By Andrew Kelser and Danny Blumenthal
It happened again. The Minnesota Twins have seen their playoffs dreams extinguished. Despite strong starts from ace Kenta Maeda and José Berríos, the Twins were swept out of the postseason, with their offense only able to muster up 2 runs in a series against the Astros. The Twins have now lost 18 playoff games in a row.
Last season’s Twins were special. Powered by their record-setting “Bomba Squad”, the team won 101 games – the franchise’s most in over 50 years. Not only did they cruise to a division title, but they also did so without the benefits of being a big-market team. Minnesota was only the 4th team in 30 years to rack up over 100 wins despite ranking in the bottom half of the league in team payroll. Unfortunately, the Twins ran into the 103-win New York Yankees in the playoffs, and their story-book of a season was snapped shut.
The Twins stayed strong in 2020, posting the team’s second-best season (by winning percentage) over the last 50 years. Unlike in 2019, the team won with pitching this year. Only three teams posted better ERAs than Minnesota, and Maeda was one of the best starters in baseball. Again though, the Twins were swept out of the postseason – this time, by the underdog Astros.
Even though the Twins have excelled in the regular season, they still can’t reverse their postseason curse. Dating back to 2004, the Twins have lost 18 straight playoff games, the longest losing streak in the history of all major U.S. sports.
But how unlikely is this streak? Using FiveThirtyEight’s historical MLB Elo ratings, we can calculate the odds that the Twins would lose each of these 18 playoff games. Multiplying these odds together gives the probability that Minnesota would lose all 18 games. The following table gives the odds of the Twins losing each game, and also includes the cumulative probability that the losing streak would last that many games.
To visualize the slim odds of the Twins’ losing streak, this graph illustrates the final column of the previous table, demonstrating just how unlikely the Twins’ odds were to lose even six or seven consecutive playoff games, let alone 18. According to FiveThirty Eight’s win probabilities, Minnesota’s odds of losing 18 games in a row were 0.002%, or roughly 1 in 54,000. To put this in perspective, the odds of a (cardboard) fan getting a foul ball are about 100 times higher than the odds of the Twins’ playoff losing streak.
This 1 in 54,000 number accounts for the fact that the Twins were underdogs in the majority of their playoff series. During the streak, the Twins have only twice won more regular season games than their playoff opponents (2006 and 2020), and only once won the season series against their opponent (going 6-4 against the Oakland A’s in 2006). For this reason, the odds of the Twins current losing streak should not be computed assuming Minnesota had a 50-50 chance of victory each game (such calculations would put the odds of the Twins streak at 1 in 262,144, a number which has been widely circulated on the Internet). Nevertheless, the Twins’ losing streak could still be more unlikely than the prior 1 in 54,000 odds would suggest.
This is because the Twins have come tantalizingly close to playoff victories several times during their current streak. In the game that started the streak–Game 2 of the 2004 ALDS–the Twins jumped out to an early 3-1 lead against the Yankees. The game ultimately went into extra innings, when Torii Hunter launched a solo home run which put the Twins ahead 6-5 in the top of the 11th. After Hunter’s home run, the Twins’ win probability (as measured by Baseball Reference) was 88%. However, the Yankees rallied in the bottom half of the inning against All-Star closer Joe Nathan (who posted an ERA of 1.62 over the season), with Alex Rodriguez hitting a game-tying ground-rule double before Hideki Matsui walked it off with a sac-fly.
In Game 4 of that same series, the Twins came even closer to victory. Holding a 5-1 lead as late as the 8th inning, Minnesota reached an astonishing 97% win probability. However, Twins reliever Juan Rincon served up a three-run homer to Ruben Sierra, which tied the game in the 8th inning.
Once again, the Twins and Yankees went to extra innings, and once again, the Twins suffered an extra innings playoff loss.
A few years later, in the 2009 ALDS, the Twins matched up with the hated Yankees once more. Again, the Twins held a late-inning lead in Game 2, and their 3-1 advantage heading into the 9th inning put their odds of winning at 92%. Nevertheless, this lead was not meant to be. In an event heavily reminiscent of 2004, Alex Rodriguez tied the game by blasting a two-run homer off Joe Nathan. In the 11th, a blown call by umpire Phil Cuzzi likely prevented Minnesota from scoring the go-ahead run, and in the bottom half of the inning, Mark Teixeira ended it with a walk-off solo shot.
In all of these cases, the Twins lost the game late. Their bullpen was rocked frequently, and the Twins’ hitters rarely came through against opposing relievers. This trend continued in 2020, as after entering the 9th inning of Game 1 tied 1-1, the Twins gave up three runs and went on to lose. Minnesota’s bullpen has been below average in each of the last 7 seasons. With high-quality relievers such as Liam Hendriks, Trevor Rosenthal, and Alex Colome available in free agency, this could be an area for the Twins to address in the offseason.
So could 2021 be the year the Twins finally snap the streak? With much of their core returning, the Twins look likely to compete for the division title again — especially if they upgrade the bullpen. However, they will have to fend off a rising Chicago White Sox team, as well as ever-competitive Cleveland, in order to get into prime playoff position. Once they get to the playoffs though, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether they can pull out a win.