lower against the best, so the relationship between ERA vs. an opponent and the opponents’ RS over the season should always be positive. If we find that a team’s ERA rises more rapidly against better offenses, that would suggest that however good that staff might be on average, they can’t beat the good teams.

Based on this estimation, and of course the number of observations is limited, the pitching staff that performs the worst against the better offenses in the league is in the AL Central – but it’s not the Twins, it’s our other nemesis the Chicago White Sox. The relationship between ERA and RS is a full 0.01, which implies that against a 700-run offense we’d expect the Sox to have an ERA of 4.04, but against an 800-run offense we’d expect the Sox to have an ERA a full run higher, and against the 861-run Yankees an ERA of 5.64. Of course, this is simply an estimation – smoothing out the noise in the data – if we look at their actual games against the Yankees the Sox fared even worse.

All four playoff teams from the AL are bunched right in the middle, with numbers between 0.006 and 0.007. The Twins don’t seem to have an especially good ‘playoff’ staff, but none of the other contenders did either. In fact, within that narrow band that all of the playoff teams fall into the Twins are the best. We would expect the Twins to have an ERA against the Yankees of 4.66, and the Yankees to have an ERA against the Twins of 4.43 – all of which can be attributed to the strength of the teams pitching and lineup in the abstract, and not any special knack for beating the best teams.

On the other count, Henning might be on to something. While the Sox are the worst in the AL, and the Twins are boringly average, it turns out that the second best team in the league at shutting down the best offenses is none other than our own Detroit Tigers. The ‘best’, by a hair, is the Baltimore Orioles – but in their case it’s little more than saying that they are equally unable to keep Royals off base as Red Sox. The Tigers pitching ‘deteriorates’ at less than half the rate of the Twins, so while the Twins might put up much better numbers than the Tigers against teams like the Mariners or the Royals against the Yankees it’s pretty much a wash. If a quick fix for the back end of the rotation could get us into the playoffs to begin with, we could go far.