What A Difference: Late Inning Chances Key to Guardians Success vs. Twins

Monday afternoon has left no doubt. As the day’s 11-4 drubbing of the Minnesota Twins emphasized, the Cleveland Guardians have cemented themselves in the American League Central pecking order squarely above their division rival from the land of ten thousand lakes, at least for 2022. Sunday’s 3-0 shutout loss notwithstanding, the Guardians just used their five games in the past four days to make a statement once and for all in regard to AL Central supremacy.

However, the competitive nature of the Guardians-Twins rivalry in 2022 is more than meets in the eye of a single blowout. The Cleveland-Minnesota match-up this season has been a lively one. It’s been home to walk-off wins, hair checks for illegal substances, the longest game of the MLB season and multiple four-hit games on the same day from the same player. The Guardians and Twins culminated in playing eight games in eleven days against each other with Monday afternoon’s tilt from Progressive Field and everything I described only happened within this most recent eight-game span.

The two teams played a similar set of games back in June. Those 10 days saw their own set of eight games with their own drama. That drama included back-to-back nights of Guardians walk-off homers, Carlos Correa showboating on the execution of a routine fielder’s choice, a pitching coach leaving the Twins mid-series to go back to the college ranks and, of course, trading back and forth the AL Central lead.

There will be no trading back and forth of the AL Central lead this September though. The Guardians have used their recent contests with Minnesota to put the Twins squarely in the rear-view mirror. What a difference less than a fortnight makes.

The Twins found themselves within striking distance just a week and a half ago. That was on September 8th, before the teams had met for the first time in two months. At the time, Minnesota found themselves a mere 1 ½ games behind the Guards and tied with the Chicago White Sox for second place in the division. As it stands now, they are solidly in 3rd, a full seven games back of Cleveland who has also expanded their lead on Chicago to four games. These results are the aftermath of Cleveland taking nine of their last ten from the Twins.

Truthfully, you really can’t tell the story of Cleveland’s success in 2022 without talking about their encounters with Minnesota. So many of the Guardians’ memorable moments from this season have come against the Twinkies. Many of them are alluded to above. On a more macro scale, the Guardians taking care of business against Minnesota is just an example of their grander ability to handle the AL Central this season. Competing within the division has been key to Cleveland’s success. Specifically, the Guardians are 40-27 against the AL Central and barring being swept by the White Sox this week or a surprise effort by the Kansas City Royals as the season comes to a close, Cleveland will finish with a winning record against every team in the division.

But specifically against the Twins, Cleveland will finish with a 13-7 record. Perhaps surprisingly, despite dominating in the win column, the two teams scored the extra same number of runs against each other: 89. In fact, without Monday’s blowout victory, Minnesota would have actually outscored Cleveland in their match-ups this season. This happenstance is tied to the fact that not only did the Guardians defeat the Twins in their last at-bat on eight different occasions this season, but Cleveland also beat the Twins by a single run on eight separate occasions. You’re understanding that correctly. Nearly half of the games these two teams played against each other resulted in a one-run win for the Guards. Cleveland’s average margin of victory was 2.2 runs against Minnesota. Meanwhile, the Twins’ margin of victory was nearly double at 4.3 runs. For most of the season series, if the Twins didn’t blow out the Guards, they found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

One would think to largely attribute Minnesota’s misfortune to their bullpen, who surrendered those eight last at-bat wins. And yes, while a faulty bullpen is a part of the answer, that answer is not as simple as expected. The Twins bullpen allowed an ERA of 4.31 against Cleveland. That isn’t great, but there are bullpens and pitching staffs in general around the league that have been far worse. The Guardians, in fact, have actually fared better against both the Tigers and Royals bullpens throughout the season than they did against Minnesota. You would also think, given the heroics and memorable late-inning moments, that the Guardians performed especially well at the plate against Minnesota in the clutch. However, when looking at high leverage situations, the Guardians weighted On Base Average against the Twins was .312, barely above the overall league average of .310.

Very interestingly though, while the rate at which the Guardians were successful against the Twins’ bullpen doesn’t jump out as being particularly potent, what does stick out is the sheer number of opportunities that Cleveland had. The Guards had 98 high leverage plate appearances against Minnesota’s bullpen and 117 such plate appearances against all Minnesota pitchers in total. That is far and away the highest leverage opportunity that Cleveland has had against any team, the next highest being Detroit (78). Their highest against any other bullpen was also against Detroit, coming in at 50. While it’sv important to remember that the Guardians didn’t play the entire league as often as they played Minnesota, they did play Detroit just as often and are only three games short of finishing their season series against Chicago. The Guardians don’t even have half as many high leverage opportunities against the White Sox at this time as they had against the Twins despite playing nearly the same number of games against both opponents.

So while Cleveland’s wOBA against Minnesota’s bullpen wasn’t particularly striking, their On Base Percentage was a much more impressive .340. For reference, the Los Angeles Dodgers lead all of baseball as a team (in all situations) with an OBP of .337. Cleveland, therefore, was better than the best offense in baseball at getting on base when they were facing the Twins bullpen. For this reason, the Guards’ offense deserves a lot of credit. While walk-off bombs are memorable, the Guardians’ scrappiness; their ability to work walks, fight out at-bats, get on base and get in scoring position against Minnesota late in ballgames was key. Without all the opportunities that they afforded by getting on base and wreaking havoc, they would not have turned the odds in their favor and scored enough to scratch out eight late-inning victories.

In terms of individual offensive performances, Cleveland’s top-of-the-order really led the way. Steven Kwan and Amed Rosario had OBPs of .440 and .404 against the Twins, respectively. Rosario in particular is likely someone that the Twins pitching staff is happy to be done seeing this season. The Guardians shortstop hit a scorching .376 against the Twins with four home runs and a team-leading 19 RBI. Rosario also did a huge part of Cleveland’s damage in big moments against the Minnesota bullpen as he has hit .385 in high-leverage situations vs. the Twins. Oscar Gonzalez (3 for 10 with 4 RBI in high leverage situations) and Myles Straw (.500 OBP, in 12 high leverage plate appearances) were also strong contributors in the clutch. Taking the cake in such scenarios though goes to Josh Naylor, mostly because of a combination his June 29th walk-off home run and Twins’ manager Rocco Baldelli’s refusal to let Naylor be the one to beat the Twins ever since that date. Naylor was intentionally walked in three separate high leverage occasions by Minnesota. He’s only been intentionally walked once by any other team at any point all season. Still, the combination of the walks and walk-off gave Naylor an OPS of 1.205 against the Twins in big moments this year.

The Guardians’ season series with the Twins was a lot of things. It was messy, it was dramatic, it was frustrating and it was thrilling. Overall, it was entertaining baseball that saw the Guards do what they do best offensively: fight for success in every at-bat and concede nothing.

For a young ball club that wants to do great things, division battles with teams like the Twins are a stepping stone. While it may not have been pretty, taking the season series by a wide margin is an achievement. As our attention turns to hopefully knocking the White Sox out of contention once and for all as well, Cleveland can feel good about how it has taken care of business and controlled its own destiny within the AL Central. Measuring sticks are beginning to be surpassed. If the Guardians can take care of business against the White Sox, taller measuring sticks are just a calendar page away.

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