Tuesday, June 30, 2009

I Wish They All Could Be Interleague Games

With Sunday's win over St. Louis, the Twins completed their interleague schedule with a record of 12-6. It's the 7th time in Gardy's 8 seasons as manager that the Twins have had a winning record vs. the NL.

Part of that success can be attributed to the Twins playing a National League style of baseball, not relying on slugging to provide their offense as so many AL teams do. That's been part of the story in previous years, but not so much in 2009, as the Twins currently sit 10th in MLB in SLG% and 12th in HR.

Another part was that the Twins' weakness at DH meant that their offense wasn't drastically hurt when they went to NL parks. Typically, the Twins have employed a bench player at DH, unlike the many AL teams that use professional hitters who are seriously liabilities if they have to play in the field. So subtracting the DH from the lineup didn't hurt the Twins very much. But that is also not the case this year, as Jason Kubel is currently 2nd among regular DHs in OPS. Thankfully, he's at least as competent a LF as Delmon Young, so keeping his bat in the lineup didn't have a corresponding debit on the defensive side of the ledger.

Were they successful because they were playing weak competition? On the whole, the NL is weaker than the AL, but because the Twins had to play half of their schedule against the top 2 teams in the NL Central, the aggregate winning percentage of their interleague opponents came to .507. Could we expect a team that is 6 games under .500 vs. AL opponents to go sweeping through above average NL competition? In particular, could we expect a team that is 12 games under .500 vs. AL opponents on the road to go 6-3 in NL ballparks?

For me, the difference was that in the NL parks, the Twins were able to hide their weaknesses better. In the NL, each team fields a lineup of 8 (hopefully) competent hitters + the starting pitcher. In the AL, you get to use 9 good hitters. The Twins have 7: Denard Span, Brendan Harris, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Kubel, Michael Cuddyer and Joe Crede. And that's just when everybody's healthy, when Mauer is able to play consecutive days, etc. Against AL opponents, the Twins often have to face a lineup with 2 better players than they can field; in the NL, it's just one.

Denard Span was out for 5 of the Twins' 9 interleague road games, but he wasn't missed. That's because Carlos Gomez stepped up in his stead, going 7 for 16 with 5 R in the 4 games he started. Mauer only had to sit out one of those games; the Twins lost. Crede had to sit out one of those games; the Twins lost. Cuddyer had to sit out 2; the Twins lost one and won the other despite scoring only 2 R.

The best thing about the Twins playing in NL parks is that they don't have to put Delmon Young in the lineup. Of Twins hitters who have accumulated at least 50 PA this season, Young ranks dead last in WARP at -0.9. He doesn't just not help, he hurts. The 7 players I mentioned earlier are 1-7 in WARP, of course, and Gomez is 8th, at 0.7, thanks to his superhuman range in CF. It should be clear, then, that the best lineup the Twins can put on the field does not include Young, both in terms of offensive and defensive contributions.

NL rules enabled the Twins to do without their worst player this past week. Thanks to that, improved play from Gomez and Nick Punto, and the easier task the Twins' pitchers had facing other pitchers instead of DHs, turned the Twins from a bad road team into a good one. If only it were easier for Gardy to avoid his worst player in the AL

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