Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Sinister Side of the Twins

The word “left” comes from ‘lyft’ which means worthless in Old English. The left side of the Buddhist yin and yang symbol represents darkness. The German word linkisch means left, but can also be translated as awkward, clumsy, or socially inferior. Likewise, mancino means both left and dishonest in the Italian language. In a similar vein, the Latin word ‘sinister’ initially meant left, but eventually changed to mean evil or unlucky. The Twins, being one of the most etymologically aware teams in Major League Baseball, have done their best to adhere to these principles, and indeed, the left side (3B, SS, LF) has been by far the weakest link in the Twins offense in the 2007 season.

Here are the Twins who have appeared in at least 10 games at one of the positions named above, and their stats in those games. (All stats accurate through Monday 6/25)

Third Base:

Cirillo 10 39 13 2 1 1 2 1 .371 .405 .571
Punto 54 224 48 7 2 1 25 32 .244 .329 .315

263 61 9 3 2 27 33 .263 .340 .353
263 62 13 1 8 23 46 .264 .335 .436

Cirillo has been doing very well when he has been in as Punto’s replacement at third base. His numbers bring the Twins 3B up to league average in BA and OBP, but Punto’s numbers lag behind in two of the three rate categories (on base % being the exception), and as a whole the largest discrepancy is in slugging percentage, but that isn’t much of a surprise. Even in Punto’s breakout 2006 season, his SLG was at .373, still well below third basemen league wide.

The bad news is that, after a bit of rebound in May (.364 OBP with a .639 OPS overall), Punto has struggled mightily in June (.175/.268/.254, .522 OPS) doing very little to improve the standing of the left side in the Twins lineup.


Bartlett 63 236 52 8 0 1 23 27 .250 .335 .303
Punto 10 37 3 1 0 0 5 6 .094 .216 .125

273 55 9 0 1 28 32 .229 .319 .279
273 67 13 1 5 19 39 .271 .326 .392

Again, there is a noticeable lack of power from this position as Bartlett and Punto have managed to slug .113 points less than American League shortstops as a whole. The on base percentage is very close to average, and Bartlett’s is a little above.

I’m a Bartlett fan, so I feel duty-bound to point out that his average has come up each month to the point where he has hit .270/.338/.333 thus far in June. Although the power numbers still aren’t there for Jason, he’s getting on base at an above average clip compared to other AL shortstops.

Left Field:

Ford 18 69 15 3 0 1 4 9 .238 .304 .333
Kubel 43 164 38 8 0 5 8 27 .248 .288 .399
Tyner 10 33 8 2 0 0 2 2 .258 .303 .323

266 61 13 0 6 14 38 .247 .294 .372
266 63 13 2 6 22 43 .264 .328 .407

Finally, we see some league average power! Well, almost. This position looks the bleakest of three at first glance as the Twins threesome of Ford, Kubel, and Tyner combined to hit .017 points below AL left-fielders in BA, get on base at a rate that’s .034 points below and slug .035 points worse. Kubel has taken over the lion’s share of the playing time and, unsurprisingly, he has shown the most power of these three, although saying anyone has more power than Ford and Tyner isn’t too much of a statement.

Kubel also got off to a slow start, but has seen his numbers improve (SLG - .348 in April, .366 in May, and .500 in June). Kubel’s .814 OPS in June is actually higher than average (.735) for an AL left-fielder, and he probably represents the Twins best chance to put up above average offense from one of these three positions going forward.

To sum everything up, the AL average for these three positions are .266/.337/.411 while the Twins are getting .245/.316/.334 from these six players for an OPS that is almost a full .100 points below league average. Kubel is the only player mentioned here who has shown some signs of power, and he has started to come on as the season has progressed. I didn’t include Cirillo in that sentence, because I don’t think anybody is convinced that Cirillo could continue to slug .571 with meaningful playing time. As far as on-base percentage goes, Bartlett and Punto are the highest in this group, but neither has an OBP above .340, and neither has any power to speak of. And that’s the main story here, the left side of the Twins so far this season has been populated with players who are serviceable at times as far as getting on base, but the power outage from these positions is what has frustrated most Twins fans.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

TWIT: A Different Drummer

Weekly Roundup

The Twins did things a little differently this week, finding a way to take two road series from two solid National League opponents. Sure, they ran into Jorge Sosa and Josh Johnson at the right times, and nobody expects too many more one strikeout shutouts. Nonetheless, it is exceedingly difficult to trash a team that outscored its opponents 38-20 over the course of the week, especially away from a home stadium that typically serves as one of its chief advantages. The 4-2 road record for the week brought the Twins to 18-17 on the road, tied with Oakland for third best in the American league behind only Anaheim and Boston. To me, the most exciting development of the week is the collection of three wins by four or more runs. Remember, close games can swing on small bounces or luck, but one mark of a really good team is the ability to win blowouts. Minnesota can survive some close games with a solid bullpen pulling them through difficult, high-leverage situations, but giving those pitchers a chance to breathe every so often while carving out a relief role for Ramon Ortiz has to be a good thing. Considering that they only carded two wins of 4+ wins through the rest of the month, scoring enough runs to cobble together some easy wins is actually a bit out of character.

I have spent a goodly amount of effort complaining about the Twins’ lack of power hitting. At first blush, this week looks scarcely different. Heading into Sunday’s season finale with Florida, Torii Hunter had managed the team’s only homerun of the week. On the other hand, once Joe Mauer teed off for his second homerun of the day Sunday, ten different players had combined for a total of 22 extra base hits. Averaging three doubles per game will compensate for quite a few missing homeruns, even when the team’s only legitimate power hitter may be bleeding internally. Finally, with all of the problems the Twins have had finding a DH who can pass as an average hitter, maybe they should consider giving Johan Santana a shot at swinging at some right handed pitching on his off days. In his two starts this week, Johan went 2-7 with a double, a triple, a walk, an RBI, and two runs scored. I do not sincerely want Santana batting every day, but anyone who has watched him hit knows that he is the sort of unique baseball talent who possesses the physical tools and the coordination to do everything well. Just like Rick Ankiel, with developmental time, I am convinced that he could be a solid big league batter.

Biggest Success

Joe Mauer started hitting again, which is a good thing. Two homeruns in Sunday’s game help to confirm that the .333/.448/.500 week was right back on his natural level. Giving up one earned run in 15 innings, tallying two wins, and sticking the inane “slump” chatter in idiot sporstwriters’ ears puts Johan Santana on the short list, as well. But since this list goes to the player of the week, I will choose to recognize someone who needed a good week after a terrible season so far.

Jeff Cirillo began the season injured, struggled through an inability to hit for any power, and could not get a regular job, even with Nick Punto hovering around a .220 batting average. In the last week, however, Cirillo has knocked the leather off of the ball, going 12-20 from last Sunday through Saturday. An 0-5 game with a strikeout to close out the week does little to temper my enthusiasm for a .600/.619/.750 week, right when the team needed it most. Consider this: the Twins 12th out of 14 in the American league in homeruns, mashing 55 to beat out Baltimore and Kansas City (53 and 52, respectively). The league leader, Texas, has 93 bombs, and five teams have managed at least 86. Even without the DH, 14 of the 16 National League teams have gone yard more times than the Twins. Of the four teams with less total homeruns, the team leaders have 10 (Melvin Mora), 13 (John Buck), 10 (Jeff Kent), and 12 (Ryan Zimmerman). Factoring in Justin Morneau’s 20 bombs, it is clear that the Twins are extremely reliant on a singular power source. Without him in the lineup, having a reserve get hot enough to slug .750 for a week is extremely fortunate.

Biggest Disappointment

Anyone who has watched the Twins for the last few weeks has noticed this trend, but I’m not sure anyone is willing to talk about it, maybe as some sort of perverse jinx: something is clearly wrong with Juan Rincon. He earns biggest disappointment status for the week by giving up 8 runs (7 earned) on 3 homers and 9 total hits in only three innings. With four consecutive seasons of at least 74 innings pitched, it is no surprise that Rincon is showing some natural wear, particularly considering the high-leverage situations he has endured for the last two years. His strikeout rate peaked in 2004 and has dropped considerably each year since, hinting at the sort of trouble he has had this year. Still, it takes more than a tiny change for a pitcher’s ERA to jump two full runs after three stables years, or for him to give up more homeruns in a week than he gave up in either of the two previous seasons. Something is up with Rincon. Just like Jesse Crain showed some seriously diminished skills before discovering a more serious shoulder problem, I think now would be a good time to shut down Rincon for a precautionary DL stint. Before the season, I campaigned for the Twins to sell high on Rincon, shopping him for 3B or OF help while other teams might still see him as a premier setup man. Now, we’re left with a best case scenario of him suffering some sort of minor shoulder injury that rest can save. With the rest of the bullpen finding its way back to health, as well as the unlikely ascension of Matt Guerrier, now is the time to be cautious.

On the Horizon

The quirks of baseball’s schedule seem so unnecessary sometimes. For instance, I will never understand why MLB builds a wall between New York and Boston for the season’s doldrums months. Similarly, I found it odd that the Twins entered their series with Florida having played three more games than Minnesota. Those extra off days start to catch up with the Twins this week, as they will go straight home from Florida to the Dome for four with the Blue Jays, followed immediately by a three game road set in Detroit, four in New York, and four in Chicago. Including the double-header against the White Sox, the Twins will enter the All-Star Break having played 18 games in 17 days. If ever there was a time for the starting rotation to excel, now is that time.

Normally, I would say that missing Dustin McGowan is a bit of misfortune. Considering that he pitched 8+ innings of a no-hitter on Sunday, and running into Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett in the same series does not seem like such a bad thing. Those two will start the bookend games of the Toronto series, and Shawn Marcum (2.45 ERA as a starter) and the struggling Josh Towers will start the middle games. Twins fans know enough about the Tigers rotation by now, but the junk-balling, crafty lefty will be the recently healthy Kenny Rogers instead of the departed Mike Maroth.

The Big Picture

Once again, the Twins have to find a way to fend off New York and Oakland, while passing either Detroit or Cleveland within their division if they want a shot at the playoffs. Pretenders Toronto and Seattle could remain in the hunt with a few good breaks or trade deadline additions, but I do not believe either has what it takes to win the 90+ games the Wild Card winner will probably win. The Twins will take their shot against a few of these teams over the next few weeks with resurgent Toronto next on the plate, followed by the suddenly division-leading Tigers. The Yankees have cooled after a red-hot tear, and the Twins will have their own opportunity to put some distance between themselves and the Bombers with that four game set next week. And even though Chicago has struggled, a four game roadie against a big-time rival is never a sure thing. Altogether, the next two weeks will tell an awful lot about the team’s chances of contending for a playoff spot after the All-Star Break.