In life, it seems like your luck always ends up evening out. Long streaks of fortune luck will invariably be followed up by a cluster of bad breaks. You get a sweet new job, your girlfriend dumps you. You find a $20 bill on the ground, a passing car splashes muddy water all over your freshly dry-cleaned suit. The timing can change, but ultimately it seems like the outcomes that aren't under your direct control inevitably seem to balance out.
The same is true in baseball. Sometimes a mediocre pitcher will have a prolonged hot streak in which they're consistently getting opposing lineups to hit the ball right at their fielders (see: Hernandez, Livan). Sometimes hitters will slump for weeks because all of their line drives seem to be getting caught. Lucky and unlucky streaks can run teamwide as well. Just look at our Minnesota Twins.
In 2008, the Twins' lineup was exceedingly lucky. As a team, they registered a .748 OPS that ranked ninth in the AL, just below the league average. They hit only 111 home runs, fewest in the Junior Circuit. Their team on-base percentage of .340 was nothing worth writing home about. And yet, the team's hits always seemed to come at the right time and as a result the Twins ranked third in the league in runs scored while narrowly missing a postseason berth. A .305/.380/.446 hitting line with runners in scoring position will help with that. Given that their overall hitting line of .276/.340/.408 was substantially worse than their mark in scoring opportunities, some ventured to wonder whether the team was simply "clutch."
The answer was no. There is little evidence that individual players achieve significantly different results in clutch situations over a prolonged period of time, much less entire teams. That 2008 team had a fortuitous distribution of hits and the result is that they scored substantially more runs than one should have expected based on their overall offensive performance.
Flash forward two years, where the Twins finally seem to see those unlucky rain clouds rolling overhead to wash away all the good luck they experienced in that charmed '08 campaign. Now, the Twins are fielding a much more imposing overall lineup, and yet they cannot seem to get the big hits when they need them. They have the league's second-best on-base percentage at .355, but they're constantly wasting runners thanks to a .264 average and .749 OPS with runners in scoring position (compared to .273 and .779 overall). The more runners these Twins put on, the more inept they become at the plate. With runners on second and third, they're hitting .167 with a .662 OPS. With the bases loaded, they're hitting .169 with a .478 OPS.
So is this team, which includes many of the same players as that 2008 group, simply less clutch? No. It's not like batters are stepping up and completely abandoning their approach at the plate in key situations -- they're striking out and walking with about the same frequency as would be expected. It's what happens when the ball is put in play that is killing them; the 2010 Twins' overall batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .305, but with runners on second and third that drops to .190. With the bases loaded, it drops to .175.
Compare that to the 2008 squad which saw its overall .316 BABIP shoot up to .332 with runners in scoring position. Their BABIP with runners on second and third was .351; with the bases loaded, .324. In '08, batted balls would consistently find a place to land in big spots. This year, in key run-scoring opportunities, line drives are continually falling into outfielders' gloves and hard-hit grounders are turning into double plays rather than seeing-eye singles.
Me and Phil Mackey, along with a few others, had a minor Twitter debate a couple weeks ago because he refused to label the Twins' tendency to fail with the bases loaded a "trend," since his reasoned stance was that the bad breaks were guaranteed to turn around at some point. I don't know how that stops an existing pattern of outcomes from being a trend, but while Phil is right that the team's bad fortune is almost certain to turn around at some point, there's no denying what we've seen thus far and there's no guarantee that it will end any time soon. It's clearly not happening yet, as evidenced by the 28 runners that have been left on base during the team's current three-game losing streak. The lucky hits kept coming pretty much all year long for the 2008 Twins, so it's really not unthinkable that this group could remain snake-bit for weeks, months, or even the remainder of the season.
Despite what a lot of misdirected anger from fans and bloggers might have you believe, the team's struggles in scoring opportunities are not the fault of the manager nor the result of a lack of intestinal fortitude among his players. It's simply an increasingly long string of bad luck. Hopefully it will turn around soon, because for the time being, this talented team is awfully tough to watch.