Worst to first in the AL

With the Tampa Bay Rays hovering around first place in the AL East and focused on the postseason possibilities, they are trying to pull off the rare feat of finishing last in their division one year and with a division crown the next. If they can, (at this writing they’re a half game ahead of Boston) they will be only the second team in American League history to make this turnaround.

The only other AL team to go from outhouse to penthouse in one year was the 1991 Minnesota Twins.

The 1990 Twins won only 74 games and finished 23 games behind the Oakland A’s. Entering the 1991 season, the three-time AL champion A’s were again favorites to emerge from the West, while the Twins, assembled by GM Andy MacPhail and led by manager Tom Kelly, were an afterthought to most prognosticators.

Early in the season, things playing out as expected. The A’s bolted out of the gate, winning 18 of their first 28 games and opening a three-game lead over the White Sox. This was the point where the A’s normally flipped on the afterburners to leave the teams of the West behind, but in 1991 they weren’t able to elevate their play. The Sox faded, but Oakland was soon reeled in by Seattle and Texas, each of whom spent time atop the division early in the season.

Over the first two months of 1991, Minnesota wasn’t a factor.

On May 31, the Twins’ record was 23-25 and they were in fifth place in the AL West, five games behind division leader Oakland. The Twins won their first game in June and then went on a tear, winning 15 in a row. By the time they won the 12th on June 16, the Twins had passed the four teams that had been ahead of them in the standings and found themselves all alone at the top of the division. What made this stretch even more remarkable was the fact they were able to make up this much ground while playing only two games (the first two) within their division.

In the weeks leading to the All-Star break, the Twins would get a little bit of a lead (their largest was three games on June 30), only to be chased down. By the break they were tied for first in an ultra-competitive division with the Rangers. The A’s were in fifth place, although just 2.5 games back.

Returning from the break, the Twins won their first game to claim sole possession of first in the West. They held that position for the rest of the season. Winning 48 of their 79 second-half games (a .603 winning percentage), they at one point opened a 10-game lead on their division rivals. Ultimately, they finished with a 95-67 record, a turnaround of 21 wins, and won the AL West by eight games.

The pitching

While many things had to go a certain way for the Twins to even challenge for the division, one key to their resurgence was an overhaul at the top of their rotation.

The Twins’ pitching staff in 1990 wasn’t the worst in the American League, but it was pretty darn close. With a team ERA of 4.12, the starting pitching often left a mess for the bullpen to clean up. That season, the Twins’ rotation was led by 26-year-old left hander Allan Anderson. Anderson won 16 games with a sparkling 2.45 ERA in 1988 and followed that by winning 17 games with a 3.80 ERA in 1989. Buoyed by those numbers, the Twins elevated him to the status of No. 1 starter for the 1990 season. The problem was he just wasn’t very good. In ’89 he struck out just 69 batters in 196 innings, a strikeout rate of 3.2 K/9.

The 1990 season was a disaster for Anderson. As Minnesota’s Opening Day starter, he led the Twins in starts (31) and innings (188.2), but posted an ERA of 4.53 against a league ERA of 4.19 and had an ERA+ of 92. He was joined in the rotation by Kevin Tapani (4.07 ERA and 103 ERA+), David West (5.10 ERA and 82 ERA+) and Roy Smith (4.81 ERA and 87 ERA+). The Twins’ pitching staff allowed 729 runs in 1990, the fourth-highest total in the league. Clearly, for the Twins to contend they would have to fix that.

The answer came in the form of a veteran looking to come home.

Jack Morris became a “new look” free agent in the settlement of the third case of collusion of the late 1980s. After he was relased from his contract with the Tigers, they offered him a three-year deal to return to Detroit for $9.3 million. Morris, a St. Paul, Minn. native, turned down that offer and opted to return home with the Twins. He accepted a three-year package valued at $7 million—less guaranteed money than the Tigers were offering, but with incentives that could raise the total package to $11 million. It also contained two player options—one for after the 1991 season and another for after 1992, meaning he could walk away from the Twins following the 1991 season.

With Anderson failing to live up to the expectations he raised during the ’88 and ’89 seasons, the signing of Morris gave the Twins something they lacked in 1990—a bona fide front-of-the-rotation starter. Morris posted a 3.24 ERA and 124 ERA+ while striking out 163 in 246.2 innings, making 1991 his best year since 1987. It was ironic that Morris pitched so well for the Twins in 1991—he had wanted to sign for his hometown team following the ’86 season, but collusion prevented that from happening.

With Morris in the fold, the rest of the rotation soon fell into place.

Scott Erickson, the Twins’ fourth-round selection in the 1989 draft, made his debut the year before and was the lone bright spot in the Twins’ pitching wasteland of 1990. Called up in late June, it took only a handful of starts before he established himself as the best pitcher in the rotation. By September of 1990, he had a 1.35 ERA in six starts spanning 46 innings. The only problem with Erickson was he was prone to extended stretches of trouble finding the strike zone. In fact, in those eight starts, he posted a 1:1 K:BB ratio with 21 strikeouts and 21 walks.

Walks aside, Erickson would be counted on to build on his strong rookie campaign. He opened the season as the Twins’ No. 3 starter behind Morris and Anderson and almost immediately eclipsed his rotation mates in performance. The Twins won 12 of his first 15 starts and Erickson posted a 1.39 ERA and was limiting opponents to a .212 batting average. His average Game Score in those starts was 66.

He wobbled a bit in the second half of the year, as the Twins worked him hard in those starts. He threw 134 pitches in his second start of the year and averaged 108 pitches in his first 15 starts. At the end of June, he came up with a sore shoulder and landed on the DL. Erickson returned in mid-July and was throwing pain free, but it took him awhile to regain his strength.

Even with the midseason struggles, Erickson enjoyed the best full season of his career in 1991. He finished with 20 wns, a 3.18 ERA and an ERA+ of 134.

Meanwhile, Tapani, who had arrived in Minneapolis from the Mets in the Frank Viola deal a couple of years earlier, was enjoying the best year of his career. He finished 1991 with what would be a career best 2.99 ERA and an ERA+ of 143. Tapani always had great control and in ’91 his walk rate was 1.5 BB/9, third best in the league. Like Erickson, he had the best year of his 13-year major league career in 1991.

Morris, Tapani and Erickson gave the Twins three of the best starters in the league. (They all would get votes in the Cy Young balloting. Erickson finished second to Roger Clemens. Morris was fourth and Tapani was seventh.)

During the first part of the year, Kelly often had his top three spread out in the rotation. But on Aug. 10, with the Twins clinging to a one-game lead over the White Sox, he juggled his starters so Erickson was immediately followed by Tapani and then Morris. Depending on the schedule and off days, the Twins wouldn’t always use their fifth starter and those three each made 11 starts over the final two months of the season. They combined to lead the Twins to victories in 21 of those 33 starts. Shuffling the rotation was a key moment in the race for the division pennant.

Of course, having strong starting pitching doesn’t always equate to wins if the relief corps doesn’t do its part. However, in 1991, the Twins bullpen was outstanding with an ERA of 3.53 and the relievers did a great job keeping the ball in the park with a home run rate of 0.74 HR/G.

The key at the back of the bullpen was closer Rick Aguilera. Aguilera, part of the Viola deal that brought Tapani to the team, was a part-time starter when he joined the Twins in 1989. Minnesota moved him to the bullpen for good and in 1990 handed him the closer role, in which he flourished with 32 saves and a 2.76 ERA. He was even better in ’91, with a career-best 42 saves and 2.35 ERA.

Aguilera was joined in the pen by reliable set-up men Terry Leach (3.61 ERA in 67.1 innings) and Carl Willis (2.63 ERA in 89 innings.) Veteran Steve Bedrosian joined the team as a free agent and added some depth with a 4.42 ERA in 77.1 innings. He even picked up a handful of three-inning saves.

The hitting

Offensively, the Twins made some changes as well. They had to—the 1990 team scored just 666 runs, the second lowest total in the AL.

That winter, Minnesota bade farewell to longtime Twin Gary Gaetti. Although he finished second on the team with 16 home runs in 1990, there were signs that the 31-year-old was on the decline. His OPS had dropped more than 250 points since he signed his last contract with the Twins before the 1988 season. The Rat’s batting line for 1990 was an ugly .229/.274/.376. Accumulating the majority of his at-bats hitting either fifth or cleanup, the two time All-Star had become a drag on the offense.

While Gaetti earned an ill-advised four year, $11.4 million payday from the California Angels, the Twins decided to use their resources on a designated hitter: Chili Davis.

Like Gaetti, Davis was coming off a down year. In 1990 for the Angels he had hit .265/.357/.398 which was one of the worst seasons of his career. But the Twins rolled the dice that Davis would rebound. At two years and $4.5 million, he was certainly cheaper than Gaetti.

Fortunately for the Twins, Davis replaced Gaetti’s power in the lineup and then added a little extra. In 1991, he set career highs (at the time) with 29 home runs and a .385 OBP and tied his personal best with a .507 slugging percentage.

On the field, Minnesota replaced Gaetti with another free agent, Mike Pagliarulo, who signed a one-year, $575,000 deal. Defensively, Pags and Gaetti were on the same level, with similar Range Factors and fielding percentages, so that was a wash. But offensively, Pagliarulo hit .279/.322/.384 with six home runs. Long balls aside, his production was a clear improvement from Gaetti’s subpar 1990 season.

While the signing of Pagliarulo effectively was the replacement for Gaetti, Davis replaced a cast of characters who DHed for the Twins in 1990, including but not limited to Carmen Castillo (.219/.239/.248 in 1990), Randy Bush (.243/.338/.387) and Jim Dwyer (.190/.320/.238).

For the Twins to capitalize on the power surge that was to come from Davis in the middle of the lineup, they needed better production at the top. In 1990, Dan Gladden (.314 OBP) was their primary leadoff hitter and was followed in the lineup by either the light-hitting Nelson Liriano or the lighter hitting Al Newman. Overall, the No. 1 hitter for the Twins had an OBP of .330, while the second hitters posted only a .324 on base percentage.

Gladden returned to the top of the Twins’ lineup in 1991 and his .306 OBP was even worse than the year before. But the real improvement came from the No. 2 position, where rookie second baseman Chuck Knoblauch plied his trade. Knoblauch, the first-round selection of the ’89 draft, posted a .369 OBP when hitting second in the order and an overall line of .278/.351/.360. His arrival allowed the Twins to move Newman to a utility role.

The Twins also received an increase in production when they replaced Gene Larkin in right field with Shane Mack. Acquired prior to the 1990 season as a Rule 5 selection from San Diego, Mack had a monster .310/.363/.529 season with 18 home runs. He hit everywhere in the lineup for Kelly, but saw most of his at-bats in the sixth and seventh spot.

The newcomers, combined with the usual (and expected) performance from the returning veterans, transformed the Twins’ middling offense from a team that hit .265/.320/.385 in 1990 to the best lineup in the game with a line of .280/.342/.420. The 1991 Twins led the league in average, on-base percentage and hits. They finished second in slugging and last in strikeouts.

It’s interesting that we’ve come this far without mentioning two of the stalwarts of the Twins’ lineup. While Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek had big hits and key roles for the Twins, they both had amazingly consistent seasons from 1990 to 1991. The fact they didn’t rate a mention until now in no way minimizes their contributions to the Twins and their run to the AL West pennant. If either Puckett or Hrbek had experienced a down year or missed time with injury, it certainly would have impacted their team.

The emergence of Mack combined with the signing of Davis gave the Twins a solid middle of the order. Kelly never went with a set lineup, instead choosing to shuffle Puckett, Hrbek, Davis, Mack and the underrated Brian Harper (who hit .311/.336/.447 in 1991) in spots three through seven.

For an idea where the Twins received a bump in production, here’s how their lineups compared between the two years:

       1990      Position      1991

  .302/.335/.414    C     .287/.329/.413
  .270/.355/.431    1B    .280/.364/.443
  .238/.293/.322    2B    .269/.341/.333
  .235/.279/.377    3B    .274/.334/.390
  .240/.286/.347    SS    .242/.334/.390
  .273/.315/.460    LF    .255/.311/.373
  .308/.375/.460    CF    .297/.335/.438
  .243/.307/.356    RF    .328/.386/.521
  .274/.349/.381    DH    .283/.386/.512

From the above, catcher Harper, first baseman Hrbek, shortstop Gagne, left fielder Gladden and center fielder Puckett were regulars in both seasons. Note the overall increase in production at right field and designated hitter. Also note the increase in OBP at second base and shortstop.

Of the 25 players who appeared in the 1991 postseason for the Twins, here’s how they came to Minnesota:

8 via the draft (including four first-round picks)
8 via trade
8 via free agency
1 via Rule 5 draft

Postscript

Of course, the Twins beat the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS and then conquered another worst-to-first team, the Atlanta Braves, in an unlikely and thrilling World Series, capping their amazing turnaround.

Since the Twins in 1991, no other AL team has gone from last place one season to first the next. In this era of artificial parity and watered-down divisions, that’s kind of amazing. In the National League, it’s happened five times since the Braves did it in ’91. The 1993 Phillies were the only other team to do it in the two-division format. Since 1994, when the leagues split into three divisions, it’s happened four times: The 1997 Giants, the 1998 Padres, the 1999 Diamondbacks and the 2007 Cubs. The 1998 Cubs and the 2007 Rockies went from last place to a wild card spot, so we’ll celebrate them with an asterisk.

The ’91 Twins remain the only team to win the World Series after finishing in last place the previous year.

Can the Rays pull off a similar feat? Don’t bet against them. Thanks to the 1991 Minnesota Twins, they’re only fighting the Red Sox and the Yankees. History is on their side.

References & Resources
This article was researched with help from Baseball Reference, Retrosheet, Fan Graphs, Baseballrace.com and the New York Times.

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