Thursday, July 31, 2008

Livan's Swan Song?

Livan Hernandez is doing his best to help make Ron Gardenhire's decision on how to make room in the Twins rotation for Francisco Liriano an easy one. Last night, for a second consecutive outing, Hernandez put the Twins in a deep early hole by surrendering five runs in the first few innings. Unlike his last start against the Indians, Hernandez didn't last to see the Twins make a competitive game out of last night's affair, as he exited after four innings and the game eventually deteriorated into an 8-3 laugher.

Had the Twins scored a few runs against Gavin Floyd, one might have tried to argue that Hernandez "kept the Twins in the game," but with the offense's punchless performance, there's no way to look at Hernandez's outing as anything other than it truly was: an awful performance. And such outings haven't been particularly rare for him this season.

In just four innings last night, Hernandez allowed 11 base-runners (one of which, in fairness, was an intentional walk). He surrendered nine hits, raising his opponents' batting average to .341 for the season, and was uncharacteristically inefficient with his pitch count, needing 80 pitches to get through four frames. The poor outing came in a game that the Twin really would have liked to win against a contending divisional rival, and also came in the aftermath of a brilliant start by one young starter and a solid start by another one. In other words, there is little excusing last night's pitiful performance from Hernandez, a veteran who should be expected to come through for the Twins on nights like this. Instead of giving the team a legitimate chance to win and move into first place, Hernandez turned in his shortest outing since June 12 and suffered his team-leading eighth loss. The Twins will now have to count on Scott Baker to help them win tonight's finale, and in doing so avoid making no progress against the division leaders in this series despite having won the first two games in exciting fashion.

The trade deadline falls at 3 p.m. this afternoon. As I've stated before, I don't expect the Twins to make any type of significant move to bring in outside talent, and that's alright with me. In my mind, the most important trade the Twins can make right now is swapping the utterly hittable Hernandez out of the rotation in favor of Liriano.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Pen Revival

Lately on this blog, we have had many posts discussing the numerous problems with bullpen, as well as small sample sizes as a means of assessment. I am certainly one who subscribes to the notion that you can't take too much out of a small sample size, because there is probably too much chance involved to be sure if the success you are seeing is truly sustainable.

At the same time, there can be nothing wrong with basking in the glow of immediate returns in short term as long as the basic principles of sustainability are kept in the background. With that in mind, its fairly certain that the MVP of last night's game was the Twins bullpen, which kept a close game going long enough for the Twins to get the insurance they needed to pull out a 6-5 victory that brought them within a 1/2 game of the Pale Hosers.

Jesse Crain, Dennys Reyes, Matt Guerrier, and Joe Nathan combined for three innings of solid relief work that -- while not dominating -- was effective. With two strikeouts via Guerrier, three hits allowed, and only one walk, the bullpen earned three "holds" and a save, despite the solo home run that Nathan allowed to Nick Swisher to bring the game within a run in the ninth. With so much negativity surrounding the bullpen situation lately, it felt almost necessary to give the unit its due when it did its job in preserving an important Twins lead and playing a significant role in a victory.

Of course, the bullpen was not the only player in the victory, as Glen Perkins did manage to battle through six innings to pick up his eighth victory, even though he was not terribly effective as shown by the nine base-runners he allowed. The offense was also not fantastic, despite scoring six runs, as they only had nine hits -- only one for extra-bases -- to go with two walks, but they made up for this deficit the way they have most of the year with an incredible five two-out RBI, two from Joe Mauer and three from Justin Morneau on a key three-run double in the fifth.

Tonight, the Twins face perhaps their biggest challenge of the series in Gavin Floyd. Floyd has gotten fairly lucky this year, with a very unimpressive 85/53 K/BB ratio (though he does have 10 wins, so there is no doubt his success is sustainable), a 4.95 FIP, a 4.76 xFIP, and a 4.80 RA that does not scream dominance by most standards, despite having only allowed 100 hits in 123 innings, but rather an extreme amount of luck. Nonetheless, the Twins have struggled against him this year, only managing to put up six runs and twelve hits in 21 1/3 innings so far this year. Of course, given these statistics, luck may finally show up on the Twins side and if that is the case, they could be divisional leaders by the end of the night.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Liriano Conundrum

On Sunday afternoon, Francisco Liriano had his worst outing in his last six starts, surrendering four runs on eight hits over six innings of work for the Class-AAA Rochester Red Wings. That's the bad news. The good news? Liriano still displayed some dominance, striking out nine and walking one, and still picked up a victory, his seventh in a row. The majority of the damage in the outing came on a three-run homer, but for the most part Liriano still pitched effectively and still showed that he's ready for a promotion to the big leagues.

Of course, that much has been obvious for some time now. Over his past 11 starts in Rochester, Liriano is 10-0 with a 2.93 ERA and 80-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 71 innings of work. He's missing bats, he's limiting base-runners and he's pitching deep into games. Reports are that his velocity is creeping back up toward the mid-90s and his slider is biting again. These would be encouraging signs for any young minor-league pitcher, but they are especially exciting for Liriano, whom we watched dominate major-league hitters just two years ago.

It would certainly be unfair to expect Liriano to come up to the majors and pitch the way he did in 2006, when he went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA and 144-to-34 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 121 innings. Still, it doesn't seem at all unreasonable to believe that Liriano could step in and immediately become one of the best pitchers in this rotation. This could provide a boost to the 2008 Twins similar to the one he provided the 2006 Twins. For him to continue to throw innings and dominate down in Triple-A seems nothing short of wasteful.

The issue, naturally, is that there is only room for five pitchers in the Twins' rotation and -- while it's entirely possible that Liriano would be superior to all of them -- none of the five current starters have exactly earned a demotion. Scott Baker has been excellent. Kevin Slowey pitched a complete game shutout yesterday and seems to finished with his short slump from a couple weeks ago. Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins have both consistently given the team a chance to win games. Livan Hernandez has not been terribly effective overall, but he has eaten up innings and delivered Quality Starts in four of his past seven outings.

It seems fairly clear that none of these guys belongs in the minors, so one idea that has been brought up is moving someone to the bullpen. Perkins and Blackburn both have some experience as relievers, which is why their names have been mentioned most often as candidates to move to the 'pen. Yet, this doesn't seem like the best course of action. Blackburn has been a reliable starter for this team who is second on the rotation in innings with 127 and second in ERA at 3.69; Perkins has pitched 6+ innings in seven of his past eight starts and six of those have been Quality Starts.

In my opinion, the team's wisest course of action would be to place Hernandez in the bullpen, where he can replace Brian Bass. Hernandez would likely be just about as effective as Bass in the long relief role, and keeping him on the roster means he'll be available to make a spot start for should someone get injured or jump back into the rotation if the organization deems Liriano's inning load to be getting too high for his first year back after surgery.

Of course, the other option would be placing Liriano in the bullpen. As Aaron Gleeman wrote yesterday, the Twins' relief corps hasn't been particularly strong this year and the team lacks a truly dominant setup man in front of Joe Nathan. Liriano could potentially provide the power arm this bullpen has been needing. With that said, I don't think converting Liriano to a relief role at this point is a very good idea. He's still settling in after missing a full season and re-learning how to pitch with a new ligament in his elbow; somehow asking him to change roles in the middle of a major-league pennant race doesn't seem like the best choice. Also, when throwing in short stints late in close games, there's a good chance Liriano would over-exert himself, which is a dangerous proposition considering his elbow history.

Keeping Liriano in Rochester at this point is wasteful. He's too good to be pitching down there, and the Twins could use his assistance as they pursue the White Sox in the AL Central. Unfortunately, finding a way to get him onto the big-league roster is not as clear-cut as one might like. I know what I'd do, but I'm sure the Twins view things differently. It should be interesting to see how they get Liriano onto their roster, and how soon they are able to do so.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Reversal of Fortunes

At the end of last week, things seemed pretty down for the Twins. After a brutal three-game sweep at Yankee Stadium, things started out poorly against the Indians in Cleveland on Friday, when the Twins lost a close game 5-4. For starting pitcher Livan Hernandez, it wasn't exactly a case of bad luck, as he allowed 15 baserunners in eight innings, including 12 hits, four of which went for extra-bases. For the Twins hitters, until Justin Morneau's ninth-inning. two-run homer, swung with futility against lefty Cliff Lee, striking out 10 times and walking no times, managing only two runs against the Cy Young contender.

However, luck did turn around the last two games. The Twins greeted Fausto Carmona's return to the mound with a fervant onslaught, eviscerating Carmona's pitching for 9 runs in just 2 2/3 innings, with seven hits and three walks, including a Brian Buscher three-run blast to knock Carmona out of the game. In total, the Twins offense managed 15 hits and four walks Saturday night, the stars being Buscher, with his 3-for-5 night and five RBI, Delmon Young, who went 3-for-5 with two RBI, and Justin Morneau, who went 2-for-3 with a double, two walks, and two runs scored.

Yesterday, the Twins offense didn't blow anyone out of the water, but they did rally in a very encouraging way. With the game tied in the ninth and lefty closer Rafael Perez on the mound, Morneau, who came into the game 1-for-8 against Perez, belted a game-winning double to center. Jason Kubel followed up with his own RBI single off the lefty. Anytime the Twins lefties hitters are doing that well against a tough lefty pitcher, then you know that things are looking up for the team. Here are a few other notes on the weekend:

* Yesterday's game also featured plenty of good pitching. Nick Blackburn bounced back from a rough start against the Yankees that featured some ugly defense by getting the opposite play behind him. Blackburn went seven innings, allowing only four hits and a walk while striking out three, lowering his ERA to 3.68. Of course, the two amazing catches by Denard Span certainly helped things. Span had quite the weekend in center field filling in for Carlos Gomez, who hurt himself Friday night making his own spectacular, athletic catch before hurting a disk in his back when he collided with the wall.

* Beyond the great starting pitching and the stellar defense of Span, one depressing statistic still lurks. Joe Nathan picked up his 28th save yesterday and with a scoreless inninig, dropped his ERA to a eye-popping 1.05. That goes along with a 0.91 WHIP and a 47/11 K/BB ratio in 42 2/3 innings. What is the problem? The continued underuse of Nathan, who has only three appearances in nine games since the return from the All-Star game. Nathan remains on pace for only 65 innings, so it is about time that Gardy starts to get slightly more flexible in his use, as Nathan could easily survive 70 or even a few more innings just fine, while increasing the Twins chances of winning in any close game.

* Lost in the 11-4 offensive shelling of Saturday night was good pitching from both Scott Baker and most of the Twins bullpen. Any improvement in the bullpen is good news for Twins fan, though its not all that meaningful that Brian Bass or Craig Breslow had solid scoreless innings in low-pressure situations. That is in fact the only places they have had much success this year. Baker, on the other hand, continues to show up as the Twins ace. Baker only pitched five innings Saturday, but he did manage to dominate many Indians hitters, striking out five. Overall, his numbers look impressive across the board, with a 3.38 ERA, a 1.11 WHIP, a .242 BAA, and a 81/18 B/KK ratio in 96 innings. Easily, the B/KK ratio is the most impressive statistic for a young pitcher, as it bodes very well for his future.

Today, the Twins will start an important four-game series against the White Sox at the Metrodome, starting with a matchup of Kevin Slowey and Mark Buerhle tonight. Hopefully, the Twins bats keep up some success against lefties and that may well happen, since the Twins have hit Buerhle well this year, with 16 hits and two homers in 13 2/3 innings against him this year, giving him a 5.27 ERA against the Twins so far in 2008.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Road of Perdition

On its own, the Twins getting swept at the hands of the Yankees in New York is not overly troubling. Yet, since the start of June, the Twins have been swept in the stadiums of the White Sox, Red Sox and Yankees -- three contending teams. This is a problem. This Twins team needs to start beating good opponents on the road.

The three losses in New York were particularly damaging, since the Tigers were able to sweep their series in Kansas City to move back within three games of the Twins while the White Sox picked up a couple victories against the Rangers to increase their lead in the AL Central to 2 1/2 games.

The Twins need to rebound in Cleveland this weekend, and the following four-game series against the White Sox at the Metrodome looms large.

Some various notes for the weekend:

* Between 2003-2005, his first three seasons in the big leagues, Justin Morneau struck out in 18.4 percent of his plate appearances while drawing walks 8.4 percent of the time. That's not a bad strikeout rate for a young power hitter, but the roughly 2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio (178 to 81) was far from ideal. Over the past three seasons, Morneau has cut down his strikeout rate to 13.7 while increasing his walk rate to 9.1. Each season, his K/BB ratio has drawn closer to even. This year, he has struck out 58 times while drawing 45 walks, and considering current trends (19 walks to 11 strikeouts in his past 25 games) it would seem that by the end of the season the two totals might be close to even.

There's nothing surprising about Morneau's improvement in this regard. As players become more accustomed to major-league competition, it is perfectly normal for them to improve their plate approach and cut down their K/BB ratio. The fact that Morneau is the prime run-producing force in this lineup has clearly caused opposing teams to start pitching around him, so the increased walk rate this season (10.3 percent) is likely to continue escalating.

Kent Hrbek, a former Twin to whom Morneau draws many comparisons, followed a similar path early in his career. Like Morneau, Hrbek never struck out much for a power-hitting first baseman, and early in his career his walk rates were relatively low. As Hrbek's career progressed, however, he started walking more and striking out less. In 1987, his sixth year in the league, he drew more walks (84) than strikeouts (60) for the first time in his career, and he went on to do that every single year for the rest of his career.

Will Morneau follow the same path? We'll see.

* The early results of the Twins' recent June draft have been extremely encouraging, especially the first-round selections. Top pick Aaron Hicks has been working to silence questions about his bat by hitting .330/.423/.455 with two homers and 17 RBI over 22 games in the rookie Gulf Coast League. He has also flashed his speed by going 5-for-5 on stolen base attempts. Carlos Gutierrez, the University of Miami closer whom many felt the Twins reached to draft at No. 27 in the first round, went straight to Advanced-A Ft. Myers and has settled in nicely there with a 3.60 ERA and terrific ground ball rate over four appearances.

The most startling numbers, however, have come from Shooter Hunt, the Tulane right-hander whom the Twins nabbed with their supplemental pick at the end of the first round. In four starts in the rookie-level Appalachian League (one step above the GCL) Hunt posted a minuscule 0.47 ERA, allowing just four hits and six walks while striking out 34 over 19 innings. These numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, because really Hunt had no business pitching at such a low level -- he's a finely tuned 21-year-old college product pitching against mostly teenagers with little experience against high-level competition. It's not entirely clear why the Twins elected to start Hunt at a level that he pretty clearly was too advanced for, but they've quickly reacted to his overt dominance in Elizabethton by promoting him to Low-A Beloit. Hunt has very good stuff and could move quickly through the Twins organization if he keeps his control in check and his shoulder stays healthy and strong.

* I recently mentioned Casey Blake, who we'll see this weekend when the Twins play three games in Cleveland, as one of the most likely trade targets for the Twins to pursue as the deadline approaches. I haven't really seen the Twins attached to many Blake rumors, and ESPN's Buster Olney did not mention them as a suitor in his recent trade speculation column (Insider only). Olney says that the Mets, Rays and Phillies are among the teams with serious interest in Blake. Interestingly, Olney also provides the following tidbit:
The Dodgers keep making it clear to other teams that third baseman Andy LaRoche is available -- and if L.A. makes a move, he will likely be the chip used in a trade.
The Twins haven't really been mentioned in connection with LaRoche, but I've always viewed him as a guy they should seriously look into. It doesn't seem like he's ever going to get a fair shake in Los Angeles, and he would potentially provide the Twins with a highly disciplined right-handed bat at the hot corner.

* According to another ESPN scribe, Jayson Stark, states that the Twins are still pursuing Mariners third baseman Adrian Beltre, contrary to what the Star Tribune reported last weekend. Says Stark:
Despite reports that the Twins have given up on their attempts to pry Adrian Beltre away from Seattle, we're hearing those discussions are far from dead. The Twins' No. 1 trading priority is to upgrade at third base. One team that reportedly has packed it in on Beltre is the Dodgers, after they learned that Beltre's no-trade list specifically blocks his return to Chavez Ravine.
As I've said before, Beltre would be a solid addition at the right price, but I still have a hard time envisioning such a trade taking place. In the same column, Stark lists the Twins as suitors of Rangers third baseman Hank Blalock. I've read of this interest in numerous places and don't really understand it. Blalock is a left-handed hitter with an ugly platoon split who doesn't hit well away from his hitter-friendly home park. He also has only one year left on his contract.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Series To Forget

Getting outscored by the Yankees 25-7 in the series is probably the most troubling number I can bring up to describe the frustration of watching the Twins slug through an ugly sweep in New York. What's worse is knowing that, while the sweep in Boston was memorable and bad, this was much worse. At least in the Boston series, the Twins had a good chance to win two of the games if not for bullpen malfunctions.

In this series? The Twins were thoroughly dominated in all three games and yesterday, they certainly did not help themselves either. The most apparent example, of course, was Alexi Casilla's completely boneheaded mistake that cost Glen Perkins what could have been another solid to good outing. Instead of completing the double play with runners at first and second with one out in the fifth inning, Casilla walked cavalierly over to the second-base bag, believing the inning to be over and then started to jog to the dugout, flashing a self-satisfied grin before being confronted by Perkins and his magnified one finger, symbolizing the lack of continuity between the game going on for everyone else and the one going on for Casilla.

Casilla certainly has made vast improvements this year, as evidenced by his .323/.360/.438 line and 38 RBI in 226 at-bats out of the No. 2 spot in the order. Despite the offensive improvement, and many good plays at second, Casilla continues to make the same kinds of stupid or silly plays that he was criticized for the last few years since he was first called up to the big leagues. The truly unfortunate thing for Twins fans is that there seems to be little to no evidence that Casilla is going to stop making these kinds of befuddling errors anytime soon.

Thus, instead of getting through five scoreless innings, Perkins followed the shocking mistake by giving up a two-run double to new guy Justin Christian and giving the Yankees the lead for good. Of course, it would be hard to tell the story of the sweep or yesterday's game for that matter by just mentioning the bad luck facing Twins starters and the bad defense.

First, in fairness, one particular player continues to flash a good glove and that's Denard Span, who made an impressive catch by robbing an impatient Yankee fan of a fly ball in the right field corner. Second, that discussion would leave out the punchless offense, which managed a meager seven runs in the series overall and only three in last two games against Darrell Rasner and an aging Mike Mussina.

Granted, Mussina has had a very good year, with a sparkling 13-6 record, 3.26 ERA, and 81/16 K/BB ratio. In fact, it's quite the impressive comeback year. But it's still hard to excuse the Twins' stale offensive performance, with as many extra-base hits (two) as double-plays grounded into on the day. Further confusing was why one of the Twins best hitters against right-handers in Joe Mauer was sitting on the bench, while Mike Redmond hit in the third spot (yes, he's hitting .313 against righties and .270 against lefties this year, but its an aberration, because that split is reversed over the last three years to the tune of .370/.422/.468 against lefties and .279/.312/.332 against righties) and the middle of the order went 2-for-12.

Of course, mentioning Mauer on the bench is probably splitting hairs to some extent, but the point remains. The offense was pretty ugly against the Yankees, just as the defense and pitching overall was, and that is particularly evident in their lack of execution, which should worry some fans. For instant, over the three-game series, the Twins scored only seven of the 31 base-runners they managed to get on. That's under 25%. Additionally, ten base-runners were left in scoring position with less than two outs. In other words, that incredible ability to be clutch with runners on that was enabling the Twins to remain a top offense despite their lack of serious power or any plate discipline outside of Mauer may truly be fleeting and there may be signs of it disappearing.

What's the good news for the Twins fans? Well, it is certainly hard to make much good news out of getting sweep by a possible contender, especially as bad as this one was. However, thankfully the next series will not present the same challenge, as the Cleveland Indians have all but admitted their season is gone by trading away C.C. Sabathia, the Twins hater and killer. On the other hand, the Twins will still face the Cy Young-contending Cliff Lee on Friday, but the good news there is the Twins managed four runs off him last time out. That's certainly more hopeful than this week's lack of execution so far.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Top to Bottom

Carlos Gomez got his first full major-league season off to a pretty decent start this year. Through the first two months, he was batting .282/.315/.411, and along the way he'd stolen 17 bases and hit for the cycle on one occasion. He had been an igniter at the top of the Twins lineup, gaining a great deal of fanfare and seemingly earning his way into Ron Gardenhire's favor.

Things have been rough for Gomez since the end of May. Entering last night's game, he had hit .207/.244/.271 since June 1, striking out more than six times for every walk and getting thrown out stealing as often as he successfully swiped a bag during that span. Gomez's horrendous on-base percentage had become a liability at the top of the lineup, and with Denard Span returning to the Twins as an on-base machine, Twins fans became more and more irritated with Gardenhire's refusal to make a lineup adjustment.

Gardenhire steadfastly stood by his lead-off hitter for quite a while, claiming he didn't want to damage the excitable 22-year-old's confidence, but last night the manager finally relented and slid Gomez down to the ninth spot in the batting order while penciling in Span as the lead-off hitter.

The results weren't exactly game-breaking. The Twins lost 8-2, continuing their ineptitude at Yankee Stadium. Yet, Span reached base in three of his four plate appearances, going 2-for-3 with a walk. He took pitches and worked ahead in the count in three of his four trips to the dish. Simply put, he looked like a much better fit in the lead-off spot than Gomez. Of course, that much was obvious when you simply compared the two players' on-base percentages.

Swapping Span's and Gomez's spots in the lineup isn't going to make an earth-shattering difference in the team's offensive production. But, it is a very logical move and one that I'm glad to see Gardenhire finally make. Gomez can feel a little less pressure batting at the bottom of the lineup, while Span can put his on-base skills to use by batting directly in front of the team's best hitters.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Bronx Bombed

After a good series against the Texas Rangers over the weekend, the Twins dropped an egg last night against the Yankees, losing 12-4. Unfortunately, there aren't too many positives to pull out of the game, but there are plenty of observations to consider:

* Admittedly, it's hard these days to continue to defend Boof Bonser when he seems to give up runs and hits every time he's on the hill. And that would be reality, not merely perception, as he's given up runs in seven of his last eleven appearances. With his ERA now at a sky-high 6.59, things continue to look bad for Boof. The positive, as with most of his ugly appearances, is that he's at least showing some signs of potential, as he struck out three hitters in the 3 1/3 innings he pitched. Also, no one can deny some bad luck, which was clear on hits like Johnny Damon's soft pop fly RBI double.

* Nick Blackburn also ran into some bad luck, which has been somewhat the story of his season. Blackburn's 7-6 record is not necessarily indicative of his quality of pitching and last night offers at least some examples of that issue. Alexi Casilla's error that continued the rough second inning stands out, but the defense for the Twins in general wasn't particularly good last night. Of course, there is nothing the defense can do about certain things, like Alex Rodriguez's two-run homer.

* Losing twice to Sidney Ponson is something that has to hurt for Twins, as much as it hurts as a fan. The previous loss was certainly more embarrassing, as the Twins managed only six hits in a complete game victory for Ponson, but this time around wasn't much better because there was a lack of execution as evidenced by scoring only three runs off of Ponson despite putting 11 base-runners on in 5 2/3 innings.

* Denard Span continued his impressive hitting last night, going 3-for-4 with the Twins' only two extra-base hits, with a double and a triple. Span still only has 85 at-bats, but that .329/.424/.429 line is looking pretty good right now. I may have pegged him to disappoint in the second half, but Span is still showing a solid stick and should have a line Twins fans can be satisfied with by the end of the year.

* Alexi Casilla is the only other Twin to really have much of a night on offense. He went 3-for-5 with two RBI and a run scored. While his .320 average is looking good right now, it does still conceal a lack of power and patience. The lack of power is something Twins can easily look over, but Casilla is going to have to start improving his walk rate at the top of the order. His OBP is not embarrassing at all (.358), but being projected for only 32 walks is, as evidenced by a meager .038 Isolated Discipline.

* Tonight, the Twins put Kevin Slowey on the hill. Slowey's last start was terrible, when his ERA jumped from 3.78 to 4.26 after giving up six runs to the Tigers in only 3 2/3 innings. Though he wasn't much better in the start before, he had been excellent in four starts between June 13 and June 29. Hopefully, Slowey can get back on track tonight, as he has shown a good ability to bounce back from the few terrible starts he has had this year.

Monday, July 21, 2008

No Break For Baker

Fortunately, it doesn't seem that the four-day hiatus provided by the All-Star break has done much to slow down the Twins and their winning ways. They picked up a series victory against the Rangers at the Dome this weekend, scoring easy victories on Friday and Saturday night before dropping a tough one on Sunday afternoon. While yesterday's loss was obviously the low point of a strong series in that the Twins missed their chance at a sweep, it did feature a brilliant outing from Scott Baker, and that's what I'd like to touch on in today's post.

Baker took a perfect game into the sixth inning, retiring the first 17 batters he faced before rookie catcher Taylor Teagarden hit a liner just over the wall in center field to simultaneously break up the perfect game and the shut-out (and ultimately stick Baker with an excruciating loss as the Twins fell 1-0). Overall, Baker allowed only two hits and one walk while striking out eight over eight innings of work. He's been on quite a run lately; two starts ago he blanked the Red Sox for seven innings, and in his last start before the break he held the Tigers to two runs through seven innings before giving up a two-run homer early in the eighth. That Baker is pitching deep into games with effective results is encouraging, and what is more encouraging is that over these past three starts he's done so against arguably the three best offenses in the American League.

Baker now owns a 3.26 ERA and 1.09 WHIP with a 76-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 91 innings this season. Meanwhile, in New York, Johan Santana has posted a 3.10 ERA and 1.22 WHIP with a 116-to-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 130 2/3 innings. Certainly, Baker is no Santana, but he has been filling the role of team ace better than almost anyone could have realistically expected.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Built-In Advantage: For All Lefties?

Just over a week ago, research was released by an engineer professor at Washington University, David Peters. The article was for a web site publication for the university, not a scholarly journal, but it was enough to draw the attention of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

What does Peters conclude? Something that may not be all the surprising to those who watch and research baseball regularly: lefties have a big advantage in most areas. Peters' first question: how did the Hall of Famers do? Here's the results: 13 out of 61 enshrined pitchers are left-handed, which is more than twice the number of lefties in the regular population. Position players? 71 Hall of Fame position players batted right-handed, 59 left-handed, and eight were switch-hitters. Among the left-handed hitters are some of the game's greatest names: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey, Jr., Tris Speaker, Shoeless Joe, Willie Keeler, George Sisler, Tony Gwynn, Eddie Collins, Wade Boggs, Rod Carew, Mickey Cochrane and George Brett.

What is the reason? Peters claims that baseball is set-up naturally as a game for lefties to dominate. As a right-handed hitter swings, his momentum carries him the wrong way--toward third base. A lefty, already standing roughly 5 feet closer to first base, swings and naturally spins in the correct direction. This means, Peters says, that the lefty travels the 90 feet to first roughly one-sixth of a second faster than the righty. The obvious result is that this tends to produce more hits and a higher batting average.

And, of course, because most pitchers are right-handed, the left-handed hitter also tends to have a match-up advantage. Peters claims that "you get depth perception" as a lefty, whereas, as a right-handed batter facing a right-handed pitcher, the right-hander actually has to pick up the ball visually as it comes from behind the pitcher's left shoulder, which leads to the loss of split-second timing to pick up the ball.

Peters points out that, according to retrosheet.org, left-handers hit .272 against right-handed pitchers last season. Righties vs. righties hit .261. Against left-handed pitching, righties hit .281, lefties just .251. But there were 122,053 at-bats against right-handed pitchers last season, nearly three times as many as the 45,730 against lefties. Of course, he has a few counterexamples, the main disadvantage being a catcher who throws left-handed. Peters also points out that only 22 of 138 position players in the Hall were "pure" lefties, meaning that they hit and threw left-handed.

Peters' article isn't really anything too terribly new in that it isn't exactly sabermatric research, but in pulling from the Hall and from basic statistics, a clear trend does exist indicating that there is a bias for lefties. This, besides the more mathematical explanation, should suggest that organizations should consistently value left-handed hitters and pitchers. Organizations do tend to value lefties, but often it seems just for having one in the bullpen just for lefty-lefty specialty match-ups. They don't seem to value left-handed hitters as much, because they focus too much on the struggles of many lefties against left-handed pitchers without looking at the big numbers and the sample size.

In other words, if someone like Ron Gardenhire did a little basic research, the way Peters did, he might find out that in the long run, it's better to value a left-hander hitter like Jason Kubel (as well as Joe Mauer) being in the lineup as much as possible over getting obsessed with match-ups and smaller sample sizes. Granted, some lefties just plain cannot hit left-handed pitchers (Jacque Jones anyone?), but Kubel and Mauer aren't necessarily those kinds of hitters. Rather than "protecting" them and replacing them with right-handers like Craig Monroe, it might be helpful to adopt a central philosophy that similarly values lefties all across the board.

However, once again, too much probably shouldn't be read into this, since the study is not too in depth and is based of the examination of some math, some oberservations, some stats, and at that, some select ones from very talented players. Despite this, I think it is a point worth considering in what makes up the larger philosophy of both fans and organizations.

* For those paying attention, there have been some interesting developments with regards to Francisco Liriano. The left-hander started the day by making news through his agent, filing a grievance against the Twins for not calling him up from the minors after three straight starts without allowing a run, believing they did so to avoid arbitration for another year. It's probably not a good sign that the Twins' possible ace might be a little unhappy, but it is a good sign that he had yet another great start last night, going eight innings while giving up a seven hits and one run while striking out eighth and walking none. It's probably about time they just call him up and be done with it. Hopefully that means goodbye to Brian Bass and a permanent bullpen trip for Livan Hernandez.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Trade Deadline Preview

With just a couple weeks to go until the end of July, trade speculation is inevitably going to start heating up among fans of every major-league club in the coming days. The Twins annually seem to find their name mentioned in numerous scattered rumors, but since this blog's inception back in 2005, the team has never made a significant acquisition near the deadline. That's a trend that figures to continue this year, and this isn't necessarily a bad thing.

There are a few reasons that I don't expect Bill Smith to make any major moves in the coming weeks. One is that the team is fairly well-set as it is. The rotation has been solid, and as cliche as it has become, getting back a healthy and effective Francisco Liriano could easily be the equivalent of a trade to acquire a very good starting pitcher. While the bullpen has been shaky at times, acquiring a difference-making reliever via trade tends to be far too costly. Offensively, the only positions where an argument could be made that the Twins should upgrade are shortstop, where Nick Punto is more than holding his own, and third base, where Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris/Matt Macri can seemingly form an effective platoon over the final months of the season.

The other reason I don't see the Twins making a move is that they really don't have the expendable pieces to bring back a player of value. Many fans seem to be trapped in the mindset of past years, where the Twins had a glut of young pitching from which to deal. This is simply not the case anymore. The Twins have four young starters who have fortunately proven effective at the major-league level, but none of these players are anywhere close to expendable. One can argue that Smith could trade a player like Nick Blackburn and replace him with Liriano, but then what happens if another starter gets injured or if Livan Hernandez's ineptitude becomes too much to handle? Suddenly, you're looking to unproven, mediocre minor-league players like Brian Duensing and Kevin Mulvey to join the rotation during a stretch run. Those who argue that Duensing and Mulvey themselves could become trade pieces for the Twins are clearly overrating the value of these prospects.*

* This is hardly unusual, it is very common for fans of a team to overrate the value of their own prospects. I've seen it especially often this year, and I've probably even been guilty of it myself. What people need to come to terms with is that the Twins really lack attractive high-level prospects right now -- in fact, I think that any team looking to send anything significant to Minnesota would start their inquiries with Ben Revere. And I totally stole this asterisk thing from Joe Posnanski.

Anyway, in spite of the fact that I find a trade unlikely, I certainly wouldn't put it out of the realm of possibility. The Twins stand just 1.5 games behind the White Sox for first place in the AL Central with 67 games left to play, and some small improvements could seriously boost their chances of overtaking the Sox and capturing a division championship.

The name that has been mentioned most frequently in relation to the Twins is Mariners third baseman Adrian Beltre. He's in the second-to-last year of his contract in Seattle, and the fledgling Mariners are reportedly open to the idea of moving him. Beltre has never come close to approaching the numbers he posted during his final season with the Dodgers, but he is a good-hitting third baseman who plays excellent defense and, with his ability to mash left-handed pitching, he could be an asset to the Twins. And as much as the deal he signed in Seattle looked like a mega-bust early on, in today's market the $12 million that he's owed this year and next looks pretty darn reasonable. Certainly, the Twins have the payroll flexibility in 2008 and 2009 to absorb that if they wanted to.

With all that being said, I find the idea of the Twins bringing in Beltre to be the stuff of pipe dreams. As I mentioned above, the Twins lack attractive trade pieces that are actually expendable, and the idea that the Mariners will let go of Beltre for a couple marginal prospects simply to have another team pick up his salary is just silly. The Mariners, who rank ninth in Major League Baseball in 2008 salary, are not a cash-strapped organization that is in dire need of shedding payroll, and there are no prospects coming up to push Beltre. I don't doubt that the Mariners would be willing to part with Beltre if the right deal came along, but it seems like many Twins fans are conveniently downplaying his value in order to convince themselves that the Mariners will deal the third baseman for peanuts. While Beltre never developed into the elite slugger that the Mariners hoped they were acquiring when they signed him, third basemen who play defense like him and hit for the type of power he does are not easy to find, and he's still only 29 years old. It's going to take a significant package to reel in Beltre, and I'm just not sure that such an endeavor would be worthwhile for the Twins considering the salary they'd have to take on and considering that they already have some reasonable options at the position as is.

Here's another third base option that might be a little more realistic and is worth keeping an eye on: Casey Blake. He was an unexceptional member of the Twins organization back around the turn of the millenium, but has since turned himself into a pretty nice player in Cleveland. Blake plays a decent third base, bats from the right side and shows solid power against left-handers. He is eligible for free agency following this season, so he'd probably be a rental, but he'd be a nice addition and could help the Twins offense down the stretch. It's not often that you see inter-divisional trades, but the Indians are pretty much out of the race and the Twins could offer them some decent young pitching -- maybe a Jeff Manship, or a couple lesser prospects.

All in all though, I suspect this will be a pretty quiet trade deadline for the Twins, and that's fine by me. They are well-positioned as is, and have a very good chance of sticking with the White Sox for the rest of the season if they continue to get solid innings from their young pitchers and quality at-bats from their young lineup. Ultimately, Liriano may end up being the most important addition the team makes around the deadline.

Finally, since we're on the subject, I'll part with this inane trade rumor from everyone's favorite bull-"Shooter":

It will be interesting whether the Twins try to package Michael Cuddyer and Livan Hernandez in a trade for a slugging third baseman before the July 31 deadline, saving $20 million in guaranteed money to Cuddyer and $2.5 million to Hernandez. Denard Span ($390,000) would replace Cuddyer in right field, and Francisco Liriano ($400,000) would replace Hernandez in the starting rotation.

Yes, I'm sure plenty of teams will be willing to part with their "slugging third baseman" in return for an underperforming, injured right fielder and the league's most hittable pitcher, both of whom are severely overpaid. As I've often said, I wish Mr. Walters would heed the advice offered by his column title... "Don't Print That."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Post-Break Offensive Outlook

Instead of looking back on up-to-date performances up and down the lineup, I would like to try and project which hitters we should expect to take a step forward and which will take a step back over the final two-plus months of the season. Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer are not going to make either list because frankly I expect them both to be fairly consistent the rest of the year. Let's start with three hitters who should improve in the second-half:

1. Jason Kubel
It's not that Kubel had a bad or really disappointing first half. A .262/.331/.462 line is nothing to scoff at (especially given that his isolating slugging percentage leads the team), and neither are 13 home runs or 44 RBI, but Kubel has the skills to improve on the overall line. In looking at his stats, you'd notice that he has had two terrible months and one amazing month. In April he batted .229/.250/.365 and he really didn't improve on that too much with a .247/.309/.397 line in May. However, his .312/.409/.636 June line was phenomenal, with improvements across the board, most importantly with a 12/14 K/BB ratio.

Kubel is probably not going to keep that up the whole rest of the way, but he certainly can have a second half similar to last year's and I expect that he'll post another one or two months with an average above .300 and good power. He's already one of the Twins' best hitters, so any improvement will be a big boost.

2. Delmon Young
I know, I know. Delmon is a very frustrating player. He makes too many mistakes to count in the field, swings at the first pitch in nearly every important situation, and has not shown the skills we thought he possessed when the Twins traded for him during the offseason. However, like Kubel, he has shown improvement each month after a terrible first month. In April, Delmon did everything wrong, hitting .255/.298/.306 with only his five stolen bases standing out as any kind of real offensive contribution.

In May, he started taking a few walks and posted a better, but still poor, .264/.339/.358 line. In June, he finally broke out, losing the patience, but increasing the power and the average with a .321/.341/.476 and his first two home runs of the year. He has largely kept that up in his 47 July at-bats, so far hitting .319/.340/.447. Young's improvement will probably not be as high as people would like and he probably will not take that many more walks, but I suspect he'll hit just over .300 the rest of the year with improved power, as he is finally pulling the ball with success.

3. Carlos Gomez
I'd like to put someone else in this slot, but Gomez can really go nowhere but up from where he is at right now. The first step, of course, would be to either drop him in the batting order or to send him down in the minors. Given the Twins recent rhetoric, it seems the best we can hope for is that Ron Gardenhire eventually drops Gomez in the order, given that all indications suggest his slump isn't going to end. I'm not sure at this point what is more cringe-worthy: the .253/.287/.351 overall line, the 3-for-39 slump, or the 96-14 K/BB ratio.

Essentially, Gomez has all the room in the world to improve. He needs to cut his strikeouts, increase his contact rate, start taking more pitches and walks, stop swinging for the fences when he does not possess the swing or power for it, and learn the craft of the stolen base. Even if Gomez just does a few of this better in the second-half, it would be both significant and marked improvement to me. Even one month remotely like his May (.299/.348/.449) would give many fans hope for Gomez's future.

Three likely to disappoint:

1. Nick Punto
Perhaps this one is a little too easy. After all, it doesn't take much to see that Punto is playing over his head so far this season, with a .324/.383/.471 line in 102 at-bats. This is against a .250/.318/.331 career line and of course is the product a small sample size. Punto had a Punto-esque April, going 10-for-39 to produce a .256/.326/.256 line. With only 12 at-bats in June and 14 in May, Punto's production has more or less come from a 16-for-37 run so far in July that produced a .432/.476/.676 line.

While Punto isn't bound to reach the depths of awfulness he did last year, I suspect that he'll regress to the mean and end up with a line at the end of the year close to his career year in 2006, when he hit .290/.352/.373.

2. Denard Span
While I am pushing for him to enter the lead-off spot, I'm just as likely to accept Alexi Casilla in that spot. Span has certainly improved his skill set this year, especially his plate discipline, and he is finally hitting for some average. However, you really cannot take too much from only 71 at-bats. Yes, he sports an impressive .324/.429/.423 line, but he only has three doubles and two triples, which means that his power has still not increased much. Also, being 3-for-6 in stolen base attempts is not particularly good for a speedster.

What does this all mean? Span certainly can hit for decent average and he's always shown some decent discipline in the minors, so the jump in plate discipline is not all that surprising, especially given his offseason eye surgery. However, it would be unrealistic for fans to expect Span's hot streak to continue through the rest of the year. That doesn't mean he wouldn't be good for the lead-off spot, though, as long as he can sport around a .280 to .300 average from here on out with good plate discipline while learning the dynamics of base-stealing.

3. Brian Buscher
I considered putting Alexi Casilla here, but considering his age and minor-league track record against Casilla's age and skill set, it was hard to say that Casilla is going to disappoint more. Keep in mind that in six minor-league seasons, Buscher has put up a mediocre .280/.349/.404 line, so expecting much more out of him in the majors is unrealistic.

While the .313 current average might look good, it is likely unsustainable and hides what hasn't been that great of a season. Once again, like Punto, Buscher really hasn't had that many at-bats, at only 82. Also, he has a .313/.337/.410 line, good for only a .747 OPS. This is because he has walked a grand total of four times and has only six extra-base hits so far. Given the lack of patience and power coupled with his age and track record, its likely that the only thing keeping Buscher's offensive production acceptable (the batting average) is set to go down steadily.

All-Star Game Note:

* I couldn't stay up to finish the game, but the Twins' players all did well. Joe Mauer showed off his good eye and bat, going 1-for-1 with a walk (as well as appearing in a Boys and Girls Club commercial on National TV), while Justin Morneau hit a hard double off of the Reds' prized hurler, Edinson Volquez. Joe Nathan only threw 8 pitches in his one inning, but he retired the NL hitters 1-2-3 and did manage a strikeout. All in all, I'd say that the three Twins did a pretty good job representing the team in the game.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Post-Break Rotation Outlook

Over the past weekend, the Twins took three out of four from the Tigers in Detroit to head into the All-Star break on a high note. During the current four-day respite from meaningful games, we fans can reflect on the team's 53-42 record, and their position 1.5 games behind the first-place White Sox in the American League Central.

The Twins seem to be well-situated offensively. With the exception of Carlos Gomez, just about every regular is hitting pretty well right now. Ron Gardenhire will have a situation to deal with when Michael Cuddyer returns (what to do with Denard Span?), but for the most part, the offense seems set for the last couple months of the season.

Things are a little less clear with regards to the rotation. Let's break down each starter and what we can expect after the break.

Scott Baker has pitched like a true ace this season, having gone 6-2 with a 3.47 ERA and 68-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 83 innings spread across 14 starts. He missed a month early in the season due to an injury, which has limited his workload, but that may be beneficial down the stretch when his inning load for the season is quite low relative to his peers. Baker has limited hits (only 82 in 83 innings), shown outstanding control, and has displayed an impressive ability to miss bats with a solid strikeout rate overall and 7+ K in six different starts. He has been a bit homer-prone, having surrendered 13 dingers in his 83 innings of work, but that's hardly unusual for a fly ball pitcher like him. The key is limiting that damage by preventing hits and being stingy with walks. Baker has excelled in both those categories; that's why he's been the Twins' best pitcher thus far and figures to continue to do so the rest of the way.

Kevin Slowey had been pitching exceedingly well through his first 12 starts, with a 3.47 ERA and 1.03 WHIP, but he has struggled in his past two outings. He surrendered five runs over six innings of work against the Indians two starts ago, and his last time out he was shelled by the Tigers for six runs in just 3 1/3 innings of work. In both starts, Slowey was victimized by big innings. As a result, his ERA has shot up from 3.47 to 4.26, but I don't think there's any serious reason to worry. Finesse pitchers like Slowey are susceptible to rough outings from time to time (as I wrote on Friday), but I suspect he'll be able to bounce back from the ugly start just as he was able to bounce back from that 8 ER, 3 IP debacle in Chicago back in early June. That is, if he's healthy. He was scheduled to start the first game after the break on Friday, but has had his start pushed back due to a fingernail problem. This will be worth monitoring.

Nick Blackburn has been perhaps the team's biggest surprise this year. Sunday, he allowed only two earned runs over seven innings of work against a tough Tiger offense. He took the loss in the game, and while I'm sure that some (one specifically) will try to argue that he didn't "give his team a chance to win" because three runs came across on his watch and the Twins only scored twice, it was a Quality Start and a very impressive outing. He enters the break 7-5 with a 3.65 ERA and 64-to-20 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 19 starts. Now, just because Blackburn's success this season is somewhat unexpected doesn't mean we can't expect it to continue. He doesn't overwhelm hitters and doesn't strike many people out, but Blackburn pounds the strike zone and induces ground balls at a steady rate, which is a good recipe for lots of innings with a solid ERA. Sure enough, he's on pace to throw over 200 innings this year with an ERA that is better than the league average. This makes him a very valuable guy to have in the middle of the rotation.

Glen Perkins was not being counted on to be a member of this rotation prior to the season. He had never made a start at the major-league level and missed most of 2007 with a shoulder injury. Fortunately, he's stepped in as a starter for the Twins and has done a fine job anchoring the back end of the rotation. His 4.14 ERA and 43-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio are unexceptional, but plenty satisfactory for a No. 4 starter. He has surrendered 95 hits in 78 1/3 innings and his drop-off in K-rate is a bit alarming, but his aggressive pitching style has worked well. He might be due for some regression, but he's a good bet to remain relatively productive over the last couple months of the season and shouldn't have a terribly difficult time holding down his spot in the rotation.

The final spot is where things get interesting. Livan Hernandez leads the team in wins with nine, but nearly every other number is ugly. He holds a 5.44 ERA, a 1.62 WHIP and 45-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 120 2/3 innings. Opponents are hitting .342/.368/.506 against him, which is pretty unbelievable. Essentially, he's turning opposing lineups into a bunch of MVP candidates. Since starting the season 6-1 with a 3.90 ERA, Hernandez has gone 3-5 with a 6.86 ERA and a ghastly .373 BAA. Over his past 10 outings, he has worked three Quality Starts, and those have come against Washington, Arizona and Cleveland. When facing tough offenses like the Rangers, Yankees and Red Sox, Hernandez has been hit hard, and he's been hammered nearly every time he's made a start on the road. Hernandez's strategy of lobbing 84-mph fastballs over the plate is clearly not playing well for the most part, and there's no reason to think it will get any better as long as he continues to allow nearly two hits per inning.

Meanwhile, Francisco Liriano has been brilliant in Triple-A as of late. He has reportedly reverted to his three-quarters arm slot after some attempted mechanical adjustments, and the results have been extremely impressive: three straight scoreless outings, with more than a strikeout per inning and a minuscule 0.65 WHIP during that span. There is little question that Liriano would provide a vast improvement over Hernandez immediately, but for the time being the Twins seem committed to their veteran innings eater. We'll see how long that lasts if Liriano continues to dominate while Hernandez continues to get knocked around like a piƱata. Of course, Liriano could find his way into the rotation as a replacement for Slowey if the fingernail issue is more serious than initially thought.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Weekend Wrap-Up

Yesterday the Twins had an opportunity for a four-game sweep of the Tigers on the road that would have been a wonderful way to enter the All-Star break. Of course, given that beforehand the Twins probably would have been happy to come away from this tough seven-game road trip with four wins, winning three out of four after being swept in Boston is certainly a good thing to go into the break with.

With that, I think several observations should be kept in mind:

* While the Twins offense sputtered against Justin Verlander yesterday, they also managed to beat around two lefties they have historically struggled against in Kenny Rogers and Nate Robertson, while also winning against the up-and-coming Armando Galarraga. Key players had outstanding series -- most notably Justin Morneau. Morneau went 8-for-15 with a home run, three doubles, four runs scored and five walks. It was both impressive and enjoyable to see Morneau have much better at-bats against the types of lefties he has struggled against in the past.

* In total, the Twins scored 18 runs over the four-game series and certainly were in all the games. Its tempting to look at the fact that all the wins were close ones (7-6, 6-5, 3-2) and think that could show some luck, but the ways the games were won should keep fans excited. For instance, in Friday's win, the Twins hitters showed much better patience, taking a total of seven walks between Morneau, Joe Mauer, Jason Kubel, Nick Punto, and Denard Span. If the Twins hitters are showing better patience, it bodes much better for sustainability than a high average in situational hitting. Of course, when it comes to patience, no one on the Twins has been in the same vicinity as Mauer, as he drew four walks over the series to give him a total of 53 and an on-base percentage of .418 (Isolated Discipline of 0.96 as well). That puts him on pace for an amazing 95 walks and gives him the second best OBP in the AL. Pretty impressive, but then again, he's an All-Star for a reason. (Unlike other All-Star catchers who happen to be "captains.")

* The Twins also did see some good pitching from young guys like Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins. Blackburn took the loss yesterday, but he didn't pitch poorly by any means. Seventy out of his 108 pitches were strikes and he got through seven innings having given up only five hits and two walks while striking out four. Blackburn's stats don't jump out at you too much, but the 3.65 ERA and 1.27 WHIP are good, while the 64/18 K/BB ratio is even better.

* Glen Perkins also had a good start, even as his peripherals have projected him to start struggling soon. Perkins wasn't amazing in Friday's win, but he did have a Quality Start, going 6 2/3 innings, giving up six hits and two runs with two walks and two strikeouts. The 95 hits he's given up in 78 1/3 innings isn't particular good, and neither is the 1.46 WHIP, .301 BAA, or the lack of strikeouts. However, he has been a solid starter this year and if he can be good for Quality Starts, there is no reason to get down on him too much yet.

* If there is one not-so-positive thing to take from this weekend, it's Carlos Gomez's offense. It only seems to haven gotten significantly worse. He went 1-for-18 with an RBI and 5 strikeouts in the series and did not draw a single walk. His line is now down to .253/.287/.351. A 638 OPS is bad enough, but a .287 OBP for a lead-off hitter is just hideously awful. Perhaps the All-Star break will do him some good, but it would be better if the break did some good for Gardenhire's decision making so he can finally do everyone a favor and remove Gomez from the leadoff spot. Of course, in an effort not to be too much a downer, I am certainly not forgetting any of the good plays Gomez has made in center recently; but, in fairness, even in that area Gomez has not been all good, all the time. It's time to make the move everyone else has been calling for and move Span or even Alexi Casilla to the lead-off spot.

* Lastly, in a bit of separate news, Morneau has filled out the roster for Home Run Derby participants. While many fans may react negatively to this, since there is an idea that somehow the Derby is an awful thing that has ruined many a baseball player, I just do not accept this premise. Players may alter their swings for it, but they just as often do that to put on shows during batting practice. That is all the competition really is: just a glorified batting practice session. Players like Miguel Tejada and Bobby Abreu didn't start going downhill because of the silly Derby. Tejada was older then most believed and was never a truly elite home run hitter to begin with and Abreu at the time had already shown signs of slowing down. So, in brief, don't fear Twins fans; Morneau will be fine. Instead of worrying, enjoy the show and hopefully he makes it to the second round.

***

If you're bored, head over to the White Sox blog Life in the Cell, where Nick Nelson has written a guest post giving Sox fans a mid-season report on the Twins.

Friday, July 11, 2008

A Crucial Victory

Kevin Slowey was the victim of another big inning yesterday, as the Tigers tagged him for five runs in the fourth inning to put the Twins in a 6-2 hole. Slowey's day was done after 3 2/3 innings, and Ron Gardenhire was forced to hand a four-run deficit against a powerful offense to his recently shaky bullpen. It certainly appeared that the Twins were on their way to a fourth straight loss, but instead, the offense resiliently battled back and the bullpen came through with some huge performances, and the Twins were able to score a 7-6 victory thanks to Justin Morneau's go-ahead solo homer in the top of the 11th.

This was a big, big win for the Twins. The team needed to regain some confidence after a 13-run loss in the series finale against the Red Sox, and the Tigers had been rapidly gaining ground in the AL Central. Here are some notes on the game, as well as some other Twins-related stuff:

* After coughing up 17 runs on 20 hits over six innings in the Boston series, the Twins bullpen rebounded in a major way yesterday as five relievers combined for 7 1/3 scoreless innings. This allowed the Twins offense to get back into the game after Slowey had put the team in a significant hole by letting in six runs over 3 2/3 innings of work.

I saw a lot of overreaction to the struggles of the Twins relief corps over the past few days. A bullpen lacking dominant power arms is bound to have bad stretches from time to time, and I think that's something that a lot of fans lost sight of with the performances provided by Pat Neshek, Dennys Reyes, Juan Rincon and others over the past several years. This isn't a bad bullpen, but it's surely not a great one, which isn't something we're used to around these parts.

* My favorite blog these days is the one maintained by Kansas City columnist Joe Posnanski. One running feature that Joe has on his blog is the "Banny Log," in which he chronicles the season of young right-hander Brian Bannister by breaking down his every start. Posnanski finds Bannister to be an interesting specimen in that he is a soft tosser with relatively unimpressive stuff who has to find creative ways to get major-league batters out. In a recent Banny Log installment after Bannister had gotten shelled by the Cardinals, Posnanski started off with the following:
The less said about this outing, the better … Brian Bannister just never did get the feel. Banny has this theory that for every 10 starts — he has two games where everything is working, two games where nothing at all is working, and the way for him to be successful pitcher is to make the most of those other six starts. Well, this was clearly one of the two bad games.
I found that interesting, and I think there are some distinct similarities between Bannister and Slowey. While Slowey has better stuff than Bannister does, neither is going to blow big-league hitters away and both must rely on locating exquisitely well and outwitting batters in order to have success. I have a lot of optimism about Slowey's future, but I do think he's the type of pitcher who will -- from time to time -- get off track and be susceptible to big innings like the ones he suffered yesterday and the start before that.

* I've made no secret of my affinity for Carlos Gomez, but even I'm going to start losing it if he stays in the leadoff spot for much longer. After going 0-for-4 in yesterday's game, Gomez has now gone hitless in his past 14 at-bats, and has reached base at a terrible .268 clip since the beginning of June. Meanwhile, Denard Span is on a mission to prove that his hot start to the season is no fluke. After reaching base in all five of his plate appearances yesterday by going 4-for-4 with a walk, Span now sports an absurd .590 on-base percentage in 10 games since rejoining the Twins roster at the end of June. He's shown very good plate discipline and unexpected proficiency against left-handers since being recalled, and has also looked much more comfortable in right field than he did during his first stint with the big-league club.

It's rare that a player completely overhauls his game at the age of 24 with five minor-league seasons under his belt, but it's certainly not unprecedented, and Span appears to be doing just that. He possesses little power, and throughout most of his entire professional career up to this point, he's been unable to excel in the other key areas of the game in order to make up for that. He'd shown mediocre on-base skills, posted poor base-stealing rates despite his speed, and during the past two seasons struck out about twice as often as he walked. Yet, over the past calendar year or so, he has made key adjustments and shown a much better approach at the plate.

Span has still only made 62 plate appearances with the Twins this season, so we're dealing with a small sample size, but combined with his strong second half in Rochester last year and his torrid start there this year, I'm loving what I'm seeing from this young man. There's no question that he should be batting first in this lineup right now.

* After going 5-for-5 with a homer and two doubles yesterday, Morneau is now batting .324/.387/.515 with 13 home runs and 68 RBI. This season is shaping up an awful lot like his MVP campaign in 2006...

* And on a final exciting note, Francisco Liriano tossed seven scoreless innings in Rochester last night, striking out eight while allowing just three hits and a walk. Over his past three starts, Liriano has pitched 20 innings without allowing a run, and has given up 10 hits and three walks while striking out 24. After working on some changes to his mechanics, the Twins have let Liriano go back to his old three-quarter arm slot, and as a result he's starting to look a whole lot more like his old dominating self. Of course, this raises concerns over him reinjuring that elbow, but for now let's just bask in his awesomeness and hope that the Twins are seriously considering subbing him in to the rotation in place of Livan Hernandez as soon as we get past the All-Star break.

Boy, I am feeling a lot better about this team than I was 24 hours ago...

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Not All Stormy

Before getting into yesterday's travesty of a game, I should note that I, Nick Mosvick, have finally returned to some more regular blogging duty. I recently finally purchased MLB.TV and have found time after my summer associate job during the day to watch the games. (And, even I must admit, at work sometimes.) Hopefully, I can compete with Mr. Nelson's ever-increasing fan club for the same consistent and intelligent analysis.

As for the game, things could appear from an outside analysis to be much worse than they are. After all, the Twins were swept at Fenway after a lengthy run of wins. However, while the Twins did get swept, fans shouldn't quickly forget how close the first two games were to Twins victories. And, despite getting crushed by the Boston offense yesterday, at least the Twins offense showed up for the last two games and even displayed some power.

What do the 18 runs allowed and 23 hits allowed really mean? Well, there isn't any surprise that Livan Hernandez was part of that equation, given that at different points in the season he has been on pace to give up 300 hits, which would be a first since Phil Niekro gave up 311 in 1979. (And a first since 1975 in the AL, when Twins great Jim Kaat gave up 321 for the White Sox.) Livan's starts have been an adventure for fans, to say the least, throughout the year.

No, the surprise remains the unreliability of the bullpen outside of stalwart Joe Nathan. Now, my fellow blogger has already covered this subject, as well as Aaron Gleeman yesterday, so there is no need to push anymore the failures of Gardy to use the best bullpen piece. Even in years past, as the Twins fans have gotten used to have a reliable bullpen, Gardy's tendency to under-use Nathan was not always hurtful when he had the human "panic button" Pat Neshek available to mop up eighth inning problems. (Or 2004-version Juan Rincon.)

This year, however, the bullpen quickly lost its iron horse eighth-inning man when Neshek went down early for the year. After this series, it's hard to trust any reliever outside of Jesse Crain. The first two games of the series seemed to point to the fact that Brian Bass is clearly the worst reliever in the 'pen. Yesterday only added to that proposition, as Bass came in in the seventh to allow six hits and give up five runs in just 1 1/3 innings. You can decide for yourself what is an uglier number: the 5.27 ERA, the 1.60 WHIP, the .323 OBA, or the 18/25 B/KK ratio in 56 1/3 innings.

That last number is probably the most disturbing; despite being clearly the worst pitcher in the bullpen, Bass is on the pace to end up with the most innings by far and that reflects him being used as more than just a mop-up man (though he was yesterday) as well as it does the fact that he is on pace for 99 innings and Nathan for only 64. Those numbers should be a little closer, don't you think?

Of course, Bass is an easy target. Boof Bonser, Craig Breslow, and Dennys Reyes all gave up runs out of the 'pen yesterday as well. All told, the bullpen pitched six innings while giving up a whopping 20 hits and 17 runs in the series. Crain is the only pitcher out of the bullpen not to give up a run during the series, though he did allow an inherited runner to score in Monday's loss.

All told, the Twins and Gardy need to start to consider changing their bullpen if they can no longer rely on their bullpen the way they once could. Granted, one bad series doesn't say it all, but Matt Guerrier, Reyes, Bonser, Breslow, and of course Bass have all looked shaky and tentative. At this point, Gardy only has more evidence before him that he needs to be more aggressive in his use of Nathan, and Crain should likely be used more often in the set-up role or at least be given opportunities equal to that of Guerrier.

Once again, it's not all bad for fans. As mentioned, the team did score five runs each of the last two games and key hitters like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Jason Kubel all had a good series. However, the team cannot suffer anymore losses from bullpen failure in the key road series before the break in Detroit this weekend. The team and Gardy need to have learn some lessons from what was not a total loss of a sweep.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Where'd You Go, Joe?

I wrote the following short blurb in the Dugout Splinters insert for GameDay Magazine back in April, when the Twins had played just 15 games:
Free Joe Nathan!

Closer Joe Nathan will make $11.25 million this season as part of the new contract he signed at the end of spring training. The rest of the Twins’ 12-man pitching staff combined will make roughly $13 million this season. Obviously, Nathan’s workload won’t compare to that of a full-time starter, but just look at the way the bullpen innings had been divvied up so far entering play on Thursday:

Brian Bass: 11 IP
Pat Neshek: 6 IP
Joe Nathan: 6 IP
Matt Guerrier: 5.2 IP
Juan Rincon: 4.2 IP
Dennys Reyes: 4 IP
Jesse Crain: 3.2 IP

Despite being the team’s highest-paid player, Nathan hadn’t logged significantly more innings through 15 games than most of the team’s struggling set-up men.

To be clear, Nathan hasn’t been underused, at least not in a traditional sense. He is 5-for-5 in save opportunities, and his six innings through 15 games put him on pace for about 65 on the season, which wouldn’t be a terribly significant drop-off from his workloads during his first four seasons with the Twins. Furthermore, it’s difficult to argue too much with the way Gardenhire has run his bullpen over the past several seasons, and it’s especially tough to criticize his use of Nathan, who has thrived and developed into an elite reliever since joining the Twins while avoiding any serious injury problems. Yet, while the Twins’ bullpen blew late leads in both games in the Tigers series, Nathan sat in the bullpen and watched, waiting for a save opportunity that never actually came.

So, what I propose is this: bring in Nathan during the eighth or even seventh inning of tight games from time to time, and utilize his ability to prevent runs better than any other pitcher on the roster. If necessary, offset his extra usage by letting Pat Neshek or Jesse Crain get a few of those cushy saves where the team has a three-run lead going into the ninth.

This strategy may ultimately result in a few less saves for Nathan, but it also may result in a few more wins for the team. And, when you’re paying a guy such a high percentage of your total team payroll, shouldn’t that be the ultimate goal?
I wrote this right after the Twins had suffered a two-game sweep at Comerica Park in a series where the Tigers scored consecutive comeback wins by beating up on the Twins bullpen while never having to face Nathan. Nearly three months later, we find a very similar situation unfolding at Fenway Park. The Twins bullpen has now lost the first two games of this important series against the Red Sox, and the All-Star Nathan has sat in the bullpen watching on both occasions.

Using closers almost exclusively in save situations is an extremely annoying managerial trait that is certainly not limited to Ron Gardenhire. But as terrific as Nathan has been this year and as shaky as the rest of the Twins' relievers have been at points during the season, you'd think that maybe at some point the manager would try and diverge from traditional thinking. It's enormously frustrating to watch games slip away from the Twins because mediocre (or worse) throwers like Brian Bass and Matt Guerrier are on the hill in crucial situations while the dominant Nathan sits around waiting for an opportunity that never arises. Nathan has not recorded more than three outs in a game once this season, in spite of the fact that he did so seven times last year with no apparent ill effect.

The Twins bullpen was very solid during the team's recent winning stretch, so it's not necessarily appropriate to be overly hard on them for dropping a couple games against a tough offense in a hostile park. Yet, for two straight nights now the Twins have had very good outings from their starting pitcher erased by relief meltdowns while the team's highest-paid player and top bullpen weapon was kept out of the game in order to stringently stick to a traditional role that is built out of poor logic to begin with. That's a tough pill to swallow.

On the bright side, the bullpen won't likely have the opportunity to ruin a great starting pitching performance today with Livan Hernandez toeing the rubber for the Twins. For some reason, that doesn't make me feel much better.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

A Poor Choice

The Twins haven't given me much to complain about on their recent hot streak, but after watching last night's game, a 1-0 loss to the Red Sox, I simply had no choice but to express my displeasure.

There's no shame in getting shut down by Daisuke Matsuzaka. There's no shame in losing to the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Heck, there's simply no shame in losing when you've won 18 or your last 21 games. It was the manner in which the Twins lost last night that really got under my skin.

After getting seven fantastic shutout innings from Scott Baker, Ron Gardenhire was hit with a dilemma in the eighth inning. The game was still scoreless, and the Red Sox had their Nos. 2, 3 and 4 hitters due up. Gardenhire has generally done a good job of managing the bullpen this season and over the course of his tenure, but I can say without hyperbole that what he did last night was the single worse managerial decision he has made all year. He called on Brian Bass to pitch the eighth inning of a scoreless game. Bass, who should be the very definition of a mop-up man, was Gardenhire's first choice out of the bullpen in the eighth inning of a tie game against a very powerful lineup.

Bass surrendered a leadoff double to Dustin Pedroia, who moved to third on a ground-out by J.D. Drew in the next at-bat. Next, Manny Ramirez hit a single to right field, scoring Pedroia with the go-ahead run. Mike Lowell walked in the next at-bat, and that was the end of Bass' night. Great outing.

Let's take a look at some of the clearly superior options to Bass in this situation, followed by reasons as to why they are superior:

Leave Baker in. Baker's pitch count was only 94, and he had allowed only two of the past 13 batters he'd faced to reach base. He reportedly told Gardenhire he was gassed after seven innings, but if push came to shove he probably could have gone out for the eighth.

Jesse Crain. Had not pitched since last Wednesday, and he held a 2.80 ERA on the season. Crain came in after Bass had allowed three of four baserunners to reach and finished the inning without further damage. Unfortunately, it was too little too late. Mind-boggling that Crain was not simply called upon to start the inning if Gardy intended on using him anyway.

Boof Bonser. Granted, his numbers overall this season aren't good, and he got off to a bit of a rocky start in the bullpen, but over his past four outings he'd pitched five innings while allowing only one run on four hits and a walk while fanning seven. He also has good enough stuff that one could logically believe he'd be able to retire tough hitters like Pedroia and Ramirez.

Joe Nathan. He's the team's best reliever, why not use him as early as possible to make sure you can extend the game? I've always been an ardent supporter of the notion of using relievers based on descending order of talent in a tie game.

Craig Breslow. Has been effective enough against right-handers this year that we can reasonably believe he could have retired Pedroia, and then he would have gotten the left-handed Drew. Bing bang, two outs.

Dennys Reyes. Is not Brian Bass.

The only guy who really wasn't an option was Matt Guerrier, who'd pitch in three consecutive games over the weekend. Yet, instead of one of the aforementioned logical options, Gardenhire decided to call on Bass as his top option out of the bullpen. Predictably, the results were ugly. Even still, Gardenhire compounded the poor choice of putting Bass in the game by making another misguided managerial decision, which was to have Bass pitch to Ramirez with Pedroia on third and one out.

Ramirez is one of the great RBI men in modern major-league history. And if there's one thing Bass has done a decent job of this year, it's inducing ground balls. So the logical choice with the go-ahead run on third while Ramirez batted with first base open would have been to intentionally walk Ramirez and pitch to Mike Lowell with hopes of a double play. Instead, Gardenhire had Bass pitch to Ramirez, and the result was an eventually game-winning RBI hit.

Here was Gardenhire's reasoning for pitching to Ramirez:

"How's Manny been doing lately?" Gardenhire said.

Ramirez had batted .161 (5-for-31) with 13 strikeouts on Boston's just-completed 3-7 road trip.

This response represents a fatal misconception held by Gardenhire, which is that 31 at-bats represents any type of meaningful sample.

It's a decent bet this game would have remained tied going into the ninth inning had Gardenhire gone to any reliever other than the worst member of the bullpen in the eighth inning. At that point, who knows what might have happened. It's entirely possible that the Twins would have ended up losing anyway. But Gardenhire clearly has formed some sort of ridiculous image of Bass as a reliable option in close games, and last night that really hurt the Twins. For the first time all year, I'm going to have put a loss squarely on the shoulders of the manager.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Rally On

Yesterday's game was the type that really makes you believe in a team like the Twins. Cliff Lee has been close to unbeatable this season, and was having his way with the Twins lineup through the first five innings as the Indians jumped to a 3-0 lead. A triple by Denard Span in the sixth yielded the Twins' first run, but as stingy as Lee had been in the game, it seemed unlikely that the Twins would be able to add much more unless they could get to the shaky Indian bullpen.

Yet, the Twins were able to get after Lee in the seventh inning, scoring three more times to take a 4-3 lead. The rally was far from explosive, but it was very much the type of inning that this offense has come to thrive on. The inning started off with a Craig Monroe walk (patience was a big key in this series for the Twins, who drew eight free passes in Saturday night's win). Then, Delmon Young hit a harder grounder to third that turned into an infield single when Andy Marte was unable to cleanly field it. Brendan Harris' sharp single to right in the next at-bat loaded the bases for a suddenly hot Nick Punto, who delivered a line drive single back up the middle to score Monroe and close the Twins' deficit to one run. Next, Span turned in perhaps the biggest at-bat of the game, working a five-pitch walk to force in Young and tie the game at three. Carlos Gomez's RBI ground-out in the following at-bat gave the Twins a lead, which was made permanent by the bullpen, and propelled them to their 18th win in the past 21 games.

Nowhere in that series of events do you see a game-breaking extra-base hit. Instead, the comeback was made possible by a combination of patience, luck and timely hitting, all of which have become trademarks of this surprisingly effective offense. The hitters on this team consistently put together poor at-bats early in the season and -- in turn -- many struggled to reach base with much regularity as the team posted a poor .305 on-base percentage in April. Since then, however, the offense has managed a very respectable .347 on-base percentage. This increase has been due to a variety of factors -- an increase in team batting average, improved discipline from players like Young and Jason Kubel, and the addition of Alexi Casilla.

In particular, it's nice to see young players putting together good at-bats. The lineup still features some free swingers (chiefly Gomez and Young), but Casilla and Span are capable of working deep into counts consistently. And regardless of your feelings about Punto, he's another guy who generally works the count and sees a fair number of pitches. Most see Punto as nothing but a stopgap at short and view the position as one that the Twins need to improve for the second half, but is it all that unthinkable that Punto could put up numbers this year similar to the ones he posted in 2006? And with the way he's excelled defensively at shortstop, wouldn't that basically make him a better version of what the Twins hoped to be getting in Adam Everett this year? I'm not all that sure that Punto isn't an adequate answer at shortstop for this team at present.

Tonight the Twins embark on a road trip which will prove to be a great test, as they play the Red Sox in Boston for three games and then head to Detroit for a four-game set against the Tigers. With a 32-18 record at the Metrodome, the Twins have proven that they can win at home, but they remain below .500 on the road and have pitched far worse in other ballparks (3.35 ERA at home, 5.39 on the road). This road trip would be an opportune time to reverse that trend, but doing so will by no means be easy.

Friday, July 04, 2008

The Halfway Point

Last Saturday, the Twins played their 81st game of the season, a 5-1 loss to the Brewers. This marked the official halfway point of the 2008 campaign. Over the first half of the season, the Twins went 44-37, an improvement over last year's mark of 42-39. Today, we take a look at how this year's team performed through 81 games...

THE OFFENSE

The Twins hit .272/.327/.397 over their first 81 games, scoring 389 runs (4.8 R/G) and hitting 55 homers. Last year, the Twins had nearly identical production through the first 81 games, hitting .265/.332/.391 while scoring 388 runs and hitting 63 homers. Well it might appear that they've just treaded water, the team has actually improved offensively when you consider the context; there has been a league-wide drop in offense so this year's squad has been one of the better offenses in the league. As I mentioned yesterday, the team's success in scoring runs is largely due to some very strong numbers with runners in scoring position. It'll be hard to keep that up in the second half, so if the team doesn't start getting a bit more power production (which it very well could from the likes of Delmon Young, Brian Buscher and Michael Cuddyer), we could see a drop-off similar to the one experienced by the 2007 offense, which saw its average runs per game drop from 4.8 in the first half to 4.1 in the second half.

First Half Offensive MVP: Joe Mauer
-It's hard not to pick Justin Morneau here, because Morneau seemingly drove in over half the team's runs in the first half. Yet, I think the biggest key to the offense this year has been Mauer's ability to stay healthy and productive. He appeared in 73 of the team's 81 first-half games -- starting starting 68 of them -- and hit .322/.408/.441 while playing excellent defense at perhaps the most important position on the field. Last year, injuries limited Mauer to appear in only 50 first-half games (48 starts). It's been great to see him in the lineup nearly every night, taking great at-bats and getting on base at a fantastic clip.

THE PITCHING

Twins pitchers posted a 4.28 ERA over the first half. That's a dropoff from the 2007 team's 4.13, made more significant by the aforementioned drop in offense around the league. It's not all bad though. Since getting brutally battered over a four-game series against the White Sox in early June, the Twins posted a 3.35 ERA, which helped them rebound from that trainwreck of a series by going 13-5 in the following 18 games. While this year's rotation obviously lacks an ace to fill the shoes of Johan Santana, the four youngsters have all been relatively effective. Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey have looked like very solid No. 2 guys, while Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins have steadily provided solid outings. Blackburn and Perkins have not been flashy, but it's worth noting that the two combined have allowed more than three earned runs in an outing only seven times in 28 starts -- Livan Hernandez alone has done it nine times in 18 starts. Speaking of Hernandez, he's been, well, not as bad as he could be I suppose. I'll only briefly touch on the bullpen and say that they haven't been as good as in past years, but still get the job done for the most part. And Joe Nathan is amazing.

First Half Pitching MVP: Kevin Slowey
Picking between Slowey and Scott Baker was tough, and really you could go either way because they were just about equally effective in the first half. Both dealt with minor injuries early on, both made 11 starts and posted an ERA in the mid-to-upper 3s (3.96 for Slowey, 3.57 for Baker). Slowey had a slightly better walk rate (in fact, his BB/9IP rate of 1.11 would rank first in the majors if he had enough innings to qualify) while Baker posted the slightly better strikeout rate. I went with Slowey because his numbers are truly phenomenal outside of that bad start in Chicago, and Baker was the only starter fortunate enough to not pitch in that series, a slaughter-fest which inflated the numbers of virtually every pitcher on staff.

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Tonight's July 4 match-up: Livan Hernandez (.503 SLGA) vs. Paul Byrd (.507 SLGA). Ready for some fireworks?

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Tremendously Timely Hitting

The Twins defeated the Tigers 7-0 yesterday to polish off their sixth consecutive series victory. Much credit must be given to Nick Blackburn, who hurled seven scoreless innings to pick up his seventh win, but it was also great to see the Twins put up seven more runs in the victory. They scored these runs by going 7-for-18 (.389) in scoring opportunities, and six of the seven runs were driven in with two outs. The Twins didn't hit any home runs in the game, but they strung together rallies and beat up on the Tigers. In many ways, this game perfectly epitomized how the Twins offense has operated this season.

In spite of an offseason overhaul to the lineup, the Twins averaged only 3.78 runs per game in April. Since that point, however, they've really come into their own, averaging 5.32 runs over 58 games. They've scored four or more runs in 14 of their past 18 games, and when you're getting good pitching (as they have) that's a pretty good recipe for success.

As much as I expected the offense to be improved this year, there's no way I would have anticipated it to be one of the top run-scoring units in the league. Yet, the Twins continue to battle the Tigers and White Sox for the No. 3 ranking in the American League in runs scored. They haven't done it through conventional methods. The Twins are hitting .275/.330/.402 on the season for for a team OPS of 732, which is decent but far from spectacular. Compare that to the other team OPS figures for the highest scoring offenses in the AL... Texas: 804, Boston: 801, Chicago: 778, Detroit: 775. The Twins have hit for considerably less power than any of the other top offenses in the AL, but one thing that they have done exceedingly well is hit with runners in scoring position. The Twins have hit better than any other team in the majors with runners on second and/or third. They've hit insanely, ridiculously, unfathomably well in these situations.

OK, maybe I'm exaggerating a little, but seriously -- the team's .313/.384/.464 line with RISP dwarves their overall hitting line. This has been the case for some time, and I've continually been telling myself that it's unsustainable. A whole team can't be "clutch"; the very notion is silly. Yet, Twins hitters continue to deliver big, run-scoring hits with amazing consistency.

It's like timely hitting has been contagious in the clubhouse. I wrote a few weeks ago about how ridiculously effective Justin Morneau has been as a cleanup hitter thanks to what is now a .365/.448/.604 hitting line with runners in scoring position, but he's hardly been the only one coming through consistently with ducks on the pond. The Triple-A call-ups -- namely, Alexi Casilla and Brian Buscher -- have gotten a lot of credit for helping to rejuvenate the offense. Much of this probably has to do with the fact that each player has been driving in runs at a torrid pace. Casilla's overall OPS is 835; with RISP it jumps to 1163. Brian Buscher has a 796 OPS overall; with RISP, 979. And heck, even Mike Lamb, for all his struggles, is hitting .381/.382/.476 with runners in scoring position, which is probably why many fans have gone somewhat easy on him.

You'll often hear statistical analysts say that clutch hitting is not a skill. That's true, for the most part, but clutch hitting has certainly been a pattern for this Twins offense. And that pattern continued in yesterday's victory. If your lineup can't hit for much power and doesn't get on base at a particularly high rate, they must take advantage of the run-scoring opportunities that present themselves. The Twins have been absolutely splendid in this regard, and it's one of the biggest reasons they find themselves within a few games of first place here on July 3.