An Up and Down Team


The Twins never fail to surprise. Nearly every year they either drastically exceed low expectations or woefully betray fans’ hopes. They follow good seasons with disappointing ones, and vice-versa.

Take a quick look at the Twins’ win totals since Ron Gardenhire took over in 2002:

YearWinsLossesChange from Previous Year
20029467+9 Wins

See a pattern here? For some reason, the Twins improve in even-numbered years and get worse in odd numbered years. And that pattern looks sure to hold this year, unless you believe that the Twins can somehow finish the season on a 44-2 run. 2011 is the fifth odd-numbered year of the Gardenhire regime, and he’s missed the playoffs in every one of them except 2003, thanks to weak competition, and 2009, thanks to a memorable Game 163 performance. By contrast, the team has made the postseason in each of the even numbered years except 2008 – again it was Game 163 that ruined the pattern. And the biggest drop-offs are always followed by big rebounds the next year.

Why do the Twins thrive in the even years and falter in the odd years? The quick answer is that the individual players on the team have performed much better in even years. Two in particular stand out:
Francisco Liriano
Liriano debuted in 2005, then burst onto the scene in 2006 and took the American League by storm. Before a major elbow injury, he was a shoo-in for the Rookie of the Year Award with a sparkling 12-3 record and a 2.13 ERA. After missing 2007 to Tommy John surgery, Liriano struggled at the beginning of 2008. But he recovered and pitched very well in the second half. He slumped big-time in 2009 (5-13, 5.80 ERA), then re-emerged in 2010 with 14 wins and 201 strikeouts. But this year he has been incredibly erratic.

Odd Years13242761685.488.24.51.492.5
Even Years32173881393.

In short, he’s almost a Cy-Young type pitcher in even years, but he’s a fifth starter at best in the odd years.

Justin Morneau
Morneau was called to the Majors for good in mid-2004 and immediately became a top run producer. In 2006 he won the AL MVP Award, and he nearly won another in 2008. 2010 looked like yet another MVP campaign for Morneau until he suffered a concussion just before the All Star Break. In between, though, Morneau struggled mightily in 2005, had slight down years in 2007 and 2009, and has not been able to get going in 2011.

Odd Years913271907334203488878.256.329.4606.8
Even Years943731791294207555975.310.385.54413.6

The slash lines say it all. Morneau gets on base and hits for power in even years. In odd years, he does not.
Liriano and Morneau are the two most glaring examples, but other players have thrived in even years and slumped in odd years. Joe Mauer would fit the pattern if you ignored his MVP season in 2009. Delmon Young’s best season was 2010, but he was disappointing in 2009 and very disappointing so far in 2011. Carl Pavano overperformed in 2010, but he has struggled in 2011. When Johan Santana was the anchor of the Twins’ rotation, his two Cy Young seasons came in 2004 and 2006. He was the best pitcher in baseball those seasons; in 2005 and 2007 he was merely one of the best. And don’t forget Lew Ford, who looked like a rising star in 2004 but then was never heard from again.

It’s hard to explain why so many players’ performances swing back and forth. It could be because some players are more motivated to train and prepare for the season after a down year, or that they relax a bit too much after a good year. That seems to be part of Liriano’s problem this year; he reported to camp out of shape and suffered arm problems in Spring Training as a result. Another explanation could be that opponents take the Twins less seriously after their down years, but are more motivated to beat them when they are defending a division title. Or it could just be luck.

The every-other-year pattern only dates back to Ron Gardenhire’s first year, but you can find more examples of alternating good and bad teams before that. Everyone remembers 1991, when the Twins went from Worst to First to win a World Series trophy. Less known is the fact that they nearly did the same thing four years earlier. The 1986 Twins were 71-91, just four games ahead of the last place Mariners. In fact, in the long history of baseball, there have been only three World Series where both teams had suffered a losing record the year before: 1965, 1987, and 1991. The Twins were involved in all three.

That may be the best reason yet for Twins fans to feel optimistic about 2012. When the Twins fail, it’s a very good sign.