This article was written by Aaron Gleeman
This article was published in The National Pastime: Baseball in the North Star State (Minnesota, 2012)
When the Senators moved from Washington to Minnesota in 1961 the roster that became the Twins included an incredible combination of young, established stars and MLB-ready prospects. Remarkably, the Twins have continued to consistently stock the roster with star players ever since.
When the Senators moved from Washington to Minnesota in 1961 the roster that became the Twins included an incredible combination of young, established stars and MLB-ready prospects. Harmon Killebrew was already one of baseball’s elite sluggers at age 24, catcher Earl Battey and right fielder Bob Allison were among their respective positions’ top players at age 26, and the rotation had a 27-year-old ace in Camilo Pascual.
That alone would have been an impressive collection of 27-and-under talent, but those four building- block players were also joined by 21-year-old rookie shortstop Zoilo Versalles and 22-year-old southpaw Jim Kaat. Of the 13 players to log at least 200 plate appearances or 75 innings for that first Twins team in 1961 six of them—Killebrew, Pascual, Battey, Allison, Kaat, and Versalles—went on to become among the 25 best players in Twins history.
One inner-circle Hall of Famer and five top-25 players in team history is one heck of a foundation for a franchise making a new start, but remarkably the Twins have continued to consistently stock the roster with star players ever since. Tony Oliva joined the mix in the Twins’ second season, followed by Jim Perry in 1963, Cesar Tovar in 1965, and Rod Carew in 1967. And it didn’t stop when the 1960s did.
In fact, at no point since coming to Minnesota in 1961 have the Twins gone more than five seasons without integrating at least one of the top 25 players in team history. Bert Blyleven, Dave Goltz, and Roy Smalley arrived in the 1970s, followed by Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, Frank Viola, Kirby Puckett, and Rick Aguilera in the 1980s, Chuck Knoblauch, Brad Radke, Torii Hunter, and Corey Koskie in the 1990s, and Johan Santana, Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau, Joe Nathan, and Joe Mauer in the early 2000s.
Not only is the steady stream of top-level talent unique, the Twins’ overall level of talent is well beyond the norm for a team with a relatively brief history. In their five decades of existence the Twins have had five Most Valuable Player (MVP) winners and three Cy Young Award winners (including Johan Santana, who won twice), and sabermetrically speaking their star talent is immense.
Wins Above Replacement (WAR) measures a player’s all-around contributions to determine how many runs—and in turn, wins—he was worth compared to a replacement-level player at the same position. For instance, during his MVP-winning 2009 season Mauer led the league among non-pitchers with 7.5 WAR, meaning he provided the Twins with nearly eight more wins than a replacement-level catcher—say one of the Buteras, either Sal or Drew—would have produced.
And to get a sense for what exactly a hypothetical “replacement-level player” looks like, consider that Denny Hocking, Danny Thompson, Luis Rivas, Pedro Munoz, and Al Newman have the most plate appearances in Twins history among players with a negative WAR.
Since moving to Minnesota the Twins have had seven different players accumulate at least 40 Wins Above Replacement while with the team. Of the nine other American League teams that were around in 1961, only the Yankees have more 40-WAR players during that time.
Players with 40+ WAR from 1961–2011
When only the Yankees have produced more superstars during a 50-year period, that’s a pretty amazing distinction. Those seven 40-plus WAR players are Carew, Killebrew, Puckett, Oliva, Mauer, Blyleven, and Radke. And all seven of them were originally signed or drafted by the Twins (or, as in Killebrew’s case, the Senators).
Here’s the same list, but with 20+ WAR players:
Whether you focus on superstars or above-average regulars, the Twins come out looking very good, with only the Yankees and Red Sox holding an advantage in churning out sustained talent.
WAR isn’t perfect, of course, but it provides a great framework for analysis that can be supplemented further with other measures both objective and subjective, such as Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), Win Shares, postseason performance, peak value, perceived impact, and tenure with the team.
How do you compare, say, Randy Bush’s fairly modest contributions during 12 years with the Twins to Jack Morris’s massive contribution during his one season in Minnesota? I’ve spent the past several years doing just that at my blog, AaronGleeman.com, and what follows is my sabermetric ranking of the top 50 players in Twins history.
- 50. Randy Bush
- 49. Rich Rollins
- 48. Francisco Liriano
- 47. John Castino
- 46. Denard Span
Bush was never flashy and more often than not filled a part-time role for manager Tom Kelly, but he spent a dozen seasons in Minnesota—only eight guys have played more games in a Twins uniform—and he was one of seven players on both the 1987 and 1991 championship teams. He earns a spot on this list, along with other longtime contributors, rather than stars like Morris or Chili Davis who made one- and two-year impacts.
Ranking active players like Liriano and Span alongside long-retired players like Castino and Rollins can be difficult because their cumulative value is always changing and it’s tough to put their impact into proper context without being able to look back. I’ve been somewhat conservative with active players throughout this list.
- 45. Jason Kubel
- 44. Scott Erickson
- 43. Eric Milton
- 42. Jimmie Hall
- 41. Steve Braun
Erickson’s career got off to one of the fastest starts in Twins history, but he went from 23-year-old ace on a championship team and Cy Young runner-up to winning a total of just 61 games in Minnesota. His overall Twins numbers (979 innings, 61 wins, 104 adjusted ERA+) are nearly identical to Milton’s (987 innings, 57 wins, 101 adjusted ERA+) and they also both threw no-hitters, but Erickson went 20-36 with a 5.40 ERA in his final three Twins seasons. [Note that the “+” after a statistic normalizes that statistic for the ballpark and offensive context of the season. A value of 100 is league average; higher is better, so in the context of ERA a value above 100 reflects an ERA below league average.]
Hall flamed out quickly, but his impact on the Twins was significant. He packed 98 homers into just four seasons in Minnesota despite playing at a time when big offensive numbers were rare, and played a passable center field while doing so. Braun is similarly underrepresented in team lore, but ranks sixth in Twins history with a .376 on-base percentage and his raw numbers are underrated by the low-scoring 1970s.
- 40. Dave Boswell
- 39. Matt Lawton
- 38. Greg Gagne
- 37. Al Worthington
- 36. Butch Wynegar
In many ways Lawton, along with Radke, was the bridge from the 1987 and 1991 teams to the current era, and because of that, his contributions are often lost in the Twins’ ineptitude during that time, but his .379 OBP is the fifth-best in team history and he also ranks eighth in steals.
Gagne’s hitting numbers look puny compared to modern shortstops, but he had plus power for the position in the 1980s and was fantastic defensively. Similarly, Worthington was the Twins’ first of many standout closers and because of the way relievers were used in the 1960s his save totals are underwhelming, but he actually led the league with 18 saves in 1968 and had the second-most saves in baseball 1964–1968.
Wynegar was Mauer before there was a Mauer, tearing through the minor leagues to debut at age 20. He made the All-Star team in each of his first two seasons, but unfortunately peaked by 22, was traded to the Yankees at 26, and retired at 32.
- 35. Jacque Jones
- 34. Scott Baker
- 33. Kevin Tapani
- 32. Tom Brunansky
- 31. Larry Hisle
Brunansky broke in alongside fellow rookies Hrbek and Gaetti in 1982 and his walks-and-power approach would have been much more appreciated by modern analysis that doesn’t focus on batting average. Dwight Evans, Eddie Murray, and Dave Winfield were the only AL hitters with more homers than Brunansky 1982–1987, and he smacked the ninth-most homers in Twins history before being traded to the Cardinals for Tommy Herr.
Hisle’s career with the Twins was short and sweet, with 662 games spread over five seasons, yet he’s all over the team leaderboard. Hisle ranks among the top 20 in batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, homers, steals, and RBIs, with a top-10 mark in adjusted OPS+, and his 1977 is one of the top years by any outfielder in Twins history. And all that came in low-offense eras.
- 30. Eddie Guardado
- 29. Michael Cuddyer
- 28. Brian Harper
- 27. Shane Mack
- 26. Cesar Tovar
Guardado went from starter to left-handed specialist to closer, and then Everyday Eddie returned to the Twins for a second go-around as a middle reliever in 2008, finishing with the most appearances and third-most saves in team history.
Hitting was Harper’s specialty, as he batted .306 for the Twins and was arguably the best offensive catcher in the league 1989–1993, and the negative perception of his defense behind the plate isn’t fully supported by numbers. Teams ran on Harper a ton, but he threw out 31 percent of attempted basestealers for his career and often topped his backups (such as Tim Laudner) in throw-out rate.
A tremendous athlete who covered tons of ground wherever the Twins put him in the outfield, Mack hit for big batting averages with great speed and had overlooked power. Among all MLB outfielders to play at least 600 games 1990–1994, only Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Rickey Henderson, and David Justice had a better OPS than Mack, and his .854 mark with the Twins ranks fourth in team history.
While most fans have come to think of a “utility man” as someone like Denny Hocking or Nick Punto who’s a capable backup at multiple spots, Tovar was more like an everyday player who just didn’t know where he was going to play on a given day. And on September 22, 1968, he played literally everywhere in the same game.
- 25. Zoilo Versalles
- 24. Gary Gaetti
- 23. Camilo Pascual
- 22. Dave Goltz
- 21. Rick Aguilera
In recent years it has become fashionable to suggest that sabermetric analysis wouldn’t agree with Versalles winning the MVP in 1965, but one of the hallmarks of good sabermetrics is being able to adjust raw numbers for historical context, and once you do that, Zoilo led the league in WAR and VORP. Versalles’ career fizzled shortly after the MVP campaign, but his place in Twins history is only amplified by a deeper look at the numbers.
More than any other player, Pascual’s standing on this list suffers because his pre-1961 work with the Senators isn’t included. He debuted at age 20 and bounced back from some early rough patches to post ERAs of 3.15, 2.64, and 3.03 in his final three seasons in Washington, finishing with 14.4 WAR for the Senators and 16.1 WAR with the Twins. If combined, he’d likely rank in the top 10. Little Potato was a helluva pitcher and his .607 winning percentage ranked first in Twins history until Santana came around.
Aguilera lost his spot atop the Twins’ all-time saves list in mid-2011, but it’s worth noting that his saves were longer and more difficult than Joe Nathan’s. Aguilera inherited four times as many runners as did Nathan and recorded 55 more outs in his 254 saves than Nathan did in his first 254.
- 20. Earl Battey
- 19. Corey Koskie
- 18. Joe Nathan
- 17. Roy Smalley
- 16. Justin Morneau
Battey ranked among the AL’s top five catchers in VORP during each of his six full seasons with the Twins, but as good as his bat was, it couldn’t compete with his amazing arm. Battey allowed just 226 steals in 6,700 innings for the Twins despite playing in the run-heavy 1960s, throwing out 40 percent of attempted basestealers. He also led the AL in pickoffs four times, including 15 in 1962. That season Battey allowed only 34 steals and picked off or threw out 42 runners.
Koskie turned himself into a quality fielder at third after initially being banished to the outfield by manager Tom Kelly, and his combination of power and patience at the plate added up to an adjusted OPS+ of 115 that ranks ninth in Twins history among hitters with at least 3,000 plate appearances. Gaetti generally gets the nod when picking the best third baseman in Twins history, but a deeper look at the numbers suggests Koskie is a deserving pick.
Smalley was acquired from the Rangers for Blyleven and then, like Bert, returned to the Twins for a second go-around late in his career. His spot on this list is largely due to the six-season run he had as their starting shortstop 1976–1981. During that time he logged 3,330 plate appearances with a 104 adjusted OPS that led all MLB shortstops, with only Garry Templeton (104), Dave Concepcion (101), and Robin Yount (100) also above 100.
- 15. Jim Perry
- 14. Frank Viola
- 13. Torii Hunter
- 12. Jim Kaat
- 11. Chuck Knoblauch
Advanced defensive metrics aren’t nearly as kind to Hunter as his nine Gold Glove awards, and by the time he left the Twins his range and instincts had certainly diminished, but at his peak no center fielder was more spectacular and fearless. And he could hit a little, too, ranking among the Twins’ top 10 in homers, doubles, runs, RBIs, and hits. If you’re convinced that Hunter’s glove was truly spectacular rather than merely very good, he’d move up a couple spots.
Knoblauch left the Twins on horrible terms and remains hated by most fans, but during his seven seasons in Minnesota he ranked second among all MLB second basemen in WAR, between Craig Biggio and Roberto Alomar. His 1996 season—in which Knoblauch hit .341 with a .448 OBP and .517 slugging percentage while scoring 140 runs—is the second-highest WAR total in team history behind Carew hitting .388 and winning the MVP in 1977. Mauer (.403), Carew (.393), Knoblauch (.391), and Killebrew (.383) are the only Twins hitters with an OBP above .380 over their career with the Twins.
- 10. Bob Allison
- 9. Brad Radke
- 8. Kent Hrbek
- 7. Johan Santana
- 6. Joe Mauer
Radke was never perceived as a star, but better support from the lineup, defense, and bullpen on those awful 1990s teams would have upped his win totals enough to potentially change that. WAR cares about his performance rather than his win-loss record—or a raw ERA that was inflated by one of the highest offensive eras ever—and Radke joins Blyleven and Santana as the only pitchers in Twins history to top 5.0 WAR in at least three seasons.
Santana is the only pitcher in Twins history with multiple Cy Young awards, winning the honor in 2004 and 2006, and he deserved a third in 2005. That year Santana led the league in strikeouts, opponents’ batting average, and adjusted ERA+, yet Bartolo Colon won the award despite throwing 9 fewer innings with an ERA that was 0.61 runs higher. Santana is the all-time Twins leader in winning percentage, adjusted ERA+, strikeouts per nine innings, and strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Believe it or not, that number six ranking is conservative for Mauer. Not only did he lead the AL in WAR among non-pitchers during his MVP season in 2009, he also had the league’s top WAR in 2008 and finished second in 2006. Among position players Mauer already has three of the top dozen single-season WAR totals in Twins history, along with three batting titles, three Gold Glove awards, and an MVP.
- 5. Bert Blyleven
- 4. Tony Oliva
- 3. Kirby Puckett
- 2. Rod Carew
- 1. Harmon Killebrew
Blyleven played nearly half of his Hall of Fame career elsewhere, but still rates as the best pitcher in Twins history. He threw 325 innings with a 2.52 ERA in 1973 for the team’s best single-season WAR among pitchers and also holds the fourth, ninth, and 15th spots on that list. He’s the only pitcher to crack 45 WAR for his Twins career and also leads in complete games, shutouts, and strikeouts.
When it comes to choosing the greatest player in Twins history it’s tough to go wrong. Do you pick a Gold Glove center fielder with a .318 batting average and unforgettable postseason heroics? Or how about a .334-hitting second baseman with seven batting titles and an MVP award? Or maybe an MVP-winning, five-time home run leader who ranked among the AL’s top 10 in OPS for 10 of his 12 seasons in Minnesota?
Puckett is the clear-cut number three choice based on WAR, VORP, Win Shares, and various other metrics, although certainly it would have been a different story had his career not been cut short coming off one of his best seasons at age 35. There’s no shame in finishing behind two of the greatest hitters in baseball history, of course, and it’s possible that advanced defensive metrics underrate Puckett’s work in center field somewhat compared to his collection of Gold Gloves and sterling reputation.
Ultimately the choice between Carew and Killebrew is a toss-up. Their skills couldn’t have been any more different, but they each contributed massive value on a consistent and sustained basis. Carew was a second baseman for most of his career in Minnesota before shifting to first and a line-drive machine with great speed and bat control who rarely struck out but with only limited power. Killebrew was one of the greatest sluggers of all time and drew walks in bunches to go along with his high strikeout totals as a corner infielder.
Carew had a .334 batting average for his Twins career, while Killebrew hit .260, yet in terms of overall production Killebrew had a .901 OPS compared to an .841 OPS for Carew. Carew’s speed cancels out some of that OPS difference and he also had the edge defensively, although the size of that gap draws mixed opinions. Killebrew played 300 more games and logged 1,000 more plate appearances for the Twins, which was a big factor in my giving him the ever-so-slight nod.
Killebrew is the only player in Twins history to hit 40 homers in a season … and he did it seven times (plus one more when the team was in Washington). He also drew 100 walks seven times, while Allison is the only other Twins hitter to do it even once. He hit 475 homers in a Twins uniform, while no one else has 300. He drew 1,321 walks and no one else has 850. And he did all that mashing in the low-scoring 1960s and 1970s, producing an adjusted OPS+ of 148 that stands atop the Twins’ leader board ahead of Carew (137), Mauer (133), Oliva (131), Allison (130), Hrbek (128), and Puckett (124). In their fifty year plus history the Twins have turned out more than their fair share of talent, in particular among position players. While only one Hall of Fame pitcher spent an important portion of his career with the team, in Puckett, Carew and Killebrew the Twins could boast three of the best players of their eras, each of whom spent all, or at least the bulk, of his career in Minnesota.